The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, Adam Kirsch
by Mario Relich
from The Dark Horse, Summer 2009
Of the twenty-six diverse essays in The Modern Element, one is devoted to Yvor Winters, but as critic rather than poet. Similarly, Adam Kirsch is a poet, but this collection, culled mainly from The New Republic, but also from The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement and other prestigious journals, shows him to be, like Winters himself, a formidable and boldly authoritative critic. I say 'boldly authoritative' because this is an age of extreme relativism, dominated by the assumption that the primary purpose of the critic is to entertain, with the ancillary aim of providing consumer information, rather than to judge and evaluate. Kirsch's essay on Winters tells us much about how he approaches the business of criticism. For a start, he doesn't consider Winters to be a model critic at all, and tells us that 'of all the eminent poet-critics of his generation—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, R.P. Blackmur—none is more often "irritating," "insensitive," and "specifically wrong" than Winters'. Yet he finds that there is much to learn from him, 'as long as we are prepared to be irritated', and makes the paradoxical observation that ' ... to read Winters with profit means reading him with suspicion, even resistance' (my emphasis). What Kirsch finds so valuable about Winters is that because he was so anti-modernist, pointing out that in one of his critical works 'Eliot, Stevens, and Ransom are all prosecuted for their encouragement of emotional irresponsibility', he made it possible to reread these poets with greater awareness of the precise nature of their poems even when disagreeing with his specific judgments. Kirsch particularly values Winters on 'the fallacy of imitative form'. The fallacy consists of 'believing that a poem's subject matter should dictate its form—so that, for instance, mental confusion should be expressed in a confused and disjointed poem.' Many of his essays strike at this defect in some of the poets considered. Another bugbear he shares with Winters is the perceived indifference to poetic form among some poets. He describes its deleterious effects in terms of 'an itch for novelty', as follows:
As we have seen in the generations since modernism, competition for the favors of the Zeitgeist leads to a self-annihilating series of schools and styles, each claiming to be 'what comes next'. This itch for novelty reduces the reader to the status of a consumer, keeping up with the latest makes and models. Worse, it leads the poet to neglect the mastery of traditional form, which alone allows meaningful departures from tradition.
It is by such rigorous standards, and with a keen awareness of modernist predecessors like Eliot, Auden, Stevens and Lowell that Kirsch assesses the poets he has written about for the various journals mentioned, with his choice of poets largely dictated by the editorial exigencies of, primarily, arts review pages. But while he has learned from Winters, fortunately he largely eschews that poet-critic's fierce dogmatism, with elegance and aphoristic clarity always to the fore in his critical style. He is generous enough to include The Waste Land, which is unambiguously modernist, and Allen Ginsberg's Howl, much less so, in his essay on 'Two Modern Classics'. Yet, as will be seen, Kirsch also has his own specific agendas.
