Poetry’s Cross-Dressing Kingmaker
The Education IssueJanuary 07, 2014
Gillian Laub for The New York Times
Poetry’s Cross-Dressing Kingmaker
The Education IssueBy MARK OPPENHEIMERJanuary 07, 2014
When I asked Stephen Burt’s parents if they worried about him when he was young, Burt’s father, Jeff, replied by asking me if I was Jewish. I told him I was. “Well,” he said, “to ask Jewish parents if they were worried about their children — it is a statement of fact! But were we more worried about Stephen than about the other children? The answer is yes.” As a boy, Stephen, the eldest of their four sons, was, in his dad’s words, “extremely precocious”; his parents’ reminiscences make him sound lovable but very intense, with interests out of step with other boys his age. His mother, Sandra, told me that in third grade he wrote an essay about “a little boy whose mother forced him to go out and play.”
“What would happen to him?” Jeff remembered thinking. “What would he become? Who would marry him?”
What he became was, among many other things, one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation. Burt is 41, a professor of English at Harvard, heir to the intellectual mantle long held by giants like Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler. He is also an avid science-fiction fan, the founder of a short-lived indie-pop zine, an authority on women’s basketball, the husband of Jessie Bennett, with whom he has two sons, and an unabashed cross-dresser. Bennett often helps Burt pick the women’s clothes that he wears for special occasions — parties, poetry readings — though he says that he never dresses like a woman in the classroom. (“For the same reason that you wouldn’t teach in a tuxedo,” he says, “because the classroom is about the poem, not about you.”)
長大後，他成為了這一代最有影響力的詩歌評論家，取得了諸多成就。41歲的伯特是哈佛大學的英語教授，哈樂德·布魯姆(Harold Bloom)和海倫·文德勒(Helen Vendler)等詩壇巨匠長期把持的評論界的衣缽傳人。他也是狂熱的科幻小說迷，短命的獨立流行音樂雜誌的創始人，女子籃球的權威，傑西·貝內特（Jessie Bennett，著名網頁設計師——譯注）的丈夫（他們有兩個兒子），以及不折不扣的異裝癖。貝內特經常幫伯特挑選他在特殊場合穿的女裝——比如聚會和詩歌朗誦會——不過他說，自己從來沒在教室裏穿過女裝。（“這和你不穿燕尾服教課是一樣的道理，”他說，“因為課堂上講的是詩歌，又不是你。”）
Burt has published two full-length books of his own poetry and two of the shorter volumes known as chapbooks, but in the poetry world he matters because of his criticism. Being a major poetry critic in the United States today may seem like a dubious honor, almost akin to being the best American cricketer, or a distinguished expert on polka. Yet we still teach poetry to our children, and we still reach for it at important moments — funerals, weddings, presidential inaugurations. We tend to look askance at those who claim to be practitioners, skeptical that their work could be any good. We mistrust our own tastes, so we rely on the tastemaker.
Gillian Laub for The New York Times
Burt is not the only young scholar whose reviews introduce new poetry to the masses, but he alone seems to be everywhere. He reviews for Web sites, magazines and major newspapers, including this one. He networks at conferences, on campuses, on Facebook. And he is a passionate booster of poets he loves. Not everyone believes he’s a great critic, but few doubt that his opinions help dictate who becomes part of the canon (and thus college syllabuses and high-school classes) in the way that the opinions of Bloom and Vendler and Stanford’s Marjorie Perloff (all of whom are around 80 years old) have for the last several decades. That Burt sometimes wears a dress and talks hyperkinetically about obscure indie bands like Sarge or the graphic novels of Posy Simmonds has not diminished his influence but enhanced it. As Willard Spiegelman, the editor of Southwest Review and a respected critic in his own right, wrote recently about Burt’s tastes: “Yesterday’s meadow morphs into today’s High Line, Keats’s Philomela into Lady Gaga.” Burt is the critic who, more than any other, understands the here and now and “flourishes amid the hipsters and the sonneteers.”
