“I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death,” wrote John Keats on the eve of his twenty-third birthday. Although Keats and some of his immediate contemporaries had fears that he left behind no immortal work, his reputation is now inviolable. It rests significantly on the strength of his great odes, which refashioned the lyric into an instrument of sensitivity, thought and power. His letters are a separate and absolute achievement. In a paroxysm of frustration at the inadequacy of prose, Shelley wrote: “These words are ineffectual and metaphorical. Most words are so—No help!” Yet Keats found the words. We return and return to his formulations, “the vale of soul-making,” “negative capability,” and poetic impersonality. There is distinct loss in reading these statements of profound intelligence and sensibility decorously isolated in quotation marks and something peculiar, human and wonderful about encountering the famous definition of negative capability introduced by a gossipy description of a dinner party.
It was only when I pulled The Poem's Heartbeat from the shelf, that I realized how long I had been looking for something exactly like it. The poet Alfred Corn taught prosody, the “art or study of versification,” at Columbia. On the evidence of this small, indispensable volume, he was a remarkable teacher. Corn assumes no prior reading or knowledge, only a sincere interest and a willingness to listen to the “inner ear.” As he builds from so simple a beginning to explore the full richness of poetic practice, he never slights ambiguities or slouches into mystification. Its apt examples make it incidentally a choice little anthology. As is natural for a guidebook that combines great clarity with great scope, you will find yourself disagreeing with some of well-turned pronouncements. Like a good professor transmuting a student’s stammered inkling into an insightful question, however, Corn’s manual lends these demurrals clarity, rigor and a cogency. The Poem’s Heartbeat is an education.
After taking his degree at Oxford, Timothy Garton Ash went to Cold War Berlin to study German resistance to the Nazism. As he lived and traveled behind the Iron Curtain, he recorded the personal and intellectual intensity of his youth at the hinge of history. The Stasi, the East German secret police, also watched and took notes. After the wall fell, the Stasi files were opened, revealing in every detail a scheme of social control both insidiously malign and grimly bureaucratic. Garton Ash tracks down and interviews those who tracked and informed on him—out of fear, cupidity, ideological conviction and a preference for the path of least resistance. What emerges is a portrait of an ineluctably compromised society. The File's remarkable admixture of deep political erudition, engagé directness and pellucid style marks Garton Ash as a worthy heir to George Orwell and Isaiah Berlin.