Kirsch's discussion of John Ashbery, arguably the greatest living American poet, takes him on like Jacob wrestling with the Angel; his critical ambivalence about this greatly admired poet 'in the American grain' is total. He starts by likening him to God in somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, reminiscent of a medieval Scholastic philosopher: 'JOHN ASHBERY, like God, is most easily defined by negatives. His poems have no plot or argument, no sustained mood or definite theme'. For good measure, somewhat belittlingly, he adds: 'They do not even have meaningful titles'. And these are not merely opinionated assertions, still less rhetorical points, for Kirsch goes on to have a detailed look at poems like 'Daffy Duck in Hollywood' (surely the title is amusing if nothing else?), 'Europe' from his first book, The Tennis Court Oath, and his book-length poem Flow Chart. His conclusions about these poems include: 'To read this kind of thing can be intermittently stimulating; to read it at great length, as one is generally made to do in any volume of Ashbery's, is mildly masochistic'; 'This is not nonsense as a computer spewing out words is nonsense; it is, rather, an evasion of sense'; and 'His verse is less like an eruption of necessary speech than an adjustment of the poet's mind to a certain frequency, whose signal is then transcribed voluminously.' Such witty and exhilarating judgments come across almost as critical vituperation, yet are the products of a meticulous reading of the poems discussed. Readers who like Ashbery's work will no doubt find examples of his poems which are anything but 'most easily defined by negatives', yet find it difficult to counter Kirsch's remorselessly logical and virtually Scholastic mode of argument. But he throws such readers a lifeline. Although Kirsch finds problematic the 'experimental' strand of Ashbery's work, he very much likes what he takes to be 'the traditional, Romantic strand'. Ashbery's Romantic predilection for visionary transcendence, Kirsch argues, is through the modernist prism of the Eliot of Four Quartets. As a result, Ashbery exemplifies that 'it is not enough for the poet to state his revelation; the reader must discover it by means of a difficult and lengthy process, so that the difficulty may be experienced as an integral part of the revelation.' Kirsch identifies Ashbery as 'a very late Romantic', and although 'condemned to an elephantiasis of indirection', his justification lies in the fact that for Kirsch 'it is perfectly legitimate for the poet to make the road to his truths a difficult one', adding that 'in Ashbery's best poems the game is worth the candle'. He argues that at the heart of Ashbery's work lies a 'Romantic perplexity', which he defines as 'the dilemma of having to communicate, in words, a feeling that is beyond words.' And that is one important reason why, according to Kirsch, 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' is Ashbery's most famous poem. He finds it deeply appropriate, even if also a kind of dead-end, that a poem about a painting by the Mannerist Parmigianino should be highly mannered and uncompromisingly convoluted.
While ultimately Kirsch finds much to praise in Ashbery's work, he is much harsher about a poet of similar stature, Geoffrey Hill. Hill is indicted on the grounds that 'he writes about religion rather than faith; about history, rather than experience; about morality, rather than conscience'. And why does he make these objections? Because Hill 'addresses these things not as existential challenges, but as abstract themes and subjects.' One example Kirsch discusses is the sequence 'Lachrimae' from Tenebrae. While Hill's poem has an affinity with 'the language of medieval Catholicism, although the poet Kirsch uses for comparison is Richard Crashaw, who was indeed Catholic, but certainly not medieval, Kirsch argues that 'Lachrimae' is defective. His grounds are that, unlike Crashaw, Hill can only 'create a sense of continuity with earlier religious poetry', but not convey genuine religious experience. But surely that's one reason precisely why to many a secular-minded 21st century reader Hill is such a fascinating poet? The comparison with Crashaw, moreover, although illuminating and even ingenious, is somewhat problematic. Maybe Kirsch believes that Crashaw was medieval compared to, say, his fellow Metaphysical Donne, but Crashaw typified Counter-Reformation Catholicism, which was rather more dynamic, even aggressive, than medieval piety. Regarding 'Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings', from For the Unfallen, Kirsch condemns this magnificent poem with a querulous series of rhetorical questions, culminating in the following: 'Does anyone expect that on the Day of Judgment, the reanimated corpses of King Stephen and King Henry I will burst forth from their tombs? And if not, what is Hill's poem but an academic exercise, a cunning assembly of the materials of high culture?' But any reader who poses such questions has already caught a glimpse of remote history made vivid, and even if such history, or feeling for the remnants of the past in the English landscape, is not directly relevant to the present, expanding our imaginative sympathies can only be beneficial. Yet even the section on the death of Princess Diana in Speech! Speech! he finds objectionable, asserting about the subsequent public mourning that 'one might expect Hill to have great fun denouncing [it] as a piece of media-concocted idiocy.' Instead Hill, according to Kirsch, 'is torn between admiration for Diana as a national cult figure ... and disgust at the behaviour of the masses who worship her.' But even if Hill is to be condemned for such ambivalence, it cannot be denied that his very prickly reaction records something very important about the tragic occasion, not to mention how Diana represented irreconcilable populist and monarchical impulses in British life. In effect, Kirsch suggests that Hill is a poet who just misses greatness, and that solemnity has always been his 'besetting vice'; indeed, that 'he has been the Coriolanus of contemporary poetry, proud of his refusal to compromise or condescend'. Were I Geoffrey Hill, I would take that as a compliment. And Kirsch does praise Mercian Hymns, commending the way that 'in these short pieces, the voice of the poet remembering his childhood merges with that of King Offa, a figure from England's distant youth.' He also admires The Orchards of Syon for its 'moments of splendor'.
