Ira's Facebook page

In this capacious and energetic volume, Ira Sadoff argues that poets live and write within history, our artistic values always reflecting attitudes about both literary history and culture at large. History Matters does not return to the culture war that reduced complex arguments about human nature, creativity, identity, and interplay between individual and collective identity to slogans. Rather, Sadoff peels back layers of clutter to reveal the important questions at the heart of any complex and fruitful discussion about the connections between culture and literature.

Much of our most adventurous writing has occurred at history’s margins, simultaneously making use of and resisting tradition. By tracking key contemporary poets—including John Ashbery, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Louise Glück, Czeslaw Milosz, Frank O’Hara, and C. K. Williams—as well as musing on jazz and other creative enterprises, Sadoff investigates the lively poetic art of those who have grappled with late twentieth-century attitudes about history, subjectivity, contingency, flux, and modernity. In plainspoken writing, he probes the question of the poet’s capacity to illuminate and universalize truth. Along the way, we are called to consider how and why art moves and transforms human beings.

"If I hadn't read it, I'd never have thought this book could be possible in these, our moribund days of literary criticism, when everything counts for teachers of literature except literature itself. Ira Sadoff does literary criticism in what is now an almost unknown way: with a lover's riveted attention to the textures of his beloved's body. Sadoff's winning wager is that such attention yields revelations about the ways that poems inform us, change us, upend our normal habits of understanding—give us a world we'd never known before and cannot know in any other way. A thrilling and brave defense of poetry. A unique and, for me, heartwarming achievement." —Frank Lentricchia, author, Modernist Quartet, and coauthor, Crimes of Art and Terror

"Even when I disagree with Sadoff, I admire him. He’s a close reader, smart, wide-ranging, and he writes well. I'd rather read his essays on poetry than anyone else's, because he never fails to say many interesting and provocative things." —Charles Simic, Poet Laureate

"Ira Sadoff's History Matters passionately draws the complex connections between cultural and poetic practice and with this commitment reshapes the way in which poetry matters: as an ongoing, transforming medium that moves us to change. The work in the 'On the Margins' chapters is especially brilliant. It teaches us how to read experimental work."—Claudia Rankine, author, Plot, and coeditor, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics

"'If I want to be moved by a poem, the poem itself generally must be moving, which is to say mobile, emotionally, linguistically and syntactically,' Ira Sadoff writes in History Matters. I am compelled by much of Sadoff's examination—his appreciation—of how various poets have allowed a more complex notion of self to shape their work. He asks that poets recognize where they are in time, in the evolution of ideas, and demands of them more than a naïve invocation of the epiphanic, the finished mind. Sadoff speaks for emotional honesty, what he calls 'the interrogation' of the culture out of which our poems arise. Poets, then, create meaning in the act of writing the poem, to make that moment reflect the complex and contingent gathering and breaking of ideas. This is a vital book that looks beyond the postmodern tendency to focus on the nature and limits of language, at poems that speak with the force of a self, a person, precisely because the self remains fluid and changing within the poems." —Bob Hicok, author, This Clumsy Living


Chapter titles

Introduction (excerpt)
1. On the Margins: Verse Poems
2. On the Margins: Prose Poems
3. Mixed Messages: Hearing Voices
4. Form: Neoformalism Revisited
5. History Matters: a Minority Report
6. Louise Glück: the Failure of Romanticism
7. Trafficking in the Radiant: The Spiritualizing of American Poetry
8. Czeslaw Milosz: the Late Style
9. Strategic fictions: the Mobile architecture of Frank O’Hara’s Poetry
10. C.K. Williams and John Ashbery: on the Edge of Romanticism and the Postmodern
11. Olena Kaltyiak Davis: Revising Tradition -- the Retro-New


Published April 2009
Order from:
The U. of Iowa Press
119 W. Park Road
100 Kuhl Hous
Iowa City, IA 52242-1000
Buy it from Amazon

Cloth, ISBN 1-58729-797-3 $34.95