Prac Crit

My 1980

by Stephen Burt

Interview

by Sarah Howe

In 2012, The New York Times called Stephen Burt ‘one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.’ But if you don’t already know his poems, I hope this feature will convince you that you should. The same newspaper profile quotes Burt’s mother, Sandra, recalling how in third grade the future Harvard professor wrote an essay about ‘a little boy whose mother forced him to go out and play.’ In ‘My 1980’, the funny, affecting, perspective-altering poem that is the subject of this interview, the outlines of that nine-ish-year-old child – or one very similar – are instantly recognisable. It’s a poem that continues to explore the questions about imagination and reality, childhood and adulthood, utility and play, that have been an enduring element of Burt’s work, as summed up by an epigraph from his last collection: ‘It’s not, as scientists used to think, that children can’t tell the difference between the real world and the imaginary world… It’s just that they don’t see any particular reason for preferring to live in the real one’ (Alison Gopnik, The Philosophical Baby).

Burt’s works of criticism include an important study of Randall Jarrell, another of youth and adolescence in twentieth-century poetry, and a survey of five centuries of the sonnet form, The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard University Press, 2010), whose nitty-gritty commentaries might appeal to fans of this magazine. Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (Graywolf, 2009), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, gathered essays from across twenty years as a critic and reviewer. As a poet, Burt’s three full-length collections to date are Popular Music (Center for Literary Publishing, 1999), Parallel Play (Graywolf, 2006) and Belmont (Graywolf, 2013).

From his earliest published work through to the recent chapbook, All-Season Stephanie (Rain Taxi, 2015), Burt’s poems have explored the facets of selfhood, the imaginative scope of personae, and the desire to ‘be someone else’. With sympathy and verve, his ‘Stephanie’ poems – the subject of Alison Winch’s essay in this edition – pursue the counterfactual, ‘What if I had grown up as, and been seen as, a girl?’ Always circling back to the transgender identity Burt’s latest poems have begun to explore more explicitly, our conversation also touched on the uses of nostalgia, the difference between British and American rhyming, Elizabeth Bishop’s enduring influence, and the role of science fiction in forming his youthful mind.

I went to meet Burt at his Harvard office on a bright Fall morning in 2015. As he spoke about his manuscript-in-progress – from which ‘My 1980’ comes – he cradled its ream of printed pages in his lap; during especially animated passages of his answers, he’d stretch out his arms and lift the whole bundle forward as if presenting a paper baby.

SH

Is that the manuscript for the new book? Has it found its final shape already?

SB

Pretty much!

SH

What’s it going to be called?

SB

It’s probably going to be called Advice from the Lights. I like it because it suggests that poems give advice that you shouldn’t necessarily take, advice that you can’t take, because it might be an ignis fatuus. Or it might be inappropriately condescending, coming from celestial bodies or from people above you who aren’t really connected to you, even though they would like to be. Because the stars would like to be on earth, right? They don’t want to be stuck up there.

And also, of course, ‘lights’ sounds like ‘life’. Poems come from somebody’s life and sound like that life, but they’re not quite that life. The poems in this collection, maybe even more than the poems in Belmont, go back and forth between ones that purport to be grounded in autobiography and ones that are poems of alternate lives. There are poems from the chapbook, All-Season Stephanie, which ask, ‘What if I had grown up as a cis-gendered girl? What could that have been like?’ And then there are poems that speak in the voices of insects and arthropods and supposedly inanimate objects: the first poem in the book is spoken by a block of ice. And then there’s the ‘memoiry’ work…

SH

‘My 1980’ fits into that last group?

SB

It does… although as with the memoiry poems by the living authors whose poems of that kind I most admire – Terrance Hayes, Paul Muldoon, Laura Kasischke – there is a warrant that I really felt this way, but there is no warrant that all the incidents happened exactly as advertised. This is not memoir; it’s a memoir-like poem.

SH

It sounds like the ‘autobiographical’ sequence where ‘My 1980’ belongs exists in dialogue, or counterpoint, with those other hypothetical, fabulous selves?

