Michael Schmidt. The Resurrection of the Body. Smith/Doorstep Books, The Poetry Business, The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield HD1 1ND. £8.95
I first read Michael Schmidt in his colossal compendium of the history of poetry in English, The Lives of the Poets. The book is an excellent comprehensive work, and provides poetry lovers a great service in writing a book so catholic, so insightful and measured. When an insightful and absorbing critic has done something so beneficial for poetry, it seems almost heretical to state any objections to it. Mine chiefly are that the chapter on Blake, ‘Killing Dr Johnson’, sees Blake mainly in relation to T.S. Eliot’s essay on him, which was of limited value in the first place, since not only does Eliot take a narrow angle on Blake but he also seems unable to appreciate him for not having a conventional education, which misses the point entirely. My other objections are that Edward Fitzgerald – whom Tennyson affectionately knew as ‘Old Fitz’ – gets mentioned only in passing (and he deserves mention for ‘The Rubάiyάt of Omar Khayyάm’, if nothing else) and that Francis Thompson gets no mention at all. Thompson’s biographical life was certainly dramatic enough to write about, and his ‘poetic’ life wasn’t inconsiderable either: I once saw a poll in which ‘The Hound of Heaven’ had come top for the nation’s favourite poem, and poems like ‘Daisy’ and ‘Arab Love Song’ have their own charm.
Being the author of such a work of thorough examination, Schmidt knows well how poets and poems respond to each other across centuries, how they cross-pollinate, and his new volume of verse, The Resurrection of the Body, opens with a poem which answers another poem written in the eighth or early ninth century, in Gaelic. The original is a marginal poem on Codex S Pauli, by a student of the monastery of Carinthia. The poet is anonymous, and the poem is called ‘The Monk and his Pet Cat’, or, more frequently, ‘Pangur Bάn’, which is the title Schmidt gives to his own poem. I’ve read about six translations of the original, and it is interesting to compare them. Paul Muldoon neglects to include it in his refreshing anthology The Faber Book of Beasts, surely a regrettable omission. “Anon is the greatest of the neglected English poets,” says Schmidt. Schmidt’s own cat bears the name of Pangur Bάn, and in his eponymous poem he compares it favourably to Jerome’s lion. It is about both his actual cat and the muse metamorphosed into a cat, a cat which will seductively purr and sleekly caress future poets into taking it home and feeding it, and the cat – the feline familiar of witches – will possess him. I like the lines which suggest the almost somnambulant way poems can sometimes come into existence:
I work with my quill and colours, bent and blinder
Each season, colder, but the pages fill.
The poem’s final admonishment says ‘Be sly’ and one supposes that this might be the advice of the poet to himself and to fellow poets. Schmidt’s poems (as would be expected) carry an intertextual allusiveness: a visceral poem about a matador calls to mind the machismo of Hemmingway and Picasso; another called ‘Nine Witches’ would be completely at home alongside the eerie spells chanted by the Weerd Sisters in Macbeth, Poe’s ‘Raven’, the Scots border ballads and the anonymous ‘Mad Tom’s Song.’ There’s a poem called ‘John Gilpin Eludes the Hunt,’ the original of which I haven’t read in fifteen years. ‘Furniture for a Ballad’, written in the octosyllabics common to balladic verse, contains an epigraph from Lope de Vega and is redolent of yet another great anonymous poem, ‘Sir Patrick Spens.’ The rhythm of ‘Between’ recalls the ballad also, and implicitly confers upon poetry the rite of sacrament, a suggestion that the writing and reading of ceremonious formal language can alter you spiritually – a transformation can occur, as when devout Christians receive the transubstantiated Christ on the tongue. Christian iconography pervades the poetry, as here, in a poem about Sebastian called ‘Regression’:
I stayed behind, unwired him, eased him down.
I stretched him in a grave and wondered what
To say above the wreckage of such grace,
As if a landscape had been turned to salt,
Or a high temple felled by a blind fool,
As if Christ had once more been pinned to a beam,
As if the Jews of Europe again on a pyre
Burned like the cattle, sheep and pigs of Britain.
As if the poor Jews of the ghetto trembled,
As if the smoke from those straight chimneys bore
Like muezzins’ voices or the peel of bells
Something to heaven that belonged to it.
I pulled the quills in fistfuls from my chest.
The crucified shadow of Christ falls across this entire book. In another poem, he writes lines which some purists of the Christian faith might find blasphemous, though there is nothing really inflammatory about them:
The Magdalen who has yet to meet
Christ in the long cold room of want
And whom he loves with all his flesh
Except the heart which will belong
Always to him and him alone.
The forces of orthodoxy would be severe about the suggestion of the prostitute being carnally intimate with Christ, yet it is at the very least plausible: she followed the crowd and washed their clothes for them. It was she whom the risen Christ first appeared to in Gethsemane, and when she made towards him he uttered the words ‘Noli me tangere’ (‘touch me not’) which Thomas Wyatt ingeniously and riskily employed in his excellent sonnet ‘Whoso list to hunt’ – the sonnet which takes its opening image from a translation from Petrarch but then daringly uses it to express – amid a constellation of mini-cryptograms – his clandestine love for Anne Boleyn.
There are strong and honest poems here, such as a poem about sexual jealousy and possession called ‘Wanting to Think’, and a touchingly personal piece called ‘The Red Grove’, but his memories are profounder than the poetry in the latter instance. The reader who is familiar with Hardy’s late love lyrics (think of ‘The Going’ and ‘At Castle Boterel’) may find Schmidt’s poem comparatively tepid and in no doubt where the stronger poetry lies. His verse overall is accomplished and subtle, but there’s nothing extraordinary in the diction, and none of the astonishingly exact metaphors which Yeats and Shakespeare possess in abundance.
It’s frequently difficult to discern what occasions the poems. They elicit the patient appreciation of the connoisseur; they do not offer any of the pyrotechnics which galvanize the attention of the young, or of poetry non-initiates. This is perhaps not a bad thing, but they are lacking in any high-voltage charge or even the immediacy of rhyme. Whatever form he chooses to delineate his poems, there is barely any variance of cadence. The two ballads are the exceptions, because ballads, even when unrhymed, insist on a bold metric.
Does a strong critical mind presuppose an ability to write strong imaginative work? No: pianists can play like Mozart but they can’t compose like him. And it’s difficult for poets – even poet-critics – to diagnose themselves; the thought is often anathema to them. When the great Samuel Johnson wrote his original Lives of the Poets a large number of poets were included who are now no longer read, as is remarked upon by Harold Bloom in his book, Genius: “they constitute a sad litany of period pieces: Roscommon, Pomfret, Stepney, Sprat, Sheffield, Fenton, Yalden, Tickell, and many more – their name is legion. You can amuse yourself by picking up any anthology of our current poets and choosing your own Sprats and Yaldens, candidates for the iniquity of oblivion.”
Schmidt’s poetry is as dry and arid as the Mexican climate from which he comes, and it moves the critic you’re now reading to neither assent nor dissent. One thing is certain, though: he is an indispensable reader of texts, and deserves to be remembered for that.
Jim Newcombe, 2007