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The Sharp Compassion of the Healer’s Art: Garrick Davis on Adam Kirsch

Posted By Garrick Davis On November 20, 2005 @ 4:24 pm In Reviews | No Comments

As the assistant literary editor of The New Republic, and later as the book critic for the New York Sun, the poet-critic Adam Kirsch has written a constant stream of articles on contemporary poetry as influential as any in recent years. These pieces, which weighed the value of poets as diverse as Derek Walcott, Sharon Olds, and Jorie Graham—were equitable in their manner but unsparing in their final judgments, and they made Kirsch’s name while making him—alas—not a few enemies. As a whole, the verdict of these early essays was strongly against many of the contemporary American poets considered to be major figures, and the verdict was all the more remarkable because it was issued by a critic in his middle-twenties who had no literary resume or academic post to buttress his daring opinions. He arrived on the literary scene, fully formed as it were, and set about immediately correcting conventional taste—almost (as he has written in another context) “as a rebuke to the professionally fluent” among our overpraised and undertalented poets.    

Kirsch’s first book of criticism, The Wounded Surgeon, has been published in an atmosphere of expectation greater than is usual for such a subject, and it has been a source of speculation and professional interest for a number of critics and poets. It is not a collection of his previous journalism but, rather, a meditation on six American poets and their varying relationship to the confessional style of poetry that became so famous in the 1950’s and 60’s. Here, the Confessional school composed of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath (absent W. D. Snodgrass and Anne Sexton) are joined by some not usually associated with that label: Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, and Delmore Schwartz. With the exception of Plath, this group forms a generation—all were born in the 1910’s—who “came to maturity during the triumphant age of Modernist poetry” and who faced the daunting prospect of producing art in the shadow of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. That all of them turned from Modernism and adopted a more personal (and, in some cases, “confessional”) style is a lesson that Kirsch finds instructive for his contemporaries, since 

At a time when American poetry often seems split into two streams—one serious but abstract and theoretical, the other populist but banal and unchallenging—the example of these poets, who put their whole humanity into their art, is more valuable than ever. 

This is criticism, then, with one eye on the present. Throughout this book, one comes across sly and sensible remarks on how our contemporary poets lost their way: how, for example, admiration for Lowell’s confessional poems “led to the intoxication of narcissism” in much American poetry from the 1960s and 70s. The unspoken topic of this book is one that Kirsch understands is pressing: how to transcend the influence of this Confessional school? How to make our poets see that they too often are “private and sentimental” in their work, under “the illusion that what is interesting to the poet will be equally interesting to the reader?”

Not all of these chapters address that question as forthrightly as they could. In fact, only Kirsch’s discussions of Lowell and Berryman are explicit on this point, and they are two of the best chapters in the book. The second chapter’s subject is Elizabeth Bishop, whose connection to the confessional impulse is explained as a sustained aversion, which does not exactly fit the book’s thesis; in any case, this section does not seem as characteristically shrewd as the others. On Jarrell and Plath, Kirsch is quite good—particularly on the subjects and themes that both poets returned to obsessively in their work. Of course, much has been written on these five poets, so that Kirsch’s remarks take their place among a large body of recent criticism. Not so the chapter on Delmore Schwartz, which is easily the most provocative and original essay in The Wounded Surgeon.

What Kirsch has attempted is nothing less than the rehabilitation of Schwartz, and his place in the history of post-Modernism. Once considered the most promising young American poet of the 1930s, Schwartz fell victim to mental illness in his later years, after a string of his volumes were indifferently received. Today he is probably best remembered as the subject of Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift, and for a few Audenesque poems from his first book, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. More usually, his name is mentioned when discussion turns to writers of unfulfilled promise. According to Kirsch, this is accurate so far it goes: 

Yet if the achievement of Schwartz’s generation of poets was to relax the chaste restrictions of Modernism, to expand poetry’s diction, tone, and range of reference, to turn from myth and history to the private life, then Schwartz was certainly his generation’s pioneer. Above all, it was Schwartz who first demonstrated that the most intimate experiences, especially the griefs of childhood, could be made the basis of a dignified and complex poetry. In his explicit determination not just to record but to master his personal suffering through art, Schwartz set the course that Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Elizabeth Bishop would follow. Already in the late 1930s, he enacted the transition from Modernist to post-Modernist that was to take his peers another twenty years.

