The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 03, 2009

A Poetry Final Four

Bracket1 Today, we've got something special for youthe first in a series of posts from the fine folks at Graywolf Press. They'll be taking over the blog every Friday. Today's posts are by senior editor Jeff Shotts.   

Many poets discuss, debate, and grouse over who their favorite poet of the day is, and why, but I’ve been intrigued to see more recently how many poets have been discussing, debating, and grousing over who their favorite poetry critic of the day is, and why. For a long time, that discussion had frequently pitted Helen Vendler against Marjorie Perloff as a kind of winnowing down of the tournament bracket to the number one seed from the East versus the number one seed from the West—perhaps with William Logan as that fearsome number two seed that neither one of them wants in their region. (Maybe that would make Harold Bloom the Bobby Knight of contemporary poetry criticism?)

But that particular tournament feels like a rivalry no longer heated enough to sell tickets. Who are the new generation of critics, and how do they match up? I’d be eager to hear any readers’ picks on their Final Four of younger poetry critics—those under, say, forty—and which of them would go home with a national championship. Luckily, there’s no “do or done” sudden death in contemporary poetry criticism. But what if there were?

Here throughout the day I'll be posting my picks. Here's the first bracket:

Stephen Burt vs. Adam Kirsch

On the left side of the bracket, two young and very different players emerge. Burt, the enthusiast, the versatility player, the new go-to kid at Harvard matches up in an intriguing contest of opposites with Kirsch, the formalist, the traditionalist-at-heart, the center who makes up for less dexterity with sheer knock-‘em-down high-percentage accuracy in the paint.

Burt’s reviews and criticism has appeared in the widest range of publications of the Final Four. He is the poetry critic associated with The Believer, which gives him far more street cred on both coasts than most opponents, but he also has the likes of The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, and several other dailies, in addition to The Nation, Boston Review, and many other literary magazines. He’s also the critic here with the strongest reputation across the Atlantic in such publications as the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.

Kirsch is a stalwart young critic, whose long essay reviews in The New Yorker have made him a powerful player. His writing on Lowell, Berryman, and Bishop is important, as is his reviewing of contemporary poetry in The New Republic, The New York Sun, and the Times Literary Supplement.

The match-up here finally comes down to who has more weapons at his disposal. Kirsch is brilliant, at his best, when writing of mid-twentieth-century poets. He writes powerfully argued and persuasive criticism, though it feels at times straightforward, traditional, and without Burt’s passion and ability to read and appreciate (and explain) both the traditional and the more innovative poetry of our day. Ultimately, Kirsch’s more narrow focus makes him a specialist, and versatility takes the day.

Winner: Stephen Burt

Related: the second bracket, and the winner of the poetry final four.


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