SB

We all have multiple lives, right? Only some of our lives are reflected, or visible, in the external narrative series of events that happen to us. I think that’s true for everybody. It seems like it’s especially true for me because I have two genders, so I’m conscious – in ways that maybe a lot of people are not – of not being the person I am, or not feeling that my physical, 3-D, embodied existence reflects me. I do think that I want to represent more of my life than my life is. Almost all of the content in Belmont that could have been literal, autobiographical, was about being a bourgeois grown-up with responsibilities and a parent to young children. In this new book, the autobiography is backward-looking rather than present.

SH

The perspective in ‘My 1980’ reminded me of the way the retrospective child’s-eye-view works in some poems by Bishop, who I know is an important figure for you. The poem also has this sense of summing up a decade…

SB

Thank you, I’m happy with that! I hope it doesn’t get received as an ’80s nostalgia book, but there’s ’80s stuff in it. I was born in 1971, and the parts of my memory and of my experience that speak to this book run from the late ’70s to the early ’90s, and then pick up again with the present-day parent stuff.

SH

It’s interesting that you should mention nostalgia and your hope that the book won’t be read purely through its lens. Do you think nostalgia is always something problematic for the poet? Something that needs to be ironised, or undercut, or resisted?

SB

No! Everything can be problematic, but I don’t want to live in a world where nostalgia doesn’t exist. If you don’t look back at earlier versions of yourself and find things to cherish as well as things to dislike, then something’s wrong. I find nostalgia a topic, a thing to write out of: something not, I hope, to wallow in, but to enjoy as a raw material for art.

When William Butler Yeats started to be visited by the various spirits and apparitions that came to him through the medium (or the conscious fakery) of his new wife, he asked them, ‘What should I do with these revelations? Should I drop everything else and devote myself to you?’ And the spirits (which is to say Georgie Hyde-Lees) said, ‘No, we have come to give you material for poetry. Take us seriously, but use us for that.’ And that was what Yeats did. I sort of feel that way about nostalgia. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t be a constantly ironic hipster – that is a deprived and desiccated way to live.

Nostalgia is framing. We have a perspective on who we used to be, which we could not have had while we were being that thing. This is one of the reasons why lyric poetry – as this complicated, self-conscious activity, distinct from mere cries – exists at all. The enterprise of making lyric poetry is an enterprise of putting frames around things without destroying the things that you’re framing. If there’s no frame, in some sense it’s not poetry. But if there’s nothing in the frame, then why bother?

SH

You invoked Yeats’s spirits just now, and there’s a lot of what we might call ‘esoteric’ knowledge in this poem: esoteric both in the sense of arcane or recherché, and in the sense of ‘pertaining to the mystical.’ Past magic seems to linger in signs like the locket’s ‘ancient pictographs’, or the dissected fish entrails that will reveal the future… I confess I had to look up ‘ichthyomancy,’ but what a brilliant word to sneak into a poem – ‘augury based on a fish’s appearance or innards’!

SB

I want to answer this question by talking about the role of trivia in my poetry, because I care about that a lot: the role of random, obscure words and fields of knowledge, especially ones that we don’t consider to be especially literary or even cultural. One of the things I enjoyed doing most in my actual teens were these televised trivia contests, which would get people from a high school and put them on television with little buzzers. Then and now, I spent a lot of time mastering and demonstrating quick recall of various collections of obscure facts. I want to see what I can do with bizarre, specialised bits of not-high-culture-knowledge in the domain of lyric. As Dr Johnson says, they can ‘help us better to enjoy life or better to endure it’.

SH

‘I thought of myself as omniscient, as ichthyomantic’: that line took me back to Belmont, where a poem called ‘The Future’ sports another sort of –mancy – ‘Alectryomancy in the bulk-food aisle’ – that one, my dictionary tells me, being divination by watching roosters! We’ve just been talking about nostalgia and retro, but what’s the relationship between past and future in these poems? Is there a sort of reciprocity between how far you can see back in time and your resultant ability to peer forward into the future? I guess this is complicated by the fact that the ‘future’ this poem projects is actually the present of the adult speaker.