伯特並不是唯一通過評論向大眾介紹新詩的年輕學者，但是似乎只有他無處不在。他的詩評發表於網路、雜誌和各大報紙，本報也包括在內。他的人脈遍及學術會議、校園、Facebook。對於他喜愛的詩人，他是充滿熱情的支持者。並非每個人都認為他是出色的評論家，不過很少有人懷疑，他的評論能夠幫助詩人進入權威正典（從而進入高校教學大綱和高中課堂），正如布魯姆、文德勒和斯坦福大學的馬喬裏·佩羅夫(Marjorie Perloff)的評論過去幾十年所做的那樣，而這些評論家都已經是耄耋老人。伯特有時身穿長裙，手舞足蹈地談論“Sarge”等無名獨立樂隊和波西·西蒙茲(Posy Simmonds)的漫畫小說，這並未削弱他的影響力，反而讓他的影響力有所提升。作為《西南評論》(Southwest Review)的編輯，威拉德·施皮格爾曼(Willard Spiegelman)本人也是位備受尊重的評論家，他最近在文章中提到了伯特的品味：“昔日的草甸成為當今的高地，濟慈的夜鶯變成了Lady Gaga。”伯特是位與眾不同的評論家，他理解當今世界以及“時尚達人和十四行詩的盛行”。
In the 1980s, Laura Kasischke started publishing short, confessional, often dark poems about motherhood, family and domesticity. She had fans, but Burt felt that she deserved more. Starting in 2000, he wrote reviews praising her work. In 2007, he discussed Kasischke in his book “The Forms of Youth: 20th-Century Poetry and Adolescence.” The next year, in Boston Review, Burt wrote that “Kasischke has invented a new way for verse to sound” — anyone can recognize that as a serious compliment. In 2009, he reprinted the Boston Review essay in his book “Close Calls With Nonsense”; and, in 2011, he reviewed Kasischke’s new book, “Space, in Chains,” for The New York Times Book Review, writing, “No poet has joined the chasm of ontological despair to the pathos of household frustration so well as Kasischke.”
20世紀80年代，蘿拉·凱西希克(Laura Kasischke)開始發表簡短而憂鬱的懺悔詩，以母親、家人和家庭生活為主題。她有不少粉絲，不過伯特覺得她應該得到更多的支援。從2000年起，伯特撰寫詩評稱讚她的作品。2007年，他在自己的著作《青年的培養：20世紀詩歌和青少年》(The Forms of Youth: 20th-Century Poetry and Adolescence)中談到了凱西希克。次年，在《波士頓評論》(Boston Review)中，伯特寫道，“凱西希克開創了詩句音律的新格式”——任何人都能意識到，這是鄭重其事的稱讚。2009年，他把《波士頓評論》的這篇文章收錄進自己的新書《遠離妄言》(Close Calls With Nonsense)，2011年，他為《紐約時報》書評版評論了凱西希克的新書《空間，鐐銬》(Space, in Chains)，他寫道，“沒有詩人像凱西希克這樣，如此巧妙地把絕望的深淵和家庭挫折的悲哀結合起來。”
This past March, “Space, in Chains,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Burt was one of the jurors.
今年3月，《空間，鐐銬》贏得了美國國家書評獎(National Book Critics Circle Award)。伯特擔任了這個獎項的評審。
To nonpoets, the perks of this attention may seem trivial. Even if a poet gets a big award, her next book may sell 2,000 copies instead of 200. But when the only real currency is reputation, the blessing of a major critic matters. Other poets start to read your work, and if they teach in master’s programs, their students — the next generation of poets — read your work, too.
“It has made a huge difference in my career, ” Kasischke, who teaches at the University of Michigan, told me. “He hasn’t put my poetry on the best-seller list, but I think people read him. And because he goes everywhere and speaks, and has mentioned my name, it has made a difference with other poets and with readers.”
“這在我的職業生涯中非同小可，”任教於密歇根大學(University of Michigan)的凱西希克告訴我，“他還沒有讓我的詩歌登上暢銷書排行榜，不過我認為人們讀到了他的評論。因為他到處發表演說，提到我的名字，這對其他詩人和讀者都產生了影響。”
Burt has other favorites. Among living American poets, he has also championed Rae Armantrout, who is associated with the “language poets,” an avant-garde movement that began around 1970 (Armantrout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010); the poet and attorney Monica Youn; and the long-neglected Allan Peterson. Some dead poets, like Lorine Niedecker, are coming back to life, or at least being read again, in part because of Burt’s ministrations.
