Monday Book: A Hands-On Passion for Poetry LIVES OF THE POETS BY MICHAEL SCHMIDT, WEIDENFELD AND NICOLSON, Pounds 22
Glover, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
ANYONE WHO has had dealings with literature at university level must go in dread of opening - let alone reading - such a book as this: a 900-page survey of English poetry from its stuttering Anglo- Norman beginnings in the 14th century to the present. Will there be the usual disgustingly gristly gobbets of lit-crit? Will we recognise once again that high, distant, avuncular tone? Will we, in short, be driven away from poetry, screaming and crying, for upwards of a decade?
Not here. This book is different from many of those which have gone before, and for a variety of reasons. Michael Schmidt - though a part-time academic in Manchester - is professionally engaged in what he writes about in three other interesting ways. As the founder and editorial director of the Manchester- based Carcanet Press, he is an editor and publisher of poets. He is also the editor of a fairly contentious literary journal called PN Review - and not a half-bad poet himself.
So Schmidt is interested in how poems fare in the world; in how they get published; and in what arbitrary swings of fortune they may be subject to. He has, over many years, placed himself at the centre of debates about the place of poetry in society, and has had to explain these matters in clear, persuasive, jargon-free language. And, as a poet himself, he is a1ive to all the minute particularities of poems and how they work. In short, this is a hands-on account of the subject, informed by passion and a long personal and professional engagement. Take Shakespeare, for example. Some of Schmidt's most interesting comments here derive from his own experience of being a publisher of poetry in the present. He reminds us that the First Folio was published by a temporary syndicate in 1623. Two printers produced it and three publishers were responsible for it, working with the acting company which owned Shakespeare's manuscripts. The book was expensive - at 20/- (pounds 1) - but prices were rising, and the work was very long: 1,000 pages. The tragedy is that the family saw no financial benefit from what was arguably the second-greatest book ever published in English. At this point, Schmidt's hackles rise. "If only they had done a better job with the editing!" he writes. "When I see the tomes in libraries I want to get them out from under the glass and mark in the corrections: misprints, poor formats, even erroneous attributions." This is Schmidt's instinctive approach throughout. …