Poet and Literary Critic, Stephen Burt, on “Why people need poetry …”


“… John Keats … in his most mysterious, perhaps, poem. It’s mysterious because it’s probably unfinished, he probably left it unfinished, and because it might be meant for a character in a play, but it might just be Keats’ thinking about what his own writing, his handwriting, could do, and in it I hear … mortality, and I hear the power of older poetic techniques, and I have the feeling, you might have the feeling, of meeting even for an instant, almost becoming, someone else from long ago, someone quite memorable.

“‘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.'”

Excerpt from the transcript of Stephen Burt’s TED Talk (video below) on “Why People Need Poetry.”

Stephen Burt, named by the New York Times “… one of the most influential poetry critics of his time,” is a professor of English at Harvard University. Among his more recent books  is The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard University Press, 2010). He also wrote Something Understood: Essays and Poetry for Helen Vandler (University of Virginia, 2009). Vandler, an American literary critic, is also a professor of English at Harvard.

Burt’s most recent collection of poetry is Belmont (Graywolf Press, 2009).  Here is a link to one of his poems, Butterfly with Parachute. It’s from the Belmont collection, which was a Publishers Weekly Top 10 Poetry Book of Spring 2013. It was named by NPR as one of the best books of 2013.

Photograph: Burt at the 2010 National Book Critics Awards by David Shankbone under CC-BY 3.0 license.