Review: ‘A Little History of Poetry’ by John Carey

A fascinating overview of the history of world poetry with a decidedly Anglo-American slant, very engaging and informative and yet inevitably irritating for wasting space on some aspects while ignoring other favourite poets–depending on the reader’s bias, of course.

Consisting of 40 seven- or eight-page chapters, the book leads with Gilgamesh and information new to me despite my familiarity with the poem; then the Greek and Latin classics, where I am vaguely interested but uninformed; then Anglo-Saxon poetry where I am incited to read more. And so it goes: a bit of this, a bit of that, with a lot of chatty biographical tidbits, clarifying who I want to read more of (Chaucer, Wordsworth, Hardy, the Thirties Poets, the Movement), confirming who is of no interest to me (Spenser, Milton, American Modernists, American Confessional poets). The chapter on Dickinson and Whitman had a very useful perspective; the one on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop was a waste of space. There seemed less insight in general as we moved into the 20th century, especially regarding American poets.

One thing that surprised me was to find how the hymns quoted in the chapter ‘Communal Poetry’–‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’, ‘Amazing grace’, ‘Abide with me’–summoned up my decade of boarding school’s daily religion and made for a long meditation on the role of religious poetry in the forced familiarity with meter and rhyme. It almost justifies daily church attendance. But missing from this History is the similar role in other religions: the hymns of Hinduism, the Hebrew chants, the hypnotic rhythm and rhyme of the Quran… all aspects of verse being used to make a message word-for-word memorable, all building the use of poetry.

The other omissions were of English-language poets outside the Anglo(including Irish)-American sphere: I think McCrae is the only Canadian mentioned (for ‘In Flanders Field’), and Claude McKay (who?) and Derek Walcott the only other Commonwealth poets; also missing are modern ballad-writing poets like Bob Dylan; and, my particular peeve, no mention of either e.e. cummings or Gwendolyn Brooks.

I find Brooks and cummings the greatest American poets of the 20th century with the exception of Auden and Eliot (however you like to classify their nationalities). Their omission may reflect ignorance on the part of author John Carey, or they may have been left out as not fitting into his groupings of Modernists and members of the Harlem Renaissance. Whatever the reason, it’s a major flaw… in what is still a highly readable and rereadable history.

2 thoughts on “Review: ‘A Little History of Poetry’ by John Carey

  1. Michael Burch

    I agree that leaving out e. e. cummings is a crime. For me Brooks would be a question of how much space I was allowed. My top ten 20th century American poets would look something like this, in alpha order:

    W. H. Auden (if considered an American)
    Louise Bogan
    Hart Crane
    e. e. cummings
    T. S. Eliot
    Robert Frost
    Langston Hughes
    Sylvia Plath
    Edward Arlington Robinson
    Wallace Stevens

    Other contenders: Conrad Aiken, Elizabeth Bishop, Brooks, Robert Hayden, Robert Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton, Sara Teasdale, Richard Wilbur

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    1. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

      The book gets a little idiosyncratic towards the end. Each chapter is about 7-8 pages. Eliot and Pound get a chapter together. Then ‘American Modernists’ jams in Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Esther Popel, Helene Johnson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Angelina Weld Grimke, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. After which ‘Getting Over Modernism’ gives Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop their own chapter. Well, in the words of 2020, it is what it is.

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