Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Burt


Outer Humor and Inner Seriousness: On Tom C. Hunley’s The State That Springfield Is In

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Tom C Hunley – The State That Sprinfield Is InIn Close Calls with Nonsense, Stephen Burt, at times, concerns himself with the lyric I. According to Burt, in the past, the lyric I represented a whole person, but in today’s contemporary American poetry, the lyric I (and maybe even the I in any contemporary poem) is not whole, it’s fragmented, it’s unwholly. In The State That Springfield Is In (Split Lip Press, 2016), Tom C. Hunley takes this splintered poetic I into a new arena. Hunley uses characters from one of the all-time great tv shows (especially animated tv shows), The Simpsons, as the constituent parts of his poetic I, his “inner life” (“Notes” 65). Additionally, he often illustrates the inner fragmented lives of The Simpsons characters he portrays, which is probably where the fragmented lyric I is most noticeable. Not only does Hunley become the manifestation of Springfield, but he makes allusions to literary texts and uses poetic forms that have also shaped the constituent parts of a contemporary poetic I who grew up watching The Simpsons like a religion, as many of us did and as Hunley surely did.

The State That Springfield Is In opens with “Edna Krabappel,” a poem that teaches the reader how to read the poems and what to expect: the poems move dialectically (between characters, within a character, or between a character and Hunley), and the poems will sometimes use direct quotes from The Simpsons. In “Edna Krabappel,” the poem acts as a call and response between Hunley speaking for the grade-school teacher Edna Krabappel and uses direct quotes from what Bart Simpson wrote on the chalkboard at the beginning of every episode. Hunley, however, is not appropriating the quotes just to use them for content, but instead, he is showing how they are part of his internal makeup or to highlight internal conflicts within a character, or himself. The final two lines of the poem, “Can we trash the ribbons and teach self-confidence instead of self-esteem? / They are laughing at me not with me” (with Krabappel’s line in plain face and Bart’s in italics), make it clear that this collection, on one level, will be dealing with the issues of identity and perceived identity.

Another example is in the two-sectioned cento poem “Barney Gumble” (33), where Hunley uses lines Barney spoke in The Simpsons and juxtaposes them with “excerpts from AA’s Big Book and Rational Recovery’s Small Book” (67) to contrast the sobering “Barnard Gumble” in Alcoholics Anonymous with the Barney Gumble who is consistently drunk and a more-than-regular patron at Moe’s Tavern. The quotes are so seamlessly worked in, one can’t distinguish Barney’s quotes from the quotes from the alcoholic-recovery books, and one gets a better understanding of the conflicts Barney, and many alcoholics, deal with on a daily basis. Barney is a person who was once a good and sober student until he drank a beer that turned him into an alcoholic with issues of self-worth, and he deals with these issues daily, as the poem suggests.

Another example of the conflicted I appears in “Moe Szyslak” (17-18). In this poem, Moe the bartender is on the phone with the “Listen Lady,” who is Marge Simpson “in one of her many temporary jobs” (66). Moe, after being sidetracked about prank callers, claims he is looking for advice on how to give “advice / like a bartender ought to be doing.” Moe is trying to improve himself, and if you know Moe, there’s a lot of improvement that can be had, which we learn a little about in this poem. During this phone call, however, he keeps talking and we never hear from the Listen Lady. We hear Moe identify himself as “Moe, of Moe’s Tavern” (so he won’t be confused with a prank caller), state his reason for calling, but then he starts analyzing himself, “I’m always fightin’ / with myself, that’s my problem.” He even briefly finds a remedy, “Somehow you just gotta / surrender to your own complexities, like that poet / who said ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.” And so he keeps talking and analyzing, almost like a poet writing on the page jumping from association to association as he/she tries to better understand him-/herself while writing for an audience. This appears to be a cue for Hunley’s readers, too. Perhaps, Hunley is using the mask of Moe, some quotes from Moe, and a perfectly rendered voice of Moe to tell us about his own internal conflicts, such as “when you fight with yourself / you’re gonna lose, bet on it” or “some days you just don’t believe in nothin’,” which is also a conflict that arises with Reverend Lovejoy in the poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy.” But with Moe, his dialectical movement is within himself, despite talking on the phone with the Listen Lady (who is also a split persona, as he is really Marge). The reader’s expectations are subverted here because we expect a response from the Listen Lady, but it doesn’t come. Instead Moe battles with internal feelings and his outward appearance and actions by way of a monologue. He talks and listens to himself only to realize he will lose. As a result, one wonders what would happen if he let the Listen Lady enter the conversation, one wonders what would happen if he let someone into his life, one wonders if we (the reader) need another person in our life to have a conversation (a dialectic banter) in order to better understand ourselves. We also realize how fragmented Moe is, as he is more than just a bartender, he is also a person seeking love, a person who judges other people, a hero, a person of ridicule, a former boxer, as well as his Dutch, Italian, Arab, and Polish ancestries which are all “at war / inside my [Moe’s] bloodstream).” Indeed, he is large and contains multitudes, like Burt’s contemporary lyric I.

