The Lives of the Poets

In December Jeff wrote a comment on this blog about his reading plans for the winter break.  I’d been meaning to write something about the biographies of poets, and his comment came at a very welcome moment:

I have insane reading habits that come with doing scholarship (like reading about twenty books at once), but one book that will take up big chunks of time is Elizabeth Friedmann’s biography, A Mannered Grace: The Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson. I’ve already started it. It’s a rich, sympathetic, factually correcting account of a life much abused in print by scholars, filial biographers with an axe to grind, former colleagues, and others who just throw some poison at the subject for the helluvit. Whether it will ultimately correct…so one turns the page. J0182686

I tend to avoid reading poet’s biographies in general, but over the years I have made a few exceptions. I really did enjoy the Elizabeth Bishop biography by Brett Millier, but it may be mostly a personal connection that I feel about her life story and my own.  That book is called Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It.  The narrative of the biography continually transported me to and from the poems.  The reading experience made the poetry more interesting to me.  This was cool because I already knew the poems well when I read Millier’s book. 

I may enjoy reading biographies of painters and artists more than those of poets.  I’m not sure how to analyze that fact either, but it seems possibly true.  I read an Andrew Wyeth biography one summer and was enthralled with this possessed man who painted night and day and night and day.  Over the years I’ve found the lives of Paul Klee and Louise Nevelson equally fascinating. 

There’s something about many of the poet biographies I’ve read that bothers me.  They feel invasive to me and somehow irrelevant to the poetry itself.  But I would love for you to change my mind on this. 


  1. i read lots of poets bios–and their letters: frank o’hara, delmore schwartz, weldon kees, wallace stevens, edna st. vincent millay, i just got louise bogan’s in maine, etc. for me, they put things in perspective. the outlandish characters like schwartz and the tamer ones like stevens give me a sense of the wide range of possibilities inherent in “living poetry.” it’s also great to read about the struggles to get books out and stay in print, the defeats and as well as the successes. really, the brad gooch o’hara bio is just plain fun and gossipy. e. bishop’s letter are fantastic too, if you haven’t read those. the last one was written the day she died–i cried!

  2. I would put the case in reverse: is the biography irrelevant to the poetry, or is the proper judgment of the poetry (of which insight would be instrument) irrelevant to the struggle of that person’s life, to which poetry may be either here or there?
    I agree that we read these things because we want to know how to live. If Frank O’Hara’s elan is what gets to you, great. Laura (Riding) Jackson published only a handful of poems after 1938, when she was 37 years old. She lived 53 more years. First she and her husband tried to sell their Florida grove’s citrus through a shipping business, then, when her husband’s depression presented too great a challenge, they sold that and continued to work on their writing, with Jackson getting perhaps three grants (Guggenheim, NEA and something else), which she lived on the rest of her life. She published a (great) book in 1972, The Telling. She sold some things to little magazines, and wrote letters trying to correct the abuse she suffered in print from a half-dozen poets who had learned to resent her. These stories still circulate. In May, when I was at a research library in the East, a curator told me yet another — completely unsupported by any evidence. She was somebody who understood the poison in the literary culture. I could tell Robin in an email what some of this stuff was; in private correspondence I could trust Robin would know what to do with it. But in a book review (or on a blog), would one even grace that allegations by repeating them?
    That’s what I mean by Friedmann’s biography being a correcting work. She goes through them, one by one. Laura (Riding) Jackson puts, again, the case for the proximity of the work to the life.

  3. There’s a very gossipy bio. out about May Sarton, who wrote poetry and prose during her lifetime. She died maybe 12 years ago, and then this “tell-all” bio. came out. I had read her back in the seventies, when her journals were coming out (“Journal of a Solitude,” etc.). Her life was fascinating, but finally I began being suspicious of her truthfulness. It was like she was being persuaded by her own prose that her life was ideal and happy. I began to doubt it.
    Anyway, this is a long way of saying that’s one poet’s bio. that I have on my to-read list.
    Another poet whose memoirs I loved is Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club, Cherry). She’s got a wonderful ear.
    And another literary bio. that readers of this blog might like is editor Maxwell Perkins’s bio. by Scott Berg.

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