The Modern Element

Contemporary poetry inspires an endless range of diagnostics. It’s a dying technique, we’ve been told; it’s only read by other poets and those who aspire to be poets, some say; it can matter, if poets follow the prescribed agenda, others aver. All of these views suggest crisis: apparently no readers outside the insular world of poetry care about the genre, and the fault must lie somewhere. Most explanations have been sociological, as Adam Kirsch smartly points out in this collection of essays, which brings together work published in the last ten years in a number of formidable venues, mostly in The New Republic but also in The New Yorker and The London Times Literary Supplement, among others. Kirsch, a third-generation book critic, also serves as chief reviewer of The New York Sun, in which he’s displayed both a stunning range of interests as well as a seriousness unparalleled in daily arts journalism. And that shouldn’t surprise readers of The Modern Element since the model here is the ever-sober Lionel Trilling, the much-admired Columbia University?based critic whose moral imagination shapes Kirsch’s own measured tones.

But the Harvard-educated Kirsch — who is also a poet — is no epigone; he even faults Trilling at one point for describing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as dull and uninteresting. In Kirsch’s view, Ginsberg’s incantatory verse, with its “wild flights of rhetoric” and its “genuine longing for transcendence,” is anything but dull. That doesn’t mean Kirsch is an uncritical admirer of the poet’s verbal recklessness. He finds in Ginsberg’s crazed rants and chants everything that’s wrong with the counterculture: the romanticizing of violence and mental illness, the assault on reason and liberal politics, and the “confusion of narcissism with moral superiority.” Ginsberg’s self-styled revolutionary poem is in fact an embodiment and harbinger of the consumer culture of hipness, the real legacy of the ’60s. Kirsch neatly pairs this essay with one on another classic, Eliot’s The Waste Land, a true example of what he calls “the poetry of discovery.” The conservative Eliot, anglophile and future Anglican, created something genuinely new (however dated some of it seems today): he brought music and rhythm to the fragments of the great civilization he feared in decline, and the result is, to use Kirsch’s highest praise (borrowed from Matthew Arnold): “a criticism of life.”

Superb as he is on works most of us are familiar with — Eliot and Ginsberg coexist in many textbooks and classrooms — Kirsch proves his mettle in the bulk of his essays: over 20 career assessments, on poets representative of just about every trend in today’s poetry world. Kirsch establishes the gold standard up front. After an introduction in which he relies heavily on Arnold — it’s the first place he quotes “the criticism of life” remark — Kirsch leads off with a marvelous essay on Derek Walcott, the Caribbean-born poet and Nobel Prize winner. Kirsch finds many of the qualities he values most in Walcott’s verse: he’s allusive without being obscure; he takes risks with his “elevated style”; and he manages to bring new meaning to classical ideas.

I had entered the house of literature as a houseboy,
filched as the slum child stole,
as the young child stole,
as the young slave appropriated
those heirlooms temptingly left
with the Victorian homilies of Noli tangere.

Walcott’s sense of exile leads to a truly liberal cosmopolitanism, a virtue Kirsch admires in other exiled poets such as Joseph Brodsky, Adam Mzagajewski, and Czeslaw Milosz — all of whom he discusses at length.

Kirsch’s touchstones throughout this book aren’t just other critics, but the modern poets who mean the most to him: Eliot, Auden, and Robert Lowell, who combines a mastery of language with a complex idea of history. And Lowell’s most obvious descendant, Frederick Seidel, takes many of the same risks — his chatty narratives can be full of names dropped while also displaying a serious engagement with our times:

I like the color of the smell. I like the odor of spoiled meat.
I like who gangrene transubstantiates warm firm flesh into rotten sleet.
When the blue blackens and they amputate, I fly.
I am flying a Concorde of modern passengers to gangrene in the sky.

Like Geoffrey Hill (and Eliot again), Seidel proves that difficulty isn’t always a bad thing, though in Hill’s case, it can lead to an abundance of information that forces readers to scurry back and forth to and from the reference shelves.

Kirsch always keeps the reader foremost in mind, which is why the bulk of these essays concern those poets who are familiar to us all, even if we have no idea why they’re supposed to be so great. John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, in particular, have garnered major support in the academy and appear frequently in magazines. Kirsch makes clear Ashbery’s perplexing and mannered aesthetic: he’s given to “vast tracts of indirection”; “his swerves of tone and subject are an attempt to transcribe the way the mind works”; “consciousness is inconstant, reactive, essentially variable.” In short, Ashbery’s limitations inhere in his idea of poetry. And the result is verse that bogs down in trivia, nonsense, and “an elephantiasis of indirection.”

Jorie Graham’s poetry exists on a higher plane: the heady world of theory. Her work reflects an idea of absence and indeterminacy that leads to much mystification. Consider the lines: “Owning / name of / birth * The gods that sleep in museums . . . .” The density of reference here, which may be apparent to Graham, and which Kirsch manages to squeeze out, strikes him as not only obscure but so private as to be a unintelligible to most readers. Graham seems to reject a public realm for the poet, a realm in which poet and reader “discuss things in common.” That’s, after all, what any communication hopes to achieve, including poetry.

At the other extreme, Kirsch notes another disturbing trend, best embodied by poets such as Sharon Olds and Billy Collins. The sex-obsessed, but most unsexy, narratives of Olds thrive on two debatable notions. She believes that form somehow distorts and diminishes the experience being described. Nothing should come between her emotional outbursts of anger and sorrow, and her readers. As Kirsch makes clear, only a “world-class narcissist” could believe this. Worse: her idea of unmediated testimony relies on a silly and naive sense of sincerity. Her self-congratulatory verse is sentimental and monotonous, an insult to the genre. Collins, on the other, probably the best-known poet in America, markets himself as a populist, a poet for people who don’t read poetry. Not only that, he wants readers to know that he finds the entire enterprise pretentious and needlessly obscure. His often comic poems, with their jokes at the expense of eggheads, speak to common readers, to be sure. But they speak in the language of the lowest common denominator. Hoping to embrace the average guy or gal, Collins’s clownish verse takes nothing very seriously, and it amounts to a genuine rejection of culture as a whole. He panders to readers by suggesting that poetry should make no demands on us at all.

Kirsch’s collection adds up to a state-of-the-art survey, with expert pieces on a number of well-known poets, from James Merrill and Louise Gl?ck to Richard Wilbur and C. D. Wright. His book coheres because Kirsch seldom deviates from his central thesis: the search for a middle way between the obscure and the cheap, for poetry that provides “humane insight.” At his most prescriptive, Kirsch argues against poetry that flees into aestheticism and authenticity, and prefers the ancient advice of Horace: “Of writing well, be sure, the secret lies / In wisdom: therefore study to be wise.” Kirsch has studied well, and his wise book deserves to be read by all who care about contemporary poetry.