SB

I care about the future: I teach a class on science fiction! I care about ‘things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’, from public policy to processes of scientific discovery to figuring out if you want to be a different person next week, and how far you can do that while honouring the commitment you’ve made to the person you were last week. How much can you bring from the past into the future?

SH

The Stephen/Stephanie sequences do feel a bit like alternative realities, maybe even along the lines of the ‘many-worlds’ theory of quantum mechanics, if that’s not pushing the sci-fi parallel too far. Do you feel there’s any kinship between the speculative worlds of science fiction and the sorts of imagining poets do?

SB

Yes! Why would you want just one world when you could have several? And wouldn’t you want to share a world that you like with others? The younger versions of me who are reading SF, as in a poem like this one, are doing a thing that non-realist kinds of fiction often do, which is to give you a sense of importance, a sense that a person in whom you could see yourself matters in the great events of the day.

The nine, ten, eleven-year-old in this poem is imagining himself/herself as more important and more consequential and more special than the outside world can see him/her as being. That’s one of the things that non-realist genres, adventure genres, SF and Fantasy do for the earlier ‘me’ in this poem. They say: you’re important. What you do matters. You have some power in the world. In this poem they’re not especially kinds of political power, although in other poems they are.

SH

I want to ask how this poem fits into the book’s wider negotiations with gender. Let me take you to the part where the child sees the world with a new clarity after visiting the optician: ‘gold backs for earrings, aglets and fish scales, // erasers’ edges, girls’ clean fingernails, / were no longer fuzzy, a probability cloud / but evident in separate outlines, sad / as Atari pixels with their 8-bit math.’ Maybe I’m imagining it, but that list of ‘noticings’ seems to speak to this character’s ambiguous, fluid – ‘fuzzy’ if you will – sense of gender. Do the girls’ nails, say, represent a nascent sexual attraction, or another sort of fascination? I’m probably thinking along these lines because so much of childhood can, unfortunately, be about categorising the world into things ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’…

SB

That’s changing! Not fast enough, though it’s changing. Aglets, as you are aware, are the things at the end of your shoelaces.

SH

Mine are fraying!

SB

The ‘Stephanie’ poems think, ‘What if I had only ever been a girl?’ But these poems, like ‘My 1980’, are from the childhood I actually experienced, though some of the details are made-up. In my actual childhood, I thought I was a boy and didn’t like being a boy and wished I was a girl, but didn’t think I already was a girl.

There are people who are now identified as trans kids when they’re four. These are people who say, ‘I am a girl, why do I have a penis?’ And obviously vice-versa. And that’s not my relationship to my own gender. I’m a trans person, but in most of my daily life, most of the people I encounter might think I’m a guy and I don’t correct them because it’s not worth their energy or my energy. But I want people to know I have two genders. I want some people to call me Stephanie. I want to be able to wear a dress in public every so often. It turns out that’s all I need to have the life that I want.

I didn’t have any idea that that was a possible way to be at nine or ten, or even at sixteen. It really took Riot grrrl and the moment of ‘queer’ as a label for me to start seeing, ‘Wait, maybe there are ways that I can describe myself that aren’t embarrassing and shameful, and that aren’t deeply inaccurate.’ And so the actual boy that I grew up being was a boy who doesn’t want to be a boy, would rather be a girl but is not, and notices girl things with admiration and envy. As for the range of subject positions, the range of self-awareness and not-awareness, that appear in this poem: ‘These are cute girl things that are awesome. I don’t get them,’ the nine- to eleven-year-old says, ‘But now I can see them, they’re really cool!’

And the things that he can have, can project himself into, are in works of imaginative literature that it’s okay for boys to have, and are means of escape and adventure: means of not being in the world of realism that getting glasses supposedly allows you to inhabit.

One of the things that’s going on in this poem is, you would think that getting glasses allows you to say, ‘Oh, the real world is amazing.’ And I did, and it does. But it doesn’t mean that I want to be in the real world all the time, although by any reasonable standard it’s treated me rather well. And the same thing is true for embodiment. The joke here is that being in a real airplane and swimming in the real ocean is what you do when you can’t get enough science fiction novels!

