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Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem


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This is a short and accessible book about the Epic of Gilgamesh, what we might know of its composition, its discovery in scattered tablets centuries later, and its rich legacy and reception.

About the Author

Michael Schmidt is a literary historian, poet, novelist, translator, and anthologist as well as an editor and publisher. His books include The Novel: A Biography and The First Poets. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he received an OBE in 2006 for services to poetry and higher education. He lives in Manchester, England. Twitter @4Michael7


"For anyone interested in language, history, or the power of a great story, this biography of a poem assures endless discoveries."---Jeva Lange, The Week
"Schmidt's book deeply enriches our appreciation of a work already rich. A solid addition to all collections."---Thomas L. Cooksey, Library Journal
"In Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem, Michael Schmidt, a British poet and novelist, explains how the special character of "Gilgamesh" has had an outsize influence on modern writers . . . Its "anonymity" invites readers' responses more powerfully than other ancient works, and this book is, in the main, an exploration of those responses, obtained by Mr. Schmidt through a survey sent to 50 modern poets. . . . [Schmidt's] freshly framed observations help renew one of the world's oldest surviving tales"---James Romm, Wall Street Journal
"[Gilgamesh] is well-written and reads like having a chat with a down-to-earth friend who happens to be a literary scholar . . [R]ather than trying to choose which translation to read, one should start by reading Schmidt's book. It offers an intelligent but relatable introduction to Gilgamesh as well as to the scholarship and modern artistry which swirls around the nearly 4000 year old poem."---Kelly Hydrick, Root & Press
"An insightful, stimulating book sure to breathe new life into the would-be immortal king." * Publishers Weekly *
Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem
] offers us an opportunity to consider not just the rewards of tradition, but its very real risks. . . . Schmidt tries to preserve the integrity of a single beloved poem. In forcing us to go back to the basics of meaning-making, Schmidt works toward a hermeneutics of modesty and care, pointing toward a more expansive, and less imperialist, approach to world literature. . . . To translate and read Gilgamesh as we read the Iliad or the Aeneid would be to neutralize the poem - and, for Schmidt and the many contemporary poets whose voices he brings into his book, to miss an opportunity to reimagine our literary origin story, or to posit a plurality of stories rather than one continuous tradition."---Max Norman, Los Angeles Review of Books
"[Michael] Schmidt presents an extended reflection on Gilgamesh, exploring the challenges and opportunities it offers modern readers. . . . Beginning with the challenge of translating without knowing the original languages, Schmidt uses his correspondence with the translators of Gilgamesh as a model to challenge modern, Western habits of interpretation and approach reading the poem on its own terms: i.e., not as an ur-Iliad but as something unique. Throughout, Schmidt emphasizes Gilgamesh's alterity, its fragmentariness, its authorlessness, the provisional nature of the text, and its refusal to fit familiar aesthetic and generic categories. This important work fills a gap between translations/introductions and the scholarship of Assyriology."---P. E. Ojennus, Choice Reviews
"[I]f all literary studies were written so engagingly, more people would read them . . . If you have never read Gilgamesh before, Schmidt could be Virgil to your Dante, and if you have read it before, be prepared to let it be explicated in a new and lively way and to flow over your mind like quicksilver."---John Butler, Asian Review of Books
"Michael Schmidt's Gilgamesh, the Life of a Poem, is stimulating, informative and elegantly written. It is to be hoped that over time it will be recognised as an indispensable guide for all future readers of Gilgamesh."---David Cooke, Manchester Review
"[A] wonderful book . . . Schmidt's argument for the poem as poetry, in the modern sense-concrete, unglazed, tough on the mind-is touching and persuasive. I read the book spellbound, in one sitting."---Joan Acoella, New Yorker

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