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Don't Read Poetry
A Book About How to Read Poems
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OF ALL THE KINDS OF ART THAT PEOPLE MAKE, POEMS are, or should be, the easiest to share, maybe even the easiest to find. They need not be read live, or on stage, or by their authors, or even aloud (though it helps); they require no musical instruments or playback devices. Some can be memorized; most can be collected, reprinted, copied out by hand, or shared via email; and most of them don’t take very long to read.
So why don’t more of us read more poems? Why do some people care so much about poems that baffle the rest of us? Why do the same people often loathe poems others like? Are poems from five hundred years ago really the same things—can they work on us in the same ways—as poems by living authors now? Do all sorts of poems work the same way? Have they always? How can the poems that are out there all deserve the label “poetry” when they seem so far apart?
This book tries to answer those questions. It gives not just ways to read poems but reasons to read them, and ways to connect the poets and poems of the past, from Sappho and Li Bai to Wordsworth to some poems being written right now. And it starts from the idea—which took me a while to realize was not obvious, or universal, or widely recognized in schools—that poems are like pieces of music: by definition they all have something in common, but they vary widely in how they work, where they come from, and what they try to do. Various readers like various poems for various reasons, just as various listeners like various genres of music, various artists, and various songs. And the same listener (you, for example) can care about different songs for different reasons, at different times in your life or even at different times of day.
I came to write this book in part because I’ve been teaching people how to like poems, and how to see why others like poems, since the early 1990s; I’ve also been writing about old and new poems for magazines since then, in what now adds up to several hundred essays and book reviews. But this is not a book of book reviews; it is, in a sense, an alternative to them, a way to show what I’m looking for (which may not be what you’re looking for) when I flip through the hundreds of books of poetry that I get in the mail each year and the dozens I still go out of my way to buy, and when I find—as I do, more often each year—a poem I like a lot, by an author I’ve never heard of, on Twitter or Facebook or in a glossy quarterly or in a brand-new journal that exists only onscreen.
But it’s not just me. Consider all the things that the word poetry can mean, and all the things that the various sets of words called poems can do.
Two teenagers in Singapore open their web browsers to a social media site and find there eight lines written four hundred years ago in England, quoted yesterday by another teen in Tasmania, about the persistence of friendship across time and space.
A superhero in an X-Men comic reads verse by Percy Bysshe Shelley aloud at her daughter’s funeral; the superhero’s colleague, a teacher, relaxes by rereading Robert Frost.
Dozens of lines in the alliterative meter and in the approximate style of the Old English heroic epic Beowulf adapt the plot of a television commercial for Old Spice deodorant, to hilarious effect; the parody achieves some popularity online.
At a funeral, a rabbi reads the Twenty-Third Psalm in a modern English version designed for Jewish liturgical use. Five time zones away, a pastor reads the same psalm to her congregation in the 1607 translation sponsored by King James; one of her congregants, fluent in both languages, considers the differences between the English and the biblical Hebrew.
A graduate student counts the number of times that William Butler Yeats uses the words blood, love, and moon in all his poems. Another proposes to her future wife by reading a Yeats poem out loud. A third compares translations into English of thousand-year-old poem-songs about sexual love and devotion from the South Indian language Telugu.
An English professor delivers a lecture about Bob Dylan. Three doors down, another professor delivers another lecture about the rap artist and singer Angel Haze while, across campus in the music department, a third professor examines Lorenzo Da Ponte’s choice of words for Mozart’s Così fan tutte.
An inquisitive polymath admires the pattern of synonyms and antonyms and the contrasting pattern of ascending and descending lowercase letters in three pages of prose that make no literal sense.
An administrative assistant spends his lunch hour copying down Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”; another writes “I, too, dislike it”—the opening line of Marianne Moore’s poem called “Poetry”—on a napkin during a meeting.
