Monday Book: A hands-on passion for poetry

LIVES OF THE POETS BY MICHAEL SCHMIDT, WEIDENFELD AND NICOLSON, pounds 22
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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. He picks over what he reads with a magnifying glass, editorial pencil poised. He is forever in heated discussion about editorial partic- ulars, small, medium and large.

But these forensic investigations of linguistic contrivances do not take take place in a historical vacuum. He is simultaneously asking much wider questions about the role of poetry and its value. Why is the poet writing in this way at this time? What has influenced him to do so? How does the language relate to the vernacular of the period? What does his use of particular poetic forms represent?

It is when he comes to the 20th century that Schmidt's judgement seems to falter. Some of his assessments read rather like reviews. They are bolstered by snatches of praise from other, big-name reviewers, such as this laughable statement by Frank Kermode about the New York School poet, Kenneth Koch: "He is above all a love poet, therefore a serious one".

Schmidt's mocking account of Yeats, detailing his abiding sillinesses, makes it seem surprising that he should then go on to describe him as a great poet after all. His debunking of Wilfred Owen is unconvincing and cunningly journalistic - a gradual belittlement by the skilful placing of unattractive personal details. His bam- boozling deflation of W H Auden is vitiated for the same reason, while his defence of Ezra Pound seems a touch craven. Poetic evidence cited in defence of the Ireland's Austin Clarke fails to convince us that he does not deserve to remain in the utmost obscurity.

Most problematical is his choice of poets of the present. Many of the figures he singles out for our praise and attention are published by his own press: Donald Davie, C H Sisson, Mimi Khalvati, Patricia Beer, Sujata Bhatt, John Ashbery, Les Murray, Bill Manhire, Clive Wilmer. Is there something dubious about this or not? Schmidt would argue not. He would tell us that it was his duty to write about the best of the living or the freshly dead. And, as a publisher in pursuit of talent, who would not have seized the opportunity to publish such authors? Then there is the countervailing argument: that this looks a little like nepotism on the part of the critic.

In many respects, though - the deftness of its critical judgments, the lightness of its touch, its ability both to examine minutely and to generalise boldly - this book is a tonic and, in spite of its length, a continuing pleasure.

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