The Canadian poet, Roger White(1929-1993), would have liked George Bernard Shaw's views on biography. The facts of writers' lives, wrote Shaw, have no more to do with their writing ability than the shape of their nose. White used to quote Rabindranath Tagore on this biographical theme: 'the poem not the poet,' as Tagore put the theme succinctly. White felt that his life was, to use Shaw's words, biographically uninteresting. I don't think, though, that White's life, among those lives of the other minor poets to whose ranks he himself claimed to belong, could be said to be so unvarying and, therefore, so uninteresting.
White did not want to diminish his work by restoring it to the particularities of what he felt was his mundane biographical context. And so there is little in my book on his poetry of what that significant biographer and poet in our early modern period, Samuel Johnson, referred to as "domestic privacies" and "the minute details of daily life."
The jacket flap of The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Poetry in English edited by Ian Hamilton launched into the following trumpeted conclusion, that ‘20th-century poets have lived far from humdrum lives’:
Twenty-seven of the poets in this collection published in 1994 had nervous breakdowns, 19 served time in jail, 14 died in battle, three were murdered, one executed. One played hockey for his country. There were 15 suicides, and one poet who staged his own death only to reappear, still writing poetry, under a new name.
“This is a first run-through of poetry since 1900,” writes poetry critic Helen Vendler in her review of this anthology. “In 2500 AD, if the world is still here and publishers are still sponsoring surveys”, writes Vendler, “the 1500 poets included in this volume will have shrunk to about fifty.”
The small ‘mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease’ in the 20th century has now swollen to a throng of men and women who write with intent. This reader, at least, shrinks before the sheer weight of publication represented by these 1500 writers of verse in this 1994 anthology. Now, in cyberspace, there is an avalanche.