Out: April 21, 2020
This book offers a wealth of biographical insight into poets, stretching back beyond Homer, but without getting caught up in the minutiae of full biographies. Rather, it’s more about presenting tidbits of information that help uncover why a given poet’s verse is as it is – both mixing an understanding of where the world was during that poet’s time and what the individual was going through. But that’s not all the book does. It also shows the reader how poetry changed over the centuries, how changes in society influenced poetry, and – sometimes — how poetry influenced society.
If covering poetry from “The Epic of Gilgamesh” through poets of the 20th century in a book with the word “little” in the title seems impossible, it is. It’s done in this volume by being English language poetry-centric. (Some might prefer to call it Western-centric because it discusses the likes of Ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as some German, French, Russian, and Italian poets, but these discussions are largely in the context of those poets interacting in the larger world of poetry.) That is, while it discusses foreign language poetry, it’s mostly with respect to poetry that influenced (or in some cases was influenced by) English-language poets. This focus is most profoundly seen in the book’s dalliances with Asian poetry, which are few and brusque. The book discusses a few Chinese poets as well as Japanese haiku poets, but explicitly in the context of how they influenced Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound. (Also influencing the minimal mark of Indian and Zen schools of poetry is the fact that the Beat poets were lost from the selection process as well.) The only other noteworthy mention of poetry of Asian origin is about Rabindranath Tagore, mostly because he was a Nobel Laureate and was globally prominent enough to influence poets of the English-speaking world (most of his work was originally in Bengali, though he did a lot of his own translations to English.)
The previous paragraph is not so much of a criticism as it might sound. It’s clear that any book that opts to take on an artform with as much longevity and universality as poetry in a single compact volume is going to have to be highly selective. However, I wouldn’t want anyone entering into the book thinking they would learn something about where Norse poetry or Hungarian poetry or Arab Ghazals (none of which bears a substantial mention) fit in the broader poetic scheme, and I can see how someone from an African or Asian tradition would come away offended by the lack of acknowledgement of global poetry. In short, what the book does, I felt it does very well, but its title could make people think it’s a different book than it is.
As a history, the book’s forty chapters are, quite logically, chronologically arranged. However, there are sometimes overlapping time periods because of how poets are thematically grouped. Each chapter shines a light on anywhere from one to about twenty poets (two or three is most common) who were exemplars of the time period. Generally, the chapters describe key details about each poet and his or her place in the art, and then dissects a particularly important work or two from said poet. Except in the case of a few short form pieces, whole poems aren’t presented, but rather illustrative lines or stanzas. (In many cases, I found myself pulling up whole poems on the internet because of curiosity that Carey aroused. Except for a few of the most recent poems, almost all the works discussed are in the public domain, and can be readily accessed.)
I learned a great deal from this book, and I was turned on to some poets that I hadn’t thought much about before by learning of their lives. I’ll definitely be reading more Spender, Wheatley, Auden, and Rossetti. There are many poets I’ve read without any touch of biographical insight beyond a vague notion of when they lived, and so it was interesting to gain an inkling of the world of each.
If you’re interested in poetry or the history of literature, I’d highly recommend this book. While it is English language-centric, if one approaches it knowing that, I think you’ll find it well worth your time.