Michael Schmidt    


While king- and queenmakers of the poetry realm—like Helen Vendler at Harvard and, at a slightly greater remove, Harold Bloom at Yale—may achieve mainstream-level sales for their books, most poetry criticism is limited to a small nepotistic academic audience. As Harold Bloom's magisterial and sometimes condescending book The Western Canon has shown, however, there is a surprisingly brisk demand for sweeping, encyclopedic surveys of this sort, for those seeking a manageable overview of a field about which they have long felt they needed to know more.

Michael Schmidt, prominent English critic, publisher, and editor of the imposing PN Review, has completed what may turn out to be the centerpiece of his life's work, the mammoth Lives of the Poets. Schmidt begins with the earliest poets to write in a recognizably English style (opposed to the more Germanic Anglo-Saxon of the Beowulf poet) such as Richard Rolle of Hampole and John Barbour. In just under a thousand pages he successfully covers the subsequent seven centuries of English-language poets from the earliest, often sloppy, practitioners up to such far-flung and varied virtuosos as Frank O'Hara, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Les Murray, and Derek Walcott. It is, of course, possible to find omissions and areas of neglect in so extensive a project, but Schmidt deftly weaves his way around movements, minor poets, major poets, and the absolute giants, like John Milton to create a seamless history for all but the most contentious armchair critic (there is no other sort). Schmidt excites us and reminds us of the rich and humorous, often tragic and always angelic heritage of our language bound up and preserved in poetry. He balances the virtues and weaknesses of the poets, providing us with a human impression of men and women sometimes worshipped as gods on earth. While careful to qualify his critical assumptions, he clings to no creaky, fashionable ideological apparatus; nor does he drag the bodies of the deceased through the streets of Parnassus, as has become so fashionable in our cynical and hostile age. He inspires us to read further than we have, and to reread those poems that touched us so much once, when we were younger and followed them as though they were stars by which to navigate the dark waters of life. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism this year, Lives of the Poets is an impressive achievement and an indispensable guide to the woodland paths from which our language first strode into sunlight as well as the electronic highways upon which it is speeding into a very uncertain future.

—Ernest Hilbert

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  Copyright ©2002, Ernest Hilbert