SH

[laughs] I also love the opening joke, where the younger brothers launch their sophistical arguments to defer, Scheherazade-like, the inevitability of bath-time. What’s the role of humour in your poems?

SB

I like humour. Robert Lowell said that there were three things that doing public readings will encourage in poets: narrative, rhyme and humour. I do think that the experience of giving public readings has encouraged me to try to bring out the parts of my own poetry that can be funny. There are also poems where I’m trying to have a lot of fun with rhyme. I feel like every few years a higher proportion of my poems uses rhyme. And I feel like that’s coming back in some parts of US poetry. When I was starting to publish things in the ’90s, I felt like very few Americans were doing it, except for the ones who were always rhyming because they lived a New Formalist walled compound – no thank you!

SH

Formally speaking, did this poem rhyme right from the start? Was it always in distichs?

SB

This poem has gone through a lot of drafts. Like a lot of the poems that I write – and this has been true as far back as I remember – the beginning and end were mostly finished while I was still working on the middle. It always had some kind of irregular rhyme scheme, but I put it into various kinds of regular and irregular stanzas. I find that I think naturally in stanzaic form. In this poem, I believe that right now every line-end rhymes with something.

SH

What role does rhyme, its structure and audibility, play for you as you work on a poem?

SB

Once I realise that part of a poem rhymes, my instinct is to put all of it into rhyme. And then as I try to do that, if it doesn’t come easily, I have a countervailing instinct that says, ‘Ah, maybe this is fine: maybe it’s okay to have lines 3, 15, 17 and 19 not rhyme.

I like things to feel, as Yeats says, shut like the clicking of a box. The first major poet I really loved was Yeats, and I still feel like that’s who I want to write like. But I also have the feeling you can’t really do it that way anymore. I want to preserve some of the openness and the rawness and apparent authenticity that comes from having not all the boxes click shut. I try to have my finished poems span a range from unworked rawness to varnished and chiseled surfaces. And that’s true also for my use of rhyme. Randall Jarrell that formal rhyme schemes were nice, but he liked rhyme in his own work best ‘irregular, live and heard’. So I want the rhymes to be audible, but I also like the sense that you don’t know exactly what’s coming next.

When my rhyme schemes are very tight or regular, I want my poems to give some sense, in some other way, that I’m not actually living in 1951. There are a couple of American poets who are about my age or younger, not many but some – Melissa Range comes to mind – who are able to write in the full 1951 formal armature and have something to say: where it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia. But I want to have something else in the poem that says, ‘This is comic,’ or ‘This is awkward,’ ‘This is colloquial,’ or ‘This is natural,’ or ‘This is the twenty-first century.’ And I think this poem does that, partly by having some of the rhymes be self-consciously polysyllabic and comic.

SH

Yes, Atlantic/ichthyomantic definitely falls into that camp. And then there’s Egyptology/tetralogy, which I think is the pair that waits longest for completion – they’re ten lines apart – but the rhyme pops out even so…

SB

I think it’s very hard for American writers of my generation and younger to use rhyme that doesn’t stick out in some way. There’s a way that British and Irish and Commonwealth poets use rhyme – unobtrusive rhymes, where you go back and read again and say, ‘Oh! That rhymes abab cdcd, doesn’t it?’ But it’s very hard for someone whose upbringing was American to do. When I use rhyme it says, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m rhyming! I know that’s kind of weird.’

SH

I was wondering why the trip to the optician is so important to ‘My 1980’. Reading All-Season Stephanie, I found myself keeping a tally of all the different ‘technologies’ for correcting or enhancing vision that we meet in those poems. For example, Stephanie’s sight is just as imperfect as her male alter ego’s: ‘My eyes blur and glaze. / I need a new first pair of glasses, I need a new page. / There is no such thing as distance any longer, / only the ins and outs of shame’ (‘School Day Stephanie’). But it’s not only spectacles that occupy Stephanie’s imagination. In ‘Little Charm’ she asks to be protected from ‘the backwardness / of microscopes’. ‘Micropsia Stephanie’, who dreams of being either an entomologist or a termite, is ‘afraid to see what [she] could also burn’ with a ‘magnifying glass inadvertently / brought home from AP biology’. Why does perfected vision – vision mediated or intensified by lenses – keep recurring in these poems?

