Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Plight of the Poet-Critic

The ins and outs of Adam Kirsch.
"The poet-critic gets no sympathy, and considering the charge-sheet against him – adversarial, addicted to dicta, motivated by an axe-grindingly acute sense of right and wrong – why would he? He is, in most eyes, a hyphenated hothead."
The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, by Adam Kirsch. W.W. Norton. $24.95.

Invasions, by Adam Kirsch. Ivan R. Dee. $18.95.

The poet-critic gets no sympathy, and considering the charge-sheet against him — adversarial, addicted to dicta, motivated by an axe-grindingly acute sense of right and wrong — why would he? He is, in most eyes, a hyphenated hothead. Until recently, however, that hyphen was still a badge of special authority, so that practitioners writing critically about their craft were regarded as poetry’s ideal readers. Not everyone agreed (Northrop Frye thought poets made bad critics because they were too obsessed by their own processes), but Alfred Kazin summed up the standard view in 1967 when, with considerable professional envy, he described the poet-critic as always “right in the middle of the parade (and if he is good enough, he will be leading it).”

That was then. Today, as Irish poet-critic David Wheatley reminds us, “there is a temptation to read the hyphen as a subtraction sign.” Chalk it up to life after theory. As soon as powerful new methods began to dominate English departments, the poet-critic gig lost its prestige. Literary criticism for the general reader — the sort championed by poet-critics — took on a belletristic odor; no matter how formidable the close reading, it would now exist on the margins of a more sophisticated cogitating. Worse, by seeing off Arnoldian objectivity (“the object as in itself it really is”), theory discredited the probative force that powered the poet-critic’s prose. Standing on postmodern ground for their higher surmises, academia outgrew aesthetic evaluations; artistic merit, as a concept, became an ideological fairy tale. What eventually filtered down to street level — if the industry-wide outbreaks of shock at negative reviews are any guide — was a hypersensitivity to strong opinions and the taste-correcting urge lurking inside. Show us somebody dedicated to sifting out the best from the merely good, and we’ll show you somebody with a hidden motive. As a result, the poet-critic lost the gig altogether. Criticism by poets, once the conscience of the art, is now exposed as a theatre of special interests, an acting out of parti pris. Thus his plight: taking sides, the poet-critic can’t be trusted. He speaks for no one, except himself.

Adam Kirsch isn’t the sort to be scared off by a little historical irrelevancy. From the start of his freelance career — around 1997, just shy of twenty — he has devoted himself to criticism that turns back the clock and resheathes poetry in high seriousness. He has sharply developed preferences, a well-stocked mind, and very specific ideas about poetry’s characteristics as an art form. His assignments, after a very busy decade, have ranged widely and include Anne Carson, W.S. Merwin, James Tate, Paul Muldoon, August Kleinzahler, Glyn Maxwell, and Yusef Komunyakaa. He has also sized up, and sometimes dressed down, the work of Charles Bukowski, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, and Shelley. That he is a poet himself was eventually confirmed in 2002 with the publication of The Thousand Wells. But to anyone paying attention, it was already obvious by his habit of filing arrestingly ambitious four- to five-thousand word pieces that carried out their flaw-detection duties without heed for margins of error. Only someone personally implicated in the ways poems can fail would credit his doubts to that extent. And only a critic would strive as hard to make those doubts plausible to those who didn’t share them. That, in a nutshell, is what it means for poet and critic to share one body.

Yet Kirsch’s odd-man-out status also testifies to how rarely the two come together with such unshakeable purpose. Poets might flirt with the odd Olympian pronouncement, but know better. The rules of engagement are too risky, the results too easy to ridicule. Having wasted no time finding his stride, Kirsch remains focused. He continues to place his poet-critic multitasking at the service of a profoundly unfashionable “premodernist” vision that emphasizes form, discipline, and tradition. He continues to assert the right to press large claims upon readers, deriving his authority — and arbitership — from Eliot’s belief that, as Kirsch put it in an early review, “only criticism that aims to change poetry is worthy of the name.” Needless to say, this requires a conviction that, for many, is unthinkable because untenable; an irony-free zone that breeds reactionary, pontifical states of mind. Kirsch is too careful a student of history not to understand the dangers (and, luckily, there’s always the back-chatter his reviews inspire to remind him. David Lehman: “a constricting and reactionary aesthetics,” John Palattella: “a narrow and pedestrian sense of style and propriety”). But self-justification, you suspect, is precisely what eggs him on. It’s also the most compelling thing about him: his determination to re-exalt the poet-critic stance. The clout might be gone, but the duty remains. Except that where the poet-critic once held the one true line, he is now forced to draw it in sand.

