Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Audacity of Stephen Burt

A genuine, unironic embrace of pop culture, especially music. Politics, on the left, and not just in the poems. Charm, pitched a bit more toward the young than the old. A facility with form. Critical comments every bit as good as the poetry. A poem about homeownership. The ability to use the word "messagiorno" offhandedly and convincingly. These qualities belonged to W.H. Auden, but the belong, equally, to Stephen Burt, or did on his recent triumph here at Lake Forest, where he read to a packed house in Carnegie Hall. And like the young Auden, Burt gives the unmistakable impression that he's Going Places. More impressively, you find that you Really Want Him to Get There. (I think he knows all of this about himself — as a line from one poem, which I'll almost get right, testifies: "it isn't enough that a few people who don't know me like me").

Steve came down from Minneapolis for a reading Tuesday, and seems to have made quite an impression on the students who were there. File part of this under Boyish Charm (the Rough Trade Records T-shirt, the glasses that one of my wittier students dubbed "emo goggles"). File more of it under Polished Reading Style (the best part of which is a kind of full-body shrug at the end of certain poems, a gesture that seems to say, rather disarmingly, "yeah, I know you may have reservations, but, you know, I really believe this"). More of the appeal has to do with what I, not unbiased after a decade teaching at Lake Forest and some experience with big university teaching in the U.S. and Europe, think of as the liberal arts style of addressing an audience. Steve asks the audience questions, finds out and uses their names, forms an immediate bond with them more or less as equals, and takes requests. Like a really good liberal arts college prof (which he is, at Macalester) he plants the seeds of the questions he wants his audience to end up asking him, and when they ask those questions, he comes across with real answers. He also deals with big issues in a very clear and jargon-free language, which we can attribute in part to the liberal arts background, and in part to what seems like a generational shift. Where once it was a badge of honor to speak in hazy terms that seemed (to you, and perhaps to your friends) sophisticated, European, theoretical, that vile phase seems to be on the wane, and the bright people in their thirties seem to want you to understand what they mean, even — indeed, especially — when it is complicated.

Steve also scored a hit with the crowd when he talked about politics and art in unpretentious, deeply practical terms. You make political art to make art, not to influence politics, at least not if you've got any sense of the relative influence a poem is going to have on the electorate, he said. Steve's a guy who's done his share of knocking on doors during political campaigns, and this, he said, is the kind of thing that's going to help your cause. Give money if you have money, make calls, use some shoe-leather. Disrupting syntax can be good for your poem (or not), but it isn't going to disrupt the political system. For a generation that seems to be casting a concerned eye at the Hummer-driving, creationism-teaching, McMansion-building, war-waging, propaganda-eating America presided over by our current leaders, this hit home (even at Lake Forest, which was onced listed as one of America's preppiest colleges in The Official Preppy Handbook ). Maybe politics just doesn't seem as abstract to them as it did to those of us who argued about Deleuze and Guattari in the campus coffeehouses of the early Clinton years.

As is often the case, I left the room feeling good about the poetry crowds we've been turning out at the college for the last few years. Full auditoriums and good questions from young people warmeth the professorial heart. I'd hoped to see more of the same two nights later when Raymond Federman came to town, but was too ill (long story, involving shellfish and campari) to make it. Still, it was a good week for literature in our particular corner of the groves of academe. When Burt's new book Parallel Play drops in February, I'll want to get my hands on it right away, and so, I think, will a few of his new fans from Tuesday night.