"Over the centuries, countless thousands of poems have been forgotten. This is a book about some that have not." In this 10th book in Yale's splendid Little Histories series, which began with E H Gombrich's A Little History of the World, the eminent Oxford literature professor and chief Sunday Times critic spans 4,000 years with admirable concision as he reflects on some of the finest poems ever written; from the "Epic of Gilgamesh" in Chapter 1; to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver and Les Murray in Chapter 40.
Sometimes Carey’s ambitious, thematic chapter-groupings include the unexpected too. For example, in the chapter rather oddly called Poets Of The Seen World And The Unseen (which surely includes all poets?) he sums up the work of the anonymous medieval Gawain poet and William Langland — and also plonks down beside them their contemporary Persian poet Hafez, still a favourite in Iran. It’s so brief as to be almost pointless, yet if somebody reads some Hafez as a result, that’s fine by me.
John Carey’s hectic, reader-friendly introduction to poetry gloriously ignores these problems. It is redolent of a time when grammar school sixth formers studied Milton in class and the Romantics on reading camps in the summer holidays. Its assumptions are unencumbered by critical theory or identity politics. It believes that the work of poetry is to open up to its readers an emotional variety and grandeur far beyond the limits imposed by the trifling boundaries of their own selves; that poetry’s aim is not to confine or confirm, but to transcend.
Throughout this amusing book, he gives himself free rein. Dante? “His beliefs are, for us, often repellent.” Moreover, “he does not seem to have been attractive as a man, either. He comes across as vengeful and unforgiving.” Our great nonsense poets? “Lear was gay and an epileptic; Dodgson had a weakness for scantily clad little girls.” Baudelaire? “His self-pity can pall.”
Covering so much ground so fast, the professor has little choice but to simplify and, like all effective educators, proclaim the bleeding obvious as if it was news. “Like death, love is one of poetry’s perennial subjects,” he tells us. “William Wordsworth grew up in the Lake District and it had a profound influence on him and his poetry.”
This book is a lot of fun, thanks to Carey’s eye for anecdotes. Poets are oddballs. Take Yeats, with his obsession with the occult and fear of ageing so profound that, at nearly 70, he underwent an operation to restore his sexual potency. Or Marianne Moore, who swept around Greenwich Village in a tricorn hat and a cape and spent her free time indulging in her fanatical love of the Brooklyn Dodgers.... Some English professors would have treated the brief to write a Little History of Poetry as an easy opportunity to cash in. Carey can’t stop himself thinking originally or repress his instinct for mischief for more than a few pages. This book is all the better for it.