STEPHANIE BURT IS MANY things: poetry co-editor at The Nation, transgender activist, Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, the author of many books on literary criticism, which include, but aren’t limited to, Close Calls with Nonsense and The Poem Is You. Burt has a new book out called Don’t Read Poetry — not the title you might expect from someone (poet, literary critic, Harvard professor) who has devoted her life’s work to reading and writing poetry and reading and writing about poetry. The book is for those who are already reading poetry as well as for potential readers of the genre, but she is particularly interested in the latter — those who have avoided poetry or decided they hate it after being instructed to like a particular kind of poem. Burt is interested in having readers come to poems as “fan favorites” rather than as works in a professional hierarchy. Don’t Read Poetry might as easily have been called Read Many Poems, since Burt gives her readers a broad selection, helping them find a poetic niche or find their way back to poetry, perhaps after a long estrangement.
Don’t Read Poetry is divided into basic categories (Feelings, Characters, Forms, Difficulty, Wisdom, Community) so the reader can make sense of various poems’ raison d’être; ultimately, the book flows like a mixtape with the categories as organizing principles, reliant on each poem’s authenticity and voice. Burt’s intentions are clear from her introductory comments: “This book […] gives not just ways to read poems but reasons to read them, and ways to connect the poets and poems of the past, from Sappho and Li Bai to Wordsworth to some poems being written right now.”
We discussed Don’t Read Poetry over coffee in Belmont, Massachusetts, where we both live.