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More on Poet Biographies

A few times in recent months, I’ve referred to a set of poet biographies I did for last year’s course on The Art of the Poetic Line. I don’t know why I keep coming back to these, but I wanted to share something else I noticed about them. While these poets had incredible, individually beautiful lives, you don’t need to read the bios themselves to get a taste of that wonder. Just their birth and death dates and places say a lot. Take a look (deliberately organized by me for effect):

Walt Whitman, born 1819 in Long Island, died 1892 in Camden, NJ.

William Shakespeare, born 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, died 1616 in Stratford-upon-Avon.

William Carlos Williams, born 1883 in Rutherford, NJ; died 1963 in Rutherford, NJ.

Ezra Pound, born 1885 in Hailey, Idaho, raised in suburban Main Line Philadelphia, died 1972 in Venice, Italy.

Robert Herrick, born 1591 in London, died 1674 in Devonshire.

George Herbert, born 1593 in Montgomery, Wales, raised in London, died 1633 in Wiltshire, England.

John Milton, born 1608 in London, died 1674 in London.

William Blake, born 1757 in London, died 1827 in London.

Allen Ginsberg, born 1926 in Newark, NJ, died 1997 in New York City.

Richard Howard, born 1929 in Cleveland, died 2022 in New York City.

Marianne Moore, born 1887 in Kirkwood, MO, moved to Pennsylvania at age 6, died 1972 in New York City.

James Wright, born 1927 in Martins Ferry, OH, died 1980 in New York City.

George Oppen, born 1908 in the New York City suburbs, moved to San Francisco at age 9, died 1984 in Sunnyvale, CA.

James Joyce, born 1882 in Dublin, died 1941 in Zurich.

Robert Frost, born 1874 in San Francisco, moved to Massachusetts at age 11, died 1963 in Boston.

John Ashbery, born 1927 in Rochester, NY, died 2017 in Hudson, NY.

Emily Dickinson, born 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, died 1886 in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Louise Glück, born 1943 in New York City, raised on Long Island, died 2023 in Cambridge, MA.

Donald Justice, born 1925 in Miami, died 2004 in Iowa City.

C.D. Wright, born 1949 in Mountain Home, AR, died 2016 in Barrington, RI.

John Keats, born 1795 in London, died 1821 in Rome.

William Butler Yeats, born 1865 in a suburb of Dublin, died 1939 in Menton, France (while traveling).


This may be a preoccupation specific to me. To be fair, the poignancy, resonance, or narrative embedded in some statements may be more obvious (John Keats) than others (John Ashbery, C.D. Wright). Knowing the poets at hand, or at least the places, helps a lot with the full impact. And the sentences for, say, Milton or Ginsberg – who died within 20 miles of where they were born – may seem to leave out so much of their journeys, even in terms of simply how well-traveled they were. Still, while they may leave out much of the tapestry of a life, I’m not sure any of the statements above are misleading. They may, though, show the tendency of the human mind to fill in a narrative.

For me, meditating on these facts belies the argument that historical facts are boring. Rather, what seems mundane can be quite evocative. Even a list can spark a debate.

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