Stephen Burt — Parallel Play

All hail the critic, Callimachus. who appears at crucial moments in Stephen Burt’s book Parallel Play [Graywolf Press 2006] to provide structure and commentary on the life of the poet-critic. Stephen Burt may perhaps be best known for his criticism on Randall Jarrell, who was himself another poet-critic. Throughout Parallel Play the spirit of critique persists and underscores much of the book. It is laudable that Burt wanders into the space of critique, as it is seldom visited by many poets today for its perceived vulgar and elitist strains, for the prevailing perception that critique cuts only to build up the critic. Burt’s aesthetic views are informed (as a critic) by the notion that the world of the self is a smothering one, and as a keen observer of American culture, it is this tendency that he is addressing in Parallel Play.

On the book’s back [read blurb] cover, the reader is told by the publisher (as there is no credit given for this verbiage):

Consult virtually 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 actually interact. Stephen Burt’s second collection of poems, Parallel Play, describes lovers, friends, travelers, and revelers attempting lives dependent on each other but still pulled inevitable into preoccupations of their own self-awareness.

This is the intellectual conceit (or is it “project”?) of this book. Burt intends throughout Parallel Play to point his focus towards those things that are not just reflections of his self but delve into those things that are normally the domain of the critic—art and literature, with a good helping of politics and pop culture. Enter Callimachus. Callimachus parallels Burt’s own life in many of its dimensions (though I doubt that Callimachus would have been a fan of the WNBA). Callimachus was the caretaker of Greek literature in the second century B.C., most of whose works have been lost. However, he is largely responsible for collecting the work that came before him and making sure that it survived. It is the ironic fate of Callimachus’ work that so few pieces are extant. Burt addresses his affinity for Callimachus in his first piece entitled “After Callimachus” (there are four of these pieces with the same name” that appear at the end of each section of the book).

After Callimachus

Cover me, quietly, stone.
I wrote verse. I meant little in life,
blamed few and injured none;
I tried to get along.
My writings kept me warm.
If I with my featherlight pen
confused prestige with worth
praised evil, or ever wronged
the few who wanted a fight,
allow me, generous earth,
to do no further harm—
let me atone in my sleep;
I with my good will,
so lightly and often given,
who rest with nothing to keep,
and nothing to offer heaven.

Burt’s apologia for his critiques operates in this piece. Though one doubts that it is possible as critic to “blame few and injure none,” it is apparent that, like Callimachus, Burt is willing to accept that he may not have anything to offer heaven, that ideal place that bears no blame or fault. Burt’s East Coast sensibility is very much apparent in this manner, a manner which can be very foreign in some places where the appearance of fair play and ample praise are expected. In this piece Burt reaches back to the past to legitimize his efforts, and like Callimachus, whom Ovid described as dwelling within the arena of art and learning but devoid of any real poetic genius, Burt seems willing to acknowledge that his learned efforts may not endure (like Callimachus’ literally haven’t) but that, as long as his critiques are given with good will, they too belong to this earth.

In “After Callimachus (1)” Burt has provided his raison d’etre. He takes solace in the lives of critics from a previous age (hence his affinity to Jarrell) who offered substantive critiques without resorting to criticism as powdery snow for everyone to ski easily down hill on, which generally passes for criticism today. From his critical perspective, he can venture into observing his surroundings and making statements about them. Those surroundings are often the world of visual art (Burt offers meditative poems on Pierre Bonnard, Gerhard Richter, Franz Kline, Richard Diebenkorn, and Christine Willcox—fellow instructor at Macalester), the world of literature (a very witty piece on the maddening presence and influence of John Ashbery, a piece dedicated to Jorge Guillen, and a sestina dedicated to Barcelonan poet Jaime Gil de Biedma) and the world of pop culture (pieces on the New York club scenes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lindsay Whalen of the WNBA). The result of “Parallel Play” is that it provides very little biographical detail about Burt’s life, a detail which some readers might find disheartening in a book of poetry. However, a careful reading might point out that Burt reveals much of his thought life, if not his felt life. In this there is a kind of honesty by which a reader can come to know him. For sometimes it is not necessary to know the details of an individual’s life, but to see how that individual thinks, in order to see the individual’s passion and suffering. Perhaps the thought life even emphasizes a speaker’s plight because with the speaker’s awareness, it brings the attention of a reader to the speaker’s recognition of his/her circumstances (which is likely to be more sympathetic than one who is blindly trapped by his/her circumstances).

