Over at The New Republic, Adam Plunkett takes on the ubiquitous poet and critic Stephen Burt:
At just over forty, Burt has written well about more poets than more or less anyone who isn’t twice his age. He has also written an excellent study of Randall Jarrell and three books of poetry as well as three books that are essentially collections of essays, one on sonnets, one on adolescence in twentieth-century poetry, and one that collects a fraction of the roughly two hundred pieces of criticism that he has written for venues such as the Boston Review and the Times Literary Supplement over the last twenty years. He writes with consistent intelligence about poets whom you might not otherwise hear about, always with enough information for you to slide into their work—just enough biography and history, and an account of influences and trends as thorough as Burt is in his reading—and almost always with good humor and the benefit of the doubt about subjects it can be hard not to doubt categorically. Where poetry goes, there Burt shall be, and you can make use of this indispensable and overwhelmingly positive resource for introducing yourself to new poetry. What’s not to love?
The lack of any real criticism for one. Plunkett observes that Burt’s drive to “introduce” forces him to put the evaluative aspect of criticism to the side. But he also sees something else at work:
This indiscriminate positivity, the blurbing good cheer, helps to explain the guilt I sometimes feel while reading Burt—what’s wrong with me if I cannot feel as excited about a poet as he is?—and also to defuse this guilt, since one can expect Burt to miss even major criticisms. His comprehensive enthusiasm begins to look like just an enthusiasm for comprehensiveness, as he strains enough superlatives to make his praise seem cheap. Mary Leader’s poems “adumbrate an enticing and intensely personal way of looking.” “Few poets since William Carlos Williams have done more for the Garden State [than August Kleinzahler].” “No poet alive, perhaps, uses anaphora better [than Juan Felipe Herrera].” “I recommend the whole of [Liz] Waldner.” This praise has all the critical discernment of a recommendation letter, which is, I submit, not an accident. Nearly all Burt’s subjects are professors—he often mentions where they teach or studied; and in his unwillingness to offend anyone (lest you run into someone at a conference) and in his preoccupation with style abstracted from quality (to teach students how poetry works), Burt is a clear product of the university system in which he studied and which he now studies.
Plunkett goes on to review Burt’s latest book of poems (which he finds lacks vitality), but let me second briefly Plunkett’s argument (and he is just the latest making this point) that real, evaluative criticism is good for poetry. And while this isn’t a comment on Burt’s criticism, I’d also add that if you have never hated a book of poems (whether your write about it or not), you probably don’t understand poetry, and you certainly don’t love it.