I warned you-all that I'd take a few more inches of space around here to describe, and recommend, the printed matter I brought home from the MLA, and which turned out to be the best, or at least the most durable, reward of going thither. First, though, a nod to Rigoberto, who had the good fortune to attend Prageeta Sharma's book party. I didn't get there, but I have been enjoying her book-- did you know that her publisher now has its own blog?-- in any case, Prageeta's book keeps raising, for me, questions of how young poets today assimilate, get into, and then get beyond the set of moves invented by John Ashbery, or (maybe it's better to put it this way) how to adapt that set of moves to very different personalities and stages of life (since Ashbery so often, now, writes about old age). Some of the best parts so far have a quiet post-Ashbery, neo-elegiac feel, e.g. the end of "Finitude":
This is the trouble
with intention it's hollow. It's
personal too, it commemorates
itself-- the self is finitude and the self is getting popular, drafted,
like architects who design funeral lamps more becoming than the last batch.
I didn't pick that book up in Chicago (it's been in our house for longer than that). I did, though, pick up a few more good examples of prose about poetry, described below the fold.


Partly for legal reasons having to do with sales tax, and partly, I think, to avoid shipping boxes of books back and forth and back and forth (thus magnifying the press's carbon footprint), some of the folks who exhibit at the MLA and suchlike events won't let you buy their books and take them home: instead, you pay there and get the books sent to you later.
So I acquired, but haven't yet read, several books of eco-criticism from the University of Virginia, among them the poet and critic Alan Williamson's book about the meaning of the West. Not West as in "Western civilization," but West as in "West of the Rockies." I think I've read all the critical prose Williamson has written-- I like the clarity of his thinking about poems and prose-- and I suspect that Williamson's meditation here (apparently it includes some memoir-ish writing) will help me understand what Don Revell's new poems are doing, and how they go that way (though I don't think Williamson writes about Revell).
Also acquired, but unread, two books I should have picked up the second they came out: Virginia Jackson's book about Dickinson and the idea of lyric, and Peter Cole's mammoth translation of poems in Hebrew from Spain.
Actually read, from journals I picked up there in Chicago (not in Spain): two splendid new essays about some pretty old poems. In the first, from the industry leader CI, the sometimes baffling but sometimes brilliant poet-critic Daniel Tiffany discovers a menacing anti-lyrical countertradition of riddles and mysteries, embedded at times in ancient epic, and extending from Oedipus to-- well, I'll let him tell it: "As a poet, the ancient Sphinx may thus be compared to the riddling serial killers and cryptographers of modernity (the 'Zodiac Killer' or 'Son of Sam'), each producing a vernacular strain of 'poetry' (in their cryptic letters to the public) recalling the apotropaic allure of the Sphinx and her single, compulsively reiterated poem."
In the second, from the always-worth-a-look (and happily un-fashion-forward) academic journal MLQ, David asks why Edmund Spenser used so many more polysyllabic rhymes (e.g. "slaughter," "distraught her," "daughter") in the second half of The Faerie Queene than in the first. David's powerful answer (after a tour through similar rhymes in French and medieval Latin) is that if we ask what Spenser meant by doing so, or what he was trying to say (about politics, gender, or religion, e.g.), we miss the point: "he was trying to make a big, fat sound."

Originally Published: January 8th, 2008

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...