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.