Two hundred people in a Portland nightclub watch one person on stage describe, in scary detail, their flight from their birth family and the new life they have just now been able to find. One month later the performance becomes available on a YouTube channel and fans transcribe it; a few recite it themselves. The next year the performer publishes the description, in verse, in a book that comes with a CD.
James Weldon Johnson’s words to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (sometimes referred to as the “Black National Anthem”) are sung at a school assembly for the 998th time this year.
Middle-school students build a set for a staged reading of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, in which each short work’s speaker is a different deceased inhabitant of a small midwestern town.
A student learning to read and speak Chinese creates yet another English-language version of a quatrain by Li Bai about seeing the moon too far from home. Eighty years earlier, a Chinese immigrant detained at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay scratched the same quatrain on the wall of his cell; other inmates scratched other classic Chinese poems on other cell walls, sometimes adding new poetry of their own.
Elizabeth Bishop, already famous for her careful descriptive verse, changes the punctuation in the final draft of her villanelle about almost losing her lover, called “One Art.”
An ancient Egyptian (their name now lost) writes down a few lines comparing their love to a goose, to a rosebud, to a flame, to a dove.
We can say that all these people are reading, or writing, or hearing poetry, but what would we mean by poetry? Until about two hundred years ago the word could mean “imaginative literature,” anything made up, or not real, or not true in prose or verse. Now it means verse, or prose that feels like verse, or (sometimes) anything that feels elegant, moving, sublime, above-and-beyond, not quite of this world: athletes’ shots and politicians’ speeches and dance moves are said to be pure poetry, meaning that we admire their beauty or their sublimity but wonder if they have any practical use. Much-noticed and much-debated essays, going back at least two hundred years, with titles like “Can Poetry Matter?” and “The Four Ages of Poetry” (gold, silver, bronze, and iron), have argued that poetry is in decline, has long been in decline, because fewer people love Shakespeare or Dickinson or Homer or Robert Frost. Other essays, some with surveys to back them up, show that poetry is coming back, or never left: after all, look how many people now write it!
Look, too, at the communities that have formed, some within universities, some far outside them, around particular poems and ways to read poetry, from classrooms where kids love The Odyssey in new translations, to self-conscious avant-gardes in urban centers, to immigrant communities refreshing a heritage language and its verse forms. These readers and writers are not all reading the same poems, or reading in the same way, or for the same reasons. They’re not all reading the same kinds of poems, and they may not agree on what counts as poetry, much less on what counts as good poetry.
And yet some of them—some of us, many of us; not just we readers of poems but we Americans (since I’m American), we readers of English, of anything at all—are caught in a myth about what counts as poetry and how we might learn to enjoy and to read it. The myth says that poetry is one thing and that poetry matters to us, or should matter, for one big reason. Maybe it introduces us to other people and other cultures, opening up our minds. Maybe it makes us more authentic and opens us up to ourselves. Maybe it brings us together as a country or as a community; maybe it used to do that, but it doesn’t now, so poets had better change how we write poems.
Maybe it opens us up to the numinous, to the sacred, to the weird, to the unknown. Maybe it’s a difficult art whose practitioners deserve plaudits for their pure technique, like show pilots who do loops and rolls in midair. (Maybe it’s a form of verbal combat: poets, like fighter pilots, battle to rule the air.) Maybe it makes us feel warm inside or sustains our life’s illusions; maybe it can bring the revolution, or (to quote W. H. Auden) “disenchant and disintoxicate.” Maybe we need to learn about it in school—after all, poetry is old and complex and there are professors of it. Or maybe we can only learn the truth about poetry outside of school, since it’s intuitive and instinctive and, as the Latin proverb says, “poets are born, not made” (nobody knows who made up the proverb). Maybe it’s just a mystery that most people never get. Or maybe there are a few poems that will unlock it all for you; read them and you’ll have the whole ball of wax.
