Designed for a Lifetime of Becoming: The Poetic Debut of Adam Kirsch

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar

The Thousand Wells by Adam Kirsch. Ivan R. Dee, 2002. $18.95.

“It is very likely that the really vital poetry of the next generation will be not about God at all–the poets who currently treat that theme often descend into banality or obscurity–but about other profound and secular themes: love, marriage, loneliness, aging, death.”
–Adam Kirsch


The writer of those words was barely out of adolescence. Part of a 1998 essay, “Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot,” the epigraph wears the solemnity and guileless conviction that readers of contemporary poetry criticism have come to expect of Adam Kirsch, then making his debut in The American Scholar. Anne Fadiman, the journal’s editor, recalled receipt of the manuscript: “From his conservative stance and his meticulous prose style I could easily picture him. Sixtyish. Tweedy. Booklined study. Pipe. Dog. However, when I called him up to accept his piece his voice sounded so young that I blurted out, ‘How old are you, Mr. Kirsch?’ ‘Twenty-one,’ he said, ‘but I’m almost twenty-two.'”[private]

More authoritative than even Kirsch’s prose style, though Fadiman does not tell us directly, is his commerce with the subjects of that essay, Eliot and Arnold. Writing in the wake of Anthony Julius’ T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995), Kirsch eschews obvious questions of ideology–looks beyond them, rather–in favor of the unique rhetorical pose each poet assumes. It is because he can concede, “Arnold was indeed mediocre” in rhythm and phrasing, “while Eliot was perhaps the greatest master since Milton,” that his conclusion is the more credible: “As a model–not necessarily of style, technique, or subject matter, but of basic outlook, of moral attitude–Arnold is superior to Eliot.”

What is this “basic outlook,” this “moral attitude”? Without delving into Arnold’s essays and poems, we may summarize Kirsch’s terms. Arnold is a “diagnostic” poet: “he recognizes and states his spiritual problem, but he cannot provide a solution to it.” This mode of writing, though it can draw the charge of impotence, is greatly preferable to Eliot’s opposing aesthetic–a “prescriptive” poetry that bluffs its way into belief by avoiding the faces of the wretched. “In order to treat his religious crisis rhetorically, Eliot must, to some extent, think of it as unique; and this blots out any recognition of the crisis of his fellows.”

No matter what one makes of Kirsch’s final verdict on Eliot–“no writer should deliberately set out to follow an example that he or she recognizes as morally deficient, even if we may all be so judged by posterity”–it is clear that the young poet has learned a trick or two from the Old Possum.

For starters, there is Kirsch’s quiet demolition of accepted academic judgments. Writing for The New Republic, Kirsch scolds Jorie Graham for a wilful obscurity: “The poet’s work does not end with the opacity of the mind, it begins with it.” On the other end of the scale, in an essay titled “Over Easy,” Kirsch faults Billy Collins’ abrupt dismissal of serious subjects, where “the target of the joke is merely an expression…. His amused indifference resembles wisdom only as death resembles life.”

Not only does Kirsch register Eliot’s flair for apothegm; the younger writer inherits a grave awareness of criticism as a “custodial duty toward poetry…. ‘English must be kept up,’ Keats wrote,” Kirsch recalls, “and criticism is an important part of that keeping up.” He also cites Eliot, now with deference:

It is sometimes thought that criticism flourishes most at times when creative vigor is in deficit…. Rather, you may say that the development of criticism is a symptom of the development, or change, of poetry.

“By this standard,” Kirsch remarks, “today’s poetry is stagnating; there is no impassioned criticism being written by poets, there is no one to help us redefine the past as a way of seeing a new future for the art.” The problem is not a lack of appreciation, but of range and ambition. For example, “Bishop’s influence on contemporary poetry is clear, but it is not clear that it has been salutary. She seems to have licensed the use of a kind of mournful, meandering descriptiveness used to express quiet self-pity…. Perhaps we need the example of Lowell’s musicality, force, and, yes, ambition to counteract that turn.”

Kirsch’s complaint of the low-keyed, non-rigorous intellectual climate in which much of today’s poetry and criticism is written finds a parallel in Richard Tillinghast’s appraisal of today’s “‘laid-back’ generation” in contrast to the poets of the 1950s–Berrymore, Schwartz, Jarrell, Lowell and Plath–who staked life-or-death claims for their art. In his 1995 study of Robert Lowell, subtitled Damaged Grandeur, Tillinghast writes: “The task, it seems to me, is to avoid the temptation toward despair and self-destructiveness that so damaged the lives of the ‘tragic’ generation, while at the same time taking seriously their dedication to the redemptive value of poetry.”

