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The Original Rock Stars
The First Poets by Michael Schmidt
© 2013 James LaFond
Yesterday I found it necessary to access a book I read a few years ago, and reread four chapters, so that I could verify a storyline in a novel I am completing. I had forgotten how important this book had been in forming my view of ancient Greece, until I found myself with a gap between my ears—a widening one that I ever attempt to fill in by recourse to such books. Back in September 2010 when I was conducting the brutal purge of my library by heaving many hundreds of my books, collected over three decades, into an apartment complex dumpster I generally passed by this category: academic hardbacks about time periods I was in the process of writing about. So, while Dickens and Shakespeare got thrown into this literary mass grave by the trashcan load, this relatively recent and obscure book breathed a sigh of relief as he remained on my advisory panel. I must never forget that if the books I treasured so much possessed the consciousness of the people they represent, that I would be their Joseph Stalin…
The First Poets
Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets
Michael Schmidt
2005, Knopf, NY, 410 pages
As I rate books a superb historical source can only get five stars if it is also an entertaining enough read to maintain the interest of someone without an interest in the subject. The most informative nonfiction does not therefore qualify for five stars by my measure. Keep in mind, however, that if you like reading the works of historical novelists that they are heavily dependent on such books as The First Poets. Also, general historians like Grant, Durant and Fox are reliant on specialists like Schmidt, who is more an historian of poetry than of the period he covers in this work.
The First Poets were the superstar entertainers of their day. These people wrote and performed their work, and it was carried on beyond their lifetime. To gather a feel for their audience keep in mind that playwrights were famed for their work, but the actors that performed were just actors. Likewise with song and poetry; it was the songwriter and poet that was lauded. The performer was the equivalent of our modern audio equipment, literally a ‘song-stitcher’, and few bothered to even remember their name.
So, imagine if you will, our world, if the actor and singer was no one, and the writer of the script or the song was who you cared about. This is a world before celebrity. Remember, that if a time-traveler came to us from the ancient world they would consider us uncivilized largely on the basis of our celebrity culture. That is why writers such as myself naturally pine for ages past, when we would have been the ‘rock stars’, rather than the lowly imaginative clerks we are today.
The First Poets is a physically attractive book with an ancient painting of Apollo with his lyre [the stringed instrument from which the English ‘lyrics’ derive] on the cover. The inside covers, font and back, have a map of the Greek world with the names and homes of the most famous 20 poets indicated. Unlike many books, the introduction is a must read. The author is a master of selecting and interpreting poetry, which is a metaphoric means of communicating facts and feelings. In the introduction he describes the poets’ art in a ‘nuts and bolts’ manner.
The book itself examines the lives and works of the great poets chronologically from the first, Orpheus of Thrace, to the last pre-Roman poet, Theocritus of Syracuse. Mister Schmidt, in discussing the poets of antiquity, is wielding a many-faced mirror. His discussion brings to light the opinions of ancient thinkers as to the poets of previous ages, as well as the infusion of modern poets and translators into the debate. In a largely preliterate society, which did not have the means to mass produce texts in any case, poetry, functioning as it does as a memory aid, was an important means of communicating across space and time.
Samples of the poets’ verse are spaced about once per page. The meat of the book is a discussion of their art, their lives, their community, and their legacy. As an historical writer I found it to be an invaluable source book. As a curious reader I was delighted with little tidbits such that Sappho’s brother fell in love—much to her disgust—with a slave girl owned by the same scumbag slave trader that owned Aesop, the famous slave fable-teller. Another favorite chapter is the discussion of Archilochos [platoon leader] who was the woman-debasing gangster rapper of his day.
As a history writer I found early on that one cannot understand, or even chart, the ascent of man in the ancient world—even if just chronically his boxing and prizefighting activity—without reading, translating and analyzing poetry. Poetry has never held an appeal for me. I would read Whitman and Poe and just groan, ‘dreams and nightmares’. On that day in 2010 I tossed three poetry collections without having read them. I wish I had them now, largely because Mister Schmidt has helped me toward an understanding of how to decode what I previously considered to be nothing more than the whining of bleeding hearts across the ages.
Michael Schmidt comes to their defense by way of explanation with the following observation, “The poet has not asked for the burden and is not free to discard it.”
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