Stephanie (Stephen) Burt

Poet, Essayist, Critic

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • To Be Fair: Stephen Burt on Poetry & Criticism
  • Stephanie, Stephen, Kitty: Trangender Poetics
  • How to Make an Anthology, or, the Literary History of the Present
  • The Poem Is You
  • Is American Poetry Still a Thing
  • Poetry and Place
  • Shipping Containers
  • Are Poems Songs, Are Songs Poems, and If So, Why Not?


“Burt is one of the leading poet-critics of her own emerging generation, turning out an astonishing amount of terrific review-based criticism.” —Publishers Weekly

Stephanie (also Stephen and Steph) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor with eight published books, including two critical books on poetry and three poetry collections. Her essay collection Close Calls with Nonsense (Graywolf Press, 2009) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her next poetry collection is Advice from the Lights: Poems (Graywolf, 2017) . Her other works include The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Harvard UP, 2016); Belmont (2013); The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard University Press, 2010); Something Understood: Essays and Poetry for Helen Vendler (University of Virginia Press, 2009); The Forms of Youth: Adolescence and 20th Century Poetry (Columbia University Press, 2007); Parallel Play: Poems (Graywolf, 2006); Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden (University Press, 2005); Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia University Press, 2002); and Popular Music (Center for Literary Publishing, 1999).

Burt grew up around Washington, DC, and received an A.B. from Harvard in 1994 and a Ph.D. in English from Yale in 2000. She taught at Macalester College for several years before becoming a professor of English at Harvard University.

The New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of her generation.” The recipient of a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship, her writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Believer, and the Boston Review.

Stephen Burt’s website


Stephanie (also Stephen and Steph) Burt is the author of three poetry collections, Belmont, Parallel Play, and Popular Music, and several collections of critical works. Her essay collection Close Calls with Nonsense was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other works include Advice from the LightsThe Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them; The Art of the Sonnet; Something Understood: Essays and Poetry for Helen Vendler; The Forms of Youth: Adolescence and 20th Century Poetry; Parallel Play: Poems; Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden; and Randall Jarrell and His Age. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, The Believer, and the Boston Review.


ADVICE FROM THE LIGHTS (Poetry, 2017)
Advice from the Lights is a brilliant and candid exploration of gender and identity and a series of looks at a formative past. It’s part nostalgia, part confusion, and part an ongoing wondering: How do any of us achieve adulthood? And why would we want to, if we had the choice? This collection is woven from and interrupted by extraordinary sequences, including Stephanie poems about Stephen’s female self; poems on particular years of the poet’s early life, each with its own memories, desires, insecurities, and pop songs; and versions of poems by the Greek poet Callimachus, whose present-day incarnation worries (who doesn’t?) about mortality, the favor of the gods, and the career of Taylor Swift. The collection also includes poems on politics, location, and parenthood. Taken all together, this is Stephen Burt’s most personal and most accomplished collection, an essential work that asks who we are, how we become ourselves, and why we make art.

THE POEM IS YOU: 60 CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN POEMS AND HOW TO READ THEM (Essays, 2016)
Contemporary American poetry has plenty to offer new readers, and plenty more for those who already follow it. Yet its difficulty—and sheer variety—leaves many readers puzzled or overwhelmed. The critic, scholar, and poet Stephen Burt sets out to help. Beginning in the early 1980s, where critical consensus ends, Burt canvasses American poetry of the past four decades, from the headline-making urgency of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen to the stark pathos of Louise Glück, the limitless energy of Juan Felipe Herrera, and the erotic provocations of D. A. Powell.

The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them is a guide to the diverse magnificences of American poetry today. It presents a wide range of poems selected by Burt for this volume, each accompanied by an original essay explaining how a given poem works, why it matters, and how the poem speaks to other parts of art and culture. Included here are some classroom classics (by Ashbery, Komunyakaa, Hass), less famous poems by very famous poets (Glück, Kay Ryan), and poems by prizewinning poets near the start of their careers (such as Brandon Som), and by others who are not—or not yet—well known.

