The best books about poets and politics

Why am I passionate about this?

As a teenager, I “discovered” the poetry of Emily Dickinson and put her verse to music. Later, at Yale University I delved deeper into the power of rhythms, the beauty of images, the clarity of insights—how they combine to create a genuine poetic voice that reveals an interior world. Politics, of course, define our interactions in the exterior world, and great novels meld these two elements—poetry and politics—into a seamless union. I’ve been inspired to write novels about two poets—Emily Dickinson and John Keats—to bring the reader into the intense, poetic world of their blazing interiors and their unique outward politics.


I wrote...

The Voice at the Door

By James Sulzer,

Book cover of The Voice at the Door

What is my book about?

The Voice at the Door is a story of poetic genius and personal politics—a love story that recreates the fateful meeting of Emily Dickinson with the famous Philadelphia pastor, Charles Wadsworth. The fictional account weaves the letters and poems of this iconic American writer into a rich tapestry of intellectual and spiritual communion.  It encompasses the three great mysteries of Emily Dickinson’s life: her agonized love poetry of the early 1860s, her partial blindness in 1863 – 1865, and her subsequent withdrawal from the world.

The novel brings to life an Emily Dickinson who possesses the intellectual rigor, the naivete, the eccentricity, the passion, the despair, and the sly humor that we know and love from her poetry.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

James Sulzer Why did I love this book?

Lincoln in the Bardo is a compelling, harrowing novel about our greatest American political leader, and probably one of our greatest poets as well. Abraham Lincoln, in raw grief at the death of his beloved son Willie, soars in his humanity and intelligence, and resolve above the strange but beautiful world of this novel—a kind of transitional place between life and death. No book about politics has captured so well the tangled web of the personal and the political in a complex world.

The power of the spectral afterworld in this novel convinced me to cast my novel about John Keats, Writ in Water, in a similar place of transition. 

By George Saunders,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Lincoln in the Bardo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017 A STORY OF LOVE AFTER DEATH 'A masterpiece' Zadie Smith 'Extraordinary' Daily Mail 'Breathtaking' Observer 'A tour de force' The Sunday Times The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns…


Book cover of My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson

James Sulzer Why did I love this book?

In contrast to my first pick, My Wars are Laid Away in Books is a calm, scholarly, relentless search for the literal facts of the life of a great but enigmatic poet—Emily Dickinson. Habegger also shows considerable literary acumen in analyzing the context and vigor, and passions of Dickinson’s poetry. Though other biographies of Dickinson are better known, this is the one that gave me the best factual basis for my book, my intensely poetic novel about Dickinson’s personal politics and astonishing genius.

By Alfred Habegger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Wars Are Laid Away in Books as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Emily Dickinson, probably the most loved and certainly the greatest of American poets, continues to be seen as the most elusive. One reason she has become a timeless icon of mystery for many readers is that her developmental phases have not been clarified. In this exhaustively researched biography, Alfred Habegger presents the first thorough account of Dickinson’s growth–a richly contextualized story of genius in the process of formation and then in the act of overwhelming production.

Building on the work of former and contemporary scholars, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books brings to light a wide range of new…


Book cover of All the King's Men

James Sulzer Why did I love this book?

Harsh politics and tender poetic feelings: All the King’s Men is a classic novel about the rise and fall of a would-be dictator named Willie Stark. But it’s also about the personal lives of the people behind the power struggles—especially the bemused, poetic narrator, Jack Burden, who loses the love of his life, Anne Stanton, to the increasingly tyrannical Stark. As a teenager I fell in love with the love story. This novel convinced me of the power of combining the personal and the public, which I am working on in my new novel about the Black Panther rally in New Haven in 1970.

By Robert Penn Warren,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked All the King's Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 16.

What is this book about?

Willie Stark's obsession with political power leads to the ultimate corruption of his gubernatorial administration.


Book cover of Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party

James Sulzer Why did I love this book?

This is a complete history of the Black Panther party in the US—its origins, its leaders, its political struggles, its accomplishments and controversies, and its ultimate dissolution. The unique poetry of the Panthers’ public pronouncements—by Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and others—comes vividly to life, as people of color confront a world of limited horizons and thwarted desires. In my new novel, I meld these voices with the beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg (who was a central figure in the 1970s New Haven gathering).

By Joshua Bloom, Waldo E. Martin Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black against Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Oakland, California, in 1966, community college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton armed themselves, began patrolling the police, and promised to prevent police brutality. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement that called for full citizenship rights for blacks within the U.S., the Black Panther Party rejected the legitimacy of the U.S. government and positioned itself as part of a global struggle against American imperialism. In the face of intense repression, the Party flourished, becoming the center of a revolutionary movement with offices in 68 U.S. cities and powerful allies around the world. Black against Empire is the first comprehensive overview…


Book cover of Happiness

James Sulzer Why did I love this book?

Happiness is a gentle, insightful, poetic depiction of the politics of nature in London, England—specifically, the treatment of urban foxes in the midst of human activity. The layers of life (children, adults, foxes, falcons, street cleaners, psychiatrists, immigrants, landowners) interact here in ways deeply moving and insightful, reminding me of the central question in much of my writing: the boundaries between our private, poetic perceptions and the politics of survival.

By Aminatta Forna,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Forna's voice is relentlessly compelling, her ability to summon atmosphere extraordinary ... A thing of lasting beauty' OBSERVER SHORTLISTED FOR THE RSL ONDAATJE PRIZE 2019 SHORTLISTED FOR THE JHALAK PRIZE 2019 A breathtaking novel from Orange Prize-shortlisted and Commonwealth Writers' Prize-winning author Aminatta Forna Waterloo Bridge, London. Two strangers collide. Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist, and Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes. From this chance encounter in the midst of the rush of a great city, numerous moments of connections span out and interweave, bringing disparate lives together. Attila has arrived in London with two tasks: to deliver…


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Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

Book cover of Kanazawa

David Joiner Author Of Kanazawa

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

My book recommendations reflect an abiding passion for Japanese literature, which has unquestionably influenced my own writing. My latest literary interest involves Japanese poetry—I’ve recently started a project that combines haiku and prose narration to describe my experiences as a part-time resident in a 1300-year-old Japanese hot spring town that Bashō helped make famous in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as a writer, my main focus remains novels. In late 2023 the second in a planned series of novels set in Ishikawa prefecture will be published. I currently live in Kanazawa, but have also been lucky to call Sapporo, Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui home at different times.

David's book list on Japanese settings not named Tokyo or Kyoto

What is my book about?

Emmitt’s plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of purchasing their dream home. Disappointed, he’s surprised to discover her subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo.

In his search for a meaningful life in Japan, and after quitting his job, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa’s most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English. He becomes drawn into the mysterious death of a friend of Mirai’s parents, leading him and his father-in-law to climb the mountain where the man died. There, he learns the somber truth and discovers what the future holds for him and his wife.

Packed with subtle literary allusion and closely observed nuance, Kanazawa reflects the mood of Japanese fiction in a fresh, modern incarnation.

Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

What is this book about?

In Kanazawa, the first literary novel in English to be set in this storied Japanese city, Emmitt's future plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of negotiations to purchase their dream home. Disappointed, he's surprised to discover Mirai's subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo, a city he dislikes.

Harmony is further disrupted when Emmitt's search for a more meaningful life in Japan leads him to quit an unsatisfying job at a local university. In the fallout, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa's most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English.

While continually resisting Mirai's…


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