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The Virtues of Poetryby James Longenbach
Synopses & Reviews
An illuminating look at the many forms of poetrys essential excellence by James Longenbach, a writer with “an ear as subtle and assured as any American poet now writing” (John Koethe)
“This book proposes some of the virtues to which the next poem might aspire: boldness, change, compression, dilation, doubt, excess, inevitability, intimacy, otherness, particularity, restraint, shyness, surprise, and worldliness. The word ‘virtue came to English from Latin, via Old French, and while it has acquired a moral valence, the word in its earliest uses gestured toward a magical or transcendental power, a power that might be embodied by any particular substance or act. With vices I am not concerned. Unlike the short-term history of taste, which is fueled by reprimand or correction, the history of art moves from achievement to achievement. Contemporary embodiments of poetrys virtues abound, and only our devotion to a long history of excellence allows us to recognize them.” -from James Longenbachs preface
The Virtues of Poetry is a resplendent and ultimately moving work of twelve interconnected essays, each of which describes the way in which a particular excellence is enacted in poetry. Longenbach closely reads poems by Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats, Pound, Bishop, and Ashbery (among others), sometimes exploring the ways in which these writers transmuted the material of their lives into art, and always emphasizing that the notions of excellence we derive from art are fluid, never fixed. Provocative, funny, and astute, The Virtues of Poetry is indispensable for readers, teachers, and writers. Longenbach reminds us that poetry delivers meaning in exacting ways, and that it is through its precision that we experience this arts lasting virtues.
"How can we ask our poets both for careful technique and for wild surprise? How can we even talk about poetry in general — how it works, what makes it good, how to read it — if the best poems stand apart from all rules, all programs? Longenbach (The Iron Key) enjoyed an international reputation as a scholar of modern poetry for more than a decade before his own verse found success; in this collection of essays, more than in any of his previous books, the poet's hand and the critical ear combine. Robert Lowell, Emily Dickinson, and John Ashbery get star turns in some chapters, but the presiding spirits, examined at length, are W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and William Shakespeare, who show how poems need restraint and excess, craft and mystery, how literary style can seem 'more magical than logical' and yet make sense when examined, and how 'the thought provoked by the poem's occasion' can drive both lyric and dramatic verse into new forms of 'discovery, as unpredictably linear as it is purposeful.' Never too academic, Longenbach introduces not just great writers, but ways to think about them, ways to see how their works confront death, pursue self-doubt, and overcome their own initial limits." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
James Longenbach is a poet and critic. He is the author of The Art of the Poetic Line and several other critical works, as well as four collections of poetry, including The Iron Key. He is Joseph Henry Gilmore Professor of English at the University of Rochester.
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