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The power of poetry: Stephen Burt at TEDGlobal 2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“I read poetry all the time, I write about poetry frequently, and I take poems apart to see how they work,” says Stephen Burt as he takes the TEDGlobal stage. “I’m a word person. I understand the world best and most fully through words, rather than pictures or numbers. When I have a new experience, I’m frustrated until I can try to put that experience into words.”

Burt is here to explain some of the reasons he became a poetry critic and an English professor. For one thing, he says, it was because poems made him feel more — happier, sadder, more alive. He wanted to figure out why, to pick apart these word concoctions to understand their power. In doing so, he realized that there are some things at which poetry excels. For one thing, helping readers understand and accept that we’re all going to die. The audience laughs, somewhat ruefully.

He proceeds to talk us through some poems, all of which deal with life and mortality. For instance, the first poem he ever memorized, A.E. Housman’s From far, from eve and morning, a piece that has appealed to science fiction writers across the ages. “The poem itself plays up the fact that we die by exaggerating the speed of our lives,” he says. “A few years on earth become one speech, one breath.”

Next, a poem that Burt says “changed what I liked, what I read, and what I felt I could read as an adult.” It might not make any sense to us at all, he warns. The Garden is by the “language poet” Rae Armantrout. “It’s about the Garden of Eden, and the biblical story of the Fall, in which sex as we know it and death and guilt come into the world at the same time,” he says. Burt picks apart the poem, pointing out the nuances and subtle details contained within, in a mini-masterclass of analysis and criticism. “How do I know I’m right?” he asks cheerfully. “In this case, I emailed the poet a draft of my talk and she said ‘yeah, that’s about it.'” The audience chuckles and Burt beams at us delightedly. “But usually you can’t know. And that’s okay! All we can do is listen and guess and see if poems can bring you what you need. If you’re wrong about a part of a poem, nothing bad will happen.”


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

On to Wallace Stevens’ The Brave Man, a poem inviting us to meditate on life and death, reminding us that one day the sun will rise on a world without us.

“Poems and their patterns show us not what someone did, but what it was like to be a person like that, so afraid, so anxious, so inquisitive, so goofy, preposterous, so brave,” Burt says. “That’s why poems can seem at once so durable, so personal, so ephemeral.” And these days, it’s easier than ever before to find poems that resonate, that help you understand how you feel or introduce you to ways of being or different types of people.

He concludes by reading a poem by John Keats, reciting from memory with a beatific look on his face. The meaning of this one? “It might just be Keats thinking about his own writing,” he says. “In it, at least, I hear mortality and the power of older poetic techniques.”

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is —
I hold it towards you.
With that, Burt holds out his hand to the audience, with a broad smile and a glint in his eye. Lovely.