Prosaic Judgments

Prosaic Judgments

Adam Kirsch prefers his own ideas about poetry to actual poems.


Sleeping and weeping. Marriage and baby carriage. Impediment and sediment. These are the kind of rhymes that mark time throughout Adam Kirsch’s first book of poems, The Thousand Wells, which appeared in 2002. Those rhymes stirred up panic in some avant-garde enclaves. The Thousand Wells “begs the question beggaring contemporary poetry,” wrote the poet Joshua Clover in the Voice Literary Supplement. “Is the experiment over?” Meanwhile, over at The New Criterion, the editors liked Kirsch’s poems a lot and awarded him their magazine’s annual poetry prize.

The New Criterion also helped to launch Kirsch’s increasingly prominent career as a critic of poetry, albeit in a less direct way. Before becoming book critic for the New York Sun in 2002, Kirsch wrote many essays and reviews about poetry for The New Republic, where he was the assistant literary editor for several years–no small achievement for a writer in his 20s, particularly in a literary world that allots precious little space for the consideration of poetry. Yet as prolific as Kirsch is, he is not expansive in his taste. His tirades in those essays against the enduring influence of the experimental strains of poetic Modernism on contemporary American poetry marks him as the intellectual offspring of the New Formalists, a small group of poets and critics–among them Brad Leithauser, Timothy Steele and Dana Gioia (Bush’s head of the National Endowment for the Arts)–whose essays and poems in defense of traditional formal conventions were championed by The New Criterion during the 1980s.

The recurring story of Kirsch’s essays is one of betrayal, in which formally adventurous contemporary poets are accused of deceiving readers and degrading the art. Kirsch’s basic approach is to define a poet’s strength as his or her weakness. John Ashbery’s coruscating syntax, self-deflating ironies and madcap raids on the word-hoard of pop culture are “an evasion of sense.” Anne Carson’s gnomic propositions and relentless repetitions substitute “for the hard work of sensibility the precocious play of calculation and decoding.”

Kirsch has a knack for deflating difficult poetry that is pedantic about its difficulty, as is sometimes the case with Carson’s work. But when he dismisses difficult poetry itself as trivial or incomprehensible, he is unconvincing because his arguments are myopic. In a long discussion of Jorie Graham’s eighth collection of poems, Swarm (2000), in The New Republic, Kirsch focuses almost exclusively on what he calls the book’s “algebraic” style. There’s no question that Graham’s wedding of fragmentary plots to a pared-down syntax makes parts of Swarm oblique, but Kirsch doesn’t try to grasp that style by placing it in the context of Graham’s body of work. Why has Graham’s style grown so disjunctive and austere? Does Swarm continue her habit of using a new book to counter the temper of her previous one? Is Swarm still animated by the sense of catastrophe and revelation that imbues Graham’s previous books? Instead of taking up such questions, Kirsch puzzles over a handful of oblique lines and concludes that the effort Graham expects from a reader “is really too much to ask.” It’s as if Kirsch had noticed a crack in one wall in one room of a mansion and taken that flaw as sufficient grounds for condemning the entire edifice.

Kirsch attributes such flaws to a poet’s disregard of “form, rhyme and meter.” But oddly enough, his interest in the enduring strength of traditional forms amounts to little more than a preference for end rhymes and a regular metrical schema. Not unlike the New Formalists, Kirsch is negative and censorious. Rather than developing a supple defense of meter and rhyme, he thinks that exposing the alleged libertinism of poets who write in a Modernist vein is all that is necessary to lure poets and readers back to traditional forms. Perhaps that explains why in his harangue about John Ashbery, Kirsch doesn’t mention that Ashbery has written in complicated forms like the sonnet, sestina and pantoum. And perhaps that explains why Kirsch hasn’t entertained the obvious counterargument to his stance–that the most stringent of rhyme schemes, just like the loosest of free verse lines, is a technique that has been invented, shared and transformed over time. In other words, no form is inherently more natural or pure or poetic than another; all are equally rhetorical, and any form can present new possibilities just as easily as it can petrify into an orthodoxy.

For all their passion about poetic form, then, Kirsch’s essays lack a basic sense of form’s historical dimensions. They also often lack a sense of tact. How much can you trust a critic whose defense of “the hard work of sensibility” is discharged with bombastic statements like “[August] Kleinzahler’s poetry is emblematic of a peril facing poetry today”?

