Dan Burt’s poems offer the reader a dual perspective on American culture, drawing on the poet’s personal experience of being both an insider and an outsider. The son of Jewish immigrants, Burt grew up in the tough environs of South Philadelphia where his father was a butcher and his mother’s family were a force in the neighbourhood, living at the edges of the law. Burt left this teeming and sometimes brutal world behind through education – he attended a local Catholic college before reading English at Cambridge University. He then studied law at Yale and practiced law in the United States, United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, before moving to London in 1994 and becoming a British citizen.

Many of the poems in his third, and first complete collection, We Look Like This, reflect on the complexities of this life journey – from working class roots to Ivy League privilege, from the heartland of industrial USA to the quads of Cambridge, from the practice of law to the practice of poetry. In its use of biographical material and combination of poetry and prose, We Look Like This consciously echoes Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Against Lowell’s complex relationship with his ruling class ancestry, Burt posits his immigrant background, particularly in the tough elegies for his sometimes violent but fiercely determined father which open his Archive reading. In these poems and the extract from the central prose section of the book, there is a pride in his origins. The defiant mood is conveyed through the dynamic movement of the verse: often rhymed and with an alliterative music, it makes for an exhilarating read:

After noon the wind comes up, skippers
Go topside, shout Reel in! and head
For home; crews gut the catch, scuppers
Clog with viscera, decks turn red…

Other poems from later in his life story deal with the dislocations of class and the disappointments of the capitalist dream. In ‘All The Dark Years’, the title – from the Yiddish phrase alle shvartze yom – frames a poem that captures the allure of moving in rarified circles where “summer is a verb” while presenting its end point: a kind of drowning, “whirling face down in eddies of the self”. Lust, love and mortality are similarly given no quarter in poems that take an uncompromising look at Western society:

Ego teeters on the tip of years
Honks a last horn, taps flippers, rears
To cheers and fish and waddles off…

Throughout, Burt’s formal control remains intact, a tool he uses to probe the values of the “civilised” world. His Archive recording brings out the muscular movement of the poems, and though his work often inhabits a world in dissolution, this inherent energy makes for a rewarding listen. As the poet and critic John Kinsella puts it “In poems and prose that reach deep down into the reservoir of human loss, distress and need, comes hope.”


His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 25 January 2012 at the Soundhouse, London, UK and was produced by Richard Carrington.

Poems by Dan Burt

Dan Burt in the Poetry Store

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Books by Dan Burt