too much like cooking?
James Merrill once complained, in a very funny poem: "Lives of the Great Composers make it sound/ Too much like cooking..." If that's so, then Alex Ross is the equivalent of the best food writer alive. I've just begun reading The Rest Is Noise, a giant collection of essays on composed music from the twentieth century (more or less-- he starts with Strauss and Mahler) by Ross, the blogger who happens to be the composed-music critic for the New Yorker. I almost always admire Ross's writing, both on the rare occasion when he's writing on a topic I know, and on the far more common occasion when he's not: he's able to link biography, context and the formal elements of the music in a way that-- at least for someone like me, who enjoys modern composed music but will probably spend more time with the last Bloc Party record-- can both delight and instruct.
In fact, Ross seems to be writing, precisely, for someone like me-- an adult with a serious interest, but who doesn't know the field backwards and forwards, who needs technical terms unobtrusively explained. Is there, will there be, can there be, has there been, the same kind of book for modern poets and poems? You'll find my well-hedged answers below the fold-- along with a follow-up question.
What kind of book do I mean? An introductory volume that's a pleasure to read, aimed at adults or knowledgeable teens who are reading for pleasure, with academic uses imaginable but decidedly secondary, which would show both how to listen to
the music the poems, and how to place the important musical works poems and books of poems in cultural and music-historical literary historical context, including the contexts of the composers' authors' lives.
There are wonderful books that come quite close. Here's one. Here's another. Here's a third. And there's this one, too. Those are four of my favorite books-about-multiple-modern-poets from the last ten-odd years, and they are books I'm likely going to ask some students to read this spring. But the first of them is put together in part from reviews of individual books. The next two address, first, an academic audience, and only after that a wider field. And the last is deliberately idiosyncratic, not meant, and not usable, as a survey of anything-- it's better, most of the time, if you've already read the work of the poets discussed.
There are other books intended for wider audiences and meant as partly-biographical, partly-critical introductions: one of the best, sentence by sentence, if you want to introduce somebody to American modern (not contemporary) poetry, is probably this one... which stops not long after the Second World War. Other books organized around poets' lives go rather fast or imagine a student audience, or focus on one group... all valuable, yes, but not quite the analogue to Ross' book that I imagine someone someday is going to write.
That someone might be me: I've agreed to write... something... roughly... similar... myself over the next five or six years, with a lot less biography and fewer anecdotes, but nevertheless designed as an intro to a quadruple handful of twentieth-century poets and poems. I've just signed the contract, in fact, and have been looking around for models and analogies to the book I've agreed to write. Ross' book about music is certainly one.
Which brings me to my question of the day: if you were going to plan, or outline, or expect to read, such a book-- a first book, for grownups, about poetry in English, from modernism to last week-- what would you feel absolutely had to be in it? Which poets' lives seem especially relevant to their writing, and which would you abbreviate or omit in order to find more space to discuss the work? Where and how would you expect it to end?
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...