“If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.” —Michael Longley
Below are some of my favorite #longreads that fall under the umbrella of “the lives of the poets.” Each is paired with a favorite poem by the poet in question. Quite a few of these stories are personal, not just about the poet, but about the authors of the pieces themselves. Which is unsurprising, especially because, as Billy Collins put it in a 2001 Globe and Mail piece: “You don’t read poetry to find out about the poet, you read poetry to find out about yourself.”
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1. ‘River of Berman,’ by Thomas Beller (Tablet Magazine, Dec. 13, 2012)
David Berman is perhaps best known for his work with the indie-rock band Silver Jews, but his poetry is a thing to behold, as accessible as it is awesome (in the true sense of the word). Beller’s piece, a “tribute to the free-associating genius of the Silver Jews,” delves not just into the beauty of Berman’s free-association, but also his Judaism, his place in the New York literary scene of the 1990s, and his public pain.
Poem: “Self Portrait at 28” by David Berman
2. ‘The Long Goodbye,’ by Ben Ehrenreich (Poetry Magazine, Jan. 2008)
The details of poet Frank Stanford’s life are as labyrinth-like as his most famous work, an epic poem titled, “The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You.” His life was in many ways a series of contradictions: his childhood was divided between the privilege of an upper-crust Memphis family and summers deep in the Mississippi Delta; he was a backwoods outsider who maintained correspondence with poets ranging from Thomas Lux to Allen Ginsberg; and posthumously, he is both little-known and a cult figure in American letters. In seeking to unravel the man behind the myth, Ehrenreich heads deep into the lost roads of Arkansas: the result is a haunting and vivid portrait of both Stanford’s life and his own quest.
Poem: “The Truth” by Frank Stanford
3. ‘Zen Master: Gary Snyder and the Art of Life,’ by Dana Goodyear (New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2008)
Dana Goodyear’s profile of Gary Snyder provides a rich rendering of the Beat poet, Buddhist, and California mountain man.
Poem: “Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin” by Gary Snyder
4. ‘On Sylvia Plath,’ by Elizabeth Hardwick (New York Review of Books, Aug. 12, 1971)
It is likely that if you have made it this far down the list you already know a fair amount about Sylvia Plath, but what makes this piece interesting is Elizabeth Hardwick’s take on her, and her lovely, clear-eyed prose. Hardwick, who co-founded the New York Review of Books, was herself no stranger to the lives of poets, having spent 23 years married to Robert Lowell. It is also—maybe—of interest that the same girls who fall mercilessly hard for Plath at 16 and 21 and often discover Hardwick with a similar fervor a few years down the road (myself included).
5. ‘Robert Lowell’s Lightness,’ by Diantha Parker (Poetry Magazine, Nov. 2010)
Widely considered one of the most important 20th century American poets, Lowell’s biographer called him “the poet-historian of our time.” Parker’s piece examines a much more personal history, that of Lowell’s relationship with her father, painter Frank Parker.