Kirsch tries something different in The Wounded Surgeon, examining formal shifts in twentieth-century American poetry in a historical light. He discusses six poets–Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath–whose “achievement…has always been easy to misunderstand.” They took risks in their work, Kirsch argues, “in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier,” and they were repaid by being labeled “confessional”–“a bad metaphor for what the most gifted of these poets were doing.” The personal suffering that afflicted these six poets is significant, he says, because each poet’s manner of representing it was an attempt to break away from, if not repudiate, the tropes of Modernism. Lowell and company are postmodernists, then, not simply because they wrote in the immediate wake of Modernism but because each wrote in an anti-Modernist style, one by which “the values of Modernism are tested, resisted, and transcended.”

Confessionalism has always been a crude label, and Kirsch is right to debunk it. The term was coined by M.L. Rosenthal in a review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, published in the pages of this magazine [see “Poetry as Confession,” September 19, 1959]. Life Studies is confessional, Rosenthal wrote, because Lowell “removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal.” A few years later Rosenthal regretted having coined the term, calling it “both helpful and too limited.” Rosenthal’s reservations, however, didn’t deter the British critic A. Alvarez from arguing in his book on suicide, The Savage God (1971), that when confessional poets remove the mask they speak as contemporary society’s representative victims because their individual psychological breakdowns reflect a larger social and cultural breakdown. Alvarez’s notion of confessional poetry is a tangle of contradictions: If the self’s crises are those of society internalized, then how can the self establish enough distance from society in order to represent its crises? And if one establishes that distance, then to what extent do one’s crises remain representative?

In attacking confessionalism, however, Kirsch thrashes one straw man only to fabricate another. He devotes a chapter each to the work of six poets, and in every chapter he drives hard at the same point: Each poet “eventually rebelled against the New Critical understanding of poetry. In their very different ways, they attempted to break free of the styles and subjects that Modernism had considered suitable.” What’s peculiar about this formulation is that Kirsch treats New Criticism and Modernism as synonymous; in other words, he conflates the many strands of Modernist poetry with a critical establishment that codified the poetry and criticism of some Modernists, especially those of T.S. Eliot, into a doctrine. A big problem with Kirsch’s story of the postmodern turn in American poetry, then, is that it depends on a caricature of Modernism, one that runs athwart the rich and varied understanding of Modernist poetry possessed by the very poets he discusses.

Consider the case of Elizabeth Bishop. Kirsch repeats the well-known story of Bishop meeting Marianne Moore at the New York Public Library in March 1934, and he notes that Moore would teach Bishop “the value of painstaking vision–not simply for its own sake, but as an ethical principle.” What Kirsch doesn’t mention is that two months later, Bishop published an essay that had grown out of an invaluable rendezvous with another Modernist poet. That essay, “Dimensions for a Novel,” appeared in a Vassar College literary magazine (Bishop graduated from Vassar in 1934), and in it Bishop draws on T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to develop a theory about narrative. Bishop had met Eliot in the spring of 1933, when he visited Vassar for the premiere of Sweeney Agonistes; she interviewed him for the college newspaper, and shortly thereafter she began writing “Dimensions for a Novel.”

What’s fascinating about her essay is that just as the New Critics were starting to distill into axioms Eliot’s remarks in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” about the impersonality of his art (poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”) and the monuments of literary tradition (“the existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves”), Bishop was reading Eliot in a different and richer way. She found in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” the tools for explaining how a novel’s structure is continually being remade. “A constant process of adjustment is going on about the past–every ingredient dropped into it from the present must affect the whole,” Bishop explained, drawing on Eliot’s remarks about the existing monuments of literary tradition. “We live in great whispering galleries,” she continued, “constantly vibrating and humming, or we walk through salons lined with mirrors where the reflections between the narrow walls are limitless, and each present moment reaches immediately and directly the past moments, changing them both.” The New Critics found in Eliot a poet obsessed with stasis and order; Bishop found a poet fascinated with contingency and change. Reading her “Dimensions for a Novel,” which departed radically from the era’s prevailing wisdom about Eliot, it’s hard not to conclude that Bishop’s grasp of Modernism’s intellectual and aesthetic legacy is much more complex than Kirsch is willing to allow.

“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” is one of Bishop’s most fascinating poems, and Kirsch’s discussion of it also veers away from exploring the complexity of her grasp of Modernism. In the poem’s first two movements, Bishop compares steel-etched illustrations of the Holy Land found in a Bible (“Always the silence, the gesture, the specks of birds/suspended on invisible threads above the Site”) with a random catalogue of her travels (“And at St. Peter’s the wind blew and the sun shone madly”). The poem concludes with a brief third movement that is an agitated jumble of imperatives, particulars and open questions:

Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
Open the book. (The guilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
–the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets,
–and looked and looked our infant sight away.

