A Little History of Poetry

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John Carey

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A vital, engaging, and hugely enjoyable guide to poetry, from ancient times to the present, by one of our greatest champions of literature--selected as the literature book of the year by the London Times
“[A] fizzing, exhilarating book.”—Sebastian Faulks, Sunday Times, London

“Delightful.’”—New York Times Book Review
What is poetry? If music is sound organized in a particular way, poetry is a way of organizing language. It is language made special so that it will be remembered and valued. It does not always work—over the centuries countless thousands of poems have been forgotten. But this Little History is about some that have not.
John Carey tells the stories behind the world’s greatest poems, from the oldest surviving one written nearly four thousand years ago to those being written today. Carey looks at poets whose works shape our views of the world, such as Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Yeats. He also looks at more recent poets, like Derek Walcott, Marianne Moore, and Maya Angelou, who have started to question what makes a poem “great” in the first place.
For readers both young and old, this little history shines a light for readers on the richness of the world’s poems—and the elusive quality that makes them all the more enticing.

John Carey is emeritus professor at Oxford. His books include The Essential Paradise Lost, What Good Are the Arts?, studies of Donne and Dickens, and a biography of William Golding. The Unexpected Professor, his memoir, was a Sunday Times best-seller.

“[The] book reviewer and Oxford don has great fun, galloping through 4,000 years of verse. Reputations are flayed and poetic gems are uncovered.”—Robbie Millen and Andrew Holgate, The Times and Sunday Times, “Best Books of 2020”

“Warm in tone, informative, generous in its sympathies, inviting in its choices, with a clear emphasis on human stories underpinning poetic achievement.”—Emma Smith, author of This is Shakespeare

“This wonderfully positive and vivid history is a delight on every page ... Carey’s sparkling Little History of Poetry is an astonishingly full introduction to English poetry from Beowulf to the present, set in a framework extending in place and time from Gilgamesh to Akhmatova and Seferis.”—Bernard O'Donoghue, Winner of the Whitbread Poetry Award

“Here is an informative, fast-moving book … Like Carey’s previous works, it’s forceful as well as clear, and it’s populist, no-nonsense and anti-elite in its sympathies. Many people may find new favourites here.”—Stephanie Burt, Professor of English, Harvard University

“Books about poetry are rarely page turners, but Carey’s little history is gripping, is unputdownable! Reading this book and its galaxy of poets is like looking up at the sky and seeing the whole wheeling and constellated universe.”—Daljit Nagra, author of Look We Have Coming to Dover!

“In this clever, wide-ranging history, British literary critic Carey provides a tour of Western poetry, from Homer to Maya Angelou. Each brief chapter tackles one or more poets representative of a particular era, with excerpts from their works, brief accounts of their lives, and Carey’s insightful critical commentaries. . . . Those looking for a shrewdly condensed and accessible history of poetry could not ask for a better guide.”—Publishers Weekly

“A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray. . . . Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.”—Kirkus Reviews

 “[A] fizzing, exhilarating book”—Sebastian Faulks, Sunday Times

“An elegant history of poetry, what it is, what it does, why it matters, written in an authoritative and engaging voice. Masterly.”—Ruth Padel, author of 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem

“Carey’s delightful survey never takes itself or its subject too seriously. ‘Over the centuries countless thousands of poems have been forgotten,’ he writes. ‘This is a book about some that have not.’”—New York Times Book Review

“Don’t let the diminutive title fool you. This is an expansive, not to mention accessible, tour of poetry’s importance and evolution, from ‘Beowulf’ to Shakespeare to Maya Angelou and beyond.”—Washington Post 2020 Holiday Gift Guide

“Few modern literature professors are capable of writing a book as interesting and mischievous as this.”—James Marriott, The Times ‘Best Literary Non-Fiction Books of 2020’

“An Oxford don, John Carey has a remarkably unpretentious and encyclopedic knowledge of names, places, poems, poets, and poetic moments and movements, which he evinces while offering a subtle critique of modernist obscurity.”—James P. Lenfestey, Rain Taxi

“This supremely compact and erudite introduction doesn’t just pack in a bunch of facts and potted biographies, it somehow manages to convey the transcendent glory of the form through the ages, whether it’s sagas, hymns, ballads or verse...Carey is frighteningly well informed but always accessible, and this guide will offer riches whether you’re a total newbie or a poetry buff.”—Sybille Bedford, The Sunday Times 'Best Literary Books of 2020' 


“As an introduction to poetry, and a reminder of its power to find beauty and consolation in almost every human experience, this anthology is a delight.”—Jane Shilling, Daily Mail ‘Must Reads'
ISBN: 9780300255034
Publication Date: March 9, 2021
320 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
40 b/w illus.
100 Poets

A Little Anthology

John Carey

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