The Poem is You

60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them

Harvard University Press, 2016 

Contemporary American poetry has plenty to offer new readers, and plenty more for those who already follow it. Yet its difficulty—and sheer variety—leaves many readers puzzled or overwhelmed. The critic, scholar, and poet Stephen Burt sets out to help. Beginning in the early 1980s, where critical consensus ends, Burt canvasses American poetry of the past four decades, from the headline-making urgency of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen to the stark pathos of Louise Glück, the limitless energy of Juan Felipe Herrera, and the erotic provocations of D. A. Powell.

The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them is a guide to the diverse magnificences of American poetry today. It presents a wide range of poems selected by Burt for this volume, each accompanied by an original essay explaining how a given poem works, why it matters, and how the poem speaks to other parts of art and culture. Included here are some classroom classics (by Ashbery, Komunyakaa, Hass), less famous poems by very famous poets (Glück, Kay Ryan), and poems by prizewinning poets near the start of their careers (such as Brandon Som), and by others who are not—or not yet—well known.

The Poem Is You will appeal to poets, teachers, and students, but it is intended especially for readers who want to learn more about contemporary American poetry but who have not known where or how to start. It describes what American poets have fashioned for one another, and what they can give us today.


Poet and critic Burt’s ambitious anthology of recent poems by American authors, from 1981 to 2015, creates a coherent body of work out of the vast landscape of recent American poetry. Burt’s 60 selections are eclectic, mingling instantly recognizable names (John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich) with newer talents (Lucia Perillo, Claudia Rankine.)… Burt’s many ways of looking at a poem will inspire new students and accomplished poets, especially as many of his meditations circle the question of what poetry does, or should do: making readers pay attention, ask questions, and experience new things. Burt’s formidable breadth of knowledge about the practice of poetry, from Virgil up to 2015, allows him to make nimble connections among authors and establish an ars poetica for current American lyric poetry, an impressive feat given the diverse selection just within this book.Publishers Weekly

Drawing on endlessly deep wells of enthusiasm and acuity, The Poem Is You offers not so much a sequence of explanations as a series of invitations: Stephen Burt is more intent on describing how to think about a particular poem than on telling us what to think. Unpredictable yet unfailingly useful, The Poem Is You is a joyous book.James Longenbach, author of The Virtues of Poetry

This is a splendid book. Many critics and poets have published essays or reviews of contemporary poetry, but Burt is doing something else here. He lavishes the poems with extraordinarily nimble, alert, luminous attention. It’s hard to think of a better introduction to contemporary American poetry.Jahan Ramazani, author of Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres






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