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TEDGlobal 2013

Stephen Burt: Why people need poetry

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Views 1,129,107

"We're all going to die -- and poems can help us live with that." In a charming and funny talk, literary critic Stephen Burt takes us on a lyrical journey with some of his favorite poets, all the way down to a line break and back up to the human urge to imagine.

- Poetry critic
In his influential poetry criticism, Stephen Burt links the contemporary with the classical, pinpoints new poetry movements, and promotes outstanding little-known poets. Full bio

I read poetry all the time
00:13
and write about it frequently
00:15
and take poems apart
00:17
to see how they work
00:18
because I'm a word person.
00:20
I understand the world best, most fully,
00:21
in words rather than, say, pictures or numbers,
00:24
and when I have a new experience or a new feeling,
00:27
I'm a little frustrated
00:30
until I can try to put it into words.
00:31
I think I've always been that way.
00:34
I devoured science fiction as a child. I still do.
00:36
And I found poems by Andrew Marvell
00:39
and Matthew Arnold and Emily Dickinson
00:42
and William Butler Yeats
00:43
because they were quoted in science fiction,
00:45
and I loved their sounds
00:47
and I went on to read about ottava rima
00:48
and medial caesuras and enjambment
00:51
and all that other technical stuff
00:54
that you care about if you already care about poems,
00:56
because poems already made me happier
01:00
and sadder and more alive.
01:04
And I became a poetry critic
01:06
because I wanted to know how and why.
01:08
Now, poetry isn't one thing that serves one purpose
01:12
any more than music or computer programming
01:17
serve one purpose.
01:20
The greek word poem, it just means "a made thing,"
01:22
and poetry is a set of techniques,
01:26
ways of making patterns
01:28
that put emotions into words.
01:30
The more techniques you know,
01:32
the more things you can make,
01:34
and the more patterns you can recognize
01:37
in things you might already like or love.
01:40
That said, poetry does seem to be
01:44
especially good at certain things.
01:47
For example, we are all going to die.
01:50
Poetry can help us live with that.
01:56
Poems are made of words, nothing but words.
01:59
The particulars in poems are like
02:02
the particularities, the personalities,
02:04
that distinguish people from one another.
02:06
Poems are easy to share, easy to pass on,
02:09
and when you read a poem, you can imagine
02:12
someone's speaking to you or for you,
02:13
maybe even someone far away
02:17
or someone made up or someone deceased.
02:19
That's why we can go to poems when we want to
02:24
remember something or someone,
02:28
to celebrate or to look beyond death
02:31
or to say goodbye,
02:34
and that's one reason poems can seem important,
02:36
even to people who aren't me,
02:40
who don't so much live in a world of words.
02:42
The poet Frank O'Hara said,
02:46
"If you don't need poetry, bully for you,"
02:48
but he also said when he didn't
want to be alive anymore,
02:52
the thought that he wouldn't write any more poems
02:55
had stopped him.
02:58
Poetry helps me want to be alive,
03:00
and I want to show you why by showing you how,
03:02
how a couple of poems react to the fact that
03:05
we're alive in one place at one time in one culture,
03:08
and in another we won't be alive at all.
03:11
So here's one of the first poems I memorized.
03:16
It could address a child or an adult.
03:20
"From far, from eve and morning
03:25
From yon twelve-winded sky,
03:28
The stuff of life to knit me
03:31
Blew hither; here am I.
03:33
Now — for a breath I tarry
03:35
Nor yet disperse apart —
03:37
Take my hand quick and tell me,
03:40
What have you in your heart.
03:42
Speak now, and I will answer;
03:44
How shall I help you, say;
03:46
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
03:49
I take my endless way."
03:51
[A. E. Housman]
03:54
Now, this poem has appealed
03:56
to science fiction writers.
03:58
It's furnished at least three science fiction titles,
03:59
I think because it says poems can brings us news
04:02
from the future or the past
04:05
or across the world,
04:07
because their patterns can seem to tell you
04:10
what's in somebody's heart.
04:12
It says poems can bring people together temporarily,
04:14
which I think is true,
04:17
and it sticks in my head not just because it rhymes
04:19
but for how it rhymes,
04:23
cleanly and simply on the two and four,
04:24
"say" and "way,"
04:26
with anticipatory hints on the one and three,
