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A dazzling account of the entire history of poetry in the English language -- from the fourteenth century to the present -- by one of the most intelligent and passionate critics in the field.
Setting out to write his own homage to Samuel Johnson's legendary Lives of the English Poets of more than two hundred years ago, Michael Schmidt introduces us to the world tradition of poets who have written in English. From the rustic rhythms of Piers Plowman to today's postmodernists, from fifteenth-century Scotland to the contemporary Caribbean, Schmidt explores the lives and creations of more than three hundred poets, discussing their best (and sometimes worst) poems, their triumphs and tragedies, their individual genius. Here is the shared universe and work of so many great poets, including Chaucer, Donne, Blake, Behn, Burns, Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, Rossetti, Yeats, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Ginsberg, Rich and Heaney, to name but a few. Schmidt also embraces the extraordinary poetry now emerging from Australia, New Zealand, India and other countries, and shows how these varied landscapes and cultures make their contributions to our common language. Tracing the themes and achievements of each poet's work, Schmidt demonstrates with wit and erudition how poets overshadow and inspire one another across the centuries. En route, he champions some unjustly neglected voices and outlines the ways in which history and politics intervene to shape (or sometimes misshape) the poetic imagination.
With infectious enthusiasm and avoiding all fashionable jargon, Schmidt speaks unapologetically for a common language -- the language of poetry, which unites people across continents and across the ages. For anyone who has ever been moved by a poem, a rich and important book.
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Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets should engender endless debates. Anytime anyone attempts a project this monumental--nothing less than the entire history of poetry in English, after all!--plenty of people will disagree with how he or she goes about it. Take, for example, the fact that Schmidt crams 500 years of poetry (Richard Rolle of Hampole through Walt Whitman) into the first half of his massive tome, then spreads a mere century and a half (Emily Dickinson to the present) across the rest. And even 900-plus pages isn't enough space to treat every poet equally--indeed, it may be that Schmidt's choices will spark the liveliest disagreements. Then there are his various pronunciamentos on poetry itself--everything from its form to its influences. But no matter what you may think of Schmidt's methods or conclusions, his credentials are above reproach. Editor of PN Review and founder and editorial director of Carcanet Press, he is a man both passionate and knowledgeable about poetry--and poets. While Schmidt does, indeed, provide biographical information about his subjects, it is with their inner lives, their imaginative landscapes, that he is chiefly concerned. Open the book to almost any page or any era, and you'll find detailed analyses of not only the poems themselves but also the times, the culture, and the literary antecedents that affected them. Of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound he writes: "Eliot and Pound rebelled together against what they saw as the misuse of free or unmetered verse." And in discussing Eliot's The Waste Land, he remarks:
In The Waste Land he demanded to be read differently from other poets. He alters our way of reading for good, if we read him properly. The poem does not respond to analysis of its meanings--meanings cannot be detached from the texture of the poetry itself.In addition to giving the analytical part of the reader's brain a good workout, as he parses everyone from Spenser to Ashbery to Walcott, Schmidt offers up plenty of idiosyncratic opinion that will alternately raise hackles or set heads nodding in vigorous agreement. This may not be the most objective treatment of poetry to come down the pike, but it is an invaluable--and deeply entertaining--reference. --Margaret Prior From the Publisher:
A conversation with, Michael Schmidt, author of Lives of the Poets
Q: Lives of the Poets discusses more than 300 poets. How long did it take you to compile all of this information? Was it a difficult process?
A: I have been compiling information for the book all my life. Poetry has been my chief interest since I was seven or eight. I have taught poetry for thirty years at universities in the UK. The actual writing of the book was relatively quick -- feverish, even. It took just over ten months to write. It was not a difficult process: it was a pleasure to re-read work I had not reconsidered for twenty or thirty years, and to make new discoveries.
Q: How did you decide which poets to include and which to leave out?
A: I included poets whose work I loved or hated, and then poets whose work I came to love during the writing of the book, especially in the eighteenth century. On the whole I suppose I chose the poets who were the exceptions, and therefore the exceptional. I went out of my way to include women writers from earlier periods and to put the record straight, or straighter. I do have a notion of canon and canonicity, but I believe it is expandable, an open and adaptable resource.
Q: Your discussion spans roughly 600 years -- what event, in your opinion, was the most influential on poetry?
A: There's not much doubt: it was the birth of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose full-grown genius is a miracle and a mystery. His emergence is more miraculous even than Shakespeare's.
Q: What do you mean? Are you saying that Chaucer was more brilliant than Shakespeare?
A: I don't mean that Chaucer is more brilliant as a poet than Shakespeare. I mean that his emergence in the fourteenth century is more miraculous, given the state of the language, than the emergence of Shakespeare in the sixteenth. Shakespeare is of course immeasurably the greater writer -- as a dramatist! Shakespeare's English is much more accessible than Chaucer's, and that is one reason he is so much more famous and popular.
Q: Can you explain the impact of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales on poetry?
A: Chaucer manages to invent a language for poetry which combines the Norman and native elements, and to do so in a way which seems effortless and natural, as though the language has been this way and put to this use for ages. He also, in the "Tales," creates great English characters and types. In so doing he defines, for the first time, what England might be, as shapes, and prejudices, and characters, and voices. There is a wonderfully textured world in the poem. Yet the greatest of Chaucer is in "Troilus."
Q: You strive to look at the poet's life and leave behind jargon and complexities; what brought you to write in this fashion?
