Our new baby is Cooper Robert Bennett Burt, born on Tuesday, long-fingered, and full of smiles (even when asleep, which is most of the time, so far). He is of course worth a thousand AWP's, and makes only occasional faint attempts (so far) to imitate an Icelandic volcano.
When you have a brand-new baby at home and you are not at home with the baby you aren't in the library or in the classroom (that is, if you are me): you are in the car, driving to the hospital or from the hospital or to the superstore to get something the baby or the family needs, and it might make you think (if you are me) about genre, open-mindedness and the origins of taste. See why after the jump.
I used to buy a lot-- no, a lot-- of records, and most of them were more or less of the same, quasi-rock-and-roll kind. I can tell you a lot (surely more than you'd want to know) about two-hit indiepop wonders of the early 1990s, and about the high points of neo-New Wave. I'm still interested in such things, but I don't spend nearly as much time in record stores (nor are there are many record stores in existence for me to spend time in); nor have I spent a lot of free time on whatever Internet-based indie-rock resources have replaced them. I haven't done a serious radio show in (gulp) 15 years. Other things take up my time, energy, and attention: like teaching, like poetry-blogging, like our brand new baby (who now seems to be asleep).
And that means I listen to a lot more music on the radio: since I am lucky enough to live in Boston, which has several good independent stations, I can hear Jon Bernhardt's terrific indiepop-oriented show on WMBR (88.1fm, 8-10am Friday), but mostly I hear radio shows devoted to music I don't know much about, haven't usually bought, and haven't investigated. Chamber works from the Baroque period. Nigerian dance music from the 1970s. Obscure disco from the same period. Mountain music from the early 1960s with evangelical Christian lyrics. An orchestral suite composed last week. Some of these aren't pieces I want to hear twenty times-- sometimes they're pieces I don't even want to hear once: sometimes I love them. Sometimes I don't catch their names.*
And this is a very healthy situation, I think, for a critic-- of anything: music, poetry, restaurants, buildings-- to face: once you become an expert on a genre, or a period, or a kind, you will feel much safer and get more rewards (not just material rewards, either) if you confine yourself to that kind, about which you know something. Post-avant poets write about one another, argue about Jack Spicer, visit archives in Buffalo, go to Iowa or else make fun of Iowa; New New Formalists go to Westchester and Sewanee, debate Robert Frost, and make fun of Iowa; neo-confessional writers review one another's adventures; and even if you don't belong, or don't want to belong, to a school with a name, you can find yourself, as an adult, boxed in by your tastes, by the way stuff you already understand and can talk about leads to other stuff you already understand and know how to talk about.
That's depressing. It's better-- not just for criticism, but for the life that criticism serves-- if critics, at least, try to keep our tastes refreshed, our sensibilities open, by trying very regularly to encounter work whose premises and precedents we really do not understand. We should seek (even if we later simply dislike) work that we see naively, as it were; work about which, at first, we have nothing to say.
*If you hear something you like on a college or independent station and they haven't identified the piece three songs later, or if you're unlikely to keep listening for three or more songs, or if it's a long piece (as with much classical music), consider calling the station and asking what you heard: you'll demonstrate that somebody is listening (some college DJs don't know) and you'll help train the DJs too. I recognize that this advice will be obsolete once Internet streams with accurate tags replace all kinds of radio, but that day has not yet arrived.
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 his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006),...