Poetry Manual Provides a Well-Versed Road Map

By Ball, Jonathan | Winnipeg Free Press, July 6, 2019 | Go to article overview

Poetry Manual Provides a Well-Versed Road Map


Ball, Jonathan, Winnipeg Free Press


Despite its subversive title, Don’t Read Poetry is a straightforward and conventional book, with the straightforward and conventional argument that poetry is good for us and we should read poetry, just like we should eat our vitamins.

Burt, an English professor at Harvard University, offers her book “first of all for people who do not, or do not yet, read nearly as much” poetry as she does, perhaps because these readers are just starting to get interested in poetry and want to know more about its current breadth and general history.

Burt offers her book as a casual textbook, a non-academic volume that nevertheless walks around how a Harvard prof might ask you to look at a poem. Her six chapters each focus on one reason we should read poetry: for the “Feelings” that poems express, the “Characters” that appear in poems or as the speakers of poems, the “Forms” that poetry commonly takes, the “Difficulty” of some poetry, the “Wisdom” that poetry offers, and the “Community” that poetry can create or sustain.

Burt doesn’t have much to say about poetry that isn’t already part of the clichés the culture encourages: poetry is about feelings, it contains wisdom, it’s hard, etc. Although we might expect some brash or at least uncommon perspective given the title Don’t Read Poetry, Burt’s most controversial claim is that sometimes poetry is difficult because poets want it to be difficult, and they aren’t always wrong to be difficult.

Here and elsewhere, Burt takes a casual tone even though her discussions have more depth than the tone implies. “Difficult, cranky, over-the-top, chaotic poetry need not always sound like such an angry dude. The 21st-century poets whom Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum collect in their anthology Gurlesque use shock, confusion and chaos for more playful and overtly feminists (sic) goals: they hope to liberate women and girls from the expectations of history, of coherence, of responsibility, imposed by patriarchy, or by history, or by men.”

The strength of Burt’s book is her fairly wide selections, which cover a great deal of ground. …

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