I am here to say that anyone who tells you that they know how to read poetry, or what poetry really is, or what it is good for, or why you should read it, in general, is already getting it wrong. Poetry, the word, has many overlapping meanings, most of them about composition in verse; there are many such compositions, and many ways to write them, and many reasons to read them, and if you want to find or like or love or write more of them, the first thing to do is to start to tell them apart. Many people read poems for many reasons, and yours may not be your uncle’s, or your best friend’s, or your daughter’s, or your professor’s.
I started to write this book because I got frustrated with books that told their readers, and teachers who told their students, that poetry was one thing. Sometimes the readers and the students learned to love that thing; sometimes they tried it and decided that this one thing—this major poet (say, Robert Frost), this reason to read (say, mystery and the sacred), or this style of poetry (say, modern conversational free verse)—wasn’t for them. That’s like hearing Beethoven, or hearing Kendrick Lamar, and not getting into it and then deciding you don’t like music. There are other kinds of music and other ways to listen to music out there, and if you look and listen and ask the right people, you can probably find one that works for you.
So: don’t read poetry. Don’t assume poetry ever means only one thing, other than maybe a set of tools for making things with words, as music means a set of tools (beats, rhythms, harmonies, textures, instruments) for making things with sounds. Instead, find ways to encounter kinds of poems and learn different reasons to read poems, realized in various ways by various poems. In this way, if in no other, poetry is like the New York City subway (albeit in slightly better repair). The subway system is always running and can take you almost anywhere in New York, but not all trains run at all times, and each train goes only to certain destinations. In the same way, lines of poetry can take you to many emotional places and to many parts of history and of the world today, but each line of poetry goes only to certain places, and what line you take depends on where you want to go.
Think of this book, then, almost as a partial map of an urban subway system, a big one like New York’s. It’s an attempt to show you, not the whole history of the system nor how all the trains work, but what train to take if you want to get where you are going, how you might find out about other places the system can take you, and, simply, how to ride. (Mostly it covers the parts of the poetry system written in English, since I am writing in English myself; there are branch lines that take you to other languages, which have their own systems in turn.) The system of poems can be a bit confusing at first, but it gets more comprehensible the more places you go; it’s also cheap compared to other arts, or other means of transportation (like movies or opera, or private cars). It’s forbidding if you’re not used to it, and it’s not for everyone (neither is New York City), but it’s got a lot to recommend it once you know how to follow it and how to get inside.
Poem comes from an ancient Greek verb that means “to make”; medieval Scots called poets “makars,” people who made things out of words. They shared not goals but techniques. If you want a definition for poetry, you may as well go to those techniques: patterns in sound (only some of those patterns have names), metaphors and other kinds of symbolism in language, ways to let language do things that cannot be straightforwardly, simply, said. Poems and poets make language their instrument—and they do various things with that instrument, as guitarists do with guitars, singers with their voices.
I read a lot of poetry as well as a lot of books about poetry. But I am writing this book first of all for people who do not, or do not yet, read nearly as much. It’s for people who found “Meditations in an Emergency” by Frank O’Hara after hearing it on Mad Men or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” after binge-watching Breaking Bad. It’s also for people, most of them younger than I am, who are getting into poetry by watching poets’ performances, live or on YouTube, or through their own and their friends’ often very personal websites. The subjects of poems in live performance by the poet, and song lyrics that normally go with music, including hip-hop texts, will come up, but this is not a book about them: it’s about texts you can read, without hearing someone else read them, about some things those texts can do.
People who talk about “poetry” in general—people whose tastes I may share but whose take on the art I want to counteract—tend to take it very seriously. So a cartoon analogy may help. If you (or someone in your house) play or watch Pokémon, you may be aware that there are a lot of Pokémon: small cartoon monsters that sometimes turn into one another, each with a different skill. Poems and poets differ in their abilities and their goals almost as much as Pokémon do, even though they exist in the same universe and follow the same basic rules: you might ask Wartortle to put out a fire, but if you want to start one, Charmander is the better choice. Similarly, we shouldn’t hold poems that put out fires—that calm us down, let us escape daily life, or reassure us—in lower esteem than poems that start fires, or unsettle us, or challenge us: sometimes we need help calming down in a frightening world.
