The Lives of the Poets

ISBN 10: 0297840142 / ISBN 13: 9780297840145
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Synopsis: National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

In this stunning volume of epic breadth, Michael Schmidt connects the lives and works of more than 300 poets over the last 700 years--spanning distant shores from Scotland to Australia to the Caribbean, all sharing the English language.

Schmidt reveals how each poet has transformed "a common language of poetry" into the rustic rhythms and elegiac ballads, love sonnets, and experimental postmodern verse that make up our lyrical canon.

A comprehensive guided tour that is lively and always accessible, Lives of the Poets illuminates our most transcendent literary tradition.

Review: 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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