The Poem Is You will appeal to poets, teachers, and students, but it is intended especially for readers who want to learn more about contemporary American poetry but who have not known where or how to start. It describes what American poets have fashioned for one another, and what they can give us today.

BELMONT (Poetry, 2013)
In Belmont, Stephen Burt maps out the joys and the limits of the life she has chosen, the life that chose her, examining and reimagining parenthood, marriage, adulthood, and suburbia alongside a brace of wild or pretty alternatives: the impossible life of a girl raised by cats; the disappointed lives of would-be rock stars; and the real life to which she returns, with her family, in the town that gives the book its name, driving home in an ode-worthy silver Subaru. Can a life be invented the way a poem can? What does it mean for a precocious child or a responsible grown-up to depict the world we want? With wit, beauty, tenderness, and virtuosity, these poems define the precarious end of extended adolescence, and then ask what stands beyond.

CLOSE CALLS WITH NONSENSE (Criticism, 2009)

“For newcomers, it will be a guidebook; for experienced readers, Burt offers what may be the first concentrated statement explaining how and why we, consumers and writers of contemporary poetry, read.” —Time Out New York

Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense provokes readers into the elliptical worlds of Rae Armantrout, Paul Muldoon, C. D. Wright, and other contemporary poets whose complexities make them challenging, original, and, finally, readable. Burt’s intelligence and enthusiasm introduce both tentative and longtime poetry readers to the rewards of reading new poetry.

PARALLEL PLAY (Poetry, 2006)

“Stephen Burt has found a courage I’d never imagined until I read these poems. It is the courage to expound the consolations of Terror, to declare that we are the Ancients of ourselves, already more accustomed than we know to life in the ruins. With Parallel Play, Burt becomes the Cavafy of these former United States. It will be a privilege to await the barbarians in her good company.” —Donald Revell

Consult any childhood development guide and you’ll run across the term “parallel play”: when children under two are placed together, they’ll play separately but won’t interact. Stephen Burt’s second collection of poems describes lovers, friends, travelers, and revelers attempting lives dependent on each other but still pulled inevitably into preoccupations of their own self-awareness. In precisely crafted poems rife with humor and insight, Burt looks for answers in her own life and among her coterie of characters and venues—from the rock clubs of New York City to the basketball courts of the WNBA, from the canvases of Kline and Richter to the canvassers in a hard-fought election. Parallel Play confirms Stephen Burt as one of America’s most exciting new voices.


CLOSE CALLS WITH NONSENSE

How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry (excerpt)

Invited to offer a “defense of poetry,” Randall Jarrell complained fifty years ago that poetry doesn’t need to be defended, it needs to be read. Since then, fewer and fewer Americans (at least in proportional terms) have read it. When successful young poets compare themselves to their friends who haven’t yet published a book, they may feel lucky; when they compare themselves to Jonathan Safran Foer or Zadie Smith or- but pick your own Best New Novelist- even the most-celebrated serious young poet can find it hard to know she exists.

This essay will not, exactly, tackle that problem; it will, instead, tackle one of its sources, by helping you enjoy those young poets’ books. I write here for people who want to read more new poetry but somehow never get around to it; for people who enjoy Seamus Heaney or Elizabeth Bishop, and want to know what next; for people who enjoy John Ashbery or Anne Carson, but aren’t sure why; and, especially, for people who read the half-column poems in glossy magazines and ask, “Is that all there is?”


MOSCOW FOR TEENS

Our borrowed kitten, black and white like ice,
Chases full bottles of aspirin and makes no sound.

Summer is hard to see through: slags of dust
Deform the coppery air. Orioles in the elms…

St. Michael roams the curbs and perezhods,
Handing out his weapons of bruised fruit;

Here pushcarts vend fresh water, sausages,
Blackcurrants, figs my uncle refuses to touch.

Below the university, every evening,
The etiolated business districts shine:

A scowling boy splays over the high railing
Where no one wants to watch. Late that same night

We see the lit omes in the brief dark, but read instead
About the great comedian Behemoth,

The black cat from The Master and Margarita,
Whose toothy swagger cuts the concrete sky.

—from Parallel Play