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Lives of the Poets

Schmidt, Michael

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ISBN 10: 0375406247 / ISBN 13: 9780375406249
Published by Knopf
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Title: Lives of the Poets

Publisher: Knopf

Binding: Hardcover

Book Condition:New

About this title


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.  


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

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