Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry
by Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press, $19 (paper)

Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense, a collection of essays (many begun as reviews) on “How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry,” begins with the author’s definition of the lyric: “short pieces of language . . . in which the psyche finds the language and the sounds to fit its own internal states” and through which “we can imagine that we know what it is like to be a particular person, or kind of person, or else what it is like to be ourselves.” Proceeding from this empathetic premise, Burt aims to introduce readers perhaps more at home with the work of such plainspoken poets as Ted Kooser or Mary Oliver to the complex, self-allusive oeuvre of Paul Muldoon, the deliberately riddling verse of Rae Armantrout, and the still relatively unknown (in the States, at least) achievements of British poet Denise Riley. The book’s title suggests, provocatively, that the line between a poem as a significant work of art and as hermetic folly or frustration is a narrow one, but Close Calls is a book primarily of praise rather than polemics, and Burt does not set out to convince us of the merit of all the work he considers. Instead he provides a model of how to investigate “why this poem works and that poem doesn’t” and how to “draw finally on our sense of . . . what versions of the world and the people in it we are willing to entertain.” From his self-dubbed “sheepish introduction,” offering a compressed history of contemporary American poetry, to his concluding aphoristic essay expounding on subjects such as critical theory, publication, and fame (“To do a poem justice, explain what makes it unique; to get a poem noticed, explain what makes it typical”), Burt is a reliable and affable guide. His writing brims with enthusiasm for—and nuanced readings of—the poetry he discusses, and his demystifying, rather than reducing, approach to this highly subjective and still strangely intimidating art form will not only expand contemporary poetry’s readership, but enhance that readership’s capacity to enjoy.