Austin_Allen-small.jpg Michael Schmidt’s sly introduction to Homer in The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets, in which he likens him to a disappearing and reappearing Cheshire Cat, exemplifies his ability to incarnate ghosts out of the literary past, and to do so with something of Lewis Carroll’s deadpan sense of mischief. Material that could have doomed lesser biographies to a slow death on the shelves of some university library keeps the reader turning pages instead—and turning back (or for the first time) to the poets featured. Particularly excellent is the chapter on Hipponax, “among the first poets to defecate in verse” and the reputed inventor of parody. Cataloguing his most lecherous, blasphemous, tasteless—in other words, best—poetic moments, Schmidt is as daringly funny as his subject. Like Hipponax, he can fly from poop jokes to the sublime in an instant: “Why spend time in such squalid, ravenous, uncompromising company? Because Hipponax reeks of the human in every sense, because his poetry includes so much of the material world…Reason sleeps, to be sure, and monsters emerge, but they are not mythical or legendary. They are the real monsters of need and desire.”

Under Schmidt’s expert biographical eye, his subjects become so compelling that you’ll want to seek out their work yourself, making The First Poets about twenty recommended books in one.

Bio: Austin Allen is a contributor to Guernica. Read his last recommendation, of How Fiction Works, “here”:

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