PN Review 211 - In Conversation with Dan Burt

PN Review 211 - May/June 2013

ALASTAIR BEDDOW: I imagine very few people have had a path through life quite like yours: you grew up in an immigrant family in Philadelphia, read English at Cambridge, have enjoyed a very successful career in law and business, and only latterly published your first full-length poetry collection, We Look Like This. Tell me, first, how and why you decided to read English at St John’s, Cambridge, where you are now an Honorary Fellow.

DAN BURT: Accidents both. I was a middling secondary school student, but a first-class tough, and an unlikely candidate for admission to even a third-rate US college. Nevertheless, a high school history teacher took an interest in me and sponsored my application to a small Philadelphia Catholic workingmen’s college, LaSalle, in whose night programme he taught. My first week there I fell in love with literature, especially English poetry. My grades improved, and three and a half years later LaSalle’s English faculty hoped I’d be their first graduate to study for a PhD in English at an Ivy League university.

Through high school and college I had worked at Pennsauken Meats, a butcher shop: thirty-five hours a week in term during the college years, sometimes more. That was enough of butchering. My father had handed down to me his fear of poverty, and I could not imagine risking livelihood and promotion on an English faculty’s opinion of me, rather than on something concrete. Law school was the default, white-collar career alternative, though I knew nothing about law, except that it held little sway where I grew up; its reach could be avoided for a price, and, sooner or later, there was a clear outcome by which you were measured.

So I was headed for law school for want of something better to do. An Englishman named John Eldergill, who taught at a minor British public school, was an exchange teacher at LaSalle my last year there. He had read English at Downing College, Cambridge. One day, in the faculty lounge, he asked if I’d thought about studying at Oxford or Cambridge. They were merely place names of the unapproachable. I had hardly travelled beyond Philadelphia, and the contiguous state of New Jersey. But playing poker, which I did a lot in high school, I always drew to an inside straight, and it seemed certain an Oxbridge credential could only help, so I asked him how to apply.

Had I written anything that might be publishable? I said perhaps, an essay on T.S. Eliot for an honours seminar. He suggested I send it, with a letter introducing myself, to the Senior Tutor at Balliol College, Oxford, and Trinity and St John’s Colleges, Cambridge. When I asked how I could find their names, and the colleges’ addresses, he said Senior Tutor, the college, and the town would be enough.

So I gathered the essay, a letter introducing myself, and a couple of references and mailed three sets to England, addressed to Senior Tutor as I’d been told. A few days later, on Boxing Day, I broke my neck in a car wreck and lost all sensation and mobility below my head. I lay in traction in a rural Ohio hospital for three months, hoping to recover the use of my body. Three and a half months later I was flown back to Philadelphia in a head and torso brace, able to shuffle along, my muscles atrophied. As I entered the flat my then wife had rented for us, the phone rang. With effort I lifted the receiver and heard my mother say I had received a letter from England. I asked her to read it to me. I recall hearing ‘Dear Mr Burt’ and a few words later ‘offer you a place’. Six months later I sailed from New York.

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What effect did what you read when you were a student at St John’s have on you?

English Literature was my undergraduate degree at LaSalle. There, I read a smattering of a fair number of the authors I read in more depth at Cambridge. The Greek tragedians, especially, stayed with me, as did Genet, and what I read in translation of Baudelaire and Mallarmé. I’d taken a seminar in Yeats and Eliot given by Sam Hynes of Swarthmore while at LaSalle. My supervisor at St John’s, Hugh Sykes Davies, introduced me to Ransom, Gunn, Hughes, Larkin; and I read them still. But it’s hard to say at seventy whether these and others I read then did more to form than confirm my vision of the world as dark, insalubrious, and brutal.

People I met at St John’s had more effect than what I read there. I often recall the first supervision of my first Lent term. Hugh greeted me, then, before he turned to my essay for the week, leaned back, relit his omnipresent, mottled meerschaum, and said, Dan, I can call you Dan, can’t I? I nodded. Dan, you work very hard, don’t you? Another nod. Well, you didn’t come here to learn anything, you came to get an education. Why don’t you take it a bit easy? Do you like the cinema?

