A Poetry Final Four: Finale
Get your blog or Moleskine notebook ready, because here's Graywolf Press senior editor Jeff Shotts announces the winner of the 2009 Fantasy National Poetry Month Playoffs.
Stephen Burt vs. David Orr
In our championship duel, we may well go into overtime. Orr is the award-winning commentator in the NYTBR who has written on such a wide array of poets, including John Ashbery, Zbigniew Herbert, Mary Jo Bang, and Matthea Harvey, and poetry topics, from defining what “greatness” means to defending the Poetry Foundation. In other words, he’s strong on both sides of the court, both relentless scorer and taunting defender. Burt can make an outside shot, with such illuminating essays and reviews on Rae Armantrout and C. D. Wright, and with some genre-defining essays, such as the title essay of his new collection of criticism, Close Calls with Nonsense, and his essay on “ellipticism” in contemporary poetry. He is also the smartest critic, tellingly, on Randall Jarrell’s life and work. Burt can, admittedly rarely, take it to the hole with a smart, deeply critical review of a poet like Sharon Olds in the NYTBR, but that is surely not his strength, as it is Orr’s. Orr will out-rebound and out-post Burt.
Both critics take on very large questions in contemporary poetry, more than most, which is why they are vying for the championship. In a recent essay-review on Ashbery, Orr writes: “What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.” On new innovative poetry, in “Close Calls with Nonsense” (originally appearing in The Believer), Burt writes: “These poets have found modes of writing—ways to put language in order—that did not exist before, that present otherwise unknowable individuals, and that seem to fit our experience now: I think we’ll be reading some of them for a long time.” Where Orr seems so often grave, Burt’s tone is optimistic about new poetry—arguably to a fault, one could say. And yet, what will create the buzzer-beater shot is Burt’s hopeful, youthful, and meaningful sense of possibility. What else should a critic come to poetry with? What else will more powerfully serve the art? What else can at the same time intelligently approach challenging forms of contemporary poetry and passionately earn it new and more readers?
National Champion: Stephen Burt
This is just one scenario, and certainly the original field of sixty-four would include a wider array, with such critics as Joel Brouwer, Jordan Davis, Timothy Donnelly, John Freeman, Maureen N. McLane, Ange Mlinko, Chris Nealon, John Palattella, Benjamin Paloff, Craig Morgan Teicher, Christian Wiman, and other young critics hovering around forty or younger. Maybe I’d pick a different Final Four next week. And in full disclosure, Stephen Burt is a critic and poet published by Graywolf Press, where I serve as poetry editor. But who can say these aren’t complete guesses? After all, I’m also the guy who picked Kansas to repeat in this year’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament, and we see how that turned out.