The Modern Element is a collection of twenty-seven reviews that set up shop in the same big idea. All poet-critics possess a home truth that underwrites everything: where things went wrong, what tendencies are being neglected, which direction to take next. For Kirsch, it is poetry’s “neurotic obsession with the modern.” The Modern Element has thus been assembled in reaction — and at times overreaction — to what Kirsch thinks was a very bad deal. The modern as “mastery of complexity” (what Matthew Arnold campaigned for) should never have been allowed to give way to the modern as “surrender to complexity” (the definition that Eliot established and that still prevails). In other words, it was the classic mistake of sacrificing long-term potential for short-term gain. Modernness as an aesthetic category has been mortgaged for the instant gratification of modernness as a temporal category. The poetry that results — one that makes a point of its modernness and whose idea of risk is tied to making that point — is too surface-seduced to create a shareable experience between reader and poet. This, Kirsch argues, leads to “fraudulent self-exposure, which makes no inner demand on poet or reader, and otiose experimentalism, which mistakes novelty for discovery.” His critical study The Wounded Surgeon (2005) was an earlier attempt to explain how this notion of modernness, if left unchecked, can bait us into crude misreadings. The explicit disclosures of Berryman, Lowell, Plath, Bishop,  Jarrell, and Schwartz? A technical trick, Kirsch reminds us — one that established artlessness as a radically new kind of artfulness. But so successful was the innovation that we devalued what their poems did while fetishizing what they said. The Wounded Surgeon was thus an attempt to return these careers to their first principles. Confessionalism, Kirsch reminds us, was a ruthless stylistic victory over the refractory idiom of extreme feeling. “The suffering that afflicted this group of poets,” he writes, “becomes significant only because they examined it with the surgeon’s rigor, detachment, and skill.”

Providing reminders is, as it happens, a large part of Kirsch’s strategy. Many of his best reviews do nothing more than dust off a once-fighting tenet — “objective correlative,” for instance — and get it back into the fray. Poetry, he reminds us, is about playing the long game, about developing forms that not only make meaning, but make it stay put. Suffering the wound of a modernness that has bequeathed us a set of expectations without the means of satisfying them, Kirsch offers his cure: poets need to reclaim “the mastery of traditional form, which alone allows meaningful departures from tradition” and thus enter into a richer relationship — “the nimble transcendence of the old opposites” — with inherited standards.

For this reason, Kirsch’s takedowns of John Ashbery and Sharon Olds are no surprise (both ouevres, he claims, are shipwrecked by their radicalisms, philosophical and sexual respectively). Nor will anyone be scratching their head over the generous tributes he pays to Derek Walcott, Czesław Milosz, and Dennis O’Driscoll (the terms of his praise for O’Driscoll can just as easily be applied to Walcott and Milosz: “worth, mastery, possibility, control”). What may catch readers off-guard, however, is his admiration for the “astringently bizarre” Frederick Seidel. Indeed, Seidel seems to be a poet who not only resists the terms of Kirsch’s expectations, but slightly reconditions them (“one of the very rare contemporary poets who can be transgressive, not in the fashionable way of the seminar, but in the disturbing and baffling way of the nightmare.”) This needs to be pointed out because the knock against Kirsch — and poet-critics more generally — is that he is too predictable, an amateur, as it were, who has professionalized his prejudices to the point where, often, there’s no need to read him. But who would have forecast the even-handedness of his essay on Ginsberg (“in Howl, Ginsberg achieves a telescoping of ideas and images of which Donne would be proud”)? Or Koch (“buoyant, clowning, exclamatory — a rhapsode of friendship and love”)?

