Letter from America: Elliptical Poetry and American Paralysis
By David Fedo
The United States is blessed these days by an abundance of talented young poets, but none has captured the imagination of American readers or has received the nearly universal critical acclaim as has Stephen Burt, who is himself also an influential critic as well as a tenured Professor of English at Harvard University. Burt, in his early 40s, celebrates what he calls "elliptical poetry", as in this 1998 article in the journal, Boston Review:
Elliptical poets try to manifest a person – who speaks the poem and reflects the poet – while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or "postmodern": they have read (most of them) Stein's [Gertrude] heirs, and the "language writers," and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively poetic).
This is not necessarily a transparent manifesto, and I find it hard to agree with Burt that the "established poets", who he says are the forerunners of ellipticism, include all such traditionalists in the canon as Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery and W.H. Auden. On the other hand, Burt's new book of verse, Belmont (Graywolf Press, 2013), named after the tony Boston suburb located not far from where I live in the less-tony suburb of Medford, is filled with sufficient "verbal gizmos" to give some (not all) of the 57 poems a vivid sense of what postmodern poetry may achieve.
My random example of Burt's best elliptical verse, among many, is 'An Atlas of the Atlas Moth', an exquisite work in which Burt gives the poet's speaking voice to the moth itself:
Who knew that adult moths do not eat? But then Burt's Atlas moth separates itself even from its own body:
Despite the fact that I sometimes find it hard to discover a clear rationale in Burt's line and stanza breaks, I love this poem, which in obvious ways replicates the speeded-up life cycle of you and me. And the language – colloquial, even slangy, but memorable in its images ("Transparency / like mica occupies, / awkward fourfold wings") is both simple and startling, perhaps a definition of what "elliptical" means to Burt.
Interestingly, I find that even more remarkable "new worlds" opened up by Burt begin with quieter and more familiar subjects and settings: suburban family life in the Boston suburbs. He is an unabashed lover of his two children, Nathan and Cooper; Nathan, the oldest, is a central figure in a number of his best poems, one of which (the lengthy and reflective 'Nathan') begins even prior to his birth:
What parent (or reader) cannot feel, in the accumulation of such ordinary and non-elliptical detail, the anticipation of what's ahead, with Jessie (the name of Burt's real spouse) in between worlds of waiting and delivering. Then Nathan is born, and Burt continues, describing his new baby boy:
Burt closes his lovely poem by affirming, in wonder,
I also admired Burt's self-identified "morning poems", especially 'Belmont Overture (Poem of Eight A.M.)', with its "not-quite-wild bald turkey" and "the roseless rosebush", and with the satisfied but still restless conclusion of the suburban homeowner (Burt):
I like the range of Burt's subjects in Belmont, his third and most accomplished book of verse. He covers the geographical territory of Greater Boston, from Belmont's suburb to familiar sites like Kendall Square (Cambridge) and Storrow Drive (Boston), and further afield to Mexico, New Hampshire and Washington, DC. Canada geese are in this collection; another poem is called 'Self-Portrait as Muppet', and another is titled 'Text Messages'. Burt does have a sense of humour.
Belmont also includes the short work 'Stephanie', which establishes Burt in the persona of a cross-dresser, a lifestyle he embraces with surprising openness: "I am a transgender person, and a cross-dresser," he has written on his website. "I would very much like to be seen as a woman, sometimes, although I present myself, most of the time, as a man." As the American writer Gore Vidal used to say, gender and sexuality are more complicated and mysterious than we know.
For weeks on end in September and October, Americans watched first with frustration and then utter disbelief as their elected Congressional representatives in the Senate and House, and President Obama wrangled over a myriad of issues, including the nation's projected budget, the resulting shutdown of the government, the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act (derisively called by some Tea Party Republicans as "Obama Care"), and the raising of the country's debt ceiling in order for the US to pay its bills on time. Many, including me, have wondered whether American Democracy, where the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial) have normally allowed for successful collaboration on the most serious issues, is now broken.
What's going on here?
What happened to those days when the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress worked together to solve problems, rather than to create them? Dysfunctionality now seems to be the order of the day, and the ramifications of this paralysis, beginning with the lockdown of the entire government for 16 days, have been bordering on the catastrophic. For a country that has prided itself on serving all of the people all of the time, the past gloomy weeks have been a scandal of nearly historic proportions.
Fortunately, late on the evening of October 16 and facing a midnight deadline, both the Senate and then the runaway House of Representatives, where anti-Obama Tea Party conservatives had in effect staged a kind of strategic coup of the House, finally passed a proposal that would both end the 16-day government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. A beleaguered President Obama quickly signed the bill.
But if this was a victory, it was a small one, and perhaps short-lived. The bill will end the shutdown and finance the government only until January 15, 2014, and raise the nation's US$16.7 trillion debt limit (the amount the US may borrow) only until February 7, 2014. Thus The Boston Globe's October 17 headline trumpeted "CRISIS OVER", but tacked on the cautious asterisk, "For at least three months." Americans, weary of a Congress unable to carry out its responsibilities, are skeptical.
The major sticking point in the may not be so much the Affordable Health Care Act, which Democrats believe will provide health care for millions now not covered, and which Republicans believe will bankrupt the system and is nothing more than socialised medicine (the Affordable Health Care Act is Obama's signature programme). The real issue may be that the Tea Party Republicans simply despise the President and remain furious that he actually won the most recent election; they seem to be doing everything they can to embarrass him and make him fail, whatever the initiative may be.
American politics have often been a rough and tumble game – not for the faint of heart. Remember the Democratic President Bill Clinton and the contentious impeachment proceedings bought by over-zealous Republicans, which ultimately failed? But what has occurred in the American Congress over these past tumultuous weeks is something different, and even uglier, and doesn't bode well for January and February.
QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013
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