04:28
"answer" and "quarters,"
04:31
as if the poem itself were coming together.
04:32
It plays up the fact that we die
04:36
by exaggerating the speed of our lives.
04:38
A few years on Earth become
04:40
one speech, one breath.
04:43
It's a poem about loneliness --
04:45
the "I" in the poem feels no connection will last —
04:47
and it might look like a plea for help
04:50
'til you get to the word "help,"
04:52
where this "I" facing you, taking your hand,
04:55
is more like a teacher or a genie,
04:57
or at least that's what he wants to believe.
04:59
It would not be the first time a poet had
05:02
written the poem that he wanted to hear.
05:05
Now, this next poem really changed
05:10
what I liked and what I read
05:13
and what I felt I could read as an adult.
05:15
It might not make any sense to you
05:17
if you haven't seen it before.
05:19
"The Garden"
05:22
"Oleander: coral
05:25
from lipstick ads in the 50's.
05:27
Fruit of the tree of such knowledge
05:30
To smack
(thin air)
05:33
meaning kiss or hit.
05:35
It appears
05:37
in the guise of outworn usages
05:38
because we are bad?
05:40
Big masculine threat,
05:43
insinuating and slangy."
05:44
[Rae Armantrout]
05:47
Now, I found this poem in an anthology
05:49
of almost equally confusing poems in 1989.
05:52
I just heard that there were these scandalous writers
05:55
called Language poets who didn't make any sense,
05:57
and I wanted to go and see
for myself what they were like,
05:59
and some of them didn't do much for me,
06:02
but this writer, Rae Armantrout,
06:03
did an awful lot, and I kept reading her
06:05
until I felt I knew what was going on,
06:08
as I do with this poem.
06:11
It's about the Garden of Eden and the Fall
06:12
and the Biblical story of the Fall,
06:15
in which sex as we know it
06:19
and death and guilt
06:21
come into the world at the same time.
06:22
It's also about how appearances deceive,
06:24
how our culture can sweep us along
06:26
into doing and saying things we didn't intend
06:29
or don't like, and Armantrout's style
06:31
is trying to help us stop or slow down.
06:34
"Smack" can mean "kiss" as in air kisses,
06:37
as in lip-smacking,
06:41
but that can lead to "smack" as in "hit"
06:42
as in domestic abuse,
06:45
because sexual attraction can seem threatening.
06:47
The red that means fertility
06:51
can also mean poison.
06:53
Oleander is poisonous.
06:55
And outworn usages like "smack" for "kiss"
06:56
or "hit" can help us see
06:59
how our unacknowledged assumptions
07:02
can make us believe we are bad,
07:04
either because sex is sinful
07:06
or because we tolerate so much sexism.
07:08
We let guys tell women what to do.
07:11
The poem reacts to old lipstick ads,
07:14
and its edginess about statement,
07:17
its reversals and halts, have everything to do
07:19
with resisting the language of ads
07:21
that want to tell us so easily what to want,
07:24
what to do, what to think.
07:27
That resistance is a lot of the point of the poem,
07:28
which shows me, Armantrout shows me
07:31
what it's like to hear grave threats
07:33
and mortal dishonesty in the language
07:35
of everyday life, and once she's done that,
07:37
I think she can show other people, women and men,
07:40
what it's like to feel that way
07:44
and say to other people, women and men
07:46
who feel so alienated or so threatened
07:49
that they're not alone.
07:52
Now, how do I know that I'm right
07:54
about this somewhat confusing poem?
07:57
Well in this case, I emailed
the poet a draft of my talk
07:59
and she said, "Yeah, yeah, that's about it."
08:02
Yeah. (Laughter) (Applause)
08:05
But usually, you can't know. You never know.
08:08
You can't be sure, and that's okay.
08:11
All we can do we is listen to poems
08:14
and look at poems and guess
08:16
and see if they can bring us what we need,
08:17
and if you're wrong about some part of a poem,
08:20
nothing bad will happen.
08:23
Now, this next poem is older than Armantrout's,
08:27
but a little younger than A. E. Housman's.
08:29
"The Brave Man"
08:33
"The sun, that brave man,
08:35
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
08:38
That brave man.
08:40
Green and gloomy eyes
08:43
In dark forms of the grass
08:44
Run away.
08:46
The good stars,
08:48
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
08:49
Run away.
08:52
Fears of my bed,
08:54
Fears of life and fears of death,
08:55
Run away.
08:57
That brave man comes up
08:59
From below and walks without meditation,
09:01
That brave man."
09:04
[Wallace Stevens]
09:06
Now, the sun in this poem,
09:09
in Wallace Stevens' poem, seems so grave
09:11
