- Mercy Sais
Lan Samantha Chang presents difficult questions in this thoughtful and provoking novel, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost: Is a poet born or made? What happens to the poetic imagination as time passes? What is the role of poetry in our time?
Gifted poet Miranda Sturgis mentors the young poets in her seminar. She asks: Why do we write poetry? Why do we want to pray or fall in love? Her student Roman Morris is ambitious, smug, self-centered, inconsiderate, insensitive and insecure. He has epic confrontations with women. He's a schmuck, but he's also a poet--a very talented one. Lan Samantha Chang contrasts him with his friend Bernard Sauvet, who is kind, sincere, hopeful, honest, has no interest in worldly achievement, and is also a wonderful poet. We watch the ebb and flow of the poets’ personal and professional lives.
Chang tells the poets’ stories with clarity and dispassion. She is a master of irony. She divides her book into three parts: A Poetic Education; An Imagined Life; and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. In the first part of the book, Miranda "bludgeons" their creative imaginations with her comments. She laments the diminished world of poetry where people no longer memorize and recite poems by Shakespeare, Blake and Shelley. We no longer turn to poetry when we seek 'truth.’ Fewer poets exist to write poems and little outside poetry’s small passionate world read them. Miranda will haunt the poets in her seminar for the rest of their lives. She also falls in love with one of her students. In part two, An Imagined Life, grown up poet Roman achieves poetic distinction with a book published with a prestigious prize, a teaching job, and a stable personal life with his wife Lucy-also a writer who has her talent on hold to become a wife and mother--and a son, but he is never satisfied. Bernard has taken a different path and has labored on one long poem and is living a life of poverty in New York. He has a project of corresponding with poets of our time.
Most of us have sat in English classes and read about the lives of poets: Edgar Allen Poe’s drunkenness, Emily Dickinson’s reclusiveness, John Keats short but productive life. In part three, Chang makes us wonder who will be forgotten and what will be remembered: We find Miranda’s influence as a poet has waned. Roman’s marriage has disintegrated and even though he has won a Pulitzer, he has lost his way poetically but has become more self-aware. The book has a perfect ending as Roman has a final conversation with Bernard.