From the News and Observer:

That unique Angle-Irish fantasist, Lord Dunsany, expressed the feeling of many when he confessed that his youthful inability to master the ancient language left him "with a curious longing for the mighty lore of the Greeks, of which I had had glimpses like a child seeing wonderful flowers through the shut gates of a garden."

Michael Schmidt's brilliant and fascinating collection of historically connected essays, "The First Poets," will not implant a command of the tongue in the Greekless, but it will open a wider view through those shut gates.

Here is an ambitious overview of Greek poetry from the legendary Orpheus (1300 BC?) to the death of the sophisticated, pastoral Theocritus (ca. 240 BC). Schmidt travels through those 10 centuries bard by bard, examining not only such signal figures as Pindar, Sappho and Homer, but also those that have fallen into near oblivion, like Theognis of Megara, lbycus of Rhegion, and Corinna of Tanagra. In each case, he appends to the poet a place name. Local dialects and customs and flavors were important, even though many poets wandered as mercenary minstrels and the best work transcended localities.

Schmidt's point is that the lines of these poets, however mythologized in content, however fanciful in presentation, were grounded in the soil and familiar in the streets of those various cultures we refer to as "ancient Greece." Searching out the Askra, home place of Hesiod, our literature's first "personal" poet, he makes a visit. "The modern village of Palaiopanayia is as far as a car will take you on your quest. After that you need a guide, ideally a mule, patience and imagination. ... Hesiod called Askra a town 'cursed, intolerable in winter, unendurable in summer, pleasing never,' a Boeotian Lake Woebegone."

His careful research is enlivened by urbane humor and engaging style. He speaks on the page not entirely as a learned classicist but also as a genial companion who happens to know a great deal more about his subject than most of his readers ever shall. He chats with us, tirelessly and cheerfully. Anyone who might have an interest in poetry will come away knowing more and wanting to learn still more again.

A multitude of obstacles confronts the scholar who ventures upon such a project. These poets really were our first, and time has had its destructive way with their work, their landscapes and their biographies. Most of what we think about Alcman, Alcaeus, Sappho and Homer is guesswork pieced together from scraps: short passages from long poems, scattered lines and phrases, single words, even parts of words. And these shards and giblets are unreliable. "Greek scribes could be inaccurate, unlike the meticulous transcribers of Hebrew scripture whose work was judged, character by character, by God himself."

By the time there were transcribers, many of the poets were long gone. Debate continues as to whether Homer was literate or not. Orpheus and the Legend Poets Amphion, Musaeus and the others certainly were not. But then, they may never have existed at all. When the poems were committed to clay and papyrus, it was no guarantee of survival. "In AD 1204 Constantinople was sacked and our last, richest direct textual link with the classical world was destroyed."

We must strive mightily to catch the merest glimpses of these poets; we look as through a glass darkly and the glass is smudged, peeling and broken into a thousand splinters. Is it worth the trouble to try to find out what Stesichorus was up to back there about 600 BC? What can a poet from an obscure village in Sicily, of whom not 100 lines survive, have to say of interest in the 21st century?

His legacy is important, and it would seem, immortal. Stesichorus established the mode of choral verse; along with a solo poet singing with his guitar (cithara), a group of youths now provided accompaniment. The introduction of a chorus required a poetic structure that he invented. This three-part structure became the poetic form we know as the ode. Directly from the ode developed drama. Broadway, Hollywood and the grammar school tableaux in which our children act out the parts of dinosaurs and radishes descend from Stesichorus.

Yet his is not a name that often drops from the lips of even the most dedicated pedant or culture snob. Homer we know, Sappho we have heard of, now and again someone may mention Pindar in connection with the Olympic Games. But any actual acquaintance with these poets, even in translation, is restricted to the intellectually curious few who do not satisfy their inquiring minds with The National Enquirer.

Schmidt wrestled a paradox. He had to show how different in nature and purpose the ancient is from our modem poetry, and he had to demonstrate that it is still fresh, that it still bears import for us, that it is modem because it is ancient.

And so he explains technique, the importance of the different meters; he lays in sufficient historical background for us to grasp the communal nature of the work and the civic obligations placed on the poets; he shows how the words and the music were born together inseparably. The ancient poet's role was that of Leonard Bernstein, Agnes DeMille, Robert Frost, Goethe and Elvis combined.

To show how apposite to our times, how "modern," the author quotes the work judiciously. Few sentiments could be more contemporary than the opening of Pindar's Olympic ode which says, in loose paraphrase, "Best of all things is water, but money shines like a fire at night, the best kind of wealth to have." Many a political commentator nowadays makes a living by unknowingly intoning and gloomily elaborating upon the lines of Solon of Athens: "My heart pains me as I watch/ Ionia's oldest country/ Going down."

"The First Poets" is engaging, even entertaining, but it needs and deserves to be read slowly and with more of the poetry at hand than Michael Schmidt is able to supply. Best pick up a solid anthology to accompany it -- Andrew M. Miller's "Greek Lyric" or Barbara H. Fowler's "Archaic Greek Poetry" will speed appreciation.

But be sure to read it. Charming, intriguing, enlightening, "The First Poets" is, immediately upon its appearance, indispensable.