A Harvard English professor and poet offers a guide to reading poems and poets on their own merits rather than as "Poetry," a high-art concept that scares many people away from a literary form they should be able to enjoy.
By breaking down the truly important elements of poetry—not the ones relevant to poetry as form, but of poems as emotional entities designed to delight, to inspire thought, to accompany feeling, to express, to document human experience—Burt might just have here a book well-equipped to change the status quo, to make an actual contribution resulting in more people enjoying more poetry, not only as a cultural or intellectual exercise, but as a human practice, something we do daily for our own well-being and enjoyment of life ... Her poetry choices are unexpected and well-matched to her arguments, and there is a lot that is new here in comparison to other books about the enjoyment and understanding of poems. It also helps that her narrative voice is that of a friend, as Burt assumes the role of a coach supporting us in our quest to find the right poetry for us ... there are some empowering concepts and more than a few compelling arguments should you decide to approach Don’t Read Poetry . . . with an open mind, a gracious ear, and a loving heart.
What you notice first about her charming book Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems is its range. Shakespeare and Dickinson and Yeats are here, but so are Li Bai and Lorine Niedecker and Juan Felipe Herrera ... Having hooked the reader with feelings and character, she now gets into the carpentry of poetry and the way the pattern of a poem can reflect the grandeur of the universe ... She also demolishes the silly distinction between formal poems and free verse ... Burt is a delightful companion who reminds us that poems go down a lot better if we read them out loud and slowly.
Unlike countless guides already in circulation, [Burt's] omits perennial subjects such as the poetic line, a brief history of verse, or the resources of rhythm and imagery ... Burt lacks the appetite or, it may be, the aptitude for characterizing poems she actively dislikes. Instead, Don’t Read Poetry is an unremitting geyser of praise for the many different ways a poem can engage readers ... Burt manages...transitions with ease and rapidity. Still, because she tends to cite only one or two stanzas at a time, her comparisons of poets or poems are often superficial ... Burt can sound ingratiating, as when she hastens to assure readers that 'poetry' as a concept doesn’t appeal to everyone ... She also can sound too apologetic, frequently interrupting herself with qualifiers ... If Don’t Read Poetry had hazarded more judgments about specific types of poems—appraising and not merely praising their structural, technical and thematic content—then Burt would have produced a much finer book.