SB

Do you know what micropsia is? It’s an experience you can have when everything looks suddenly too small or too large – usually too small, I think, like when you wake up and you feel the door to your bedroom is tiny and far away.

SH

It sounds very Alice in Wonderland…

SB

It’s an experience that comes with different kinds of illness, or with a disturbance to your sense of where you are in your body.

SH

Ah, so these visual uncertainties have something to do with embodiment? From the list of extremely small things we talked about earlier, the simile zooms down even further, to the quantum level. The ‘probability cloud’ refers to the way physicists can’t talk about the location of electrons, but only their likelihood of being in a certain place at a given time – is that right?

SB

I want to say that I experience my gender as a probability cloud… that might be true actually: it’s over here now, it’s over there now. But the ‘probability cloud’ is also there because the nine- to eleven-year-old who is approximately me in this poem has been reading Asimov on Physics and various other ’70s popular science books. The conceit, or the joke, is that eyeglasses enable you ‘To see the world as the world is not’, as Housman says: to have a kind of precision that on the quantum level isn’t really there. But of course, if you are a normal person with a normal body and normal eyesight that is optimised for everyday life, you see things as having distinct edges, which is also a kind of beauty. I’ve needed glasses since I was very young, but I do remember putting them on and realising that you could see the leaves on the trees: trees aren’t big green blurs!

As to the separateness of the objects in this poem: when you see the world more clearly, there’s a loss of the way that they could have been. You get an answer. You open the box with Schrödinger’s cat – the cat’s alive or dead. You find out where the thing really is, and you find out what the borders between objects are, which also means discovering the difference between what you can do and what you can’t do, what’s realism and what’s not, what’s for girls and what’s for boys – which is something that should be blurred, but in 1980 is not blurred yet. And some things really are separate, like the physically possible and the physically impossible, or the grown-ups and the not grown-ups. So that discovery entails a kind of loss, along with the gain that comes with intellectual clarity and perception of line. And that separation is ‘sad’ for that reason.

SH

The simile then leaps on from atoms to pixels. I wondered if the ‘sad’ Atari graphics fit into this poem because their sheer representational inadequacy demands projection on the part of the player?

SB

Atari early home console video-gaming had very low resolution so everything seemed to be made of separate little glowing bricks, and one of the things it’s very hard to do with animation is to have continuous colour-change on moving objects. So in gaming, and in videogame design, things appear more separate and more segregated than they are in real life. Taken to an extreme, the segregation of one person from another, the possible from the impossible, kinds of persons from other kinds of persons, which you realise is the case growing up… that’s what’s going on with the separation of objects in this poem, even though it is also beautiful to see little bits of earrings, and to see the effort that people take when they keep their bodies clean.

SH

Does this way of thinking about outlines and distinctions have anything to do with the lovely idea you mentioned earlier of lyric as a sort of ‘framing’? That writing poems is an act of putting frames around things?

SB

I am interested in framing. I am interested in the way that the world looks different through different frames, and the way that you can direct different points of view at the same experience and have it result in different works of art, different emotions and so on. I’m going to quote Eliot: one of the things that he admires in Andrew Marvell is the way that a depiction of an experience can acknowledge the other kinds of experience that are also possible. That’s something that all the poets I feel closest to are able to acknowledge in one way or another. And it’s something I really want to be able to do with my own work. And that does sometimes mean writing about framing and reframing.

SH

Circling back again, I was especially intrigued by the ‘fish scales’, which seemed to stand out, in a way, from the other items in the childish list of small things – though I suppose they do have a kinship with sequins, that staple of classroom crafts and fairy costumes. Perhaps this is over-reading, but it occurred to me that fish scales are sort of like tiny, translucent lenses in their own right. The fact that a fish’s scales in situ naturally overlap, might that point to the multiple perspectives in this book of poems: the distinct but overlapping viewpoints of Stephen and Stephanie, the insects, the block of ice?