I still watch L’Anneé dernière à Marienbad occasionally, Casablanca at least once a year, both of which I saw first at Cambridge, and contemporary as well as classic films. I remember first seeing Potemkin, Nevsky, and, perhaps, Triumph of the Will, I think at the Film Society. The cinema has been a regular enjoyment and influence since.

Jim Ede had just opened his house, Kettle’s Yard, to undergraduates when I went up, and I would visit regularly, to sit and look at works in his collection. The house was open afternoons from two to four, if I recall, and on winter days the declined sun, when there was sun, sidled almost horizontally through a top-floor window at the rear of the house where I sat looking at a Nicholson on the south wall, and a tiny Gaudier-Brzeska sculpture of a dog on the floor nearby. Some days, for minutes at a time, I felt disembodied, convinced of the reality of beauty.

Other passions took root as well when I was a Cambridge student: opera, especially bel canto, wine, private custom and ceremony.

I had saved a little money from my years working in a butcher shop and had a bit left when I went down. What there was I used to buy four things: a bespoke dinner jacket; four dinner place settings of Wedgwood china; and two pieces by John Blackburn that Jim Ede suggested – a four inch-high pumice stone statuette reminiscent of Easter Island totems, and a white-on-white abstract painting. The dinner jacket departed decades ago, but I dine sometimes off the Wedgwood, the statuette sits on my desk in Maine, and the painting hangs in my bedroom there.

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Reading your work I am always struck by how complex ideas or intense experiences are rendered so familiarly; each line feels deliberate yet never over-polished. Do you make a conscious effort to think through how your audience might encounter your work?

No. It’s just an effort to communicate, to get across as accurately and simply as possible what I’m thinking. The drive to do that may well stem from practising law, which puts a premium on explaining complex principles, statutes and facts simply and clearly. If you leave a client, judge or jury confused, you lose.

When people I meet while travelling – air stewards, taxi drivers, even passport control officers – ask me what I do, and I tell them I write poetry, they say they don’t read it; and it’s not long before they complain contemporary poetry doesn’t make sense. But if I quote a few lines from Yeats or Larkin or Lowell, they generally like them. You don’t have to know the significance of sea birds for Yeats, or the use of birds as symbols of the soul, to comprehend at a basic level what Yeats means when he refers to a ‘visionary white sea bird’ at the end of ‘In Memory of Alfred Pollexfen’. You need no Greek or Latin, or to have seen the stele at Thermopylae, to understand Lowell’s ‘Epigram (For Hannah Arendt)’, though knowledge gives both pieces greater depth and resonance. These poets have digested their subjects and integrated them so fundamentally with imagery, rhyme, sound, that the poems live at many levels and are accessible and interest the average literate reader.

Consider Housman’s ‘Look into the pewter pot / To see the world, as the world’s not’. The image of alcohol-induced delusion evoked by ‘pewter pot’, the echoes of blindness and social disapproval, are perfect for what the poet wants to say. The single-syllable end-rhyme ‘pot’/‘not’ has a finality and a simplicity that reinforce the disapproval ‘pewter pot’ suggests, emphasised by the caesura between ‘world’ and ‘as’. The man on the Clapham omnibus would have had no trouble understanding Housman’s poem. If someone who has never heard of PN Review or the Times Literary Supplement, or a student fifty years my junior, reads and likes a piece of mine, it pleases me immensely.

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Linked to this desire to communicate, I think, are the wide-ranging references and allusions you harness in We Look Like This. You choose epigraphs encompassing everything from the Bible and John Donne through to Nat King Cole and Casablanca.

