Saying that you like or dislike poetry is akin to saying the same thing about weather or music or people. That’s because, as Stephanie Burt says, there’s no such single thing as poetry, only poems. And no two poets are doing the same thing. What you notice first about her charming book Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems is its range. Shakespeare and Dickinson and Yeats are here, but so are Li Bai and Lorine Niedecker and Juan Felipe Herrera.
Fittingly, Burt begins with how lyric poems express feelings and thus dramatize “a soul or a self or a voice that reaches beyond one body, one story, one time, one life.” From there, she looks at character in poems; if a lyric poem is a song, a poem that depicts a character is a portrait. The third chapter of “Don’t Read Poetry” is devoted to forms, and it’s here that one realizes what Burt is up to: Having hooked the reader with feelings and character, she now gets into the carpentry of poetry and the way the pattern of a poem can reflect the grandeur of the universe the way a constellation of stars or “the architecture of ancient temples” can.
She also demolishes the silly distinction between formal poems and free verse by pointing out how contemporary poets have renovated such age-old forms as the sonnet and how they work with new ones, such as the lipogram, a type of poem in which the poet avoids one or more letters. (The example she gives is a prose poem that uses no vowels except “e.”) Burt is a delightful companion who reminds us that poems go down a lot better if we read them out loud and slowly. She's also comprehensive, though she clearly has her favorite poets, such as the endlessly inventive Terrance Hayes.
The whole idea of “Don’t Read Poetry” is not only to celebrate the freedom and inventiveness in poems and how that sense of shared play can build community but also to connect poems to a larger world of beauty. Not every poem is a walk in the park, of course; in a chapter entitled “Difficulty,” Burt writes about deliberately baffling eat-your-spinach poems and confesses, “a bit goes a long way, and then I just want to read Keats.” But easy or not, poems are essential. They’re our culture’s life blood.
David Kirby’s latest poetry collection is “Get Up, Please.”