Stephen Burt

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Stephen Burt
Stephen Burt NBCC 2011 Shankbone.jpg
Burt announcing the 2010 National Book Critics Circle award finalists in criticism.
Language English
Nationality American
Alma mater Harvard University;
Yale University
Genre Literary Criticism
Notable works Randall Jarrell and His Age;
"The New Things";
"elliptical poetry"

Stephen Burt is a literary critic, poet and a professor, who teaches at Harvard University. The New York Times has called him "one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation." [1]

Literary-critical work: new categories of contemporary poetry[edit]

Elliptical poetry[edit]

Burt received significant attention for coining the term "elliptical poetry" in a 1998 book review of Susan Wheeler's book Smokes in Boston Review magazine. This is how Burt defines the elliptical poet:

Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-"postmodern": they have read (most of them) Stein's heirs, and the "language writers," and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively "poetic") diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning "I am an X, I am a Y." Ellipticism's favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden. . .The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.[2]

Burt also adds that Elliptical poets are "good at describing information overload."[3] In addition to calling the subject of Burt's review, Susan Wheeler, an important elliptical poet, Burt also lists Liam Rector's The Sorrow of Architecture (1984), Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters (1995), Mark Ford's Landlocked (1992), and Mark Levine's debut, Debt (1993) as "some groundbreaking and definitively Elliptical books."[4]

The New Thing[edit]

In 2009, Burt wrote an essay called "The New Things" in which he invented a new category of American contemporary poets, which he calls "The New Thing." Burt explains that these poets derive their new style from the likes of William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Gertrude Stein and George Oppen. This is how Burt loosely defines "The New Thing" poets:

The poets of the New Thing observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term “minimalism” comes up in discussions of their work. . .The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit. . .The new poetry, the new thing, seeks, as Williams did, well-made, attentive, unornamented things. It is equally at home (as he was) in portraits and still lifes, in epigram and quoted speech; and it is at home (as he was not) in articulating sometimes harsh judgments, and in casting backward looks. The new poets pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism—fidelity to a material and social world. They follow Williams’s “demand,” as the critic Douglas Mao put it, “both that poetry be faithful to the thing represented and that it be a thing in itself.” They are so bound up with ideas of durable thinghood that we can name the tendency simply by capitalizing: the New Thing. . . Reference, brevity, self-restraint, attention outside the self, material objects as models, Williams and his heirs as predecessors, classical lyric and epigram as precedents: all these, together, constitute the New Thing.[5]

Poets for whom Burt claims that "The New Thing" label fits include Rae Armantrout, Michael O'Brien, Justin Marks, Elizabeth Treadwell, and Graham Foust.[6]


In addition to his notable essays for the Boston Review, Burt has also written for The New York Times Book Review, Poetry Review, Slate, The Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and the Yale Review.

He has a significant interest in the work of the poet/critic Randall Jarrell, and Burt's book Randall Jarrell and His Age re-evaluates Jarrell's importance as a poet. The book won the Warren-Brooks Award in 2002. In explaining the aim of his book, Burt wrote, "Many readers know Jarrell as the author of several anthology poems (for example, 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner'), a charming book or two for children, and a panoply of influential reviews. This book aims to illuminate a Jarrell more ambitious, more complex, and more important than that."[7] In 2005, he also edited a book of Jarrell's critical essays, Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden.

In addition to writing books about poets and poetry, Burt has published three books of his own poetry, Popular Music (1999), which won the Colorado Prize for Poetry, Parallel Play (2006) and Belmont (2013).

On occasion, he has been known to write for a popular audience on Slate and The New Yorker, including an article about X-Men: Days of Future Past in the voice of Kitty Pryde. [8]

Academic career[edit]

Burt earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Yale in 2000 before joining the faculty at Macalester College, his first academic post, from 2000-2007. In 2007, he joined the teaching staff at Harvard University, where he became a tenured professor in 2010.




  • Burt, Stephen (1999). Popular music. Fort Collins: Center for Literary Publishing/University Press of Colorado. 
  • Parallel Play (Graywolf Press, 2006)
  • Burt, Stephen. Belmont. 

List of poems[edit]

Title Year First published Reprinted/collected
Hermit crab 2013 Burt, Stephen (August 5, 2013). "Hermit crab". The New Yorker. 89 (23): 28. 

Literary criticism[edit]


  1. ^ Oppenheimer, Mark. "Poetry's Cross-Dressing Kingmaker." The New York Times Magazine. 14 September 2012.
  2. ^ Stephen Burt's Review of Smokes by Susan Wheeler
  3. ^ Stephen Burt's Review of Smokes by Susan Wheeler
  4. ^ Stephen Burt's Review of Smokes by Susan Wheeler
  5. ^ Burt, Stephen. "The New Thing." Boston Review. May/June 2009.
  6. ^ Burt, Stephen. "The New Thing." Boston Review. May/June 2009.
  7. ^ Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
  8. ^ Why Is Wolverine Doing All the Stuff I Already Did?

External links[edit]