Popular Music

Stephen Burt, Author University Press of Colorado $16.95 (96p) ISBN 978-0-87081-555-3
The innocent grandeur of Randall Jarrell, the longing ekphrastic gazes of James Merrill and the tough romanticism of Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma are fused, in this debut, with the brooding poses and sexualized self-doubt of 1980s indie-pop--and the result is a sort of brilliant ""take back the night"" raid on what is often called academic poetry. A doctoral student at Yale who has written for the TLS and PW, among other journals, Burt has produced a near-bildungsroman, selected by Jorie Graham for the press. Beginning with a loathing of the poet's developing body--which ""migrates to dirt, corners, bread/ shoulders and arid homework: appanage, aptitude""--the poems continue through education and travel, ending on the ""delight, green need/ and weird vivacious luck"" of love. Precociously detached enough to write lines like ""Tall sonorous pot vendors pace; lobster-brisk men on stoops hawk their used libraries in stacks"" when revisiting novelist Elizabeth Smart's haunts, the poet also applies himself to ""the reedy tone/ ...the charm-bracelet chimes from [the] secondhand pink/ 12 string"" of Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame; to ""Astronomy"" and Ireland's vanished Clonmacnoise monastic community; and to ""St. Cecilia at a Reed Organ, by Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco."" His good-natured control of the high-low ironies in doing so drive the book. At times, Burt's descriptive power threatens to overwhelm the poems, and those that center on travel or works of art sometimes fail to get past their occasions. But his taut mastery of free verse, his willingness to spatter ideas as he makes his way through the world, and his consistent emotional probing make this book wonderfully unlike anything operating in similar registers. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 08/30/1999
Release date: 09/01/1999
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