Where Kirsch really flips the script is in his bracing evaluations — admiring, analytic, and ambivalent in equal measure — of formalist poets James Merrill, Geoffrey Hill, and Anthony Hecht. Each is a career audit in which Kirsch wolfishly investigates whether risks, to use Frost’s words, “were weakly lost or richly spent.” Given the scrupulous formalism of his own poetry, you would assume his sympathies would prevent him from pushing his skepticism so far. The real occupational hazard of being a poet-critic, however, is that you are harshest on matters about which you are most qualified to speak. Luckily, Kirsch’s concept of modernness also means his sympathies are with readers rather than poets. Nothing up his sleeve, he always brings along his own criteria for what he alleges and always makes sure he expresses himself with the utmost clarity. This kind of straight talk depends on the ability to communicate the feel of a poem, and to communicate, when the situation requires it (as it often seems to), what feels missing. One unfortunate side effect — betrayed most embarrassingly in the wind-and-wrath essay that ends the book — is a condescending regard for American poetry as nothing more than an error gratefully waiting for Kirsch’s correction. Indeed, if The Modern Element has an autobiographical subtext, then you might say these reviews are the wish-fulfillment of a young man who enjoys the vanity of his own good sense, but is restless under a dispensation he is helpless to change. This would partly explain his penchant for dramatizing careers as an exciting battle against the odds (Walcott’s struggle, for instance, “to convince himself and the world that originality is still possible, even at this late hour”).

But front-line situations — with the fate of contemporary poetry hanging in the balance — bring out the best in Kirsch. An incomparable context builder, with a near-perfect nose for comparisons (the echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets in Ashbery’s “Grand Galop” was neat, but Ashbery’s distance from Wordsworth’s The Prelude was immensely clarifying), Kirsch is excellent at placing poets in their historical moment, aided by an ability to evoke the way the climate of a period manner can suddenly be made to pivot into the private weather of a poem. Painstaking and patient, he builds his evaluations from the foundations upwards, putting intimidating figures (Yvor Winters) or unfamiliar careers (Les Murray) into revelatory perspective, or providing provocative redescriptions of poets (Billy Collins) with whom we might already be au courant. Kirsch can do this because he isn’t obsessed by the little choices that hold together poems, but by the large choices — the consensual glue, you might say — that hold together our definitions of poetry. He is always tracing specific effects back to general causes. His great gift, in fact, is the speculative statement with immersive reach; the statement that extends far beyond the needs of the review to enter deeply, and alter, conventional wisdom. The easy sophistication of these speculations can be breathtaking. On Merrill:

A poet gives the impression of strength only if  his linguistic powers seem to meet and overcome the challenge of significant statement. Simple things said simply are graceful; difficult things said with difficulty are impressive; but simple things said with difficulty are merely showy.

Or take this exemplary paragraph:

Solemnity however has always been Hill’s besetting vice. Solemnity is to seriousness as sentimentality is to emotion: the attempt to induce a feeling that refuses to occur spontaneously. What’s more, solemnity provokes a kind of resistance — mockery, or sheer disbelief — which genuine seriousness never does. And it takes courage for a poet to realize that such resistance on the reader’s part may be justified, that it demands a genuine reform of his poetic methods. That is why there is something truly impressive in the stylistic evolution of a Yeats or a Lowell. Hill, however, has never embraced the kind of humility necessary for such a change. Instead, he has been the Coriolanus of contemporary poetry, proud of his refusal to compromise or condescend.

Force of  belief is only one reason Kirsch has made such an impression. The serenity of his polemic is the other. Kirsch always keeps his temper, if never his tongue. For all his willingness to take extreme positions, he is rarely rude or intemperate. Polite hard-headness is, in fact, his secret weapon: he simply refuses to believe that what a poet has put into a poem automatically belongs there. His now notorious Jorie Graham review is the most dramatic example of this hard-headness, and also its most valuable expression because it is the sum of Kirsch’s manifestos (absorbed into it, for instance, are Glück’s “narcissism,” the “discourteous[ness]” of C.D. Wright, and Ashbery’s “elephantiasis of indirection”). Reading Graham’s book, Kirsch meets a mind that is most unlike his, and thus finds himself at the extreme end of his dilemma with the modern element. In her failure to create what he calls “objective correlatives for inner experience,” Graham produces not poems but “a shorthand, a private idiom, which the reader is left to translate.” To prove it, he sets out to translate it. Whether readers are brought any closer to that proof is arguable (I think that Kirsch makes a haymaker of a case) but they’ll witness something even better: exhilaratingly bloody-minded detective work that gathers up the evidence of the poetry’s shape and sound and strives to solve the quality of its meaning. Keeping close step as both accomplice and jury, Kirsch tests each line for the information it brings; and his patient marshalling of clues in strategic, cant-free, blow-striking ways produces a fascinating set of instructions in how to read. You don’t have to buy into the Kirsch Method to find the exercise useful.