In “After Callimachus (3)” Burt invokes Conopion, the workmanlike Athenian, who was charged with burying the ashes of Phocion, after Phocion was unjustly charged by his enemies among the Athenians and sentenced to die by ingesting poison (similar to Socrates). In Burt’s poem, Conopion is able to sleep without worrying about the misfortune of others who may, in fact, be close by while Conopion slumbers.

In “After Callimachus (4)” Burt invokes Eudemus, the Greek astronomer and mathematician, who pared back his life in order to avoid debt—which came with mortal penalty. In both (3) and (4) Burt is taking contemporary America to task (through showing parallels to our esteemed Athenian friends). In (3) Burt does this for the American tendency to dismiss the cries for help presenting themselves to Americans on a daily basis. In (4) raises his critical hackles by reminding Americans that in another time, debt came with the penalty of death, yet with Americans taking on more and more debt (and the Congress voting to raise the debt ceiling for the government again just this week), Burt is slyly pointing at what Kevin Phillips in his new book American Theocracy calls one of the three most clear and present dangers facing America today, American indebtedness.

With such a voracious appetite as Burt’s, it is not surprising that Burt’s poetic/critical eye turns to his own generation. In Parallel Play Burt seems to be invoking the notion that his own generation is too self-absorbed, too willing to move within the territory it has colonized in the past. It is engaged in “parallel play” without any intersecting points of mutual contamination (with infants one always has to make mention of germs). Neither with work outside one’s oeuvre or with the past. For this reason, Burt is traveling the time-tested path of those many who have trod before him, that is, namely, if one wants to make art, then one must deal with something larger, something outside of the self. If all one wants to do is retell stories of one’s self, then one should join any number of support groups. Burt is reiterating the longstanding note that art should aim to offer more than personal accounts. It should be ambitious. In this, Burt counters the idea that there is no obligation to what art should be anymore. After all, “It’s all good.”

The “it’s-all-good” mentality is, of course, what the critic fights against. It nullifies his/her existence, his/her perspective on the world. It figures in strongly in the crusade against progressivism. Why should anything be better, after all, if it’s all good? [This is the primary reason I am turning down any invitation I get to heaven; there’s nowhere to send back the food.] Burt in his discussions of politics similarly favors the progressive. His homage to the late senator Paul Wellstone was one of his most affecting pieces, placing him firmly in line, again, with Callimachus, who was known primarily for his elegies.

Thanksgiving 2002

The government froze, and then
we found it hard to breathe.
Bus stops where no one spoke
remembered other queues,
where flyers underfoot
dissolved like garlands, or
the ghosts of a belief—
of willful false belief.
Once we were on TV;
we counted and we lost.
Apparently permanent clouds
blew in, and funereal bells,
and then the freezing rain.


This month the lots of rain
meant thumbs down and warped wood,
doorbells in Cottage Grove.
How often can you trust?
Twenty-nine percent
of those eligible, I
salute you. Sunset struck
late voters from their lots.
The people I came to like,
who slogged through wind all day,
and traffic, could almost drown
in one another’s thin air.


Against the morning air,
I sat in our car and cried.
Heart, do not give your heart;
better to follow a sport,
where telling the truth won’t hurt.
For how could you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbor’s eyes?

Only the fine art
of replacing the pins on a map
could save us, and even that
seemed almost entirely lost.


Obscured and almost lost
amid commercial hosts,
the Origins poster read
Win the Cold War. We tried
a water-painting kit,
whose strokes fade like applause.
The last drawbridge outdoors
stood lonely, and to scale
it seemed almost antique,
while taxicabs passed, and vans,
unwilling to give, backed up,
sounding their basso horns.