Not only does this poem have dialectic movement between Moe and the listener and between one’s inner and outer selves, but there’s also the movement between serious and humorous, as with many of the poems in this collection. I’ve just pointed out how serious this poem is, but it’s also hilarious. I laughed so many times through it, and I probably laughed even harder because Hunley rendered Moe so perfectly. This type of movement recalls Robert Frost who said about the poem, “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.” I think most of these poems achieve the latter, even in the meta poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-46), which takes on the most serious and philosophic questions about whether or not there is a god or divine creator.

In “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-6), the Reverend is giving a sermon about god and Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons. Much like Moe’s phone call, Reverend Lovejoy is thinking out loud to a captured audience, his congregation, who, like the Listen Lady, do not respond. The poem opens with Reverend Lovejoy confronting the conflict of Matt Groening who created the “comic strip” Life in Hell but who also created The Simpsons. This divine creator created two universes, and Reverend Lovejoy is in one of them, a Reverend who is aware of his fictional existence but who also believes in a Christian god. That’s now two conflicts. There’s also the conflict that Groening “himself [is] an agnostic,” which is a paradox. This spirals into the Reverend saying he is “not sure I believe in myself either.” We have an existential poem on many levels with many gods. Not only is Reverend Lovejoy a fragmented lyric I, but the creator (god and Groening) is too. Not to mention “that Matt / Groening only penned four episodes of The Simpsons,” and “so it appears that Apu and his 700 million fellow Hindus / may be correct, friends, that there are many creators,” meaning there are many writers for The Simpsons as well as many gods. The existential confusion, the multiple lyric gods, becomes more confusing when we see that the character “Mr. Burns / proclaimed himself ‘The New God’,” and when we see that Lisa Simpson “created a tiny world whose inhabitants built / a graven image of her.” The fictional characters (who were created by Groening and multiple writers who were created by a god or gods) probably believe they were created by god, then become gods themselves, and Reverend Lovejoy is trying to sort through all of this using his knowledge of the self-contained world of Springfield that he lives in, while also being aware that he is fictional. In the end it conjures up what many of us have thought about gods and creation, including Plato and his allegory of the cave, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, as well as the movie The Matrix. And all of this seriousness is mixed in with laugh-out-loud humor.

By the end of The State That Springfield Is In, we can understand why Hunley used this cultural phenomenon of a tv show to write about his “own scarred, departed youth” (65) as we must wonder whether we watch The Simpsons or if The Simpsons watch us. Plus, does any Simpsons fan really know what state Springfield is in?

Springfield State Flag




Hunley, Tom C. The State That Springfield Is In. Richmond, VA: Split Lip Press, 2016. Print.//


The Thought-Farts in Rae Armantrout’s Versed and Elliptical Poetry’s Velvet Rope

A discussion began with a few of my friends on Facebook on Wednesday. It started because of these two PBS Newshour interviews: the interview with Rae Armantrout on the PBS Newshour and the interview with Benjamin Saenz. It’s the first interview I’m concerned with.

