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Rhymers' Dictionary

Defining the moderns.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By JOHN SIMON
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The Modern Element

Essays in
Contemporary Poetry

by Adam Kirsch

Norton, 288 pp., $25.95

It is not an easy task to find the right reviewer for poetry. Many reviewers who can handle all kinds of prose well enough find poetry rather beyond them. Enlisting poets for the job raises different problems: Most are uneager to get tough with fellow poets, who may be friends or, worse yet, their own future reviewers. Moreover, negative reviews may further marginalize the precarious status of poetry in our time.

Furthermore, poetry, the most ancient of verbal arts, finds it harder and harder to be original after having been around for at least two-and-a-half millennia. Unlike painting, it cannot go abstract; unlike music, it cannot turn atonal. "Unfortunately for Gertrude Stein," Harry Levin once remarked, "words have meanings."

Good poetry criticism can still be useful, as evidenced by young Adam Kirsch's The Modern Element. Kirsch is an accomplished critic of both prose and verse, and is himself a poet. His reviews have appeared in the New Criterion, the New Yorker, and the New Republic, and he is a regular book critic of the New York Sun. But he has also published verse in various places and has recently brought out his second volume of poetry.

So what, exactly, does The Modern Element comprise? Reviews of 23 established modern poets, and a 24th joint one of four younger poets coming into their own. There is an introduction that generalizes about poetry, an essay entitled "Two Modern Classics: The Waste Land and Howl," and another about the extremely idiosyncratic poet-critic Yvor Winters. The tailpiece, "The Modern Element in Criticism," acts as a sort of summation.

One cannot but admire Kirsch's erudition, incisiveness, and eminent readability, as well as his willingness to stick his neck out. I do, however, regret his writing only about those poets whose new publications he had to review. Unlike, say, Richard Howard in Alone With America, he does not roam freely across the field; there are no reviews of such important poets as James Dickey, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, and W.D. Snodgrass, among others.

There remains, for my more unforgiving taste, a little too much clemency in Kirsch's dislikes. In my view, the critic is a bit too tolerant of the likes of Jorie Graham and the overrated farceur John Ashbery, whom Kirsch, though not fooled, lets off too leniently.

But let us start with the introduction, where he waffles a little about Matthew Arnold, whose ideas on poetry he both praises and questions. He quotes Arnold's censure of Lucretius as "over-strained, gloom-weighted, morbid; and he who is morbid is no adequate interpreter of his age." Kirsch comments: "Arnold's hopeful, not to say wishful, definition of the modern would not be conclusively displaced until poets came to agree that, on the contrary, it is precisely the morbid poet who is the adequate interpreter of the modern age." He correctly sees that Arnold's notion of the modern as mastering complexity is superseded by T.S. Eliot's surrender to it: "We can only say that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult." Which Kirsch amplifies as "exemplary specimen or willing victim."

This, in turn, leads him to the virtues and vices of modern poetry. The virtues are

[D]aring honesty, an intimate (if not always explicit) concern with history, and a determination to make language serve as the most accurate possible means of communication, even at the risk of estrangement. The vices, which correspond to the virtues and call them into question, are sentimental egotism, an obsession with staying up-to-date, and a belief that distortion of language is interesting and praiseworthy in its own right.

Let us see how Kirsch handles some specific poets. I have my doubts about the notion that Trinidad's Derek Walcott may be the greatest poet now alive, but I agree that "Walcott may proclaim the vigor and beauty that accompany the naivete of the Antilles, but cannot help feeling the loss of allusive possibilities that naivete brings with it." A fine example, this, of Kirsch's ability to see both sides of a problem.