It has become something of a habit – the discovery of some good poetry or poetry lit crit during the course of Glasgow’s Ayewrite festival. Even the cancellation of this year’s festival – 2020 being what it is – hasn’t put a stop to that. This year’s discovery, courtesy of the proposed Ayewrite programme, is just brilliant!
In 40 chapters Professor John Carey takes us on a journey from 4000-year old Epic of Gilgamesh to the poetry of the Australian poet, Les Murray (1938-2019). The book in its entirety is 320 pages long, so the space given to each poet is limited, but not necessarily superficial. Carey has a way of getting to the essence of the poet or the movement he is discussing in just a couple of paragraphs.
Poetry is language made special, so that it will be remembered and valued, he says. But what is of value to one man can be valueless to another. Carey accepts this subjectivity. Indeed his own is very much at play here, and not everyone is going to agree with him at all times. He doesn’t like Dante (worldview issues), he adores John Donne (made me very curious to read him), and nor does he have much time for poets with language so obscure and dense that they become meaningless. (I fully agree with that.)
A look at the expansive table of contents (on the site everyone loves to hate) shows the ground Carey covers. There is a distinct emphasis on the Anglophone world, though there’s not much space for Scottish poets. Burns gets two pages, but there’s nothing about Scott (not even in the section on ballads) or any contemporary poets (whose names I recognise anyway). There is a whole chapter on the great Germans (Goethe, Heine, Rilke) which delighted me. One on the Russians (Pushkin, Lermontov) with more included in the chapter on Poets in Politics. (Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, Brodsky), and I spot another Scot tucked in there (MacDiarmid). Poets of many other nationalities are are scattered throughout, and there’s a surprising interlude with Chinese poets in the chapter, West Meets East.
So while he couldn’t cover everything in A Little History of Poetry, Carey covers a lot, much of it new to a beginner like me. I keep meaning to change this, but I never seem to make poetry reading a habit. Though I am surprised by how much poetry has found its way to my shelves. It’s time to start a Poetry Book of The Month feature to give me the impetus I need to read some of the works Carey mentions, a selection of which are pictured below.
P.S I was surprised to find I have no Larkin in my collection. Can you recommend a good edition?