Rae Armantrout's VersedBut first an introduction. Here’s is the opening sentence I was going to use for an earlier version of a book review about Rae Armantrout’s Versed:

Each year there are five books every poet should read: The Pushcart Prize, The Best American Poetry, the winner of The National Book Award, the winner of The Pulitzer Prize, and your friends’ books if any of them release a book.

I ordered Rae Armantrout’s Versed about 15 minutes after it was announced as the Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry. Two months later the book arrived. That’s a good sign because it means the publisher sold out and had to print a whole bunch more. That means people are reading poetry, and that is always good. Always. However, books like Versed are a reason why people shy away from poetry.

Poetry as AlgebraYes, all of us Americans were all taught the wrong way to read a poem. It’s not an algebra equation – Symbol X plus symbol Y equals meaning Z. Nope. Poetry is an experience and the poem is a shared experience between writer and reader. This experience can be shared by way of a lyrical poem, a narrative poem, or a poem of dialogue or conversation. Conversation? Conversation with who?

Stephen Burt coined the term “Elliptical poems” in his review of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes. You can read the review here: Most of what he has to say about Ellipticism occurs in the first few paragraphs and the last paragraph.

When I define Elliptical poetry, I use the word “conversation.” An Elliptical poem is like a conversation the poet is having with her/himself or with a few other people, but you, the reader, are only allowed to hear a few random fragments from that conversation.

As mentioned in other posts, good poetry has leaps. A good conversation also has leaps. The difference is that a poem has a larger audience, so the leap must be understood, felt, or intuited by that larger audience.

Velvet Rope with BouncersWith Elliptical poetry, as mentioned, the conversation is with fewer people, and only those in the know can fill in the leaps. They are behind the poem’s velvet rope, but us readers on the other side of the rope feel left out. Some of us so desperately want to get in we’ll do anything to or for the bouncer guarding the rope. Others will realize, this is bullshit, and find a better bar and have conversations, play darts, or shoot pool – you know, do something real. Do something of experience.

Rae Armantrout also makes a definition for Elliptical poetry that I like:

Many of my poems – not all of them – but many of them are written in separate sections that are divided perhaps by numbers or perhaps by asterisks, and they are separate moments or separate thoughts that are juxtaposed, and I’m interested in the juxtapositions and the kind of friction that bringing in material from diverse situations or disparate realms can create.


This has the same problems, or can and does in Versed, as the Elliptical poets with their velvet rope.

In Joan Houlihan’s interview with Paul Lake, Only Connect: A Conversation With Paul Lake, Lake directly gets to the problem with Elliptical poetry:

Reading an Elliptical poem provides an experience similar to channel-surfing, where a scene from a classic movie is suddenly juxtaposed to a cartoon, then a crime drama, a deodorant commercial, a rap video, a sixties sitcom. “That’s exactly right,” the argument runs; “that’s simply postmodern reality, accurately rendered.” Well, in fact, it’s not: it’s only the reality of channel-surfing rendered. When we as living human animals make love, engage in conversation with friends, talk to our doctor, work at our job, watch our children compete in a race, we move to completely different rhythms, with real narrative flow and emotional peaks and valleys, beginnings and endings, with real consequences, as when your doctor tells you that you have a terrible disease or a lover tells you he or she still loves you at the end of a difficult period.


Rae Armantrout’s poems in Versed often do exactly what Lake says Elliptical poems do. The poems makes juxtapositions that can only be made sense of by a few people – those who watched the channel surfing. Or to the point,  those behind the rope.

So now I have to throw out a disclaimer. I only read half of Versed. I gave up for three reasons. One, I felt left out. There was no experience there for me to be involved in. I wasn’t in the in. I wasn’t allowed behind the rope. For instance:

A Resemblance

As a word is
mostly connotation,

matter is mostly


(The same loneliness
that separates me

from what I call the
“the world.”)


