Taylor Swift is a Barbarian, or: Stephanie Burt’s Defense of Poetry
In November 2017, Cosmopolitan published an interview with Stephanie Burt in which Burt critiqued poems Taylor Swift had included in “magazines” packaged with her latest album, Reputation. In the interview, Burt draws a line between the work Swift does in writing poems and the work that professional poets do. Burt refers immediately to the kinds of things you might hear in a creative writing workshop—the avoidance of clichés, for example (Swift’s poems are laden with them). Burt describes the poems as “emotionally interesting” but without the added benefit that Swift’s voice adds to her songs. I am less interested in the quality of Swift’s poems than I am in several other questions. Why is Swift writing poems at all? Why include them with her album? And why is Cosmopolitan, not generally known for its poetry section, contacting and interviewing Burt about those poems? What are the dynamics at work between communities of readers here, and what is the benefit of reaching into Burt’s sphere of influence among poets for a response?
One path to answers lies through the pages of a book by Alessandro Baricco called The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture. Here, Baricco identifies a divide between constituencies, noting their different objectives as they produce for consumption. His great example is wine. If you’ve been drinking the mass-produced American wine that was developed in the 1960s, you might be missing out on what wine really can, or perhaps should, do. While American wines are high in alcohol content, they also lack the depth and nuance of wines produced by countries that have historically produced wine. Yes, what is made out west will taste fine and get you drunk but you’re missing the cultural and historical structures that makes wine from vineyards with generations of vintners more satisfying on a deeper level. Baricco calls our American West Coast wines “Hollywood wine,” fit for general consumption, perfectly fine, but something that is just generally to be consumed, not the subject of in-depth understanding in terms of flavors and histories and terroirs. Baricco calls the Mondavis and other Hollywood wine producers “barbarians” because they “fundamentally change the map,” establishing a new empire of taste and standards that subverts the old guard. This amounts to a culture and quality issue that’s not just about age but rather about the subversion and redefinition of standards.
Baricco admits that “barbarian” is a rather strong word for what Robert Mondavi and his fellow Hollywood wine producers are— and indeed I don’t think Burt would ever be so impolite as to call Taylor Swift a barbarian. I, however, will say it: Taylor Swift is a barbarian. And at some level, in some way, the poetry community had to respond to her as such. Enter Stephanie Burt.
Consider two ways of viewing Burt’s Cosmopolitan response to Swift’s poems.
1) The poetry community, in its irrelevance to the larger public, has to find somewhere to stake its claim, somewhere from which it can show, at least to itself, its own relevance in a world which does not value the work that poets do but does value the poet as celebrity. When Swift’s poems became public, someone from within the community had to show that pobiz has some kind of power, some kind of authority over poetry. Because Swift was able to bypass our system’s various gatekeepers, pobiz as a whole felt slighted. Those with a little power, who want to believe in that power, will do what they can to uphold their position, at least within their own community, and pobiz did just this—our paladin being Professor Burt. Who else but Harvard’s Dr. Burt had the kind of institutional prestige to stand against the barbarian incursion? Who else would America be willing to hear? And what it heard was a defense that sought to reinforce the structures of our system, our forms of symbolic capital. When asked for an overall assessment of Swift’s poetry, Burt responds by curtly saying “I don’t think they really work for me as poems.”
2) Swift doesn’t need any more money, but what she does seek and require continually is cultural capital. She needs to maintain her relevance and her ability to appear as someone who is aware of other cultural products being created in the current moment. It’s not uncommon among economic capital-generating artists to dip their toes into alternative forms of production (ever seen Yellow Submarine?). Imagine having the economic capital to get into any other form of production. Imagine being able to act in or produce a film, maybe write a novel— imagine having enough access to the resources of cultural production and then choosing… poetry. Poetry! A form that has been more-or-less removed from the public sphere, both by its practitioners and by larger cultural forces.
