The Modern Element, by U.S. poetry critic, Adam Kirsch, examines the work of a wide variety of modern poets – Derek Walcott, Jorie Graham, Geoffrey Hill, Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur, and many more. The essays are stimulating, provocative, and well written. They don’t get bogged down in academic-speak, but aren’t just simplistic examinations of content. When I disagreed with Adam Kirsch, which I did frequently, he still gave me something to think about, and he rarely made points without backing them up.
When a critic makes a negative assessment of a writer whose work I don’t know well, I tend to focus in on what he says about writers I’m familiar with. Adam Kirsch certainly pulls no punches when it comes to Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, and Louise Glück, for example (all women, of course. Only five women are covered in the book, and only one, AE Stallings, gets a positive review). Graham, he claims, is too often obscure, writing in a private code. Olds, it seems to Kirsch, just can’t write well. Glück is egotistical – between her self and the world, her self always comes first. But are those assessments correct? I can't tell for sure because I don't know the work of these writers well enough - I do a little, but not enough.
Well, Kirsch says of John Ashbery that, although his occasional flights of lyricism are impressive, his lyricism is buried under mounds of humour and tedious non-sequiturs. Kirsch wants to re-model Ashbery as a lyric-poet-that-could-have-been if only he’d kept control of himself, but this surely misses the entire point. People read and enjoy Ashbery precisely for those qualities which Kirsch isn’t interested in, and his lyrical moments are simply a bonus. If John Ashbery had written only traditional lyrics, there wouldn’t be anything remarkable or unique about his oeuvre, even if some of his lyrics were good. Kirsch also suggests that Geoffrey Hill’s early work was marred because Hill keeps himself at a remove – e.g. he writes not about ‘faith’ but about ‘religion’. By the end of the essay, Kirsch has Hill virtually an atheist in his later work, Hill’s ‘god’ no more than a concept, which seems to me a fatal misunderstanding both of Hill and of the nature of faith. Kirsch also writes off C.D. Wright, saying she’s difficult to read and the effort required to read her doesn’t pay off – there’s nothing much there. That’s compared to an ‘generous’ poet whose complexity repays effort. However, I think he’s simply wrong that there’s little behind CD Wright’s verbal fireworks.
So I don’t really trust Kirsch, especially when it comes to poets he dislikes. However, I would still thoroughly recommend his book, as it’s always entertaining and thought-provoking, and he makes me want to read many of the poets he discusses for myself - that’s surely one role of a good critic: even his negative reviews make the reader curious.
His essays on two poets whose work I didn’t know much about – Frederick Seidel and Adam Zagajewski – sent me to their respective ‘Selected Poems’, and both have been a revelation. Seidel’s poems are astonishing. There’s a touch of Stevens about them, a warped view of the world, a wilful urge to push at the boundaries of language, a demonic wit. The Zagajewski book, Without End: New and Selected Poems, which I only started yesterday evening, has made me wonder why I’ve never read him before. How did I miss this stuff? It’s very serious, very funny, and actually lives up to its blurbs – “one of the most interesting poets of his generation writing in any language” (Jaroslaw Anders). Adam Kirsch is enthusiastic about both of those writers, so I can’t be entirely mistrustful of him. I’ll have to read Louise Glück soon though. I’ve only read a few of her poems, but I quite enjoyed them and was surprised at Kirsch’s hostility. Of course, it could be there’s more to that than meets the eye.