Drinks with Dead Poets | Book Review

“Every word, phrase or sentence spoken by the literary figures in this book is drawn verbatim from their letters, diaries, journals, or essays.” – Preface

33011553The main character is a professor by the name of “Glyn Maxwell” (name of Author) who finds himself in a dream-like, quaint, rustic, village school. There’s a pub, a church, all like in the old days. He must teach a semester-long course on poetry.  He is charismatic, funny, and passionate–a bit like Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society.

He is given this syllabus to teach: “Reading List for Elective Poetry Module” featuring a week on each one of these poets: Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Brontes, Coleridge. Poe (on Halloween), Clare, Yeats, Whitman, Browning, Byron.

Each lesson feels like you, the reader, are present in a small seminar at University where the students can freely joke with the professor and also become fully engaged with the material—and the professor is passionate, and charismatic as he decomposes poems, discusses the poet(s), and asks thought-provoking questions. The lecture is followed by a vivid ‘hallucination’ or imagining that the narrator is meeting the poet in discussion. This whole book is a dream-like state. The dead poets talk to the narrator, get invited to class where they are publicly interviewed and they share anecdotes. They also explore parts of this town like the library, or pub. I enjoy the ways in which the whole text is full of literary references. For example if a student jokes a bit too much the teacher announces that ‘Yorrick’ is in the class. Simultaneously it merges the past with the present. Students for instance pick up that Bob Dylan songs have Poe references, as do Hitchcock films. I was more intrigued by the poets I genuinely like (Dickinson, Poe, and Whitman) because I was curious what Maxwell would do with them, and what new things I might learn about them. I found there were many funny parts, like when the narrator/author tries to write a letter to Walt Whitman but he just can’t get it right, because it sounds too much like something a teenage fan-girl would write, so he crumples up every draft thanking his lucky stars he didn’t ‘send it.’

Here are some of my favourite lines

Keats Lecture:

“poems that stay stay because the body feels them”

Dickinson Lecture:

“You can’t teach Emily Dickinson, you can’t write like her either. You no more have to write in her stanzas than you have to write limericks or clerihews. But you do have to absorb that she wrote about everything else she could think of—herself, others, life, death, God, Time, being here, being gone—in little quatrains shaped like hymns, rhymed or half rhymed, mostly four beats then three beats, four, three, stanza-break, and she barely left her bedroom…what you owe to such a poet is a true pause for thought.”

The visit to the library (with Emily):

“There are old books on every stall, twelve stalls, volumes and volumes, and great swathes of canvas thrown back behind the hardwood frames as if to protect them when needed.”

(A draft) Letter to Whitman:

“There’s more Life than there is Art, your poems seem to say, and the glory is in the reach, the stretch, the straining ever upwards like plant-life in the sunshine.”

I really enjoyed this book, and it really comes across as a work of passion. I wish I would have spread it out and read the poet alongside each chapter so that it feels like a real course. One can see that the author is well-versed and well-acquainted with the poets he teaches. The whole work felt like a love letter to these poets. I hope that if this work gets worked into an audiobook there will be more voices for each student and they find suitable voice actors for the dead poets because the whole work is mostly in dialogue and it would be fascinating to experience it that way—something like the way they recorded Lincoln in the Bardo. I thought it was well written, and captures the poets spot on because as the preface mentions the words, the attempt to reconstruct them, and capture their spirit comes from the poets’ archives and is probably as close as we will ever get to them.

I strongly recommend this book to readers who enjoy poetry, have liked studying poetry, want to learn any more about the poets listed, and who like 19th century literature from the Western Canon. Again, the feeling I had reading this was akin to sitting in a University lecture taught by a great professor…and that is a very pleasant feeling.

The book is scheduled to be published in August by Pegasus Books. Click here for link.

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