SB

You know, the fish scales come from Bishop – ‘At the Fishhouses’…

SH

I didn’t see that coming! But it makes sense… And was that little tribute just a momentary association in your mind, or does it point to a more sustained dialogue with Bishop in this poem?

SB

We’ve now crossed the line from things I thought I was doing when I was working on the poem to things I didn’t realise that I had in mind. But of course that is a line like the line between the sea and the land in ‘At the Fishhouses’, which is often not where you expect it to be, or can be misleading if you think it’s a bright, consistent line. I now realise, re-reading it, that if this poem came to me as a poem by someone else, I would think that this was a reaction to ‘At the Fishhouses’. ‘At the Fishhouses’ is a poem about the boundary between the unknowable and the knowable; between your uncertain future and your known past, your heritage; between the kinds of experience that you can inhabit, being the person you are, and the kinds of experience that you cannot inhabit. In this poem, as in ‘At the Fishhouses’, all that is figured by the remarkably visible and, I hope, intricately described contrast between the sea and the land, with a sort of supporting role played by the sky.

You can meet an old fishing dude who was a friend of your grandfather’s and talk about fish scales, which are the outside of a fish. And then there’s the unknowable void, the mystery-space, in Bishop – the water-space, the sea-space – which you can’t inhabit if you’re a person: you’d drown. But it’s also the space inside your body which, if you have a female body, involves milk ducts, whether or not they will ever yield milk… At the end of ‘At the Fishhouses’, knowledge comes from the rocky breasts of the world and flows out, but you can’t get inside the earth. And you can’t get inside your own body. There are all these mysterious, uninhabitable spaces in ‘At the Fishhouses’ that are gendered feminine and are amazingly powerful, but that are insusceptible to rational inquiry. You can’t go into them. You can’t directly know what’s inside them.

One thing that separates this poem from ‘At the Fishhouses’ – beside the fact that Bishop is concerned with specifically Christian traditions, which this poem isn’t – is that in this poem the ten-ish-year-old me isn’t really at home or comfortable on land anywhere. The only places where he is comfortable are spaces that are themselves fictive: ocean liners, undersea burrowing, science fantasy devices. Inhabiting your real body is what you do when you’ve temporarily run out of fiction. This is a kid who belongs in and who can inhabit only spaces that don’t exist, which would be terribly sad, were it not for the fact that the world is full of wonderful spaces that don’t exist. And as long as you give kids enough time and space to construct and inhabit those spaces, things aren’t that bad.

Where embodiment is concerned, this poem is also perhaps a response to Bishop’s giant toad, to which I’ve been responding for twenty years without realising it – except that now I realise it! It’s also a direct response to D.H. Lawrence’s view, which you have to confront if you’re thinking about representations of sexuality: in that view, dammit, you have a natural body and you’d better inhabit it or you’re part of the problem! That Lawrentian line (which continues) many of us would now say is terribly transphobic and sort of mean. But it’s also a powerful and intuitively appealing line of thought to anyone raised in our culture. And I suppose this poem is a not entirely successful attempt to push back against the insistence that you’ll never be a real writer, or a real person, or fulfilled, unless you can truly inhabit the natural body that the earth has given you.

SH

I can start to see how ‘My 1980’ continues your earlier work’s preoccupation with what Monica Youn has called the ‘ethics of imagination’ and escape. I wonder if that might be bound up, in this particular poem, with a question about play and the imaginative freedoms we risk letting go after childhood. To what extent is play a part of your own practice as a poet?

SB

If you don’t have a sense of play then it’s very hard to justify having poetry as an art form. Poetry is a bad way of making ethically necessary change because it doesn’t have the audience that would make that happen. And so it’s very hard to justify the practice of poetry if you don’t place value on something like a sense of free play, a sense of ornamentation, of excess, of imaginative speculation, of going outside the literal. Poetry says that there are things in your life that can’t be handled or solved without figura, without imagination. A work of art that does nothing else directly helpful to you can say there are ways of living and ways of seeing the world that you didn’t imagine were there before. Poetry can open up possibilities that you didn’t think existed. Lyric modes can help people by offering new models for potential selves.