伯特還有其他喜愛的詩人。依然在世的美國詩人中，他對雷·阿爾曼特勞特(Rae Armantrout)倍加讚賞，這位詩人和20世紀70年代興起的前衛運動“語言詩派”有關（阿爾曼特勞特在2010年榮獲普利策獎）；詩人、律師莫妮卡·雲(Monica Youn)；長期被忽視的艾倫·彼得森(Allan Peterson)。由於伯特的推薦，有些已故的詩人，比如洛琳·尼德克(Lorine Niedecker)也起死回生，至少作品再度被人閱讀。
Burt has few critics — or few critics who, given his influence, will be quoted. An exception is Steve Evans, who teaches at the University of Maine and says that Burt is often late to the party, putting his seal of approval on poets, like Armantrout, who have been important for years. But the more common critique is that Burt is too positive. And while Burt does write negative reviews, he writes so much, and so many of his reviews are songs of praise, that he can seem like a relentless, passionate booster — a fanboy.
伯特很少遇到批評者——或者說由於他的影響力，很少有批評者的話被引用。史蒂夫·埃文斯(Steve Evans)卻是個例外，任教于緬因州大學(University of Maine)的史蒂夫表示，伯特的評論往往來得太晚，他對阿爾曼特等詩人的成就予以認可，而他們已經成名多年。不過更常見的批評是，伯特的評論過於樂觀，儘管伯特的確寫過負面評論，不過他的評論大多是讚美的詩篇，他似乎是永不疲倦、熱情洋溢的支持者——狂熱的粉絲。
The fanboy is, by his nature, an imperfect evangelist. I find Burt’s lucid, insightful explications of poems energizing: they make you want to discover more of that poet’s work. But there is something unnerving about his voracious enthusiasm. It’s the feeling you got hanging out with the kid who had every bootleg by his 100 favorite bands, or with the sci-fi junkie, or the film buff. They are obsessives, completists, and they overwhelm. You need a mixtape for a car ride, they give you 20 that you just must hear.
The poet Mary Jo Bang said that she wished Burt gave readers better guidance to what counts as good and what counts as bad. If you don’t offer that well-rounded sensibility, Bang said, “it may begin to seem to others that you are resting on the proposition ‘This is good because I like it.’ ”
詩人瑪麗·喬·邦(Mary Jo Bang)說，她希望伯特給讀者更好的指導，解釋什麼樣的詩好，什麼樣的詩不好。邦說，如果你的鑒賞力無法面面俱到，“那麼可能會讓別人覺得，你的評判標準是，‘因為我喜歡，這首詩就是好的’。”
Burt, who preferred to give longer, more thoughtful answers by e-mail after we spent time together in Cambridge, defends his preference for positivity by saying, “There’s so little airtime available for any poetry these days that when I get space and time in which I can do whatever I want, I don’t want to say, ‘X sucks.’ I almost always prefer to say, ‘Please check out Y,’ or ‘Z isn’t what you think,’ or ‘Look at what A, B and C have in common.’ ”
This is an old school of thought: it’s best just to ignore bad poetry. W. H. Auden felt this way, and Vendler has written that it’s pointless to review bad poetry. Willard Spiegelman also defends Burt’s cheery style. The poetry world needs its hatchet men, he explained — William Logan is the best known — but it also needs talent scouts. “Burt is the apostle of niceness,” Spiegelman told me, “but that is neither good nor bad.”
這是種老派的思想：最好對拙劣的詩歌視而不見。奧登(W. H. Auden)有這種看法，而文德勒也撰文指出，評論蹩腳的詩歌毫無意義。威拉德·施皮格爾曼也為伯特樂觀的評論風格辯護。他解釋說，詩歌界需要職業打手——威廉·洛根(William Logan)以此而聞名——可是也需要挖掘人才的星探。施皮格爾曼告訴我，“伯特是友善的傳道者，不過這並沒有好壞之分。”
I’m not sure I agree. Given Burt’s influence, it would be instructive to know his sensibilities more deeply. He would not say, on the record, which famous poets he considers overrated, which seemed to me needless cowardice. What’s a critic for if not to prick overinflated reputations? On the other hand, Burt is right to speak well of new, younger poets. Journals run so few poetry reviews, and readers are so tentative, that critics who cut down one book of poems may keep readers away from the entire genre. For a critic, sticking to the books he likes is a service not only to poets but to poetry itself.
Burt is an eclectic obsessive. At Green Acres, a private elementary school in suburban Maryland, he was so curious about chemistry that one of his teachers found a retired university professor to be his mentor. He was also a standout pianist and a nimble artist. And his enthusiasm for science fiction is what led him to poetry. “Samuel R. Delany’s ‘The Fall of the Towers’ opens with a giant quote from Auden,” Burt wrote to me. “That’s how I discovered Auden. At 13, I read almost nothing but S.F. and popular nonfiction explaining science; by 17 I was reading, primarily, poetry.”