That method does, however, suggest why reading Kirsch can be an uneasy pleasure. His moralizing bias toward poetry within “formal mastery” draws out formulations that force him to sacrifice his creativity as a prose writer. Ideas are flowcharted into larger ideas to create complex, diagrammatic discussions. But Kirsch pays a price for such brain-work: he has a weakness for a dry-as-dust parlance that raises doubts about whether he can muster the stylistic nimbleness needed to get a fix on, and fix in place, constantly shifting definitions of genres, conventions, and forms. “Like many modernist poets,” he writes about Graham “she wants poetry to serve as an evocative transcript of mental processes, rather than a finished and self-subsistent object.” This is true, but the sentence has too much textbook in it — put more of them in a review, for paragraphs at a time, and unsympathetic readers will think that the ground has been brilliantly well-laid for a thoroughgoing misunderstanding of the book. Kirsch’s prose can’t see beyond its own precocity. Or take this: “It is in the negotiation of these two demands, meaning and form, sense and rhythm, that poetic beauty is created.” This is a sentence constructed entirely out of Parnassian publicity-kit words. And a favorite touchstone like “mastery,” no matter how hard-pushed, has a tendency to linger in the mind as sentiment, not argument. In his Larkin essay, he defines a poet’s sacrifice for his art in the most drained lingo: “It means hollowing out one’s self, in order to allow all the bitterness and joy of life to take up residence there and find expression.” There is something too easy about that sentence, or rather, Kirsch makes things too easy on himself. His prose, when it praises, sometimes forgets to register any struggle, which leaves us uncertain about his certainties.

This brings us to a part of the poet-critic’s playbook that Kirsch seems to have skipped. Like poetry, prose can be understood as memorable speech. Prose on poetry, however, is a different kind of speech altogether: aphoristic, intuitive, compressed, unpredictable, peppy. Poems do many things at once, and if you want to capture that restlessness you need sentences that can run together different kinds of experience. (The poems we love, we love for the way they are written. The same goes for the criticism.) Many poetry reviewers don’t take the challenge seriously enough, or the solution: a critic needs to coin his own terms. Neologistically poor, Kirsch sticks to a fairly standardized vocabulary, arguing through definitions. The result are essays that can’t help but radiate an egghead gravitas.

To be fair, The Modern Element does give us some quotable aperçus (the New York School’s “atomic-age jeunesse dorée” or Les Murray’s sexless novel-in-verse Freddy Neptune as “an Odyssey of erocide”) and lots of memorable stand-alone indictments. Hill: “one does not read The Mystery of the Charity with a sense that poetry’s responsibility has been enacted; it has only been addressed as a topic.” Glück: “the lasting and distinctive impression [her poems] make on the reader, is not of a mind curious about mystery, but of a mind that enjoys regarding itself in proximity to mystery.” Collins: “[his] devotion to the ordinary is not a disciplined response to disenchantment. It is, rather, a peculiarly American form of mental laziness.” Winters: “his canon seem[s] like a toy kingdom, a Monaco of poetry existing in placid unrelation to the empire all around it.”