The experience of embodiment in these poems is not just a weird set of relationships to gender, it is also a weird set of relationships to age. Auden said that he always felt like the youngest person in a room. I still feel like that, and a lot of that is in these books as well. There was a way that I felt like a teacher as a kid, and now that I’m a teacher I feel student-like. My experience of my real life is that I often feel either too old or too young to be in a group to which I’m assigned.

I am told, and I think it’s correct, that as a small child I had fairly serious difficulties physically moving around in the world; that I was put in what I guess today we would call remedial movement classes. I was given the kind of help that is also given to kids who have mild cerebral palsy or other kinds of physical movement disabilities. So the ‘You don’t want me on your baseball team, I’m having literal difficulty moving through the world of my body’ stuff, in my actual childhood, probably predates the ‘Why don’t I get a nightgown? Why don’t I get to wear pink and have butterflies?’ stuff that I experienced but didn’t talk about at eight, and now write about as an adult. All of these things are wired into each other.

SH

That makes me read the line about the child’s ability to ‘go’ places – ‘I had not the means but the imaginative vision’ – with a new eye…

SB

Yeah, ‘means’ in this poem refers at once to the fact that children don’t have their own private funding to buy plane tickets, to build their own space programme, but it also refers to how my own body would not take me where I wanted to go. In some sense that’s true for all of us, even for professional athletes, no matter how fit you are, or how cis-gender and confident you are. And on the other hand in this poem, there’s decoding, there’s linguistic aptitude, where the solution is an art that is not realistic, not three-dimensional, not embodied.

SH

One last question: going back to the knowable and the unknowable, are you ever conscious of trying to write poems that might elude, or go beyond the critic part of your being?

SB

Yes, in two separate ways. I think all poems should keep promising more – more discoveries, more delights, more energy, more catharsis, or more balm for wounds, or more fire, whatever they give – even after you’ve done some interpretative work. The very strongest poems seem inexhaustible. If I have a poem where I feel like I know everything that I’ve done, then I usually feel like the poem is too thin, too flat: it’s not finished. One of the advantages of post-confessional modes is that you get to, almost by definition, go into parts of your own experience that you don’t totally understand.

And then there’s another kind of elusiveness that is something that Robert Lowell and Robert Browning did not want in their poems, but Gertrude Stein did, or Michael Palmer does. That tradition, or counter-tradition, is about resisting paraphrasable prose sense. For a poem in that tradition, not only would there appear to be layers and layers and layers underneath the paraphrasable interpretation, but you can’t really make a paraphrasable interpretation with any confidence. Every so often I try to write a poem like that because I don’t want to cut myself off as a poet from that space, which I like being in sometimes as a critic. I want to explore its resources, but increasingly I feel like that’s a country I visit but can’t live in. With most of my poems, the elusiveness that I hope is illimitably productive comes after or under, rather than instead of the prose sense.

My 1980

by Stephen Burt

It was now my younger brothers who had
philosophical objections to taking a bath.

After I came back from the optician,
gold backs for earrings, aglets and fish scales,

erasers’ edges, girls’ clean fingernails,
were no longer fuzzy, a probability cloud,

but evident in separate outlines, sad
as Atari pixels with their 8-bit math.

I had not the means but the imaginative vision –
so adults said – to go anywhere: for example,

into the Earth’s hot mantle
in a box elder bug-shaped burrowing ironclad.

I was the stowaway on an Edwardian liner
who used my aptitude for Egyptology

to show what the locket’s ancient pictographs meant,
delighting the princess by proving she was not cursed.

I was also the unaccompanied minor
afraid to look down, or out at the Atlantic,

as we began our rickety descent
towards Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

I thought of myself as omniscient, as ichthyomantic.
I wanted to spend the following week immersed

in sea-floor adventures, a Nebula-winning tetralogy,
or swimming, as a kind of last resort.

First Published by Prac Crit.

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