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.
Using Samuel Johnson's 18th-century Lives of the Poets as a blueprint, this exhaustive survey treks through 600 years of mostly British poetry in English, from Wycliffe and Wyatt to Andrew Motion and Les Murray. In each of 64 chapters crammed with juicy anecdotes ("The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips," reported an enraptured Oscar Wilde upon meeting his idol), Schmidt moves from biography to formal techniques to cultural reception. He focuses, for example, on what Donald Davie liked about Robert Burns, or Pound admired in Chaucer; on how "a living poem can engage another poem at five hundred years' distance, or across the other side of the world." While some would argue that a couple of pages summarizing The Canterbury Tales or The Prelude is insufficient, the book is more of a gathering of friends and rivals than a comprehensive companion. Schmidt, the founder of London's influential Carcanet Press (distributed here by Paul and Co.), has an intuitive sense of organization--one sequence from Wallace Stevens to Marianne Moore to Elizabeth Bishop is smoothly connected and riveting. Throughout his tour, he lingers at major moments in political, religious and social history to show how poets have used the resources of language to respond to their respective pressures. Recently rediscovered women poets such as Emilia Lanyer, Charlotte Smith and Mina Loy receive ample attention, and 20th-century trends and movements (imagism, vorticism, confessionalism, language poetry, etc.) are forcefully elucidated. Schmidt's interest in the history of publishing shadows the main narrative, allowing the reader to emerge with greater appreciation for those publishers who gambled on their taste to disseminate the work of history's most scandalous, reclusive and devoted wordsmiths. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.