In her recent book, Don’t Read Poetry, critic and poet Stephanie Burt addresses six chief reasons to read poetry, offering an accessible, thorough, and thoughtful introduction to the form. By considering a range of poets and forms, Burt paints a generous picture of the myriad of ways poems can delight:
“So: don’t read poetry. Don’t assume poetry ever means only one thing, other than maybe a set of tools for making things with words, as music means a set of tool (beats, rhythms, harmonies, textures, instruments) for making things with sound.”
We caught up with Burt, to talk about her new book, the health of poetry, and how the Internet has changed the form.
The Millions: There’s been an influx of books in recent years on how to, or how not to, read poetry. Why do you think that is?
Stephanie Burt: Books on what poetry’s about aren’t new. They’ve been around since the early 19th century. But it does seem like there have been more books specifically intended for a larger and nonacademic audience recently. One reason is that poetry—in all its various meanings: objects of verse, lyric texts, sonically interesting pieces of language—is not capital intensive and is easy to find and circulate. At the same time, people don’t have a lot of confidence in how to talk about poetry or describe what they like.
TM: Why are people always saying poetry is on its deathbed?
SB: The visible diversity and the presence of people of color in the front ranks of the poetry world, I think, produced a bit of anxiety among some older white figures who feared they were being shoved out of the way. And that’s nonsense.
TM: Poetry has exploded on the Internet. Is that good or bad for the art form?
SB: If half as many people purchase the Selected Poems of William Butler Yeats but 10 times as many are sending one another links to Yeats’s poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War” over social media, that’s a net gain in how many people are reading and loving Yeats. I’ll take that.
TM: Why is reading widely, especially from the past, so vital?
SB: The vast explosion of interest via social media in non-book forms of poetry does tend to be presentist. It’s important that we not neglect the past.
Today’s best writers of color and today’s best writers of underrepresented groups, including groups that I belong to, are writers who have learned from the dead. A work is only great if people keep reading it and thinking it’s great. If people read it and say, “This isn’t for me,” decanonization happens, but it is important that people see and at least give the past a chance. Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales are around still, not because a whole bunch of people whose views some contemporary readers don’t like have said, “This is your culture,” but because generation after generation of poets have actually taken a look at it and said, “You know, I can really learn something from this. This is fun.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.