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Schmidt, Michael (Norton)

SCHMIDT, Michael (Norton)


Nationality: Mexican. Born: Mexico City, 2 March 1947. Education: The Hill School, Pottstown, Pennsylvania; Christ's Hospital, Horsham, Sussex; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1966–67; Wadham College, Oxford, B.A. in English 1969, M.A.1977. Family: Married Claire Harman in 1979 (divorced); two sons and one daughter. Career: Since 1969 managing director, Carcanet Press, Oxford, later Cheadle, Cheshire, and Manchester. Gulbenkian Fellow, University of Manchester, 1972–75. Since 1972 fellow, Manchester Poetry Centre; co-editor, 1972–84, and since 1984 editor, Poetry Nation, later PN Review, Manchester. Awards: Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1993. Address: Carcanet Press, 4th Floor, Conavon Court, 12–16 Blackfriars Street, Manchester M3 5BQ, England.

Publications

Poetry

Black Buildings. Oxford, Carcanet, 1969.

One Eye Mirror Cold. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1970.

Bedlam and the Oakwood: Essays on Various Fictions. Oxford, Carcanet, 1970.

Desert of the Lions. Oxford, Carcanet, 1972.

It Was My Tree. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1972.

My Brother Gloucester: New Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1976.

A Change of Affairs. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1978.

Choosing a Guest: New and Selected Poems. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1983.

The Love of Strangers. London, Century Hutchinson, 1989.

Selected Poems, 1972–1997. Huddersfield, Smith/Doorstop Books, 1997.

Novels

The Colonist. London, Muller, 1980; as Green Island, New York, Vanguard Press, 1982.

The Dresden Gate. London, Century Hutchinson, 1986; New York, Vanguard Press, 1987.

Other

Reading Modern Poetry. London, Routledge, 1989.

Lives of the Poets. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998; New York, Knopf, 1999.

Editor, with Grevel Lindop, British Poetry since 1960: A Critical Survey. Oxford, Carcanet, 1972.

Editor, Ten English Poets. Manchester, Carcanet, 1976.

Editor, The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays, by C.H. Sisson. Manchester, Carcanet, 1978.

Editor, An Introduction to Fifty British Poets 1300–1900. London, Pan, 1979; as A Reader's Guide to Fifty British Poets, London, Heinemann, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1980.

Editor, An Introduction to Fifty Modern British Poets. London, Pan, 1979; as A Reader's Guide to Fifty Modern British Poets, London, Heinemann, 1979; New York, Barnes and Noble, 1982.

Editor, with Peter Jones, British Poetry since 1970: A Critical Survey. Manchester, Carcanet, and New York, Persea, 1980.

Editor, Eleven British Poets. London, Methuen, 1980.

Editor, Some Contemporary Poets of Britain and Ireland. Manchester, Carcanet, 1983.

Editor, New Poetries, Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.

Editor, A Calendar of Modern Poetry, Manchester, PN Review, 1994.

Editor, with Nick Rennison, Poets on Poets. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.

Editor, with Alastair Niven, Enigmas and Arrivals: An Anthology of Commonwealth Writing. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.

Editor, Lyrical Ballads: With a Few Other Poems, by William Wordsworth. London and New York, Penguin, 1999.

Editor, A Shropshire Lad, by A.E. Housman. London, Penguin, 1999.

Editor, New Poetries II: An Anthology. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.

Editor, The Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. London, Harvill, 1999.

Translator, with Edward Kissam, Flower and Song: Poems of the Aztec Peoples. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1977.

Translator, On Poets and Others, by Octavio Paz. New York, Holt, 1986; London, Carcanet, 1987.

*

Critical Study: By Michael Hulse, in Antigonish Review (Antigonish, Nova Scotia), 85–86, spring/summer 1991.

*  *  *

Michael Schmidt's achievements as a poet cannot be separated from his work as a publisher of poetry and criticism (he founded the Carcanet Press in the 1960s while at Oxford and became its doughty helmsman) and as editor of the bimonthly journal PN Review, a publication whose avowed aim has always been to "set poetry and criticism back in the mainstream of cultural concern." What we have come to expect from him is a certain kind of scrupulousness, a degree of intellectual sobriety. Poetry is above everything else a serious art, seems to be his claim, and one whose decline, were that to happen, would have the most catastrophic consequences for the intellectual and emotional temper of the nation.