A: Being a teacher at university, I have over the last thirty years been troubled and then angered by the ways in which the teaching of literature has become more and more clouded, by theory, by the quest for 'relevance' in texts, by a lack of interest in form, a failure in historical sense, etc. The best way of reading poems is to read them aloud. The best way to teach them is to place them in a context and see how they relate to and how they transcend that context. Students coming to university after being well-taught in the 12th grade would find that the kind of reading they wanted to do was not allowed in the theory-directed courses. Jargon doesn't help you to understand a poem or how it works. Certain facts of a life -- the religion in which a poet was raised, the poet's sexual preferences, the poet's attitude to form, his or her dialect, etc; these are relevant to understanding the poem.
Q: You say that wars and revolutions 'always come at the wrong time for poetry.' Would you please explain that?
A: The First World War killed a large number of radical practitioners, in particular Hulme and Rosenberg and Edward Thomas. The English Civil War put an end to the magnificent continuity of tradition that survived, winnowed, into the Cavaliers and is then coarsened by Rochester and Sedley and the Restoration Court. The French Revolution and the Spanish Civil War first commanded the allegiance of English poets, and then 'betrayed' them. You could say that Milton wrote out of the Civil War, but then Paradise Lost is a resigned poem completed after the defeat of his cause. Radical moments in poetry usually come in response to a certain staleness in the culture; that staleness can be political as well as cultural (historically) and is often disrupted by war, and the war then (as a means) deflects or corrupts the envisaged cultural ends. There is a poem by Charles Tomlinson when he described Scriabin, Blok and others writing the visionary music and poetry that leads up to the Bolshevik triumph, which he calls 'the daily prose such poetry prepares for.' I am not sure that poetry and history can ever go very comfortably hand in hand.
Q: How did the World Wars affect poets of the time? What was the difference between the effects of the World Wars and the Vietnam War on poetry?
A: In the First World War the experience was largely new, largely focused in certain kinds of combat, and after the winter of 1915 it was bleak and terrible, the sense of brief heroics having passed and the tone changing down to the laments of Owen, the satire of Sassoon, the pastoral precision of Thomas, the estrangement of Rosenberg. In the Second World War there was a much larger variety of soldierly experience around the world, in the air, at sea and on the ground -- desert, jungle, the fields and hills of Europe. There were many more survivor poets. There were more nations with English as their language deeply involved, too. You might have expected a great flowering. The poets who served and died, like Keith Douglas, wrote lines like,
'Rosenberg, I only repeat what you were saying.' There was a sense of reliving a tragic and terrible experience. Douglas also predicted that the poetry of World War II would be written after the war was over, and in a sense he is right. Poetry of the Vietnam War is still appearing; but because that war was so painfully visible, night after night, on our TV screens, the reportage element which Owen stressed and which Lewis practices in WW II is no longer a proper function of the poet. That war belongs to film in terms of recording horrors. What matters is how a culture comes to terms with defeat, and how individuals returning come to terms with their sense not of community but of the breakdown of community. World War I drew people together: nations, classes, etc. Vietnam forced them apart. One was centripetal, the other centrifugal.
Q: You explain the choice to write poetry in English was a political one. Why?
A: The Normans tried to stamp out English as the language of business, law, governance, court, etc. To insist on English as Chaucer does is to say, 'We are not French and this is our language.' The same thing has happened in a number of colonial cultures, where (as Poe said in the States some years ago) 'We must kick the English grandmama downstairs.' When any poet insists on writing in his or her own language, it is a political statement, whether the poet is Adrienne Rich wanting the freedom to write in her language, or Kamau Brathwaite wanting to write in his, or Whitman or Poe or Pound.
Q: What role, if any, did the Bible play on poetry?
A: The translation of the Bible into English was crucial because it meant that English was worthy to receive the Word of God, that the Word was not confined to Latin, or French. The Psalmist spoke English first, and the psalms began to be sung in English. Then Moses, and John, and finally Jesus himself learned English. The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are as significant and durably magnificent as Shakespeare's achievement. No poet in the English tradition anywhere in the world was unfamiliar with the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (and of course the Hymns) until WWII. It was most people's first experience of formal language, and it filled and inspired them. Many are still thus inspired. It was the crucial element in our common culture.
Q: You address the best of these poets and sometimes the worst. Do you feel that the bad poetry is as valuable as the poems that are considered good?
A: The best poetry always has a context, which is the good poetry, the conventional poetry, the drab poetry from which it stands out. Bad poetry on the other hand can be as exceptional as good, can proceed from genius, and can reveal the wrong turnings that genius will take. The whole English Pindaric tradition is absurd and illuminating. Also the tradition of trying to write verse in classical measures which droned on into the seventeenth century and is revived by Shelley. A cul de sac is after all a kind of conclusion. Bad poetry is not invariably funny, but it can be eloquently misconceived.
Q: Poets borrow from one another in images and styles. What role does that play on modern poetry?
A: Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence is experienced as anxiety only in a very bourgeois and insecure age. The necessity of influence is closer to the truth. Spenser is imitated deliberately, fascinatingly, by Milton, by Blake, by Wordsworth, by Swinburne, maybe even by Auden. Poets learn and find their ways through the work of other poets. Heaney starts in Patrick Kavanagh and passes eventually through Lowell. There is no possession within tradition. It isn't plagiarism or slavishness but technical encounter, engagement, the pedagogy of tradition. No poet exists entirely without this genealogy. Ignorance condemns a poet to repeat what has already been done. Knowledge makes transcendence possible, as in the case of Eliot, Pound, Auden, Bishop.
Q: What role will poetry have in Western culture in the next millennium?
A: The best poets will continue to keep language to its meanings in the fullest sense, swimming against the tides of cultural and political cliche and Newspeak, finding forms in and with language, experimenting with language in the new media, and with the new media themselves not only as a resource of transmission but as a formal challenge. I say the best poets will be doing these things, which is what the best poets have always done. The others will continue to make the usual noises.
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