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This review is taken from PN Review 74, Volume 16 Number 6, July - August 1990.

PASSING THE STILTON Michael Schmidt, Reading Modern Poetry (Ritledge) £8.95

This 40,000-word essay seems tailor-made for that apocryphal non-expert reader whom one imagines grumpily carping that modern poetry is all incomprehensible stuff. Not only does the title suggest that that reader is to be reassured ('reading' sounds simple enough); Michael Schmidt's preoccupation is sufficiently with tradition to placate even the fogiest.

That preoccupation plainly takes its bearings from Eliot's 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'. 'To understand almost by second nature how certain forms, dictions, conventions and genres have developed in English writing and to hear how they are reshaped in new work is an essential talent,' Schmidt declares in his opening chapter. Tradition is protean, redefining itself as it moves on. 'Tradition may not be a simple continuum,' Schmidt adds later, 'and yet it embodies a kind of progression.' He concedes that tradition is 'unstable', though he has reservations about agreeing with Octavio Paz's paradoxical notion of a twentieth century 'tradition of dis-continuity', pointing out that in English-language poetry 'Modernism has gone shopping most fruitfully not in the markets of disruption or primitivism but in the rich markets of its own past, suddenly reviving Donne, Webster, Swift, Skelton, Doughty, Clough, or Smart'. Schmidt the pluralist itches to posit 'a poetic tradition which includes the best poems of Philip Larkin and William Carlos Williams, of Roy Campbell and John Ashbery, of Elizabeth Bishop and W. S. Graham'.

In a sense there is nothing to disagree with in this (except that Campbell and Graham are implicitly over-rated). ...


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