伯特的愛好極為廣泛。在馬里蘭郊區的私立小學“綠色田野”(Green Acres)，他對化學產生了好奇心，有位老師找到退休的大學教授擔任他的導師。他也是傑出的鋼琴家和心靈手巧的藝術家。他對科幻小說的熱情，讓他對詩歌產生了興趣。伯特在給我的信中寫道，“撒母耳·德拉尼(Samuel R. Delany)的科幻小說《高塔的墜落》(The Fall of the Towers)開篇引述了奧登的大段詩句。我就是這樣發現了奧登。13歲的時候，我唯讀科幻小說和流行的非小說類科普書；到了17歲，我讀的主要是詩歌。”
As a Harvard freshman in Helen Vendler’s poetry seminar, he already “knew more than anyone else in the class by far,” Vendler says. But “he gallantly held himself in check so as not to dominate the class.” He was a D.J. for Harvard radio and poetry editor of The Harvard Advocate. After Harvard, he spent a year at Oxford; by the end of that year he was writing for the prestigious Times Literary Supplement.
作為哈佛大學的新生，他上了海倫·文德勒的詩歌課，文德勒說，他當時“知道的東西比班上任何學生都多”。但是他勇敢地保持克制，以免在班上出風頭。他擔任了哈佛電臺的DJ和《哈佛呼聲》(The Harvard Advocate)的詩歌編輯。從哈佛大學畢業後，他在牛津大學待了一年；那年年底，他為聲名顯赫的《泰晤士報》(Times)文學副刊撰寫稿件。
It was at Oxford that Burt began wearing women’s clothes — just sometimes, when he was in the mood. “I knew I was queer in some way in high school, but I didn’t know what way,” Burt wrote to me. “I didn’t understand until college that I could be queer (out of sync with common expectations about gender and sex) but attracted exclusively, or almost exclusively, to women.” In his recent essay “On Growing Up Between Genders” (which ran in a small journal I help edit), Burt wrote that his teenage sexual encounters “usually involved a moment when I asked to try on a girl’s bra. The answer was always yes.”
正是在牛津大學，伯特開始穿著女裝——只在他有興致的時候偶爾為之。伯特在信中告訴我，“我知道自己在高中的時候有些奇怪，不過我不知道是怎麼回事。我到了大學才明白，我可能是性錯亂者（對性別和性的普遍預期錯位），不過我只喜歡，或者說幾乎只喜歡女性。”他最近有篇文章《成長於男女之間》(On Growing Up Between Genders)刊登在我擔任編輯的一本小期刊上，伯特在文中寫道，在他少年時期的性接觸中，“往往會在某個時刻，我問能否試穿一個女孩的胸罩時，結果總能得到肯定的答復。”
In January 1997, when he was studying at Yale, Burt attended a Sarge concert at Brass City Records, in Waterbury, Conn. He met up there with Jessie Bennett, whom he knew from an indie-pop e-mail list but had never met in person. They bonded over literature and music and began dating a few months later. By June, Bennett was, she said, “well down the road to picking out china patterns.”
1997年1月，在就讀于耶魯大學期間，伯特參加了康涅狄格州沃特伯裏銅城唱片店(Brass City Records)舉行的Sarge音樂會。他在那裏遇到了傑西·貝內特，此前他在獨立流行音樂的電子郵件列表上認識了這個姑娘，但是從來沒見過本人。他們因文學和音樂走到了一起，幾個月後開始約會。貝內特說，到了6月，“她就準備為婚禮挑選瓷器的花樣。”
Bennett got Burt interested in women’s basketball, which quickly became another one of his obsessions. In women’s basketball, “stars are successful without becoming unapproachable worldwide media brands,” Burt said, and “political overtones are generally feminist where they exist.” Above all, he enjoyed the “almost cultlike fan world” of women’s basketball, to quote from the title of his 2005 essay in The Believer. Here was another community, like sci-fi or poetry fans, that existed to appreciate the underappreciated. From 2005 to 2010, Burt wrote for Women’s Hoops Blog. “We were posting 20, 30, 40 posts a day,” said Ted Sampsell-Jones, the blog’s founder. So while Burt was up for tenure at two elite colleges, first Macalester, in St. Paul, then Harvard, he was spending hours every week curating links to news stories from around the country about women’s collegiate basketball.
