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?

Originally Published: October 4th, 2007

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...

  1. October 5, 2007
     John Bernard Myers

    Aren't you forgetting Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry by Kenneth Koch?

  2. October 5, 2007
     Don Share

    And also Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing, by Koch, again, along with Kate Farrell, though it obviously doesn't go up to last week.
    I'm biased in another direction, which would be to include poetry audio along the lines of Poetry Speaks - recordings accompanied by the texts, essays by good poets, reproductions of manuscript material and photos... but I'd say the poet's voice should be included. My 80-year old father, who'd never had any prior interest in poetry, recently heard a recording of the late Alan Dugan reading "Closing Time at the Second Avenue Deli" and got hooked!

  3. October 5, 2007

    Not so much: books about how to read poetry, and/or how to write poetry, for beginners are a different animal from books about how to read a given gaggle or a particular historical line of poets.
    By the way, are you related to this John Bernard Myers, or just an admirer of that important art-world figure and publisher?

  4. October 5, 2007

    The one book you haven't mentioned that pops to mind is Perkins's A History of Modern Poetry -- though it was years ago when I read it, and I remember the style as being pretty academic. But it was a useful critical overview.
    I haven't seen Ross's book yet, but I have a feeling it's going to be one of those spousal xmas gifts that are really for oneself. He's a wonderful writer, but you are too, so I think if you just concentrate on the sentences, the rest will fall into place.
    Come to think of it, didn't Camille Paglia's book attempt something like this? Not a comprehensive overview, but a layman's introduction to modern poetry as a pleasure. I wasn't enamored of it, but I wonder how well it did in general terms.

  5. October 7, 2007

    You can find my reaction to the Paglia book here.
    As for that Perkins book, what sticks in my mind most about it is the book he wrote later about whether he should have written it; that later book is one I recommend.
    "Not so much," above, refers to the Koch recommendation, not to Don's comments about audio. (I don't know what I think of audio in anthologies, except that it must be expensive for publishers.)

  6. October 10, 2007

    Could you fix the link to the Perkins, Steve? You linked to Paglia twice...