The First Poets
Review by Willard Manus
won high praise for Lives of the Poets, his 900-page investigation of
the roots of British poetry. Now he has followed up with another impressive
historical work, THE FIRST POETS--LIVES OF THE ANCIENT GREEK POETS (Alfred
A. Knopf). Not as well known as such playwriting counterparts as Euripides,
Sophocles and Aristophanes, the classical Greek poets finally get their
due in Schmidt's new work. Callimachus, Pindar, Hesiod and Apollonius
are just a few of the poets whose life and work are explored by Schmidt,
but the best chapter in the 410-page book is on Homer, about whom the
author comments, "over time 'the blind poet with seven birthplaces'
has appeared, multiplied identities, then vanished like the Cat"
(in Alice in Wonderland). "He was erased almost completely for a
spell in a compelling spate of scholarship into 'oral traditions' in the
middle of the twentieth century. Now he, she, or it is emerging again,
ghostly and attenuated and hedged around with post-modern quotation marks
and disclaimers, but gaining a little in solidity with each new book and
scholarly paper. The Cat seems to be materializing around the grin once
Knopf has done students, teachers and lovers of Greek poetry a favor by publishing this erudite and compelling work. The same company, by the way, deserves credit for the "Poem a Day" program it sponsored earlier this year as part of Mational Poetry Month. Those who visited knopfpoetry.com and signed up received, via e-mail, a poem a day for an entire month. The program was launched seven years ago and Knopf brought it back by popular demand.
copyright: Benedict Schmidt