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New Poems from Stephen Burt: Belmont


A 1913 postcard of the town hall in Belmont, Mass. (Wikipedia)

Here are a few of the words the New York Times once used to describe Stephen Burt: Extremely precocious. Cross-dresser. Passionate booster and fanboy. Lucid. Insightful. Obsessive. Energetic. Eclectic. He is an expert in both sci-fi and women’s basketball. But above, all, this Harvard English professor is, “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation…an heir to the likes of Harold Bloom.”

Stephen Burt has just published his third poetry collection. It’s called, “Belmont”, the town he calls home.

He’ll be reading from this collection next Thursday, June 27th, at the Harvard Book Store.


Stephen Burt, poet, critic, and professor of English at Harvard.


The New York Times Magazine: “Being a major poetry critic in the United States today may seem like a dubious honor, almost akin to being the best American cricketer, or a distinguished expert on polka. Yet we still teach poetry to our children, and we still reach for it at important moments — funerals, weddings, presidential inaugurations. We tend to look askance at those who claim to be practitioners, skeptical that their work could be any good. We mistrust our own tastes, so we rely on the tastemaker. ”



A real one wouldn’t need one,
but the one Nathan draws surely does:
four oblongs the size and color of popsicles,
green apple, toasted coconut and grape,
flanked, two per side, by billowing valentine hearts,
in a frame of Scotch tape.
Alive, it could stay off the floor,
for a few unaerodynamic minutes;
thrown as a paper airplane, for one or two more.

Very sensibly, therefore,
our son gave it something, not to keep it apart
from the ground forever, but rather to make safe its descent.
When we ask that imagination discover the limits
of the real
world only slowly,
maybe this is what we meant.



It makes a certain sort of sense—
you don’t have to like every flower you see, for example,
but you do have to give it a try;
clover blooms with their blanched
and tiniest petals, like architectural models
or a child’s diagram
in a world built only for children, who keep going wrong,
yanking the wrists of distracted caretakers, not knowing
the only real world is the one they have. It is shaped
more or less like an olive, round
but irregular nevertheless, and tangy inside.
They put in something extra for the parents,
vague, but worth advertising: its nickname is silence,
its value tallied only after the fact.

Inside, as in a snow globe,
we saw a cheerful row of wooden
pallets holding up stacked 2x4s,
good omens for an otherwise difficult day,
portending tax overrides, storms over school construction,
a fortune in confusion, wisdom’s end.
Why, for example, do sports people
have numbers on their backs?
Where do the buses go
when they go home? The agile flag
in our park is happy to pick up the toddlers’ questions
and store them in its ever-popular roots.

But they are us,
that’s what they say.


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  • Maria

    Wow, I never thought I would be literally disgusted by a poem. 

    Tell us why Belmont is the right place for a Harvard Professor as he enters parenthood?
    Why is it safe? Why are Cambridge or Somerville or Boston NOT the right place?

    There is one big answer for that. It is so you will be away from those other kids and parents who do of course live in those cities.

    • Tracilee Tracy

      Safety is in the eye of the beholder… there are those who feel safe in a small town others who feel safe in the chaos of a large city. Is judgment a prerequisite for security?  Don’t we all live in a place to be both near and away from people?

    • Jessie Bennett

      Hi Maria–

      I found your response troubling, because it speaks to many of the conflicted feelings Steve (who is my spouse) and I have as parents and citizens of our community. There were parts of me that truly hated the idea of moving to Belmont–I didn’t want to be in the suburbs, in a place that felt, from the outside, snooty, too-white, and insular. But we found ourselves here after a very quick, long-distance search for a home (ironically enough, we couldn’t find something as affordable in Somerville and Cambridge).  

      In our case, Belmont has become our home because it has good schools and less bustle. It’s less about safety (we spend lots of time in Cambridge and Somerville and Boston), more about getting the amount of space we wanted and fewer of the hassles associated with school choice, etc. On the other hand, we always grapple with that choice (and Steve does in this book). I hate the fact that Belmont is not as economically diverse as the small city where I spent my childhood. (I am grateful that the town is far more ethically diverse than I thought it would be.) I do not feel comfortable in our privilege and sometimes wonder what affect it will have on our kids to be somewhat sheltered here, and I hope that, as parents, we help them overcome the limits of their upbringing. 

      I’m not sure where you live, but I hope that you know I understand your reaction, as much as it pains me. I’m sorry that what you got from Steve’s interview, and from the poem, was a feeling that we were fleeing something “dangerous” by settling here. 

  • Tracilee Tracy

    “and once we feel safe it’s our nature to say we’re unsatisfied and pretend to seek more” such an insight into our society. Such a great reading Steve!

  • Bapumike

    Give it a rest, Sweetheart.

  • SnarkyEyeCanB

    People are often perplexed that poetry has not found a bigger audience, worldwide.  Reason? There is more bad poetry in the world than ocean water.   OMG…I just wrote a bad poem.

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