Derek Walcott's treatment of history Kirsch finds much more satisfying, pointing out that he 'has often considered himself extraordinarily lucky to be a Caribbean poet, precisely because the Caribbean lies so far away from the metropolis and its neuroses'. This is rather high, even startling, praise from a New Yorker. He admires Walcott's treatment of the Caribbean landscape, because it is not merely an exotic one in his poetry, but one filled with ruins which betray its troubled history, and the Caribbean sea itself 'in his poetry ... is often a version of the Aegean.' Omeros, for instance, 'is nothing less than an attempt to recast the Iliad on St. Lucia'; Kirsch adds that '[Walcott's] very insistence on the parallel implies a recognition of Homer's priority, which dashes the idea that the Caribbean is pristine territory, free from history.' But what Kirsch appears to value most about Walcott is the way his language assimilates and alludes to so many other great poets, not least Shakespeare in an early poem, 'Ruins of a Great House'. But he wasn't always entirely successful with such assimilation, since Kirsch points out that Walcott 'also came to Auden and Eliot early on, and through them Donne and Marvell; the result was the overknotted ambiguity of In a Green Night'. Others, like his fellow Caribbean writer V.S. Naipaul, have objected to this aspect of Walcott's poetry, but then this other Nobel Prize winner tends to be acerbic about everyone but himself. And one can imagine Naipaul's disdain at Kirsch considering that by far the key influence on Walcott, and one which makes him very much in tune with contemporary American poetry, is that of Robert Lowell. Kirsch argues that ' ... the real breakthrough in Walcott's style arrived when he came to read (and know) Robert Lowell in the 1960s', and that he is 'perhaps the only inheritor of Lowell to equal his rhetorical force, able to combine ease with strength.'
Lowell, in fact, tends to be Kirsch's critical lodestar. In the case of Louise Glück, he pinpoints Lowell's influence in a poem like 'Phenomenal Survivals of Death in Nantucket', but 'where Lowell respected the Atlantic Ocean as a malign cosmic force, "the mast-lashed masters of Leviathans", Glück swiftly reduces it to an emblem of her own interior state'. Kirsch's critique of her poetry amounts to taking her to task for self-dramatisation when in fact her life has been quite ordinary, and to be overly infatuated with Greek myths which have 'no cultic power' in the modern world. Yet he is extremely interesting in Glück's deployment of psychoanalysis, and his objections, as in his discussion of Geoffrey Hill, actually whet the reader's appetite for Glück's poetry. Claiming, for instance, that in her work 'the biographical is so often inflated out of recognition', he concludes that 'yet it is clear that this inflating impulse, the tendency to mythologize her own experience, is equally a product of Glück's psychoanalytic orientation. Who but Freud, after all, taught us to name our parents after Greek myths, and to regard self-dramatization as a form of self-cure?'. In that case, surely Glück must be well worth reading even if she is not after all another Lowell? With regard to Theodore Roethke, Kirsch argues that his 'only real subject was his own inwardness', as against Lowell's or Auden's poetry about 'the whole man' (even though the very phrase is borrowed by Kirsch from one of Roethke's letters). But what is most interesting about Kirsch on Roethke is that the essay is about both Roethke and James Wright, the latter very much a disciple of Roethke's. The pair are taken to task for 'allowing the poet to be too easy on himself, to believe that right feeling is more important than good writing.' To Wright's declaration that 'gentleness and courage in dealing with a subject matter very close to life as the creature who lives it are primarily matters of personal character; and that, where the character is lacking, no amount of literary skill can substitute for it', Kirsch counters in Lowellian fashion that 'the colder virtues of the artist' are also necessary. Kirsch is generous enough, nevertheless, to admire a poet like Richard Wilbur, whom he finds as far from Lowell's sensibility as any poet could be. His discussion of 'Sonnet', from Wilbur's 1956 collection Things of This World, points to how it celebrates a farmer's 'rigorous content' at work well done, although, according to Kirsch, 'in some degree reproached, by another figure—the scarecrow that stands in the field', with its, in Wilbur's words, 'gestures of invincible desire'. Kirsch concludes that 'Wilbur is too honest a poet to deny the persistent glamour of the scarecrow's aspiration, but his instincts are all on the side of the farmer's satisfaction.' Despite Wilbur's rejection of Lowellian confrontation with the potential madness in all of us, Kirsch considers him a major poet, and that 'the happiest of Wilbur's gifts is his confidence that we do indeed see ourselves in nature, that the human being is profoundly at home in this world.'
