The Magazine

Rhymers' Dictionary

Defining the moderns.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By JOHN SIMON
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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?"