Joel Sumner Smith

Product Manager @Gatsby focused on developer experience.
Analogical thinker in an analytical world.

Letters

Review of Adam Kirsch’s The Modern Element

The Modern Element

The Modern Element in Poetry: Essays on Contemporary Poetry
Adam Kirsch
W.W. Norton & Company
$18.47 at Amazon

Among the few books of general literary criticism that I have read in the last five years, none has compared with Adam Kirsch’s The Modern Element: Essays in Contemporary Poetry. Kirsch, a true modern man of letters, has published two volumes of such general criticism as well as two volumes of poetry. Since I have only dabbled in his poems, let me whet your appetite by focusing on his critical observations in Modern Element.

The definite strengths of Kirsch’s books lie first in his sharpness of poetic analysis, secondly in his breadth of engagement—both in terms of the number of poets he discusses and the thorough knowledge of each poet’s canon—and finally his willingness to withhold praise when he deems it unnecessary. To substantiate both my first and last claim, one need look no farther than Kirsch’s second essay regarding the poet Jorie Graham. As any reader of Graham will agree, her poems are intellectual taunts, jungles of syntax, word-choice, logic and narrative. Yet Kirsch meets Graham’s challenge with a deft grace, matching sophistication to all of Graham’s complexity. Yet for all his sophistication and intellectual rigor, Kirsch meets his readers with an easy and thorough style, rarely leaving them in dark. For instance, he begins his analysis of Graham by dividing the “theoretical” and “phenomenological” readings of modern poem:

The theoretical level of communication proceeds, as it were, directly from the poet to reader over the head of the poem. On this level, the opacity of the symbol is intended as a statement about the limits of communication. It demonstrates that language itself fails before the most important information, that the profoundest truths can only be gestured at.

But this kind of theoretical statement is always secondary, in our experience and in importance, to the phenomenological experience we immediately have when reading the poem. First and foremost we respond to the poem’s music and it’s literal meaning; these are the bedrock of any poem and must be sound if the theoretical superstructure is to hold. To put if in another way, it is the phenomenal level on which we read a poem, the theoretical which we “do a reading” of a poem, in the academic phrase. To read is to allow the poem to shine out as what it is, to take what it presents; to “do a reading” is to apply to the poem a technique, whose product hovers above or alongside the poem itself as a ghostly product (25-26).

In such a careful and lucid framework, Kirsch takes issue with Graham’s opacity, the ultimate resistance that the poems’ phenomenological experience gives to her readers. Hers is not the opacity or resistance of complexity, he finally argues, but instead merely the difficulty of obscurity. In such obscurity, her poems refuse to shine.

To prove Kirsch’s breadth, the book’s table of contents suffices. In 330 pages, he reflects on 24 poets individually, with a supplemental chapter on several younger poets, another contrasting Eliot’s Waste Land with Ginsberg’s Howl, and a fine pair of bookends (his introduction and conclusion, of course). Yet even within each chapter, Kirsch most often demonstrates his ability to extract the stylistic evolution of each poet and in some cases—Hill, Merrill, Wright and Roethke come to mind—the stasis or devolution of the poet’s style. Yet even on a grander scale, Kirsch moves through his analysis with a broader scope of the world and each poet’s engagement in broader human concerns. Along with the aforementioned passage from early in the book, the following remarks about Milosz struck me as the prose of a clear-minded, sophisticated reader who dwells on the level of poems and persons:

To read Milosz, then, 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 as the desperate attempt to make art alone a sufficient source of value. Modernism inflated poetry like a balloon with vapors of vanished meanings—religious, social, mythic—and pronounced 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 (222-223).

Kirsch often displays such a spiritual sensitivity, handling poems as sacred or at least hallowed objects. The attitude of reverence, as I attempted to show, always matches his thoughtful and rigorous analysis, providing the general reader of poetry an avenue of access to a century of difficult poets and their poems.

Having offered such high praise for Kirsch’s critical work, I do wish to offer a mild criticism (a fault I found equally true of Helen Vendler’s work, a reader much in the same thoughtful vein as Kirsch). Despite his rather keen spiritual and poetic perception, Kirsch occasionally slips in his philosophic groundings. Such slippage occurs rarely in the work (I can think only of a few spots in the introduction and in his otherwise masterful essay on Graham), and I leave it your own perhaps more seasoned judgment to discover his scanty weaknesses.

And so, without further ado, let me end this brief review with the generous spirit I applied to the final paragraph of all my third grade book reports: I would recommend this book to all readers who delight in practicing a careful art of attention to the poems of our time.

© 2020, Joel Sumner Smith