Jorie Graham’s scary and wonderful modern poem “Fission” imagines a hostile questioner confronting her teenage self, demanding: “What is the purpose of poetry, friend?” But there is no one purpose to all poetry; there are only poems, lots of them, memorable and ridiculous and calm and volatile and heartbreaking and fascinating poems. Some of those poems tell us—seriously or jocularly or sarcastically or heartbreakingly—what poems must do and what poetry means, not for every poet who ever lived but for this poet, in this poem, now. And they may disagree. Auden entitled one of his poems (quoting Shakespeare) “The Truest Poetry Is the Most Feigning.” Other readers and poets need poems to feign nothing and mean everything, to not take risks but to help them feel safe: the women in Hazel Hall’s 1921 poem “Light Sleep” “lie in fear till day, / Clasping an amulet of words to keep / The leaning dark away.” Jenny Bornholdt, in her long poem “Fitter Turner,” comically compares the writing of poetry to physical therapy:
After a lot of physio and lifting weights
made from my father’s socks filled with sand
and draped over my ankle, my knee improved. It’s years ago
now, and although it still troubles me sometimes, mostly
it’s all right. I’m not meant to run or play sports—like tennis
or squash—which involve sudden changes of direction.
Poetry, being low impact, is fine.
That last sentence holds multiple deadpan jokes about the kind of poetry Bornholdt writes: it has little impact on most of the world (“Poetry makes nothing happen,” as Auden said), and writing it isn’t physically strenuous in the way that tennis is. Yet poetry does involve changes of direction, not least in the management of stanzas and lines. Each line can change your sense of what the last one meant and of where the poet wants you to go.
That is to say that different parts of the same poem—as well as different poems—can take you, in different ways, to different places. Poems—not “poetry” but individual poems—can bolster a civil rights movement, console the dying, congratulate new parents, introduce you to characters and settings you could never have imagined, help you quit your job or find a new one or live without one, give you pleasures like those you might get from crossword puzzles or sewing or watching basketball or playing basketball or accomplishing a mathematical proof, and (maybe most of all) show you that you’re not alone.
Few poems can meet all those goals at once; to get all you can, and to find the poems you like, you’ll have to accept that, as the English Renaissance poet and songwriter Thomas Campion put it, “not all do all things well.” A poem that’s great at one thing, for one reader, may appall or turn off someone else (Campion’s poem turns out to be, in part, about how we don’t all want the same thing from sex). In her book about singing, Naked at the Albert Hall, the singer and songwriter Tracey Thorn recalls how “our bass player… said to me years ago, ‘You don’t go to Frank Sinatra for the disco numbers, do you?’” She continues: “What do we want from singers?… We don’t always want or need the same thing.”
Nor do we need to know how to describe what we want before we can get it; we certainly do not need to know, in advance, the technical terms. Indeed, the experience of hearing or reading a poet’s gift is why we care to learn (if we do) those terms. You can read poems for the wisdom, for the surprise, for the feeling, for the richness or the oddity of the language, without knowing anything at all about the history of poetic techniques. In the same way, you can follow a sport—say, basketball—and admire Lindsay Whalen’s ability to know where all her teammates are or Steph Curry’s talent for placing a ball in a hoop from far away without knowing a three-point line from a block/charge call. But if you like watching athletes exercise those talents, you might want to learn the rules and the history of their game.
I called this book Don’t Read Poetry because if you are looking for reasons to read or write or defend one thing called poetry, you are probably already doing it wrong. There is a thing called poetry, a history of ways to arrange words that are not limited by those words’ meanings, and that often involve (among other patterns) verse lines. In the same way, there is a thing called music in which tones and rhythms are produced, on purpose, in patterns, by human beings. But we don’t listen to music so much as we listen to Beethoven or Beyoncé; we do not learn to cook in general but to cook pasta or omelets, bibimbap or pho. We do not play “sports” but play basketball or skate. And I do not read (or study or write or teach) poetry so much as I read and teach the work of individual poets, who write poems.