The fabled Gates of Horn . . .
On the way to their airport, the glow-
ing glow-in-the-dark signs point
straight up before the night,
Who owns the state? Who will?
Jets boom and stagger west.
Drivers, you hope for more
and self-sufficient lives.
When you are sick or alone
or miss the city, what
will you discover you want?
What will you tell the men
who own your roads by then?

i.m. Paul Wellstone (1944-2002)

Those who were in Minnesota in 1990 when Paul Wellstone drove his bus across the state and captured the imagination of youthful voters (far from the 29% of the electorate whom Burt references here) recognize how Wellstone and his ideals did arrive through the Gates of Horn. He won despite being outspent 7 to 1 in that election by the incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz. While some might see this piece as simply a lament for poor sports and losers of elections, it registers as a worthy successor to Callimachus. It is elevated, with classical references to the Gates of Horn. It employs the formal sensibility of repeating the main noun in the last line of the previous stanza in the first line of the following stanza. It quotes Yeats’s “To a Friend Whose Life Has Come to Nothing.” In short, it is felt as an elegy, not only for Wellstone, but an elegy for a lost era of political idealism.

If there is still any home for the ideal, it is in art. Burt’s poems on Kline and Diebenkorn, found here and here find Burt not bashful about abstraction when dealing with art that seems to call to its viewer to ponder it. The Diebenkorn piece in question (found here is described by Burt via one of its many possible interpretations. The fact that Burt uses traditional end rhymes with the piece suggests that even in the realm of the far-flung, the pointedly abstract (such as with Diebenkorn), there are classical moorings through which one may enter the piece. Burt is very much aware of similar nods he makes in the direction of traditional form (such as with “Six Noodles” the aforementioned sestina on Ashbery and eating out). This tendency reminds one of older Donald Revell a little, only instead of the meandering sestina (such as in Erasures), Burt’s focus is on end rhyme and refrain. Therefore, it is not surprising that Revell is one of the blurbers for the book.

Some readers may find Parallel Play a little too icy, too clinically detached. For them, Burt’s observations and commentary are not their kind of prescription for what ails this age. At times the language is difficult. The turns of phrase can circle back on themselves and then move with blinding speed a la Ashbery. The intelligence on display may unsettle for the time being the way Ashbery unsettles (though Burt is far more penetrable in my opinion), but the uneasy feeling it provides clearly marks Burt’s work as something that aspires to be art. It may not be meant for easy access like American Idol where everyone is urged to get up and become a star. Catching up to the intelligence of the poet could very well be one of the hallmarks of difficult poetry.

I am reminded of Forrest Gander’s insight that he offered after his reading here in February when someone asked him to comment on the tension between the intelligence displayed in his subject matter and the strong emotional current that also resides there. Gander said, “Emotion endures.” I suspect, if pushed further, Gander may have conceded that in his work, his emotion needs his intelligence as much as his intelligence needs his emotion in order for it to endure. Emotion that justifies its own existence solely because of its presence quickly and easily devolves into bathos, into “parallel play,” where anything goes and “it’s all good.”

Can the poetry of critique endure? Or after the age it critiques floats by, will it cease to be pertinent as well? By referring to ancient Greek writers, much of whose work presumably does not exist anymore, Burt seems to suggest that such a question doesn’t matter.

Will Burt’s specific “steely” reign endure? Perhaps in a time in this country where thinking seems to have so little worth compared to doing [read invading(?)], it is a foregone conclusion that Burt will not be championed in the end and will be described by the Ovids of our time as “not having the right stuff.” However, Parallel Play serves as an invitation to another place and another time where other possibilities are vivid. For this, it should be cherished. It resists the natural temptation to move towards hermeticism, to avoid the contentment that comes with being self-contained. In the 50s American poetry moved towards confessionalism. Is it any coincidence that in a similarly conservative time when critique is not ventured very much (see the consequences for Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame), there is a similar turning away from the world towards the personal space? Burt’s biggest contribution in Parallel Play is showing readers that they don’t have to turn away from the outside world. Readers can always turn to the past or an abstract landscape (where politics never goes because it never matters that much) for solace in such a time.

Though there may be much dispute about our being in a hermetic age, it would serve us well to heed Burt’s admonition about our propensity for parallel play. Otherwise, the confessionalists will dare to return, and we will have to brace ourselves to look at lots of poopy diapers.


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