The First Poets by Michael Schmidt

A poet's odyssey through the time-dark sea
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The Independent Culture

Poet, poetry publisher, magazine editor and critic, Michael Schmidt has been engaged for several years in an ongoing, multi-volume history of the lives of English poets. Those books have been enlivened by being, in part, anthologies of verse by poets under discussion. Alas, this book - a history of the ancient Greek poets who antedated the great dramatists - is not so entertaining, because it lacks such a section. It is spiced up with extracts from the poets; but we are not given enough to slake our thirst.

In short, we are not properly introduced. This is a shame because some of the translations offered - by the likes of Guy Davenport and William Carlos Williams - really help bring these remote beings alive - which is very important in a book of this kind.

The First Poets has its excellent moments, as one would expect from a writer who is also an accomplished journalist and accustomed to engaging with wide audiences. The chapter on Sappho is first-rate. She (if it be a she) comes alive, and Schmidt describes her virtues as a writer with real economy and trenchancy. He also turns many a good and witty sentence, which always helps to keep a reader engaged. He has this to say, for example, about the work of Hipponax, a great master of verbal abuse: "The verse has the repulsive fascination of toilet-wall graffiti."

Another difficulty is a consequence of the fact that so little is known about many of these writers. Was Homer one man or several? Where was he born? That sort of thing is multiplied ten-fold. Some of this speculation is somewhat clogging and wearisome. Then there is the problem of having to be seen to keep up with all the scholarly work around these poets. This makes for a book that purports to be for a generally interested reader, but which is often bogged down in refuting - or at least challenging - the rancorous speculations of dry-as-papyrus scholars. So anyone who expects to move with relative ease and speed through this book may feel a little damp-eyed.

But, perhaps most important of all, The First Poets makes it crystal clear to us that there was at least one moment in partially-recorded history when poets really counted for something. They were really needed in ancient Greece on all kinds of religious and secular occasions. So every poet should buy a copy of this book to keep on their bookshelves. And, when the occasion arises, they should throw it at the cynic who may try to ignore or demean them.