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A Little History of Poetry, by
John Carey

A Little History of Poetry by John Carey

Published: March 10, 2020

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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

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. 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. This little history shines a light on the richness and variation of the world’s poems—and the elusive quality that makes them all the more enticing.

Some reviews

‘[A] fizzing, exhilarating book’  – Sebastian Faulks, The Sunday Times

‘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 The Sunday Times, ‘Best Books of 2020’

‘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

‘This characterfully compered mini-anthology would make a great guide for anyone just beginning to explore poetry, at any age.’ – David Sexton, Evening Standard

‘Carey is a welcoming host, full of enthusiasm…He can throw sparkling light on a poet’s method in a handful of words.’  – Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

‘Exhilarating’  – Bel Mooney, Daily Mail

‘[A] short but impressively comprehensive account of poetry’ – Duncan Ferguson, The Herald

‘[F]or more than 50 years, his taut, spry, flexible, idiomatic style has enabled [Carey] to engage a large non-specialist audience without, for the most part, stinting his deep infectious belief that literature is serious, and matters.’  – Leo Robson, New Statesman

‘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

‘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!

Just some of the remarkable people in this book

About the author

John Carey

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 …

More about John Carey

About the illustrator

Nick Morley is an artist and illustrator based in Margate. He makes prints and drawings in his studio at the Pie Factory A particular passion is linocuts, which Nick promotes through his Linocutboy blog, exhibitions, writings and workshops.

More about Nick Morley