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.

About the unconscionable but highly successful Jorie Graham (for whom the all-powerful Helen Vendler managed to get a Harvard professorship) we read, "There is a distinction .  .  . between the difficulty of obscurity and the difficulty of complexity. .  .  . As long as Graham asks the reader to fill in her blanks and solve for her X's, she has not realized poetry's greatest and most enduring possibilities," which, though a trifle overpolite, hits the nail on the head.

About John Ashbery, Kirsch is even better: "Like God, [Ashbery] is most easily defined by negatives. His poems have no plot or argument, no sustained mood or definite theme. They do not even have meaningful titles." You must "plod through a dismaying expanse of trivia, jokes, bent grammar, and nonsense .  .  . for his five or ten lines of epiphany." For me, even these epiphanies are three-dollar bills.

Kirsch is very good about Geoffrey Hill, a difficult poet, but whose complexities are worth grappling with. Although he shows due respect, he deftly puts his finger on what is problematic about Hill: "He writes about religion, rather than faith; about history, rather than experience; about morality, rather than conscience. That is, he addresses these things not as existential challenges, but as abstract themes and subjects." This is criticism of a high order, as is the entire essay on Hill. (My only cavil is that he does not seem to recognize, concerning one of Hill's volumes in 120 sections, the allusion to the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom.)

Nothing could be more pointed than Kirsch's skewering of that deplorable charlatan Frederick Seidel's poems, which "give the sense of a man wholly inside his obsessions; indeed the obsessions seem to be writing the poems .  .  . not the contented solipsism of the egoist, more like the desperation of the madman, or the damned soul."

In assessing Louise Glück, he does encounter some contented solipsism. He admires Glück's "serious book of essays, Proofs & Theories .  .  . discredit[ing] confessional 'honesty' and 'courage' as poetic values," and approves of its polemical thrust for authenticity rather than gushily narcissistic "sincerity." Nevertheless, in her own poetry, "Glück has tried on very many costumes from the wardrobe of myth: Joan of Arc, Abishag, Circe, Penelope, Persephone. But the voice that issues from behind all these masks is recognizably the same, the voice of a poet entranced by her own dark resonance." Moreover, "the intoxication with myth seems to give her a factitious strength."

But Kirsch is not only good at carping. He is equally perceptive positively, as when he finds in Charles Simic "poetry that can succeed, even magnificently, when it preserves a sense of the radical strangeness of Being, and of our perception of it: what Simic brilliantly calls "the blossomlike / White erasure / Over a huge, / Furiously crossed-out something."

The essay on James Merrill is one of the finest and most extensive in the book. Here Kirsch observes that "'Luxurious' is .  .  . an apt description of Merrill's poetry, which is superficial in the most deliberate sense: it is profoundly concerned with surfaces." And further, "If we ask what Merrill's form affirms, the answer can only be: form itself." Through salient examples and cogent arguments, Kirsch concludes that "the Augustan Age would have been the perfect setting for Merrill's gifts." It was "an era in which the poet could take much for granted. .  .  . There would have been no question .  .  . of his .  .  . poetry being too beautiful to be great."

Kirsch may not regard Richard Wilbur quite as highly as I do, but he does appreciate this great poet's problem: "How does a poet who feels himself, in the words of an early poem, 'Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,' practice that calling in an age when poetry is overwhelmingly drawn to crisis, confession, and complaint?"

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.

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