Adam Kirsch and the Role of the Poet-Critic

 Interviewer’s Note: Adam Kirsch was born in Los Angeles in 1976. After studying English at Harvard, with a focus on poetry, he went to work at The New Republic as assistant literary editor. After leaving the magazine, he moved to New York and started work as an editor at Lipper Publications, the co-publisher of the Penguin Lives series of biographies. Currently he is a freelance writer, and is at work on a book about post-World War II American poets. 

His first book of poems, The Thousand Wells, was selected for the New Criterion Poetry Prize and was published by Ivan R. Dee this fall. Poems from the book have been in the Paris Review, Partisan Review, the Formalist, Harvard Review, and Seneca Review. His essays and reviews about poetry have appeared in several publications, primarily the New Republic.


Garrick Davis: Most readers became familiar with you, a few years ago, as the poetry critic of the New Republic. At a fairly young age for a critic, you began to occupy a rather distinguished position. How did you come to write for that magazine?

Adam Kirsch: I started writing for The New Republic while I was working there; I was the assistant to Leon Wieseltier, who very generously gave me the chance to write about poetry. I had done some book reviewing before then, but TNR was where I first got to write in depth about poetry. 

GD: When did you begin writing criticism? Did you see it as an inevitable task—an obligation—of your poetry? 

AK: I started writing poetry—in a tentative sort of way—at around 14 or 15. It was a few years later that I started to think about writing critically about poetry, largely due to the example of T. S. Eliot, whose essays were my introduction to serious thinking about poetry and were intensely exciting. Eliot showed me the possibility of finding poetry a source of complex intellectual and moral interest. 

GD: What do you see as the link between your own critical prose and poetry? 

AK: There is a link, but not a programmatic one—I don’t have a set of rules or an ideology. I respond to certain values in the poetry I read—formal and moral and psychological values, which I think are related—and the values I approve are naturally reflected in my own work, or I hope they are. Conversely, the poetry that moves me to negative criticism is poetry that seems to me destructive of genuine poetic values. So my critical writing is not simply appreciative, or catholic in taste; it is polemical in a way I feel is necessary. At the same time, I think that I can appreciate kinds of writing I wouldn’t want to emulate.

GD: Presently, what do you think the role of the poet-critic should be? What critics or poet-critics do you consider exemplary in this regard?

AK: I do think that the poet-critic writes differently than other critics, and has a different goal in mind. There are many ways of writing about poetry that are worthy and useful without really being criticism. You can be a publicist for a new poet or group or school; or you can be a teacher, explaining to people how a poem works; or you can be a literary historian. Most writing about poetry falls into these categories and is not what I think of as criticism; it follows that poets who practice this kind of writing are not poet-critics. One example that comes to mind is Seamus Heaney, whose essays I’ve just been reading. Heaney writes essentially as a teacher and propagandist for poetry: he tells you what a certain poet is all about and why he likes that poet. Criticism involves something different, what I would describe as the assertion of a will and a vision about poetry. One feels that poetry is essentially some certain thing, and wants to assert that conviction by showing how other kinds of poetry fall short or misunderstand. On this view, catholicity of taste would be an impediment to a poet-critic, and I don’t really feel that Randall Jarrell, for example, is a true poet-critic, because his mind was too hospitable to all powerful voices. That is, he liked Frost and Moore and Williams, and he wrote to tell you why each one was good. To me that is didactic, not critical, and it has a limited interest—once you read the poet, the criticism becomes unnecessary. On the other hand, Philip Larkin, who didn’t write much prose and isn’t thought of as a critic, had more of the poet-critic’s sensibility in what he did write. 

The great example, of course, is Eliot, who had an idea of poetry so specific that he was willing to say that obviously great, canonical poets—Milton, Shelley—were no good. Now, one does not take one’s final judgment from Eliot, but this kind of injustice and strictness are far more enlightening and stimulating than someone else who would say: Donne is good at X, but then Milton is good at Y, and we should enjoy them both. Eliot says somewhere that the perfect critic recognizes his own limitations and strives to overcome them, which to me shows that he was acutely aware that his own best criticism was limited and unjust. 

Could a non-poet write this kind of criticism? I don’t know for sure, but I think probably not, for the reason that this sort of criticism is necessarily an adjunct to a literary will which is primarily expressed in the poetry. This doesn’t mean that the poetry must conform to prescriptions laid down in the criticism. It’s more that a poet has less anxiety about his critical writing, because it is not his only claim. I think that the non-poet critic feels an intense anxiety in writing about a poem, because the poem necessarily outpaces and obliterates his essay; the poem is autonomous, the essay heteronomous. Thus, if the critic is really intelligent and ambitious, his essay becomes a kind of aggression against the poem, a desire to master it and rewrite it, so that the critic’s own name stands in the place of the poet’s. But if one has one’s own poems, and one’s ambition rests on them, then the criticism can breathe more freely, it can be provisional and playful—and therefore, I think, more interesting. It’s the combination of earnestness and playfulness that Thomas Mann describes as entirely serious, but not quite. I suppose it’s possible that a writer could have this artistic sensibility but never actually produce an artwork—Nietzsche is like this, in a strange way.

GD: What do you think of the present situation of poetry, of its current health as an art? 

AK: I try not to think too much about the situation of poetry because nothing good can come of it. First of all, it’s discouraging. Second, anyone who complains about it ends up sounding defeated or martyred or querulous—like Allen Tate or (not to pick on him again) Jarrell. Third, it’s impossible to see it objectively: you can’t have a picture in your head of everything that’s going on and its ultimate value. Is health measured in readership, in the number of good poets, in the number of great poets? Really, no one will know for sure until 100 years from now if our moment was a good one for poetry.