Epigraphs and cultural allusions efficiently increase a poem’s resonance, expand its historical reach, and/or serve as ironic commentary, when they work. For example, in a new poem, ‘Matinée’, I use a sentence from Kleist’s ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ as an epigraph to provide a theoretical foundation for the poem as well as an ironic comment on it. Anglophone readers may be unfamiliar with Kleist, but the quote is self-explanatory. Some may know who Kleist is, and for them, hopefully, the poem will have an added layer of meaning. A few may Google Kleist or read the essay; for them the poem’s resonance may be extended. But even if you’ve never heard of Kleist, and couldn’t care less, the quote anticipates the poem’s end and acts as an ironic commentary on the piece as you read it.

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A significant number of your published works are sonnets, and all your work is formal. What is the particular attraction of the sonnet form for you? To what extent does it give you a defined parameter within which to work or a set of conventions to push against? And why are you a formalist?

The sonnet form is a strict disciplinarian; it forces close attention to the poem’s logic: discursive, metaphoric, aural. And when a sonnet comes off, the sense of having mastered that discipline is satisfying.

I’m a formalist because I enjoy formal poetry’s rhythm, sound, heft, and find it stays with me. Many readers, I suspect, feel the same. Though I know many, perhaps most contemporary poets may disagree, formal work has the best chance of enduring. Think of Larkin – his work sticks with you because it’s musical, ordered, yet unforced. The trick is to incorporate musicality and order – metre, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, etc. – into common speech, without being hackneyed, imitative, rhetorical. I’m sure I fail at this, but it’s what I aim for.

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I sense you are very conscious of the influence of poetic forebear; you’ve mentioned Larkin, Yeats. Who else would you add to that list?

I could hardly think of the great poets who haunt my mind as forebears, that would be a gargantuan presumption. But poets who echo for me? Working in rough reverse chronology of the dead, in English, I would say Hecht, Larkin, Lowell, Auden, Ransom, Eliot, Stevens, Housman, Yeats, Kipling, Swinburne, Tennyson, Browning. Wordsworth and Byron among the first Romantics. In Shelley there are only a few poems I return to, such as ‘Ozymandias’. Before them, there’s Marvell, Herrick, some Donne, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Wyatt. Among the living, I reread John Montague, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, and, recently, Roy Fisher.

But though a lot of this work wanders my mind, and I may hear one or other line or poem when I write, it’s not my first concern. My first worry is to find a form, concrete image, and sound consistent with what I think I’m going to say. Of course I’m not sure what I’m going to say until I finish a piece; it shifts and changes as I work at it. Sometimes there’s little if anything left of first thoughts when I’m done.

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We Look Like This contains poems encompassing seventy years’ worth of life experience. Given that it’s your first full-length collection, how recent is the body of work you’ve published? And why did you decide to write so late in life?

Most of it was finished within the six years prior to publication. But the genesis of perhaps half the pieces goes much further back. Almost all my poems stem from notes; some prose, some verse. I have notes from fifty years ago. When my poems began to be published, people were curious about where they suddenly came from.

It didn’t just happen. A week after I started LaSalle, my English composition teacher called me aside and asked if I’d thought about writing for publication. He said I should try it and introduced me to the editor of the college weekly. So I began writing editorials. In my sophomore year I started experimenting with poetry. I played around with short poems, began making notes. The college literary magazine published two of my haikus.

One day shortly after they were published, a faculty member asked what I planned to do after I graduated. When I said I was thinking of becoming a writer, he asked, ‘Do you have anything to say?’ I realised I didn’t. I may have had more experience, some of it colourful, than my peers, and so perhaps literally more to say, but those experiences were unexamined. They were narrow, circumscribed by Philadelphia’s mean streets, meat markets, and the sea off New Jersey. I was ashamed of my presumption.

After that I kept making notes and drafts. I made them for forty years but showed them to no one, and made no effort to publish. Nor did I mention my note-making and drafting, except to the few women I cared for down the years.

Seven years ago St John’s offered me a room in College to use as a bolt-hole to come to grips with the craft of what I claimed mattered to me. I thought that, if I accepted the offer, I would have to produce something with a semblance of finish to justify the use of the room. I began spending a day and a half a week in College trying to write.

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Do you write regularly, follow a writing schedule? How do you start a piece?