Kirsch’s chops as a critic are well-known; as a poet, less so, which proves that it’s easier to build a profile as critic than as poet (which, in turn, activates the poet-critic’s biggest fear: being better at the wrong thing). That said, Invasions is an advance on the “silent, parcelled, and controlled” poems of the award-winning The Thousand Wells. Sticking to a single form — a sonnet-like sixteen-liner — Kirsch’s second book explores the deeply divided time-sense of an imagination obsessed with mirrorings and facades, bogeymen and spooks (exactly “the music of doubt and self doubt” that he notices, and praises, in David Yezzi’s first book.) Reminiscent of the paragraph-stanzas of “One Weekend” from The Thousand Wells, the form allows a fascinating toughening of Kirsch’s earlier tone: we now get slow-moving syntax, balky lines, disconsolately rumpled phrasing. While Berryman and Walcott would be a good place to look for something similar, the debt to Lowell — specifically the heavy thinking poet-diarist of History — is overwhelming. It’s clear, though, that the influence has been salutary, pushing Kirsch to be less brightly epiphanic, more anxiously suggestive. “Larkin,” one of the book’s best poems, sums up the British poet thusly:

If genius is to carry the pristine
Shock of  perception to the bitter last,
There was no purer genius: philistine,
Uncompromising, foul mouth stuffed with rust.

That ending, especially the very fine parting image, approximates Lowell’s knack of catching the corroded aspects of a life while also serving notice of Kirsch’s own gift for using rhyme (pristine  / philistine, last / rust) to further encode the grimness. In “Withdrawal,” Kirsch expresses the floating media-saturated fatalism of a post 9 /11 world:

The good it did was negative. The mail
Put off  its weaponized white coat of spores;
The jets no longer seemed to fall
Or pivot madly toward the upper floors;
such things returned to their old habitat
In nightmares and the crawl on cnn.
But where did the rainbow come from, pledging
The flood subsiding wouldn’t rise again?
It was just something swallowed with the dose
That fed the brain its missing chemicals,
Coaxing it from its darker purposes
Back to the daylight we assume is normal.
Now as the milligrams decrease, the ache
And sizzle of the synapse slowing down
Warns that these months of peace were a mistake;
Things were not wrong inside, but all around.

“Things were not wrong inside, but all around” is as memorable as language gets. The well-managed flow of this, however, gives a hint of how it can, and does, go wrong: observations are wrenched into an effortful word-placing that always keeps an obligatory eye on the rhyme scheme. Kirsch’s experiments at writing a more improvisingly intuited poetry hits, for lines at a time, pay dirt: anecdotal after-images, confessional hints, self-dissolving details. But as with his first book, continued attempts at a more colloquial phrasing can’t escape an ever-so-slight drift toward antiquarianism:

there are things created of a size
We can’t and weren’t meant to understand,
As fish know nothing of the sun that writes
Its bright glyphs on the black waves overhead.

The result is a begloomed, piecemeal rhetoric that feels like padding, and a cookie-cutter form that requires it. What constitutes poetry has always been an open question, but never quite as open as today when the alternatives available have made a poet’s prosodic choices nearly impossible to anticipate. To argue, as Kirsch does in The Modern Element, that rhyme, done expertly, can be “considerably more surprising than the most estranging experimentation” is to be a poet who has settled his own questions about form. For that reason, despite Kirsch’s conviction that traditional forms are a path to the present and not the past, I can’t help but feel that the best explanation for his choices in Invasions is provided by Paul Valéry, who said that the chief pleasure of rhyme is the rage it inspires in its opponents. When Kirsch describes, in a poem about a burial, the tossing of earth onto a casket and “the streaky clumps / That scatter with a soft unanswered knock,” he might as well be writing about the public reception of his own poet-critic sounds.
Originally Published: April 24th, 2008

Carmine Starnino’s books of poetry include The New World (1997), Credo (2000), With English Subtitles (2004), and This Way Out (2009). He is also the author of A Lover's Quarrel (2004), a book of essays on Canadian poetry, and is the editor of Signal Editions. He lives in Montreal.

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  1. May 15, 2008
     Wandeza Pakulsk

    An incisive, knowing treatment of the burdens and unburdening the poet-critic faces, this essay does much more than proffer Starnino's own egghead gravitas. As someone who aspires to such eloquence--on the part of Mr. Kirsch, certainly, but perhaps even more so on the part of Mr. Starnino--I welcome such pellucid investigating. I believe, however, that the poet-critic would have to demonstrate a profound catholicity of taste--and not the ho-hum hatchet work of Kirsch--to be read for more than her or his curiosity.

    All good, nonetheless. Thanks for running this fine writer's fine work.