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John Carey

A Little History of Poetry

Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 2020 | Review Added: 20-06-2023

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

One can't fault this book its scope: a history of English-language poetry from Beowulf to Les Murray, including several chapters on ancient and foreign writers that bring in useful context. It is concise, educative and readable. Knowledgeable readers as well as novices will learn from it.

However, for me the book was marred by flaws in its style.

Carey, as usual, keeps his prose straightforward. At his best, he can encapsulate in a few sentences what makes a poet important. His "unique selling point", if you will, is that his writing is never difficult to understand, even for a reader who is new to literature. He eschews critical jargon, and wherever possible emphasises poetry's relevance to the modern age. Hence Edmund Spencer's house was burned down by "Irish freedom fighters", and the same poet's The Fairie Queen "recounts a series of adventures in which knights, representing different virtues, battle with aliens." Carey contrasts traditional ballads with "more upmarket kinds of poetry." Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard celebrates the lives of unknown people "because they are innocent of the crimes world leaders commit."

To me, this use of modern terms in reference to old poems diminishes them. They were products of their age, not ours - and of course there are universal human concerns, otherwise they would not move us. But we should appreciate them for what they say about the times they were written in. Carey persistently contrives to view them as more "modern" than they really are, as if to say that we all know history is boring, and poetry isn't about history, it's about us. But - it is and it isn't. Poetry is subtle.

Subtle Carey's prose isn't, mostly. Aside from his glib anachronisms, his analyses are often reductive. Philip Larkin's Mr. Bleaney he summarises as "a howl of rage at life's unfairness." I don't read any "howling" in Larkin's measured contemplation of the presumed emotional repression of his flat's previous tenant. His point isn't that life treated Mr. Bleaney's unfairly, but the opposite: Bleaney got out of life what he put in, i.e. not very much, and Larkin, aware that he is something of an emotional miser himself, wonders if he will share his predecessor's fate.

Carey makes statements that raise more questions than they answer. In his lightning-speed dash through German poetry of the last three hundred years, he describes Goethe as a "scientist" and the "virtual prime minister" of the duchy of Saxe-Weimar. What the duties of a virtual prime minister are supposed to be, Carey leaves us to guess.

The later chapters include much discussion of poets who are, frankly, more relevant for their place in cultural history than for their works' intrinsic merit. There is little to consider about mediocre poetry except why it became fashionable. Carey talks about the brilliance of several modern, fashionable poets, but doesn't analyse their supposed brilliance. Judging by his quotations from their work, I can only conclude it's because there is not much to analyse from a technical point of view. Their interest, if you can call it that, is their dealing with contemporary themes in a blandly contemporary style.

A Little History of Poetry is an informative read, but it could have been better. Carey's prose is fast-moving, but never elegant. His obsession with using as few words as possible leads him, not infrequently, to play free and easy with grammar. About William Langland he writes, "Though he was not a revolutionary, his ideas were." He gets his short sentence, but at the cost of using the same word as a noun and an adjective. For somebody who has devoted his life to celebrating language, Carey is oddly careless in his own use of it. Settling for the odd infelicitous phrase is something most writers are guilty of, but Carey does it so often that it spoiled a book from which, that apart, I learned a lot.

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