Why, then, poetry? What is it about poems that lend a kind of prestige to the songwriter? The answer, alas, is tied to class, to the perception of the poem as an elite form of art. We in the poetry community don’t like to think what we do is anything elite at all, but it doesn’t matter what our perception on the inside of the field is— it matters what the perception is on the outside. For Swift, someone who has made her fortune not only on lyrics but her overall skill as a singer and musician, the poem represents another strata of society, one that, outwardly, consumes art for art’s sake and eschews the economic capital of art for the purely cultural. When Stephanie Burt argues that Swift’s poems aren’t really poems in the way that Burt would like them to be, she effectively draws the first class curtain of the airplane closed in front of Taylor Swift’s face.
Why do this? Well, considered in Baricco’s terms, what Swift has done is barbarous. Swift is capable, due to her prominence, of redefining what a poem is and what a poem should be for a much broader public, bypassing the institutional apparatus of the poetry business. Burt defended all of us, really. And while Burt’s defense of pobiz may seem elitist for the larger public, for those of us behind the walls, Burt’s responses are the defense we may not realize we need— and might not outwardly admit we want— against a large cultural wave that is attacking not only pobiz but non-commercial culture as a whole.
It would be impossible, when thinking of cultural waves, to avoid a discussion about social media and the rise of Rupi Kaur, a so-called “Instapoet,” who made her fame on Instagram, not only posting her poems, but also using Instagram’s frame of image posts to fuel her success. Looking at the myriad of articles published about Kaur’s poems and her attachment to the medium which brought her prominence, it’s easy to see how well these things work together. Considering we’re living in an age where a person was elected to the highest office in the land by being a barbarian via his social media persona, it isn’t surprising that social media has led to someone such as Kaur, and while it might be rude to consider Kaur the “Hollywood wine” of poets, no doubt this is how the academic world views her and how she is written about.
When the poet Kazim Ali writes about Kaur on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, he sounds a lot like Burt discussing Swift:
Is it interesting as poetry? Not to me. But neither are Hallmark cards and I still buy and send those. Neither are most pop music lyrics (Grace VanderWaal, I’m making an exception for you) but I still listen to those in my car. Kaur’s verses—okay, okay, her poems—are simple and yes, I would say, simplistic, but they are obviously resonating with a wide and deep audience.
Isn’t that exactly what Baricco is getting at? Isn’t Kaur the accessible, easily consumable poet? While that’s not the worst thing— it’s nice to hear people talking about poetry, I suppose— what are all those people getting out of it? While Kaur’s work is bringing in readers, one wonders: do they move onto other poets? Is ‘simple’ and ‘accessible’ something that should be celebrated? Ali is not, of course, celebrating simplicity and accessibility, but rather drawing the Harriet audience’s attention to sense that they are doing complex, rich work—and Kaur, whose success is measured in sales and followers, is writing the $5.99 wine we all buy when we just want to get tipsy and watch television until we fall asleep on a Tuesday night.
I suppose there is a perspective from which Burt, Ali, and I all look like elitists. As Carl Wilson points out in The New York Times, itself sometimes viewed as an elitist publication, “fights about artistic tastes are nearly always about submerged social hostilities—putting down the audiences as much as the artists.” Indeed, this is the nature of the debate about Kaur and Swift’s poems: for those within the academy to speak dismissively about them, and in favor of something less accessible, is to draw distinctions based on cultural capital, and that’s not going to make anyone outside of the academy happy. In a society that pays lip service to egalitarian attitudes, no one likes the idea that some cultural artifacts are relatively inaccessible, that they require a serious investment to yield up their depths.
While none of us will be around to see whether Kaur’s work—or Swift’s for that matter—will endure like that of Sappho or Keats, it’s clear that at the moment, the divide between publics will remain. There is no way to compete with the kind of audience that Kaur has built through her social media persona and while we might all wish poets were as famous and beloved as Kaur, in some ways it is the disconnect from the wider public that allows poets within the academy to keep working and not be at the whims of that public’s present whims. It seems best to step back, allow Kaur to have her space with her public, keep reading C.D. Wright, and not worry about it.