In practical terms this means that both the press and the magazine have often championed what one might describe as some of the more old-fashioned virtues—meter, rhyme, and syntax, for example. Formal excellence has been one of their touchstones. After all, poetry is a craft like any other. This is not to suggest, however, that Schmidt himself has not been a willing learner, a pragmatist when pragmatism has been called for. In spite of his belief in a critical approach to poetry, he has a healthy suspicion of much of the tortuous literary theorizing that passes for critical analysis in many of our institutions of higher education. And while some of the poets in Carcanet's list in its early years may have seemed docile and green fingered in their quintessential Englishness, to the point of tedium, later authors sometimes created a flurry of atonal excitement, for example, the New York poet John Ashbery.

Schmidt himself was born in Mexico and educated at Harvard and Oxford. English is, therefore, his second language. His poetry moves restlessly from New World to Old and back again. His collection Black Buildings was among the first pamphlets Carcanet ever published from Pin Farm, near Oxford, when the press lacked even a telephone, let alone offices. None of these poems was reprinted when his volume of selected poems appeared in 1983, but they give us a strong indication of some of his early influences. In one an abrupt juxtaposition of telling details brings Ezra Pound to mind: "mad dog's slaver, the shore foam, / all salt-white the stone …" In another Sylvia Plath swims unsteadily into view, teetering on the brink of emotional implosion: "I am the porcelain clock, / touch my alarm, / stroke my polio arms. / I look through no glass…." And thelandscape of Mexico—its aridity, its starkness, its essential hostility to human occupation—is vividly evoked.

After Schmidt claimed England as his second home, his poetry began to be colored, understandably enough, by the tones of the English landscape, and by the late 1970s the surface details of many of his poems seemed mild mannered, decorous, and almost self-consciously English in their concern with the flowers, shrubs, birds, and other minutiae of gardens. How sharply the description in "Adam" contrasts with the stark terrain of Mexico:

I name my little trees, the oak and beech,
The willow, apple, sycamore—all planted close.
I name such blossoms as I know: the lilac,
The honeysuckle with its hint of flesh.

The almost Georgian blandness is, however, something of a feint. The self-conscious Englishness of the scene in the above poem has been evoked by no less a person than Adam, and in other poems there are similar details and events that lend the seeming tranquillity of their contexts a patina of strangeness. Savage emotions are buried here. The narrator himself is often a promeneur solitaire, beguiled by his own shadow or his own reflection. Another quality one is often aware of in Schmidt's poetry is the extent of his absorption in literature, and how could one expect otherwise of a man whose prime enthusiasm is poetry, who spends his days reading it and perhaps some of his evenings writing it? In the fascinating poem "Habit" Schmidt has this to say about an iris:

A Tyrian iris in a wooded place:
Give it a name, but it will not be tended;
It has frail rules of growth, its air, regardless,
A single treasure lost in a starless soil—
 
Or found. Stretching a hand
Towards the stem of the imagined bloom
I discover a thing tangible,
Clothed in Tyrian fabric, mine in a wooded place.

The thing found is surely not a flower but a poem, and the very way in which the matter is expressed calls up William Carlos Williams and I.A. Richards. Such is the extent of the poet's literary absorption.

Schmidt's collection The Love of Strangers consists of a series of autobiographical fragments in verse, often elegiac in temper, in many cases acts of "imagined reparation." The poet pays homage, begs forgiveness, and acknowledges debts to people, worlds, and particular locales he has left behind and now—as a gesture of bonding, of love—wishes to reclaim. Some of the figures are recognizable as poets, writers that by publishing he has wrested from undeserved obscurity—Sylvia Townsend Warner, for example. One of the most successful evokes a moment in his youth when he consorted with a matador, a giant of a man whose livid scar, the worst of twenty on his body, "looked like the lid / Of a dead eye." The young man yearned to be a matador himself, but his cape work was not up to it, and anyway he had not been born an Indian. The poem brings home to us almost more than any other the extraordinary contrast between Schmidt's Mexican childhood, a life lived among the most brutish simplicities, and his adult roles as editor, critic, and poet. Scant wonder that by its very nature PN Review has been oppositional.

—Michael Glover

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