Afterwords, Commentary

Afterwords // Naming the Animals: Stephen Burt on The Nearly-Baroque in Contemporary Poetry

By Rich Smith
Poetry Northwest Contributing Writer

The talk was held in a conference room on the second floor of the Communications Building on the UW Campus. Weird room! (Good light, though. Lots of lamps.) Weird time! 6:00PM on a Friday, a fact that was not lost on Mr. Burt. However, he drew a good crowd—maybe 30 people, nearly all with notebooks on their laps.

Burt speaks clearly, loudly, and with authority. He was a casual dresser, though, in a striped long-sleeve shirt, blue jeans, clear-framed glasses, Chuck Taylor’s with colorful laces, and sporting silver nail polish on modestly trimmed nails. I thought the fingernail polish was a nod to the theme of the talk, and I was admiring his commitment to the bit, but when I asked him about the polish later on in the evening he said he just liked to wear it.

In short, I was ashamed. Especially three days later, after reading his beautiful essay about the newly released anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics.

Anyway, the main thrust of his argument was this: There are about ten white women—Angie Estes, Robyn Schiff, Nada Gordon, Hailey Leithauser, and Sandra Meek among them—who are pushing against a Poundian or Eliotic or Stevensian Modernist-type poetry tradition. These folk instead choose Marianne Moore as their Godmother, and deploy a version of her Baroque (or maybe, he says, Rococo) style.

Very different poets, all, ranging from flarfists to high lyricists, but Burt claims they are linked stylistically by their attention to and love of ornament, both in content and in form. Content-wise, the more Rococo writers work with flowers and fabrics, while the more Baroque like guns and grandeur. Both enjoy ornate stuff that folds, curvaceousnesses, and beautiful objects. Form-wise, they’re into elaborate musical structures (lots of assonance and consonance), and wordplay even unto excess (Leithauser’s book of poems Swoop, he claims, is so called partly because when you turn the word “swoop” upside down it spells “dooms.” Swoopin’ and doomin’: it don’t get more Baroque than that.)

Why do they choose this style? Why do we need writers thinking in a style of excess in the 21st century? “O reason not the need! … Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s,” Burt says, quoting Shakespeare’s Lear. The nearly-Baroque dig this line. We are excessive to nature and so why not indulge and explore excess? Also, politically, these poets are aware that their subject and style are self-consciously femme, and their assertion of it, Burt reasons, serves to challenge the patriarchy. To support this claim he cites flarf poet Nada Gordon’s poem, in which she replaces some source text’s gun imagery with flowers.

This is a thing, Burt says. As a critic, this is what Burt does—he names the animals. It’s not all he does, but it’s what he’s known for. See his great and influential essay that names and describes The Elliptical Poets and also his equally huge essay on The New Thing. When I hear these kinds of arguments, I think three things: 1.) Wull, but, what about this other contemporary poet person? Could she be included in the nearly-Baroque? 2.) Wull, but, is this particular combination of stylistic choices actually exclusive to the “nearly-Baroque?” 3.) What’s the deal with this need to categorize everything? Isn’t this impulse to categorize and to contain a tool of the patriarchy, the bourgeoisie, and the other goddamn hegemonic powers that be?

Questions like these did emerge from the audience. 1.) Where are all of the writers of color? Do you think Nathaniel Mackey’s stuff might fit into this category, on account of its musicality? To which Burt answered: I don’t think so. Mackey makes explicit his musical influences, and those are chiefly Jazz. 2.) Would you not call John Ashbery’s work in the ’80s—April Galleon’s maybe—Baroque? To which he answered, “Actually, I disagree. I think Ashbery has a different relationship to art. He does use complex syntax, which could be a nod to the Baroque…”

He went on but I couldn’t follow because I was having an emotional thing happen to me. I was struck by how he expressed his earnestness and love for the art of poetry through his pursuit of precision and categorization. The argument was clean (with the exception of some equivocation around whether something was Baroque or Rococo) and boldly and beautifully presented. One wonders, maybe, as the nearly-Baroque writers wonder, is beauty stakes enough? (I’m thinking of a particular urn, here…) But he was passionate and present and seemingly all-knowing in a way that made moot any question of the utility. In his disagreements and in his bold declarations of movements in contemporary poetry he implicitly honors and affirms poetry qua poetry, and so notions of unfair containment seem beside the point. Poetry—words on a flimsy page—seems real and breathing and bodied to him. My sense was he made it seem real and breathing and bodied for everyone in attendance that night, which is enough of a so what for me.

His talk made me think of our relationship to objects. Do I ever wake up feeling Rococo? Do I feel Baroque? So I asked everyone around me if they had a spirit object, an object with which they identified. They answered:

Calvin Pierce: A chair.

Mickey Centrone: Lamp.

Derek Robbins: Paper clip.

Jane Wong: Impossible to answer.

Sarah: Stihl Chainsaw.

Andrew Feld: Pelikan fountain pen. No, a Stihl Chainsaw.

Joe Milutus: Sportea.

Michelle Peñaloza: Pez Dispenser—no, not that, but that’s the first thing that came to mind.

Rich Smith: The ubiquitous rocks glass in all bars.

Stephen Burt: I don’t know—a lotta rings.