Still, we’re living now and it’s impossible to avoid thinking about it. So I would say, for what it’s worth, that what we see in poetry today is that the number of really good, dedicated poets is small, as it has always been, and the number of mediocre but visible poets is vastly increased. Thus the overall impression is distorted, and it seems like a bad time. The important things are that poetry continues to be published, and that enough discerning people read it to make sure that the good is acknowledged and communicated. The real danger, if any, is that the public discourse about poetry is so limited and dishonest that it’s hard for the good poets to find their deserved audience and reputation. Which leads to the next question….

GD: What do you think of the present situation of poetry criticism, of its current health as an art?

AK: Structurally, it’s difficult to have living poetry criticism today, because there’s very little room for it in the general journals, and the specialist journals tend to be self-infatuated and ideological. Good poetry criticism arises out of and contributes to the larger culture, not just the “poetry world”—it should engage everyone with intellectual and literary interests. But this will only happen if critics are serious, passionate, assertive, and—most of all—knowledgeable about more than just poetry. If criticism is only a matter of poets telling other poets that still other poets are wonderful, then no one else will want or need to read it. Of course, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here—is poetry criticism parochial because the mainstream press doesn’t want it, or does the mainstream press not want it because it’s parochial? I think the situation today is that there are enough forums for poetry criticism—in magazines, quarterlies, newspapers, on the web—that it needn’t be nearly as parochial as it is. 

GD: What has created this parochialism, in your opinion? If one compares, as a body of writing, the poetry criticism written in the first half of the 20th century to that written in the second half, then clearly there has been a marked deterioration. What caused it? 

AK: I don’t really know—I could give the usual culprits, like MFA programs, the professionalization of poetry, postmodernism, the mass media, etc. But I don’t think this kind of diagnosis or polemic about “poetry” or “the state of poetry” is very useful. I feel that the best way to make poetry popular is to write it well and write about it well, and have faith that readers will be attracted. Certainly nobody ever read poetry because they were told they ought to—it has to give pleasure, and that should be the poet and critic’s concern.

GD: Is there some way to account for the fact that the vast majority of American poet-critics have been, and continue to be, politically conservative? From the New Critics to the New Formalists, many of the important poet-critics have been denounced for their political allegiances as much as their aesthetic ideas. 

AK: I think there are a few reasons. First, anyone who is intimately involved with an art like poetry must believe in inherent hierarchies of value and ability: some poets are better than others, some poems are better than others. That idea is not welcome in the kind of egalitarian leftism that predominates in academia. Second, poets and maybe poet-critics in particular have a strong shaping urge, a desire to establish pattern, balance, unity, and when these desires are transferred to the political realm it is easiest to find them satisfied in aristocracy (like Yeats or Tate) or fascism (Pound). Of course, there is an aesthetic leftism, too—you see it perhaps in early Auden—but more so on the right. Perhaps the central political problem of the last fifty years, for poets, has been to recognize the limits of the shaping urge and to reconcile poetic hierarchies with democratic equality—one sees this in very different ways in Geoffrey Hill and in Adam Zagajewski. Finally, there is a reason specific to the American context: most people who have to do with literature find themselves in a liberal milieu, and if one is dissatisfied with that milieu one’s reaction inevitably takes the form of conservatism. But I would think that even “conservative” writers share basic liberal principles and would feel very out of place in a genuinely traditionalist and religious environment. 

GD: Much has been made in recent years of the proliferation of creative writing programs in the United States. Do you think this academicization has had a beneficial or baleful effect on poetry?

AK: The truth is that I don’t know very much about MFA programs or how they work. But reasoning in the abstract, if you assume that poets are born and not made, then the effect of MFA program is largely negative. A few good poets will be able to use them to gain time and leisure to write, but one must assume that they would have found some other way to write if necessary. For the rest, the effect is to enlist a poor or moderately talented writer into a fashionable style, and encourage the production of mediocre, inauthentic work. To the extent that this becomes a flood and sweeps away the genuine, the MFA system is actively destructive to poetry as an art. Obviously it’s a fallacy to think that an art can ever be taught or credentialed. 

GD: What do you think of the vast subsidized system of grants, prizes, and awards that poets currently compete for? 

AK: On the most basic level, I’d say that it’s good to reward good work and good poets, and to make their lives easier—certainly Ezra Pound could have used some grants in 1912. It’s hard to argue with prizes and grants to that extent. Of course, the problem lies in the supply of rewards in proportion to deserving candidates, and the judgment of those who control those rewards. Humanly, it’s better to err on the side of generosity than neglect. Artistically, it’s crucial to remember that poetry has nothing to do with institutional patronage networks—it can’t be taught, read, understood, or evaluated by official means, only by individuals. 

GD: Which contemporary poets do you read with pleasure? 

AK: Derek Walcott, Glyn Maxwell, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Adam Zagajewski, Rachel Wetzsteon, Dennis O’Driscoll, Geoffrey Hill, Jacqueline Osherow—in varying combinations of pleasure, interest and respect.

GD: Which contemporary critics?

AK: Helen Vendler, Frank Kermode, Dana Gioia, William Logan, Robert Potts—again, with interest if not always agreement.

GD: Are there any books of poetry published in the last few years that you would recommend to readers?

AK: Walcott’s The Bounty was, I think, his best book yet. Maxwell’s The Breakage showed his lyrical strengths to great advantage, and was less comic than his earlier work. Zagajewski’s Without End is one of the exemplary books of our period, showing a truly civilized mind at work. And Geoffrey Hill’s The Triumph of Love is very stimulating, though sometimes disagreeably so.

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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