Elliptical Poetry

Elliptical Poetry or ellipticism is a literary-critical term introduced by critic Stephen Burt in a 1998 essay in Boston Review on Susan Wheeler, and expanded upon in an eponymous essay in American Letters & Commentary. Since the publication of that essay, and a number of accompanying responses in the same journal, "Elliptical Poetry", "ellipticism" and "elliptical poets" have entered the critical discussion of contemporary American poetry as a significant point of reference; Wheeler notes in an introduction to Burt at the Poetry Society "hearing, on several spooky occasions, in conferences with graduate students, 'but I want to be an elliptical poet.'"

The original statement of the notion by Burt in the Boston Review article suggested that "Elliptical poets try to manifest a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-'postmodern': they have read (most of them) Stein's heirs, and the 'language writers,' and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively 'poetic') diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning 'I am an X, I am a Y.' Ellipticism's favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television."

Discussing the term later in Poetry Magazine, Tony Hoagland wrote, "Burt’s definition is quite general in order to encompass the diversity of the poetry he champions, but he gets the mania and the declarativeness right. Also the relentless dodging or obstruction of expectation."

C. D. Wright, a poet termed elliptical by Burt, states her nervousness about the label in an interview with Kent Johnson in Jacket Magazine: "Regarding the elliptical business, I’m less enthusiastic. But I do think it is a stab at authentication of poets who don’t belong to a team and whose work is reluctant to be either excluded or subsumed by one or the other, yet has sympathetic concerns to certain strains and not to others."

In a 2009 essay, also in Boston Review, Burt proposed that a poetic movement he called "The New Thing" has succeeded ellipticism.

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