Quiet, ragged
skirt of dust

encircling a ceramic



“Are you happy now?”


Would I like
a vicarious happiness?


Though I suspect
yours of being defective,


I’d like to rewrite some of those lines: The same exclusion / that separates me // from what Ellipticists call / “the poem.”

Two, some of the poems were just plain bad. They weren’t paying attention to language. The opening poem, which tends to be one of the strongest poems in a book, is just bad. Like open-mic bad. Like a sophomore in college writing the poem five minutes before he has to read at open-mic bad. Here’s the opening poem:


Click here to vote
on who’s ripe
for a makeover

or takeover

in this series pilot.

Votes are registered
at the server
and sent back

as results.

Click here to transform

into digestion.

From this point on,
it’s a lattice
of ends disguised as means:

the strangler fig,

the anteater.

I’ve developed the ability
to revise
what I’m waiting for

so that letter
becomes dinner

while the contrapuntal
of the Chinese elm leaves


That poem is filled with ennui. It’s filled with ennui because she’s not paying attention to language. It’s like the writing of a sophomore college student trying to be clever, but the poem is not clever and it’s exclusive.

And then there is reason three – the reason the Pulitzer Prize committee gave for awarding Versed with the prize. They said:

[Versed is] a book striking for its wit and linguistic inventiveness, offering poems that are often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading.

Velvet Rope“Thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading”?! That’s what every poem does. That’s what every comedy routine does. That’s what every piece of art does and every piece of music. How is that unique? What they meant to say was that it is clever and sometimes it takes a while to calculate and get at the poem’s meaning, which leads me back to an earlier point about poetry as algebra. Or, it means there are thought-bombs, because after you get behind the velvet rope at last call and are finally able to read the poems, you realize these poems are just thoughts that bombed.

George Carlin's Brain DroppingsWhat we need are poems that make sense to everybody on the surface-level first, the experiential level, and then the thought-bombs, the epiphanies, the shared experiences, and the common understandings will naturally come. The poems in Versed, however, are nothing more than “clever” thought-farts, and they are only clever to those behind the velvet rope. I like George Carlin’s Brain Droppings much more.

As Alissa Valles says in “Post-Homage”:

I admire the “startling new voice”
and the “linguistic tour-de-force”
but how about something to read before
an operation?
How about a few lines to engrave on a ring or a stone?


I can’t believe I just spent this much time writing about bad poetry. I think it’s wasteful time to spend so much time with bad poems. William Carlos Williams once said, “If you don’t like a poem, move on. There are plenty of other good poems to read.” But in writing about Versed and its collection of thought-farts, I realized Burt may not approve of Elliptical poetry.

In Burt’s book review of Smokes, he says Elliptical poets “are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television” and “Wheeler imagines readers who have to be won over, with games and codes, and hints and tricks, when they visit the private, satellite-dish-threatened, media-savvy house of her psyche. I wonder what it’s like after the guests have gone home?” (, I wonder if Burt actually believed in Elliptical poetry. I mean, does television thoroughly entertain? That’s a slight at Elliptical poetry. And so is “I wonder what it’s like after the guests have gone home?” I don’t know Burt’s whole history behind Ellipticism, but those two quotes make me think he wasn’t for it.

By the way, I wonder what will happen to Armantrout’s poems after the judges go home?

I wish instead the judges and Burt had pushed for “The New Thing” poems. Those look interesting. I’m going to have to investigate that and Burt’s newest book: Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2009).

In the two Burt essays I’ve read, I like the way he thinks. However, I don’t like the one decision he made for the Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Versed. It should be a verb. For example, after you have finished reading a bad collection of poems, Ashton Kutcher can come out and say, “You’ve been Versed!”

Versedit’s just more thought-farts from another “clever” Elliptical poet with little imagination and much exclusiveness.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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