I’m disciplined about writing and write almost every day, from first thing in the morning until noon. I start new work by rooting through notes searching for thoughts or images to develop. Occasionally a public event or news item triggers a piece. The idea that poetry is essentially about what you feel intensely, emotion recollected in tranquillity – that’s not my way. Poetry seems an attempt to reveal the invisible structure of reality in a way that compels assent, to elicit the reaction, Yes, that’s how it is. If the two poles of poetry are the dithyrambic and the Apollonian, or ecstasy and truth as a new book on Greek and Roman poetics puts it, I incline towards the truth end.

Brian Boyd’s recent book, Why Lyrics Last, explores from a socio-biological, neo-Darwinian vantage the question of why we write poetry. Masses strive to write it, much is published, a pittance lasts. Why bother writing? You can’t eat it, it can’t help you breathe, there’s little money in it, even for the best. Yet we honour those who do it well, and even those who only try hard. Why?

Boyd argues that we are powerfully disposed to play with patterns, especially verbal patterns, a disposition that is adaptive because it increases the ability to recognise new situations, i.e. to understand reality as it alters. And poetry caters to verbal pattern-playing more directly and powerfully than prose.

If Boyd is right, then Auden’s oft-quoted line about poetry making nothing happen seems wrong, because we react to perceived change. At the least it may ready you for experiences, or offer precedents for them, analogous to conducting mock cross-examinations to prepare a witness for trial; hence at a remove poetry makes things happen. But the poetphobia of Plato and Stalin, for example, argues for poetry’s direct power. Not all poets would subscribe to Auden’s jibe about poetry’s ineffectuality. Witness Yeats’s worry in ‘The Man and the Echo’ – ‘Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot’.

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I’m intrigued that when answering the question ‘why write?’, you compare writing poetry to preparing a case or drafting legal documents. You’ve had a very successful career in the law, not only in practising law but managing your own firms, and you were writing and making notes all throughout that period. How comfortably do those two parts of your life, law and poetry, sit together?

They don’t. Law is denotative, poetry connotative. Law narrows you, as I think Blackstone said. Law is passionless and amoral, at least business law. Poetry is all about values. Law is a social enterprise, with multiple lawyers, witnesses, judges, staff. Poetry is solitary.

But one connection is the preparation legal work demands. At first I practised mostly in areas that are reputed to be complicated: sophisticated international tax arbitrage strategies. In explaining these schemes to executives, or preparing them for examination in cases, the ability to communicate clearly and simply is prized. I worked hard at that day in, day out, year after year. We often ran through twenty drafts or more of important documents, went nights without sleep to produce a clear, simple, persuasive brief.

A second connection is the revision process. In the kind of law I did, using large teams, with large amounts at stake, the capacity to quell ego and accept constructive criticism is invaluable. You develop an openness to editing and criticism. I have a few readers to whom I show every poem or piece of prose before I send them to potential publishers. When editors suggest revisions, I mostly make them. If I don’t, I explain why not. If the work’s crap, I want to know. I always fear it won’t be any good. I worry about whether I have something to say. It’s a deep fear.

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Now that you are published do you feel any more a part of the establishment, of the poetry industry?

I am grateful for the reception my work has received. I now have a dim understanding of the poetry world I couldn’t have dreamed of having before I published. But I’m no insider. The only places I have felt truly at home were the butcher shops on the streets I came from and a charter boat off the Jersey coast. But those are worlds long gone, and even if they weren’t, you can’t go back. I always fear I don’t belong wherever I am. You develop a sense of belonging in the world when you are very young. Diaspora Jews are outsiders by definition; they don’t belong anywhere. The sense of being an outsider has waxed as I’ve got older.

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At the same time as you feel a difficulty in belonging, there is a very definite sense of place in your work, particularly in ‘Certain Windows’, which begins with the idea of dwelling, dwelling on the past but also framing your experience as a catalogue of the various dwellings you were brought up in as a child.