because the person in the poem is so afraid.
09:14
The sun comes up in the morning through branches,
09:17
dispels the dew, the eyes, on the grass,
09:20
and defeats stars envisioned as armies.
09:23
"Brave" has its old sense of showy
09:26
as well as its modern sense, courage.
09:28
This sun is not afraid to show his face.
09:30
But the person in the poem is afraid.
09:34
He might have been up all night.
09:37
That is the reveal Stevens
saves for that fourth stanza,
09:38
where run away has become a refrain.
09:42
This person might want to run away too,
09:45
but fortified by the sun's example,
09:47
he might just rise.
09:50
Stevens saves that sonically odd word "meditation"
09:52
for the end.
09:57
Unlike the sun, human beings think.
09:58
We meditate on past and future, life and death,
10:01
above and below.
10:05
And it can make us afraid.
10:08
Poems, the patterns in poems,
10:12
show us not just what somebody thought
10:14
or what someone did or what happened
10:16
but what it was like to be a person like that,
10:17
to be so anxious, so lonely, so inquisitive,
10:22
so goofy, so preposterous, so brave.
10:26
That's why poems can seem at once so durable,
10:32
so personal, and so ephemeral,
10:35
like something inside and outside you at once.
10:37
The Scottish poet Denise Riley compares poetry
10:41
to a needle, a sliver of outside I cradle inside,
10:44
and the American poet Terrance Hayes
10:48
wrote six poems called "Wind in a Box."
10:50
One of them asks, "Tell me,
10:53
what am I going to do when I'm dead?"
10:55
And the answer is that he'll stay with us
10:58
or won't stay with us inside us as wind,
11:00
as air, as words.
11:03
It is easier than ever to find poems
11:06
that might stay inside you, that might stay with you,
11:09
from long, long ago, or from right this minute,
11:13
from far away or from right close to where you live,
11:15
almost no matter where you live.
11:18
Poems can help you say, help
you show how you're feeling,
11:21
but they can also introduce you
11:24
to feelings, ways of being in the world,
11:27
people, very much unlike you,
11:29
maybe even people from long, long ago.
11:32
Some poems even tell you
11:36
that that is what they can do.
11:38
That's what John Keats is doing
11:43
in his most mysterious, perhaps, poem.
11:45
It's mysterious because it's probably unfinished,
11:50
he probably left it unfinished,
11:54
and because it might be meant
11:56
for a character in a play,
11:58
but it might just be Keats' thinking
12:00
about what his own writing,
12:02
his handwriting, could do,
12:04
and in it I hear, at least I hear, mortality,
12:06
and I hear the power of older poetic techniques,
12:10
and I have the feeling, you might have the feeling,
12:13
of meeting even for an instant, almost becoming,
12:16
someone else from long ago,
12:19
someone quite memorable.
12:20
"This living hand, now warm and capable
12:23
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
12:26
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
12:30
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
12:32
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
12:36
So in my veins red life might stream again,
12:40
And thou be conscience-calm’d -- see here it is --
12:43
I hold it towards you."
12:48
Thanks.
12:53
(Applause)
12:55

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About the speaker:

Stephen Burt - Poetry critic
In his influential poetry criticism, Stephen Burt links the contemporary with the classical, pinpoints new poetry movements, and promotes outstanding little-known poets.

Why you should listen
Stephen Burt is a serious fan of science fiction, indie music and women’s basketball, but what he’s known for is his highly influential poetry criticism. That list of passions, though, hints at Burt’s mission as a critic: he aims not only to describe new movements in the form, but also to champion under-the-radar writers whose work he admires.
 
Burt, a professor of English at Harvard, is passionate about both the classics and the contemporary, and his poetry criticism bridges those two worlds. He is also a poet in his own right, with two full-length books under his belt, and a cross-dresser who mines his feminine persona in his own writing. “I am a literary critic and a writer of verse, a parent and husband and friend, before and after I am a guy in a skirt, or a guy in blue jeans, or a fictional girl,” he has written. His books include The Art of the Sonnet (with David Mikics); Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry; and Parallel Play: Poems.
More profile about the speaker
Stephen Burt | Speaker | TED.com