The Magazine

Rhymers' Dictionary

Defining the moderns.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By JOHN SIMON
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Shrewdly perceptive is the observation that "[Theodore] Roethke knows only one" part of human experience, "Yet that part is exceptionally hard to capture in words .  .  . that Roethke did capture it, in a handful of poems, guarantees him a permanent place in American poetry." Still, he observes that Roethke and his talented disciple James Wright "allow the poet to be too easy on himself, to believe that the right feeling is more important than good writing," which, to my mind, does not apply to some of Wright's best poems.

Kirsch does, however, strongly approve of Czesław Miłosz's late period, "in which the poet's calling is reimagined as one of remembrance and stewardship. This is Miłosz's answer to the problem of how to serve history without emptily (and cruelly) endorsing whatever happens to happen." Of another Eastern European, likewise turned English poet, Joseph Brodsky, whose overratedness he doesn't feel quite as strongly as I do, he nevertheless writes, "It is impossible to read Brodsky's Collected Poems in English as though they were the work of an American poet--they aren't, and they don't sound as if they were." (In this essay he unfortunately misspells the wonderful Louis MacNeice as "MacNiece.")

Kirsch is highly pertinent also about Sharon Olds and her "still thrashing in repression's grip." He notes that "Everything bodily, everything sexual, is hurled at the Father-God, with the fury of a tongue-tied infant's insult. But the tragedy of such Satanic rebellion is only a step away from comedy, once we realize that the all-powerful patriarch is a Wizard of Oz, that the rebellion is as unnecessary as the tyranny is imaginary." Further, "Only a world-class narcissist could so casually annex the Holocaust as a symbol for the antipathy for her father."

In the piece on Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Ginsberg's "Howl," as age-defining poems there is not that much that is new, but Kirsch does go into their place in history, gives an intelligent summary of what they are about, and distinguishes between what in them is dated and what remains relevant. About "Howl," we get the useful insight that "the energetic expression of an error can be wonderfully good poetry."

Something similar emerges about Yvor Winters. A fanatical advocate of rational control in poetry, he managed to be right in his high expectations but errant in their application. As Kirsch writes, "What makes Winters seem perverse is that he will neither avoid art for the sake of morality, nor broaden his narrow morality for the sake of art; instead he tries to make art conform to the demands of morality. It is a Procrustean solution, and it leads him to amputate much of the corpus of English poetry." Still, we should read him, "to learn from [his] insights, from his example--and from his mistakes."

And speaking of mistakes, Kirsch is too human not to make some of his own, albeit far slighter than Winters's. So we find the weird coinage "historicality" for historicity, "a poem like this," osso bucco twice as "osso buco" (in a piece nicely dismantling Billy Collins), "the most naughty thing" for naughtiest, and the questionable use of "intriguing." And he fails to explain the full meaning of the title of a volume by A.E. Stallings, Hapax. Yes, it is the Greek for "once," but importantly, it occurs in the phrase hapax legomenon, designating a word found only once in a dead language, and thus of uncertain meaning, which is Stallings's little irony about the uniqueness but also dubiety attaching to her poems.

The final piece, "The Modern Element in Criticism," is Kirsch's finest, and ought to be required reading. In seven pages the author covers the ways and dead ends of modern poetry criticism and modern poetry itself, though not without apt backward glances at Plato, Aristotle, and a representative Renaissance poet-critic, Sir Philip Sidney. No high point is bypassed, and there are unexpected but telling references attesting to wide but lightly worn erudition.

Witty observations crop up, e.g., "The poetry criticism of the last century often sounds like a madhouse, with each patient floridly expounding his delusion." But already for the Romantic critic, "not philosophy but poetry became the ladder on which to ascend to the heavens. .  .  . It removes poetry from the realm of worldly understanding and secular skill. Instead of an art, poetry becomes a magic."

By the mid-20th century, "the new ideal of a poem [is] a faithful record of experience." The search was not for transcendence, only for authenticity. This was the great refusal, "the immolation of meter, rhyme, and form." Kirsch elaborates and illustrates, and then notes, "In the last twenty or thirty years .  .  . some influential [poets and critics] have turned from literary questions to sociological ones," but this doesn't yield great poetry either.

So he advocates "a saner, more sophisticated, more humane tradition in criticism .  .  . the pragmatic tradition of Aristotle and Horace, Johnson and Arnold. If we embrace it, we will not need to look to poetry for transcendence, or to flee into aestheticism when transcendence fails, or to flee into authenticity when aestheticism fails."

As against the "poets of otherworldly magniloquence and hectic experimentation," he holds up "poets of humane insight, Hardy, Frost, Moore, Larkin and [though I question this] Lowell." His solution derives from Horace: "Of writing well, be sure, the secret lies / In wisdom: therefore study to be wise."

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.