While allowing that Schwartz’s poems never rose to the heights of his peers, Kirsch also stakes a claim for the forgotten and out-of-print verse epic Genesis (1943) as Schwartz’s masterpiece. This is the single most daring judgment in the book, and Kirsch spends almost ten pages commenting on its plot. No doubt, this recommendation will send more than a few readers scrambling to rare book dealers for a copy. We shall see if Kirsch’s praise has its intended effect but, regardless, we owe to Kirsch the only sustained review of Delmore Schwartz’s oeuvre in recent memory. 

There are further surprises for those familiar with the author. The style of these six chapters is fundamentally different than his earlier reviews. These “brief biographies of the poetry” intermingle close readings of key works, important details from the poet’s life, and Kirsch’s commentary. The intent is to paint the arc of each poet’s career, and Kirsch’s reliance on psychological and biographical insights represents a significant break from the close textual reading that the New Criticism championed and which Kirsch employed in his early essays. The goal of this method seems to be the illumination of each poet’s working style. So Lowell’s successive stylistic changes are explained as, finally, moral: 

If he was to explore other ranges of tone and subject, his very language would have to be remade. And his willingness to undertake that task, to break down one fully developed style and create another, is one measure of Lowell’s greatness as an artist. If there is a morality in art, it lies here, in the artist’s commitment to expressing what he finds most necessary, even when it requires the destruction of his own most cherished means of expression.    

As for Plath, her peculiar power derives from a private mythology that is both violent and incomprehensible: 

The refusal of psychology is, in fact, the key to the unaccountable terror of Plath’s late poems. As in a dream, things and people are transformed for no reason; or else, as in a fairy tale, they are compelled to reveal their true, loathsome natures, which are ordinarily hidden under the facade of normality. 

Meanwhile, as Jarrell’s poetry “abandoned Modernist obscurity” with “a flexible and colloquial style” his prose changed too: 

No less important, as a critic he had serenely moved past the orthodoxies of New Criticism, demonstrating in his style, no less than his judgments, a more intimate and democratic way of reading poetry. 

Is Kirsch also finished with the New Critical practices that characterized his early criticism? With this book, he seems to be moving away from the analysis of poems as aesthetic objects into a more accessible mode of criticism grounded in biography, in pursuit of psychological (even psychoanalytical) insights into poets and their craft. He no longer seems as interested in how a poem is made, but why. I venture to guess that Kirsch desires to widen the audience for poetry criticism—as Jarrell did—and that his prose is becoming  “more intimate and democratic” as a deliberate bid for the kind of urbane audience personified by, say, The New Yorker

I, for one, would not like to see this change become permanent, but then the question of how a poem is constructed is primarily of interest to other poets; meanwhile, there is a substantial need at the present moment for critics who can interest an audience in poetry of any kind. How can that audience be reached? Would it be vulgar to admit that many readers who detest poetry will listen to gossip about poets? That Lord Byron’s fame flowered from the scandal of his life? Do we need to be reminded that Chatterton’s reputation was born the moment he ended his own life? As our great grandparents never tired of Trelawny’s anecdotes or Severn’s letters, so we have become enthralled by tales of Plath’s final days and Weldon Kees’ disappearance. These poets—particularly Lowell, Berryman, and Plath—are our middle-aged Romantics, whose tragic fates emit, darkly and perhaps forever, an irresistible fascination.                

Therein lies the temptation of the scandalous life: it overshadows the art that occasions our interest in the artist to begin with. Kirsch makes no such mistake: his style might be biographical but his aim is not. The Wounded Surgeon is, in fact, a serious plea to save the work of these poets from their own biographies. That this admonition is addressed to poets and readers alike is one mark of the fixation that we have for the messy details of these six lives, even while the poems themselves go unread. What is the remedy for such philistinism? To insist that confessionalism was an aesthetic attitude adopted toward their art, not a therapeutic choice. Meanwhile, Kirsch has proposed a cure for the maladies afflicting poetry in his review of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury

Much of what is worst in contemporary poetry can be laid to the account of an etiolated Romanticism, which Modernism—as Randall Jarrell understood—did not so much repudiate as radicalize. There is the Romantic narcissism which makes the poet’s every feeling sacred; there is the Romantic Platonism which leads to an ever-more-abstruse pursuit of the absolute; and there is the Romantic esotericism which leads to disregard for the reader. 

Of course, there has been and will be great poetry that is confessional, metaphysical, and obscure. But at present, these are not so much convictions as reflexes of our poetry, part of an unexamined notion of what poetry can and cannot do. The best remedy for this situation is to read Pope, Swift, and Johnson—poets whose intelligence, urbanity, and formal mastery the art today sorely lacks.

 This is sage advice for our contemporary poets. Will they heed it?


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