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The Poet's Mistake

What our tendency to justify the mistakes in poems reveals about our faith in poetry—and about how we read

Keats mixed up Cortez and Balboa. Heaney misremembered the name of one of Wordsworth's lakes. Poetry—even by the greats—is rife with mistakes. In The Poet's Mistake, critic and poet Erica McAlpine gathers together for the first time numerous instances of these errors, from well-known historical gaffes to never-before-noticed grammatical incongruities, misspellings, and solecisms. But unlike the many critics and other readers who consider such errors felicitous or essential to the work itself, she makes a compelling case for calling a mistake a mistake, arguing that denying the possibility of error does a disservice to poets and their poems.

Tracing the temptation to justify poets' errors from Aristotle through Freud, McAlpine demonstrates that the study of poetry's mistakes is also a study of critical attitudes toward mistakes, which are usually too generous—and often at the expense of the poet's intentions. Through remarkable close readings of Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, Clare, Dickinson, Crane, Bishop, Heaney, Ashbery, and others, The Poet's Mistake shows that errors are an inevitable part of poetry's making and that our responses to them reveal a great deal about our faith in poetry—and about how we read.

Author Information

Erica McAlpine is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford and a tutorial fellow at St Edmund Hall. She is the author of the poetry collection The Country Gambler.

Reviews

" The Poet's Mistake is a pleasure to read. McAlpine shows that there is something significant and revealing in the kind of error each poet makes—and that errors can become a sign of how a poet connects to the history of poetry itself." —Susan Stewart, Princeton University

"McAlpine is a superb reader with an extraordinary eye for detail. Each chapter of her valuable book is an important contribution to the study of the poet it examines."—Tim Kendall, University of Exeter

"The work of an accomplished poet, The Poet's Mistake is one of those rare critical books that is hard to put down. Beautifully written and original, it is a wonderfully engaging and agile meditation on truth and error, one that offers brilliant, eagle-eyed commentaries on some of the most inventive and idiosyncratic poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."—Hugh Haughton, University of York

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