Kirsch glosses the final line to mean that Bishop wants to be freed from the burden of seeing, since she will never experience the grand mythic vision depicted in the engravings. I think Bishop accepts a different view of vision, one shaped in part by her reading of Eliot. The poem’s perspective–the intimation of despair in a familiar landscape–recalls “The Waste Land,” but while Eliot seeks a vision that can unify such a landscape, Bishop forgoes the search for a solution. By looking “our infant sight away,” does she mean becoming absorbed in a scene of random particulars or recovering unadulterated sight? “It is no doubt all these things, and a perfect summation of the poet’s act–the looking so intense that it becomes something like death or ecstasy, both at once perhaps,” suggests John Ashbery, whose interpretation of the questions raised by the concluding line of “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” has always struck me as right. For Bishop, a painstaking view of an inconsequential world is inescapable–but still capable of arousing rapture and transformation. Bishop had suggested something similar about vision and its bewildering qualities in “Love Lies Sleeping,” an aubade whose sordid setting resembles Eliot’s “Preludes.” In the final scene, a man lies on a bed, his head flung back over its edge, and through a window “the city grows down into his open eyes/inverted and distorted. No. I mean/distorted and revealed,/if he sees it at all.”

Kirsch’s use of a story of repression, opposition and liberation to explain the postmodern turn in midcentury American poetry is not original. After Rosenthal, the best-known version of that story is found in James E.B. Breslin’s From Modern to Contemporary. A lesser-known version, which The Wounded Surgeon more clearly recalls, is Bruce Bawer’s The Middle Generation: The Lives and Poetry of Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. At the same time, I am hardly the first person to poke holes in the kind of story that Kirsch and others have told. A decade ago, Langdon Hammer and James Longenbach advanced indispensable critiques of what Longenbach calls “the breakthrough narrative”; both writers explain how stories about Lowell, Bishop, Jarrell and Berryman breaking out of their Modernist chains rely on a simplified view of Modernist poetry and dated polemical distinctions, such as that postmodernism not only comes after Modernism but is always antithetical to it. Why, then, would Kirsch choose to tell a story that is inaccurate and outmoded?

The answer involves seeing The Wounded Surgeon against the background of Kirsch’s magazine criticism. Despite his respect for Eliot–he draws the title of his book from Eliot’s “East Coker” (“The wounded surgeon plies the steel/That questions the distempered part”)–Kirsch wants to put paid to Modernism. “The twentieth century saw poetry fall victim to a neurotic obsession with the modern,” and “Ezra Pound was the Patient Zero of this sickness,” Kirsch wrote last year in Poetry in a review of an anthology of twentieth-century poetics. That “sickness,” Kirsch continued, bred a “hatred of artifice” and “loyalty to individual perception” that culminated in “the great refusal about which the romantics only speculated: the immolation of meter, rhyme and form.” Let’s put aside Kirsch’s implication that Ezra Pound, the most ardent aesthete of the Modernist bunch, hated artifice. By claiming in The Wounded Surgeon that Lowell and company “tested, resisted, and transcended” the values of Modernism by writing about their lives with formal rigor, detachment and skill, Kirsch aims to consign Modernism to the dustbin of history. This may satisfy Kirsch’s polemical itch, but it robs him of the ability to tell a more subtle and accurate story about poetic change and development. Deaf to the variety of Modernism, he can’t appreciate how it nourished and was transmuted by the poets he discusses.

Reading The Wounded Surgeon, it’s hard to escape the impression that for all his erudition, Kirsch cares about poems only tangentially. He is less a debunker than a derider, scolding poets not because their work lacks invention or imagination or ideas but because it fails to conform to a narrow and pedestrian sense of style and propriety. Even while discussing the work of his postmodern idols, Kirsch remains on the lookout for the slightest sign of deviance. At one point he upbraids Bishop for being “recklessly sentimental” by affixing to “The Bight” the subtitle “On my birthday,” and elsewhere he complains that the “desperate instability” conveyed by John Berryman in his late poem “Despair” is “repellent and pitiful.” What seems pitiful is Kirsch’s chastising of Bishop and Berryman for failing to fulfill his limited critical precepts. Like Kirsch’s magazine criticism, The Wounded Surgeon contains a story about poetry and betrayal. This time, however, its protagonist is not a beguiling contemporary poet but a critic named Adam Kirsch.

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