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The Manifesto Man

Posted by Joshua Glenn  October 3, 2012 02:59 PM

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Renowned literary critic, poet, and Harvard professor Stephen Burt — whom I got to know, back in the day, when he used to contribute to the IDEAS section — has been busy lately!

Not only did he pose, at a cafe table in Harvard Square, for a huge, kissable photo illustrating a September 16 New York Times Magazine profile subtitled "Poetry’s Cross-Dressing Kingmaker," but he contributed a manifesto ("Without Evidence") to a September 18 collection titled The Critical Pulse: Thirty-Six Credos by Contemporary Critics (Jeffrey J. Williams and Heather Steffen, eds.) ... and Burt is also writing another manifesto, this month, for a forthcoming collection titled Should I Go to Graduate School?.

"Without Evidence" — one of several essays that Burt has written, in recent years, using the same title — makes an argument for his frequent preference for resorting to a "generalized and fragmentary form when making claims about reading and writing and art in general, in part because I do not know, for such claims, what evidence would suffice."

For example, Burt notes, the poets Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams disagree on a fundamental issue. Williams's form and tone signals to the reader, Burt says, that societies and language can change, that we don't know what we will discover next. Frost's form and tone, on the other hand, signals that nothing can change, and nothing improve. "When I say that I would like to side with Williams," Burt notes, "I do not mean that the weight of historical, nor of literary-historical, evidence has already convinced me to do so." Like a positively charged Bartleby the Scrivener, Burt would simply prefer to side with Williams in this debate. The most appropriate form and tone for this sort of prefer-to criticism [my term, not Burt's], he suggests, is a generalized and fragmentary one. A fine argument for aphoristic criticism, indeed.

As for this month's manifesto, "Should You Go to Graduate School?", Burt has elected to write it in an even more avant-garde form: a choose-your-own adventure. For example: If you answer YES to "Are you considering a Ph. D. program in the humanities, such as literature or art history," you are directed to a subroutine which begins with the question, "Do you like teaching?" — whereas if you instead answer YES to "Are you considering an MFA in a literary art, such as poetry, fiction or 'creative nonfiction,'" you are instead directed to a subroutine which begins with the question, "Do you expect that your MFA program will lead, as professional degrees (med school, law school, education school) are designed to lead, to a full-time job (in this case, teaching)?" And so forth. Useful stuff — I wish I'd had a Virgil like Stephen Burt to guide me through the Inferno of grad school decision-making.

Phew! Despite his NYTM profile and tenured Harvard gig, Burt is not resting on his laurels. I am excited to see what he does next month...

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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