Those poems work in various ways toward various ends and give us various reasons to read them. Six of those reasons organize the chapters that make up the rest of this book.
First, feelings. Poems arrange language to convey, share, or provoke emotions, whatever else they do. It’s hard to imagine a poem (but easy to imagine, say, a recipe or a guide to particle physics) whose ways of arranging language make you feel nothing at all above and beyond how you feel about the topic. When emotions, attitudes, shared feelings are the first or last or most important thing the words in a poem evoke—when they feel expressive, when they are more like songs we could sing than like pictures of people we could meet or stories we could tell—we can call that poem a lyric poem: not lyrics, sung words, but lyric, singular, meaning that its words (even without music) behave like the words in songs, sharing feelings an imagined voice might convey. Auden also called poetry, in general, as he read it, “the clear expression of mixed feelings,” and this chapter will show why some poems fit those words.
Second, characters. Poems can introduce us to imagined people, or characters, much like or very unlike us. Novels, films, plays, and epic and narrative poems can show characters in action, letting people (or robots or talking animals) show us who they really are by showing us what they do. Short poems, like most of those discussed in this book, can show us, instead, who somebody is at one moment, conveying an individual’s character in arrangements of language. We will find out how poets construct characters who are definitely not the poet, who may speak and behave as if onstage. We will also see how poets portray themselves as recognizable characters in their own poems, and why so many poems imagine that animals, plants, and inanimate objects can talk.
Third, technique. Some poems feel raw, like spontaneous speech, but others put forward careful and intricate shapes. Such poems can give pleasure just for the sake of those shapes, the pleasures of following anything that requires exceptional skill, or of watching a puzzle get solved. Some poets make up forms from scratch. Others adopt and adapt old forms for new conditions, showing in the process that old forms need not always sound old, or European, or white.
Some poets solve complex problems; others present us with problems, in poems that stand out—and appeal to some readers—for difficulty, the subject of chapter 4. Such poems’ opaque or resistant or even aggressive language can work to break up the habits that we carry with us into the world beyond poems; they may enliven our day or help us see the toxic assumptions and the fragile illusions propagated by casual speech, by everyday life, by easier poems.
The Latin poet Horace said that poems ought to prodesse et delectare, to delight and instruct. Some poems—easy or hard, direct or indirect—definitely instruct us: they tell us how to live in a certain way, to serve God or treat children gently or start or prevent revolutions, and the techniques of poetry are their means of instruction. At best, such poems embody not just ideas or advice or arguments but wisdom. Chapter 5 shows how wisdom, practical or spiritual, gracefully or forcefully delivered, can give you good reasons to care for some poems, from biblical antiquity to our own day.
You can mean you, one person, or a lot of people at once; we can mean “you and me,” or “you and me and the rest of greater Boston,” or “all of us humans.” Poems can invoke all these senses of we and you, all these ways to bring imagined—and real—readers together, in our minds and occasionally in the streets: in other words, they can address or create collectives, communities. We will see how poems speak to the shared lives and the shared language in particular communities, nations, or identity groups. We will also see how some poems, some poets, create communities of our own.
None of these kinds of poems will cure your cough, nor will they abolish capitalism, handle bedtime for a cranky toddler, or free detained refugees. They might, though, help you think about how it would feel to do those things. And they might also introduce you to distinctive characters, subcultures, and ways of life, dazzle you with verbal mastery, challenge the ways in which you interpret the world, connect you to the past, or show how you are not alone.
