The Racist Trope of Stephanie Burt

So I wonder what readers would think if they began reading a review that opened like this:

Jazz is for everyone, but it can’t be the same thing, or do the same thing, for everyone. Jazz  can console or upset, soothe or baffle, set the table for a fancy dinner or kick the table over and demand that we start again. It depends how you hear jazz, and it depends on what piece. To quote a young performer, “the most dangerous thing about how we treat jazz is how we let only old black people have it.” What’s true for jazz in general is no less true for particular kinds of techniques and forms. And if that’s true for modern music and for music in new forms, it’s no less true for music in earlier forms—blues most of all.

They might start looking for the exit. And yet this is exactly the rhetoric with which the Harvard professor, poet and critic Stephanie Burt begins her Slate review of Terrance Hayes. She writes:

“Poetry is for everyone, but it can’t be the same thing, or do the same thing, for everyone. Poems can console or upset, soothe or baffle, set the table for a fancy dinner or kick the table over and demand that we start again. It depends how you read them, and it depends what poem. As America’s youth poet laureate, Kara Jackson, has recently written, “the most dangerous thing about how we treat poetry is how we let only old white men have it.” What’s true for poetry in general is no less true for particular kinds of poems, techniques, and forms. And if that’s true for modern poems and for poems in new forms (say, those that resemble text messages), it’s no less true for poems in very traditional forms—the sonnet most of all.”

In quoting Kara Jackson, Burt dispenses with Jackson’s intent, and uses her quote as a springboard for an entirely different argument. The point Jackson was making was that in growing up, she wasn’t just exposed to the poetry of “old white men”, but to poetry written by poets like her—and speaking to her own experience. But Burt has an agenda. She uses Jackson’s quote as a stepping stone with which to overlay another layer of identity politics that is as old and trite as mid twentieth century politics: the association of artistic expression with skin color and political affiliation. It’s venal and insidious.

But first to Jackson’s comment. I get it. In a country that is struggling with racism to the degree that the United States is, where a black couple picnicking at a public park has a gun drawn on them, where racial profiling by police remains endemic, where the leaders of our institutions and government continue to fan racism for political gain, I do get it and I don’t doubt I would have written the same in her position. On the other hand, I hope she someday feels that Shakespeare doesn’t belong to old white men any more than Duke Ellington’s piano or Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet (simply because white men invented the instruments). But maybe she already does. Burt, on the other hand, is a Harvard professor and should know better.

Burt begins innocently enough, almost with something like a disclaimer, applying Jackson’s comment to “poetry in general”, then to techniques and forms, then to “modern poems” and “poems in new forms”.  All this begs the question: How exactly does Burt square “modern poems” and “poems in new forms” with “old white men”? Forgive me for thinking so, but Burt’s rhetoric is either poorly considered or disingenuous. Everybody knows who’s being referred to by “old white men” and it’s not Eminem, and it’s not “modern poets” writing in “new forms”. But Burt makes clear what she really means by old white men (and what we all already know), writing: “very traditional forms—the sonnet most of all”. Yes, all those sonnet writing, old, white men like Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Keats, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Anna Maria Smallpiece, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Christina Rosetti— Wait…what?

But anyway, during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, one of the rationalizations used to defend free verse was that traditional poetry was the work of the oppressor: white, European, imperialist, bourgeoisie males. Never mind all those women writing traditional poetry. Never mind that America’s first published poet was a woman. Never mind that the world’s first novel was written by a woman. Never mind that the earliest poet recorded by name was a woman. Never mind any of that. Traditional forms and techniques are the oppressive artifacts of old white men. And it’s not enough for woke critics like Burt to specify gender, but it’s also important to include age and skin color. And in case there was any room for doubt, Burt spends the next paragraph enumerating the sins of old white men: rhyming, couplets, the volta. Just to emphasize how old those white men and their “techniques” are,  Burt writes: “you probably also know that they’re centuries old.” So much for modern poets and techniques.

According to Burt, anyone who writes a modern sonnet is, by definition, ‘talking back to the past’ because, you know, you can’t write a traditional sonnet without being oppressed by the past. And having established the oppressive, old, white identity of a sonnet, Burt can then laud Terrance Hayes, a black poet, for having written “a primer on how to reshape an old form”.

To be clear, what bothers me is not that Terrance Hayes chooses to write free verse sonnets, but that Stephanie Burt chooses to laud Hayes’ poems as a rejection and reshaping of “old white” poetry. This is just as venal and insidious now as it was in the mid-20th century, and that’s because it associates artistic expression and medium with class, race and political ideology. There’s no question but that the content of a sonnet can be used for political ends, but the traditional medium of poetry—meter, rhyme and form—has nothing whatsoever to do with race, class or political affiliation. Traditional forms are a tool, no different from a piano or a trumpet.

And why is it venal and insidious? Because Burt’s comments perpetuate the very ideologies, like racism, that she’d surely claim to disown. She arbitrarily inserts identity politics into otherwise neutral modes of artistic expression and medium; such that choosing a mode of expression, no matter the artist’s race, is to affiliate oneself with a given political ideology. It is, among other things, a racist trope (why else mention skin color?) intended to exert control over the terms by which art is discussed and created. By negatively associating one kind of sonnet with old whites, her intent is to elevate the poetry of Terrance Hayes (insofar as he rejects the sonnet’s more traditional “white” medium). Frankly, Hayes’s poetry isn’t well-served if this is the only way Burt can find to compliment it.

Why associate a given mode of artistic medium and expression with gender and skin color? There’s simply no justification for it. Let artists, and young artists especially, decide for themselves how to use the artistic mediums available to them. Writing a Shakespearean Sonnet verses a Hayesian Sonnet is not a political/ideological statement. It’s a matter of artistic expression.

Leave the ideological tropes of the mid-twentieth century in the mid-twentieth century.