LIVES OF THE POETS by Michael Schmidt


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A monumental history of English-language poetry, told through the lives and works of its most important practitioners by the editor of PN Review, a director of Carcanet Press. Schmidt, not an academic but one of most significant publishers of verse in England, brings a fresh perspective to the history of English verse, and he casts his net refreshingly wide, including such outlanders as Derek Walcott and other Anglo-Caribbean writers, Irish and Australian poets, as well as early balladeers, among others (but without stooping to include rock songwriters and rappers). He also invokes the rocky history of poetry publishing and printing in telling ways, allowing readers to see the pivotal role played by the likes of William Caxton. From the book’s outset, he makes a case for the act of reading poetry, too: “I prefer to be unlicensed, to read a poem, not a text.” As a critic, he is incisive and deadly honest, describing early English writer Richard Rolle as “such a bad poet” and offering candid assessments of great unread classics like “The Bruce” or of perpetually controversial poets like Byron (“there is a tawdry excess in much of Byron, a satirist’s knack of simplifying for effect, but only sporadic satirical consistency”). Perhaps it’s to his advantage that he is not himself a poet. His language is fresh and relatively unfettered, his readings of the poets under consideration unhackneyed. Thus, Gower’s allegory is the “kind of poem [that] is insulated against real weather,” and Dunbar is “courtier and friar in one.” Still, this is not a book to be read from cover to cover in a sitting (or many sittings). The essays stand alone well enough to encourage readers to dip in at random, although Schmidt’s argument—for an inclusive and variegated “English” verse—is developed coherently and at length. Monumental, yes, but seldom dull.

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40624-7
Page count: 992pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2000


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