With poets like Anthony Hecht and Sharon Olds, on the other hand, Kirsch's Lowellian allegiances somewhat obstruct his assessments of their poetry. His essay on Hecht begins by quoting four stanzas of 'More Light! More Light!', which he blandly calls 'an anecdote of the Holocaust', but a truly horrific one which plays on Weimar as a shrine to Goethe (the title of the poem refers to his last words), yet also the site of an atrocity 'In which two Jews are ordered to lie down / and be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole'. The Pole refuses to do so: 'He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.' Kirsch compares Hecht unfavourably to, admittedly, a much greater poet: 'The contrast with ... Paul Celan could not be greater. Hecht's regular meter and rhyme, his formal diction and clear expository sentences betray none of the uncertainty or extremity his subject seems to demand.' Some readers may beg to differ. The huge gap between matter-of-fact language, and the bleak, senseless cruelty of the incident described may itself bring home the stark question mark about how any kind of meaning can be extracted and may be the essence of the poem. Kirsch admits that 'Hecht's strengths—seriousness, intelligence, formal discipline—are all rare in American poetry', but goes on to assert that Lowell, Berryman, and Plath allowed some of the chaos in twentieth century life into the 'very speech' of their poetry; hence 'it is to them, rather than to Hecht, that future readers will turn for a sense of what it was like to live, and suffer, in the late twentieth century.' But it cannot really be predicted how future generations will judge any poet, to say nothing of the way Kirsch's judgment skirts perilously close to favouring 'the fallacy of imitative form', which he is ostensibly against. Kirsch is rather more unforgiving in his discussion of Sharon Olds. He indicts her for 'pointed prurience', and claims that in one of her poems 'Olds's aim is not clarity but blasphemy'. He also quotes lines which supposedly reveal that 'only a world-class narcissist could so casually annex the Holocaust as a symbol for her antipathy to her father'. This is a thorny issue, and one which cannot be easily resolved, but can't the same be said of a poem like Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy'? Olds, moreover, devoted an entire collection to The Father, so her complex feelings, and indeed what Freud called the 'family romance', deserve a more sensitive critical approach. Kirsch perhaps reveals the true source of his reservations about Olds in the following observation: 'graphic anatomical descriptions of sex inevitably come across as polemical and self-conscious, which is why the sex poems ... of Sharon Olds, feel so unerotic'. Without going into any great detail two points come to mind here. First, does Olds herself recognize 'sex poems' as a genre, and secondly did she intend any of these poems (which Kirsch does not identify) to be 'erotic'? Perhaps what really alarms Kirsch is that unlike Lowell and Plath, sexuality in the poems of Sharon Olds never flirts with madness. For Kirsch, 'the insult of sex is not so much to Puritan morality ... but to the illusion of self-control, the way it forces the mind to serve the body.' One does not have to be a radical feminist to find this formulation, one going as far back as Saint Augustine, a touch patriarchal. And Olds questions such a venerable orthodoxy, calling it 'a false Messiah, love the / priest instead of the God', in 'Sex without Love'. But Kirsch seems more comfortable with Les Murray's verse novel Fredy Neptune, 'an Odyssey of erocide' whose protagonist suffers from 'a strange disease, which he develops after witnessing a massacre of Armenian women by the Turks, and which deprives him of all bodily sensation', so that 'for most of the book he is unable to feel anything'.