貝內特讓伯特對女子籃球產生了興趣，這迅速成為他熱愛的另一項事業。在女子籃球界，“不必成為無與倫比的全球性媒體品牌，籃球明星也能獲得成功，”伯特說，“其中通常帶有女權主義的政治色彩。”最重要的是，他喜愛女子籃球這個“近乎瘋狂的球迷世界”，這句話來自他2005年在《信徒》雜誌(The Believer)發表的文章標題。這是另一個群體，就像科幻小說迷和詩歌愛好者那樣，重視那些懷才不遇的人。從2005年到2010年，伯特為“女子籃球博客”(Women’s Hoops Blog)撰稿。這個博客的創始人泰德·桑普塞爾-鐘斯(Ted Sampsell-Jones)說，“我們每天會更新20到40篇文章。”儘管伯特先後在兩所名牌大學任教，起初在聖保羅的馬克萊斯特學院(Macalester)，然後到哈佛大學，他每週還是花費數小時，整理全美各地關於大學女子籃球的新聞報導鏈結。
What Burt sometimes lacks as a critic — that defined sensibility that you can either embrace or rage against, defining your own taste in the process — he fully possesses as a man. Claudia Gonson of the band the Magnetic Fields has known Burt since college, and she called him an apostle of all things “indie” — “By which I mean,” she said, “somewhat under the radar, or difficult to find, or left of center, or difficult to grasp.” Burt likes talented underdogs: the band that almost made it, the poet you have yet to hear of. The freaks and geeks.
伯特有時缺乏評論家的特質——那種明確的鑒賞力，讓你能夠表示贊同或反對，在這個過程中確定你自己的品味——不過他具備男人的所有特質。磁場樂隊(Magnetic Fields)的克勞迪婭·貢松(Claudia Gonson)從大學時就認識伯特，把他稱為所有“獨立”事業的信徒——她說，“我指的是那些低調神秘、很難尋覓、中間偏左、難以把握的事業。”伯特喜歡才華橫溢的小人物：比如初露頭角的樂團，名不見經傳的詩人。他喜歡怪胎和怪才。
I have heard people call Burt awkward, but I think what they mean is that he is intense and strange; he’s nothing if not confident. “I like lecturing,” Burt said. “It’s a performance, it’s live theater in a way.” In the classroom, he jumps on tables and chairs, and he also writes with chalk on the walls of lecture halls. “He is really sensitive to the performing and advertising aspect of teaching undergraduates,” says Nikki Skillman, a recent graduate student who taught with Burt. Skillman did not deny that Burt’s lectures can be gimmicky, but says the gimmicks worked. “Students won’t expect a faculty member talking about Middle English lyric or Milton to start drawing analogies to ’80s punk rock.”
Burt is clearly attracted to dramatic performance, to persona, to characterization. “This is cheap guesswork on my part,” the poet Albert Goldbarth says, “but there must be a kind of bonding between that interest in his own life” — cross-dressing — “and the idea of costuming, with different identities, that we find in the superhero universe.”
On Aug. 1, a day of off-and-on rain, I accompanied Burt to the Garment District, a favored thrift store in Cambridge. Burt, who is balding but otherwise looks like a boy, wore his usual uniform of boy’s clothes — jeans, T-shirt, canvas sneakers — dressed up with a gray-blue shade of nail polish and a couple of clunky plastic rings. In the women’s section, he found a gray blouse.
“Is it supposed to be tight around the body?” he asked the woman working the fitting room. “I’m worried it’s too tight.”
“I say go for it!” she said. “It can fit snugly. That’s fine.”
As we walked to the cash registers, Burt and I resumed a conversation about the differences between pop music and poetry, which he was explaining by way of the “Star Trek” episode in which the Enterprise is captured by aliens whose lives unfold at an accelerated speed.
We were approaching some convergence point, when all Burt’s interests, from poetry to pop to cross-dressing to sci-fi, collided in one echt-Burt conversational exchange. “The aliens in that episode are just like us, only their lives go faster,” Burt said. “Everything for them is sped up. That is like the pop scene. Trends go faster, new bands explode faster, die out faster. A year in pop is like many years in poetry.”
Burt is like the aliens: his life is sped up, too. When he was 12, he wrote a paper on Milton’s “Lycidas”; next year, his third full-length book of poems will be published, as well as a major anthology of which he is co-editor. When I asked him why he loves teaching, his answer helped explain his criticism, and everything that he does. “I want students to develop their own tastes, to become more themselves, to become more thoughtful and more appreciative,” he began, and continued in that noble vein, before concluding with what could be a fanboy mantra: “And of course,” he said, “I want them to like what I like.”
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The Times and is an editor of New Haven Review.
Editor: Vera Titunik
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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