BOOK REVIEW: A Little History of Poetry by John Carey

A Little History of PoetryA Little History of Poetry by John Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Out: April 21, 2020

Amazon page

 

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.

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POEM: On “Walk On, Ye Doomed”

Radnóti wrote, “Walk On, Ye Doomed”
[Járkálj Csak, Halálraítélt!]
in 1936 —

Eight years before he was force marched to death by Nazis.

And I am left to wonder whether he was a prophet,
or whether the Poet’s obsession with death makes him seem prophetic.

Whether he was a prophet or not, he was true to his poem.

There’s at least 750 kilometers between the copper mines of Bor and the tiny northern Hungarian town where he was killed — a place closer to both Bratislava and Vienna than to Budapest.

Call it 500 miles on foot,
emaciated from cracking rock for copper to build the war-machinery of those trying to erase a people — his people.

They found a pocketful of poems on his person when he was exhumed.

If you can’t think of anything else to do in the act of slogging at gunpoint across two countries than to craft poems, you are not a poet, you are THE Poet.

5 Posthumous Gods of Literature; and, How to Become One

There have been many poets and authors who — for various reasons — never attracted a fandom while alive, but who came to be considered among the greats of literature in death. Here are a few examples whose stories I find particularly intriguing.



by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

5.) William Blake: Blake sold fewer than 30 copies of his poetic masterpiece Songs of Innocence and Experience while alive. He was known to rub people the wrong way and didn’t fit in to society well. He was widely considered insane, but at a minimum he was not much for falling in with societal norms. (He probably was insane, but cutting against the grain of societal expectations has historically often been mistaken for insanity.)  While he was a religious man (mystically inclined,) he’s also said to have been an early proponent of the free love movement. His views, which today might be called progressive, probably didn’t help him gain a following.



4.) Mikhail Bulgakov: Not only was Bulgakov’s brilliant novel, The Master & Margarita, banned during his lifetime, he had a number of his plays banned as well. What I found most intriguing about his story is that the ballsy author personally wrote Stalin and asked the dictator to allow him emigrate since the Soviet Union couldn’t find use for him as a writer. And he lived to tell about it (though he didn’t leave but did get a small job writing for a little theater.) Clearly, Stalin was a fan — even though the ruler wouldn’t let Bulgakov’s best work see the light of day.



3.) John Kennedy Toole: After accumulating rejections for his hilarious (and posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole committed suicide. After his death, Toole’s mother shopped the draft around and brow-beat Walker Percy into reading it, which ultimately resulted in it being published.



2.) Emily Dickinson: Fewer than 12 of Dickinson’s 1800+ poems were published during her lifetime. Dickinson is the quintessential hermitic artist. Not only wasn’t she out publicizing her work, she didn’t particularly care to see those who came to visit her.



1.) Franz Kafka: Kafka left his unpublished novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, as well as other works in a trunk, and told his good friend Max Brod to burn it all. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your definition of a good friend), Brod ignored the instruction and the works were posthumously published.



In brief summary, here are the five ways to become a posthumous god of literature:

5.) Be seen as a lunatic / weirdo.

4.) Live under an authoritarian regime.

3.) Handle rejection poorly, lack patience, and / or fail to get help.

2.) Don’t go outside.

1.) Wink at the end of the sentence when you tell your best friend to burn all your work.

POEM: If I Was…

Edgar Allan Poe

If I was as Mad as Poe,
could I summon the Raven?

 

If I was as radical as Blake,
could I build myself a tyger?

 

If I was as shut-in as Dickinson
could I be Nobody, too?

 

If I was as doomed as Radnóti,
could I pen my elegy on a death march?

William Blake





Emily Dickinson





Miklós Radnóti

5 Ways in Which Poets Are Mistaken for the Insane

“He’s right behind me, isn’t he?”


5.) Sound Seeking:
If anything  looks more insane than walking down the street talking to oneself out loud, it’s talking to oneself out loud in rhyme and alliteration in a disjoint fashion while counting off beats on one’s fingers.

 

4.) Emotion Evocation: If your writing comes across as a cry for help, you may be a deeply troubled individual. Or you may be a poet trying to induce a reader to feel.

 

3.) Clarity & Codes: Because there may be no literal meaning to your verse, the reader may suspect that you’re writing in code to your imaginary pink bunny rabbit. Faced with the humbling possibility that he or she may “just not get it,” most people prefer the alternative explanation that you’re a rambling lunatic.

 

2.) Playing the Odds: Let’s be honest, there have been a lot of poets who slipped into the abyss. Poe, Pushkin, Plath, Pound, and several poets whose last names didn’t begin with the letter “P,” were all afflicted by mental illness.

 

1.) Violent Reactions to being Interrupted:  A poem under development is a house of cards that needs only the subtlest gust of wind to be obliterated. Poems in the works are gauzy and fragile. So, as one is trying to wedge words together into a solid construct, one is occasionally interrupted. When this happens, one may instinctively pimp slap the interrupting individual like a Zen master trying to make the point that there is no point.