Stephen Burt’s expansive new book, The Poem is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them, is both a well-chosen anthology of American poems published since 1980 and a generous introduction to the dizzying variety and wealth of recent poetry. For each poem he has selected, Burt provides a characteristically smart, provocative, yet accessible essay about how to interpret and enjoy the poem.
Not surprisingly, given his catholic tastes and wide-ranging interests, Burt has selected poets from an array of backgrounds and poetic movements. They range from titans of an earlier generation, represented by poems from their mid-to-later careers, like Robert Creeley, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, and Louise Gluck, to younger poets like Terrance Hayes, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Ross Gay. As a whole, this book offers a wonderful, enlivening tour of contemporary American poetry, its landmarks and its lesser-known precincts, led by one of the most entertaining and knowledgeable guides we have.
But what interests me most here is that Burt decided to take his title — The Poem Is You — from a John Ashbery poem, and quite deliberately uses that poem to frame and justify his book.*
And it is an apt and resonant title for the book Burt has produced. The phrase comes from the last line of Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” an anthology chestnut from 1981 that Burt uses to open the book and introduce its philosophy of poetry, if you will. The poem, which at first appears to be unusually straightforward and clear by Ashbery standards, begins with a rather direct address to a “you” who seems to be, at least in part, the reader of the piece itself:
This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.
The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
It ends with this gesture of intimacy and connection: “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”
Burt explains that he decided to deploy this Ashbery poem as both lead-off batter and title because it “does double duty as an invitation to read challenging, slippery poetry and as a claim about the connection between poet and reader, between ‘you’ and ‘me,’ that all poems at least attempt to make.”
Ashbery’s Whitman-like address to an elusive “you,” who may or may not be the reader, has long been a central, recurring feature of his work — from classic works of the 1960s, like “A Blessing in Disguise” (“I prefer ‘you’ in the plural, I want ‘you,’ / You must come to me, all golden and pale”) to the winking title of his late volume Your Name Here.
As Burt notes, Ashbery’s poem solicits our participation in the act of reading, asking us to converse with the poem, and the poet, and to enter into a strange kind of communion. In the introduction, he explains
“My title — ‘The Poem Is You’ — means not that all the poems here reflect you exactly (not even the poems you might write yourself can do that) nor that all the poems will speak to you; instead (as the first essay in this book explains) it means that the poems invite you to try out, or try on, or simply encounter, the identities, the kinds of language, and the ways to see the world, that each poem opens up.”
The first essay then walks us through “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” in more detail, arguing that the poem is much more ambiguous and slippery than it first appears, playfully confronting us with a series of — you got it — paradoxes and oxymorons about the nature of poetry and our efforts to understand and possess it.
“Ashbery’s almost jocular late-summer non-sonnet is an ars poetica, a poem that designs to tell us what poetry — this kind of poetry, his kind of poetry — does. It presents both a warning and an invitation, like a sign at the entrance to an amusement park ride: you must be at least this able to tolerate double and triple puns, irresolutions, cases in which a meaning is really a tease.”
Just as the poem reaches out and invites “you,” the reader, to join in this shared experience, it also “resists those things, pushing the reader slightly away; we are told as clearly as Ashbery ever tells us anything that what the poem means for one reader cannot be quite what it means or does for another.”
In this way, Burt sets up his conclusion, which opens outward from Ashbery to the book’s overall outlook on poetry itself:
“For all that it is an Ashbery poem, a foxy, teasing, slippery New York School poem, ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ thus resembles (and tells us that it resembles) and introduces (and tells us it introduces) many other kinds of poems, even poetry in general … Critics can — I can — guide you into their workings, help them make more sense, show you some of their intricacies, invitations, special abilities; but the rest is up to you.”
Throughout the book Burt rightly stresses the almost bewildering variety and diversity of contemporary American poetry. But he also clearly, and understandably, positions John Ashbery as a central poet of our age.
For more on Burt’s The Poem Is You, see here.
* Fans of the New York School may also be interested to note that in addition to Ashbery, The Poem Is You also includes commentary on poems by other poets associated with the New York School, including Bernadette Mayer (“To Sleep”) and John Yau (“Modern Love”).