The Virtues of Poetry

The Virtues of Poetry
James Longenbach
“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? . . . 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
“James Longenbach is one of the finest scholar-critics working today. . . . The Virtues of Poetry examines ‘the virtues to which the next poem might aspire,’ which will obviously get the attention of poets but should also appeal to general readers. . . . The implicit advice of The Virtues of Poetry—always read for maximum complexity, and with maximum patience—is as valuable as it is frequently ignored.”—David Orr, The New York Times Book Review

About the Book

An illuminating look at the many forms of poetry’s essential excellence by James Longenbach, a writer with “an ear as subtle and assured as any American poet now writing”—John Koethe

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. James 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 art’s lasting virtues. 

Additional Reviews

"[Longenbach is] interested, among other things, in the moment of takeoff, that moment when language ceases to be simply a vehicle for meaning and in a poem becomes something more like us: alive, always moving from discovery to discovery and anchored by an infinite, unplumbable hope. . . . These essays are, by turns, beautiful, witty and wise and in the end they'll (hopefully) leave you better equipped to experience and enjoy great poems."Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
"[Longenbach] slices open poems with such grace, care and erudition that they aren't lessened by the dissection. . . . Predicated on the simple and elegant thesis that good poetry transcends trends, the book points to paired poetic "virtues" like excess and restraint or compression and dilation, and then shows how they work in harmony to make great poetry sing."NPR
"Longenbach's own great stylistic virtue is lucidity; his writing educates without obfuscating or condescending. . . . Above all, Longenbach keeps faith with the mystery at the heart of poems as well as the intellect's attempts to pierce it."Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Rewarding guide that can help us all more fully read poetry and appreciate its intricacies and its 'virtues.'"Shelf Awareness for Readers
"Like a man who takes clocks apart for the sheer joy of showing us the marvelous ways in which they work, James Longenbach displays a great talent for insightful close reading, a process through which he reveals the inner workings of a poem in ways that augment rather than diminish our wonder in reading it. . . . One of the chief virtues of James Longenbach's new book is its inclusiveness. This is a book for both the serious poet and the serious critic, for both the initiate the fully initiated, for both the adamantly classicist and the thoroughly modern."World Literature Today
"Glorious and beautiful. . . . Longenbach, throughout The Virtues of Poetry, helps slot individual poems in a larger context of the development of poetry, a gift to the reader almost inestimably large. It's a colossal book—get this now."Corduroy Books
"Virtues of Poetry offers an eminently enjoyable reading experience. Longenbach is a brilliant essayist and exquisite craftsman of prose. . . . For any lover of poetry and poetry's heroes and heroines, for anyone interested in further sensitizing their response to language, the book's a quick snack. Longenbach is upping the ante and setting the standard for smart, palatable criticism."Sycamore Review
"[The Virtues of Poetry is] criticism at its best."Washington Independent Review of Books
"These 12 essays . . . each unpack a poetic virtue—but not the ones your English teacher taught you to expect. . . . Longenbach's readings are wonderfully idiosyncratic."Zocalo Public Square
"[The Virtues of Poetry] is a lovely, lilting ode to poetry. . . This book teaches us, in the best way possible, how to read poetry, and it brings poems and poets alive in the process. . . . The Virtues of Poetry is like the primer on poetry you never had but always wanted."Pleiades
"[Logenbach is] a scholar, a critic, a teacher, and a poet himself. His equal mastery of these sometimes contradictory modes of thought enlivens what is best in these essays, a simultaneous grasp of context and craft."Arts Fuse
"Can an academic monograph make you tremble and shudder, sweat and cackle, tingle and swell? Can it move you more than any piece of fiction or poetry you've encountered in the past year? . . . . [The Virtues of Poetry] is a book all poets who care for their craft could benefit from."Lemon Hound
"Finally, a book about poetry by a critic devoted to the genre, unafraid to show his ardor for its complexities, nuances, difficulties, and contradictions, yet never guilty of so intellectualizing his responses that he neglects to display a tender regard for its virtues. In short, Longenbach writes criticism as pithy as poetry, reading closely, reading in context, linking poems and poets with each other, and doing it all with such clarity and fine articulations that this book should serve as a model for anyone who wants to write about or teach poetry. . . .The Virtues of Poetry is a once-in-a-generation book that deserves the close attention of anyone interested in an answer to the question, Why read poetry?"Choice Magazine
"Each essay is a delight to read. . . . Longenbach's writing itself displays man virtues, but the most impressive might be his ability to write clearly—and beautifully—about abstract concepts. . . . If there's a central thesis to The Virtues of Poetry, it might be this: that poetry is language at its most exuberant and at its most disciplined, and that that we couldn't have the one without the other."Commonweal Magazine