Kirsch's essays on Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz and Adam Zagajewski are among his best, because of his intuitive understanding of why they appeal to a much wider, indeed international, audience than the Slavic countries, namely Poland and the Soviet Union, of their origins. The Russian poet Brodsky, a Nobel Prize winner like Walcott and Milosz, also made a niche for himself as an American poet (although Kirsch prioritises the language rather than the nationality, calling him an 'English' poet) with the poems he wrote in English. Brodsky was also fortunate to have Anthony Hecht and other American poets as the main translators for his Russian poems. Comparing Brodsky's own version of 'December in Florence', and Hecht's translation of 'Lullaby at Cape Cod', Kirsch tells us that even though the latter poem might sound 'more like Hecht than like Brodsky', 'as Brodsky himself wrote, "Translation is a search for an equivalent, not for a substitute", and the poem is both clearer and more pleasing for being spoken in Hecht's poetic voice.' He is nevertheless sympathetic to Brodsky's own efforts at translating his own Russian poems, because of the dissident Russian's attachment to 'strict form', even at the expense of 'the energy meter is supposed to provide'. Given Kirsch's sensitivity to issues of translation in the essay on Brodsky, it is very odd that while he quotes extensively from the poems in his essays on Milosz and Zagajewski, he never identifies their translators.
Although his final essay is about 'The Modern Element in Criticism', it is in the essay on Milosz that Kirsch articulates most cogently both the strengths and limits of modernism. For Kirsch, Milosz's poetry is the culmination of what moderism sought to achieve:
To read Milosz ... is silently to redraw the poetic chronology of the twentieth century. He convinces us that modernism was not actually modern, but the necessary conclusion of four centuries of art and thought about art: it was the desperate attempt to make art alone a sufficient source of value. Modernism inflated poetry like a balloon with the vapors of vanished meanings—religious, social, mythic—and produced monuments of fragile iridescence. Its zero hour was 1939-45, a time in which, as Milosz wrote of occupied Warsaw, Western civilization was unlearned. Only what came afterward—the postmodern—is really new, the inauguration of a different rule for the mind. The question for us, which we have yet to answer and seldom even ask properly, is whether the postmodern will mean the dawning of nihilism or of a new, transformed humanism.
As for Zagajewski, Kirsch finds him 'a mystic of the liberal imagination', partly because 'the antithesis between politics and poetry, the collective and the private, is the main subject of his mature work.' He adds, employing a metaphor of Zagajewski's, that 'scorn, hatred, loathing for totalitarianism is everywhere in his work; but so is a distrust of antitotalitarianism, the other seal that disfigures the wax of reality.' Indeed, like Winters and Kirsch, Zagajewski is himself a critic of considerable power. Kirsch quotes an essay in which Zagajewski argues that 'two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony'. For Kirsch, who nevertheless endorses Zagajewski's paradox, this aspect of contemporary poetry is almost a curse. He concludes: 'That two such vastly different elements shape poetry is astounding and even compromising. No wonder almost no one reads poems.'
The Dark Horse
Bothwell, South Lanarkshire, Scotland
Editor: Gerry Cambridge
U.S. Assistant Editor: Jennifer Goodrich