“I hate classical music,” writes Alex Ross, a wonderful, successful critic of classical music; he adds, “Not the thing, but the name.” “Poetry” may now have similar problems; it is not only too uniform but too prestigious, too old, and too white. The poet and novelist Ben Lerner wrote a short book called The Hatred of Poetry arguing (if I understood him correctly) that poetry, almost by definition, fails (and that we hate it because it fails), since it makes a promise that it cannot keep: to solve the existential problems of isolation, disappointment, meaninglessness, and death. Yet reading, or loving, or hating, something called “poetry” is already a failure: it fails to focus on what’s great and wildly various about poems. Any focus on one model poem, one great poem or great poet or way to read poems, will fail and fall short unless it acknowledges other ways to read and listen and be. “Everybird has a God. Everybird has a compass in its brain,” as the twenty-first-century poet Asiya Wadud quips. Not all birds fly to the same home or seek the same food. Lerner’s hatred of poetry comes about because people see poetry as one thing, as if all birds were really one bird, and a white bird, too; no wonder nonwhite readers resist.
Tommy Pico, a Brooklyn-based poet who identifies as a gay Kumeyaay NDN (“Indian”) from what is now Southern California, devoted a whole book, called Nature Poem, to that resistance, and it is an astonishing, witty read. One page begins:
I can’t write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit, makes me complicit in my tribe’s erasure—why shd I give a fuck abt “poetry”? It’s a container
for words like whilst and hither and tamp. It conducts something of permanent and universal interest. Poems take something like an apple, turn it into the skin, the seeds, and the core.
Pico—whose “throat is full of survivors”—has to make his own poem, or anti-poem, since prior poets and “poetry,” especially “nature poetry,” cannot speak for him. That resolve, that action of making words new, is also, for Pico, a kind of destruction:
I wd give a wedgie to a sacred mountain and gladly piss on
the grass of the park of poetic form
while no one’s lookin
- "[An] inviting guide to an art form often seen as abstruse... At once erudite and colloquial, the book resists prescriptive judgments, teems with surprising juxtapositions, and evokes the contagious enthusiasm of a cool teacher."—New Yorker
- "[T]here are some empowering concepts and more than a few compelling arguments should you decide to approach Don't Read Poetry . . . with an open mind, a gracious ear, and a loving heart."—New York Journal of Books
- "Charming...Burt is a delightful companion who reminds us that poems go down a lot better if we read them out loud and slowly...The whole idea of Don't Read Poetry is not only to celebrate the freedom and inventiveness in poems...but also to connect poems to a larger world of beauty."—The Christian Science Monitor
- "Burt is well-suited to convince even the most skeptical readers that poems, indeed, should be read by everybody."—Booklist (starred review)
- "In this eloquent literary primer, Burt...contends with poetry's reputation for inaccessibility...[A] sweeping, insightful survey."—Publisher's Weekly
- "Don't Read Poetry is for readers hunting sharp, nimble thinking about culture, comprehension, and poems. Whether discussing an ancestral Hawaiian language, a canonical poet like Langston Hughes, or contemporary poets like Rodrigo Toscano and Jennifer Chang, Stephanie Burt manages to illuminate 'the difficult process of turning paired marks into words.' Don't read poetry, she suggests, read poems. This is a book for anyone who reads with curiosity, care and imagination."—Terrance Hayes, author of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
- "When I began Stephanie Burt's Don't Read Poetry, I fully expected her to widen and deepen my appreciation of this art form. Burt is, after all, a masterful poet, teacher, and literary critic. What I didn't necessarily expect was that I'd have such a great time absorbing what she has to say. Whether you love poetry or resist it, you will enjoy this entertaining and enlightening book."—Wally Lamb
- "For the past fifty years, poetry critics have battled over what poetry is, which poets mattered, and which didn't. Stephanie Burt says they had it wrong. Don't read poetry, this dedicated pluralist tells us, if by poetry you mean one thing. If however you want to read poems, and discover the manifold ways they can be -- and help readers to be -- good (for Burt's aesthetic vision is ultimately ethical), read this lucid, informed, and deeply humane book."—Langdon Hammer, author of James Merrill: Life and Art
- On Sale
- May 21, 2019
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Basic Books