Sure. In some pieces past and place are clearly present. But even a nomad has roots. I believe who you are, what you value, are in part where you’re from, what you learned before kindergarten, and who taught you. To try to understand myself (an old man’s last vanity), why I value what I do, or don’t, what’s acceptable, what honourable, I had to fathom the places I came from and those I knew there.

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How different was the experience of writing ‘Certain Windows’, the prose memoir in We Look Like This, compared with the poetry in the rest of the collection?

Well, prose does not seem so difficult, nor so fulfilling as poetry. It doesn’t have the punch or concentration. I can’t say things in prose that I think I can in poetry. I know prose is more accessible so more people read it, and enjoy it, but writing it doesn’t give me the same satisfaction. Therefore prose is more laborious, though it’s literarily easier to do, because I can spell out connections and don’t have to weigh each word quite so carefully. Prose is more an exercise in logic than the presentation of a fused physical, emotional or intellectual experience – the grain of sand goal. Prose seems less immediate.

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Yet ‘Certain Windows’ is very concentrated writing; it’s a mere forty pages but covers a lot of ground. In that sense it’s highly poetic.

That’s the way I write. I don’t want to say any more than I need to say, in either prose or poetry, in email or brief.

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Your legal and business careers don’t figure in your writing. Is that because you consider them to be subjects that don’t lend themselves easily to poetry?

I’m trying to write about them now. I recently finished ‘Singing School’, a poem about the financial world after Lehman filed for bankruptcy, and a man who, with his company collapsing around him, and he one of the progenitors of that collapse, only wanted to know if he could sue to get his bonus back. The tough part was anatomising his and his peers’ amorality concretely, so you feel their greed.

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You are able to write from a unique perspective on these subjects compared to your contemporaries in the poetry world. Very few have that insider knowledge of the legal and financial worlds that you have amassed. Will we see you tackle these themes and experiences more directly in your future work?

I’m trying. What fascinated me as I began to practise law was that the same dynamic was at work in Washington DC and Wall Street as in the grey, thuggish, Philadelphia world I came from, albeit in DC and on Wall Street the men wore ties. All three venues were amoral if not immoral, with one aim: money. The fundamentals were the same, which is why when I came to politics, policy and business, I thought I understood them.

What has surprised me is the lack of knowledge about business in the worlds of arts and science. If Mr Banker is supposed to be at least semi-literate, supposed to read good fiction and poetry and understand them at least in part, why shouldn’t English, history, and maths dons be expected to have a nodding comprehension of the business world?

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Do you think that ignorance is a product of misunderstanding, a lack of direct experience of the world you describe, or a deliberate stance to resist directly engaging with the workings of a capitalist system?

All three. Business doesn’t explain itself well to the laity, so there’s inevitably misunderstanding. If you spend your life in academia it’s hard to know what’s going on in enterprises beyond the quads. The anti-capitalist bias of much of academia and the literary world, as well as the press it reads, exacerbate the difficulty of inquiring what business is about.

Also, there’s a substantial amount of anti-capitalist prejudice in academic and literary environs. Many of us, at least in Europe, were taught by socialists, communists, members of the left. There is an assumption that industrialists, bankers, are evil. But you need them and therefore need to know how to regulate and shape them. You can’t do that if you don’t understand them and their activities.

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You write almost every day and spend part of your time in Cambridge, where even if you don’t feel an insider in that world you are at least part of it. Being published, being well-received, I think, has made you more comfortable with the idea of being a poet. Do you feel you have now entered a prolific stage of your life? And if so, I wonder whether that makes you feel a certain pressure to write or whether it liberates you because you can write what you want when you want, and what will come, will come.

I feel pressure all the time. You know, ‘but at my back, I always hear…’. I feel like I wasted much of my life working in business, practising law, making money, experimenting with public life. But I love writing, it’s honourable in itself, it gives me pleasure. I feel about it how my father felt about fishing.

Still, there’s always pressure because I’m old. Work doesn’t flow out of me, so I have to keep at it, worry it, every day. I’m always afraid the last line was the last.

This interview is reproduced by kind permission of PN Review