This is precisely where Kirsch fits in. Important to note is that even as he diagnoses fatal flaws in the poets he reviews, Kirsch is quick to spot inimitable virtue–often in those very same poets. Just as he can rejoice in the legacy Eliot bequeathed to modern criticism, so can he write of Anthony Hecht, “His gifts are of a kind rare today–seriousness, intelligence, formal discipline,” while whispering in the same breath: “That very stance is also what sets a severe limitation to his poetry. It is not necessary for a modern poet to take chaos as his theme; but if he does, it may be necessary for him to accede to that chaos.”

In short, Kirsch’s variety of idol-toppling is not the programmatic vandalism one suspects of Eliot. Kirsch is more charitable in his tastes, more catholic than the Anglo-Catholic. The codes in his canon are meritocracy and moral earnestness. In this sense, he is far more Arnoldian than Eliotic, able to read poetry for “a sense of the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it.” This non-denominational zeal resounds with the “secular” spirit invoked in this essay’s epigraph. At the same time, he remains an uncompromising foe of Philistinism; coined by Arnold, the word is a recurring character in Kirsch’s reviews.


One can go only so long in an essay on Kirsch without resorting to the reviewer’s cliché, “magisterial.” The adjective is unavoidable where the poems are concerned.The Thousand Wells, winner of the second annual New Criterion Poetry Prize, divides 31 of his lyrics into four parts. The first section is recounted “with cartographic eye,” as the poet surveys the seasons and their effects from a lofty perspective. The book opens with “Arcadia (Spring)” and “Arcadia (Autumn),” poems that set up a “L’Allegro”/”Il Penseroso” distinction, reminding us that Yeats’ first book, Crossways(1889), began with a similar dialectic, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” and “The Sad Shepherd” (“The woods of Arcady are dead….”). In Kirsch’s version, Arcadia is Central Park, “where men would hesitate to walk/In the murderous, abandoned dark,” and where “defenseless women dare/To lie undressed in the open air.” The voyeur of these scenes is mildly incredulous, yet charmed and reassured by their air of self-content. Of pollution obscuring the landscape, he writes:

… [C]lean and unaccommodating skies
Are gone, but not lamented. We would rather
Cover ourselves with human things, that rise
So far and no farther.

It is this resignation to our sensory limits that Kirsch celebrates in “The Patient Lookers,” a poem about “the self-forgetting gaze/That makes of pure attention praise.” Self-effacement appears to be a prerequisite for Kirsch’s poetic endeavor–a reconciliation of one’s yearnings with an acceptance of boundaries. Kirsch enacts this balance in rhyme and meter, as, for example, in “The Beginning,” clothed in rhyme-royal:

I tried to forget myself: now in the dark
With force, imploring, promises, attack;
Now hoping that sincerity and work
Would make up for the easy grace I lack;
And now at the desk, surrounded by a stack
Of impressive books, believing I could read
Enough to supply the spirit’s speechless need.

All year I’ve followed a more manifold
And wilder circuit. But the narrow mind
I have been given is no less controlled
By established orbits; nor can I, designed
For a lifetime of becoming, hope to find
The inconceivable, storied prodigy
Of flesh or spirit that will let me be.

As prologue to a career, this statement is nearly as significant as Frost’s poem, “Mowing,” contained in that poet’s 1913 debut, A Boy’s Will (“The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows”).

So far, Milton, Yeats and Frost have been referenced by this article to characterize Kirsch’s first published poems. (I may as well note a whiff of Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” in Kirsch’s line, “The park would lie silent, parcelled and controlled.”) The point is not so much to raise Kirsch among those masters as to emphasize that he aspires to their traditions. The Thousand Wells showcases an impressive array of fixed verse forms, tinted by archaic inversions here and there (“Precarious instinctive trust/By mind corrupted and repressed”), Audenesque collective phrases (“Sons’ ruin, daughters’ shame,/And novels’ favorite theme”), and traces of old-world gentility (“And shall we look at photographs a while?”). Then of course there are outright allusions–to Homer (“Of Dawn, spreading out her fingertips of rose”) and to Shakespeare (“The total reversal and deliberate change/Of the daily world to something rich and strange”).

By choosing to engage intelligently with formal verse, Kirsch has earned the privilege of such comparisons. Poetry is the most self-conscious medium, flourishing its deeds of inheritance every step of the way; by adopting rhyme and meter, Kirsch invites us to acknowledge precedents. “One Weekend,” for example, probes a deteriorated relationship in the 16-line sonnet stanzas of George Meredith’s “Modern Love.”

With the privilege, however, comes a peril. So many of today’s poets steer cleer of the roadmaps laid down by formal practitioners–so many that they have created a thoroughfare of their own, the highway of American free verse. Consequently, the risk Kirsch runs is of being marginalized, left to the side of the road. The absence of an agenda–Milton’s theology; Yeats’ mythology; Frost’s geology–renders him more vulnerable, as if he had no moorings other than his grand abstractions. (The fact that Kirsch’s poetry is short on concrete imagery creates another liability.)

The last great poet to write this way was Larkin, and Kirsch naturally bows to his influence. Compare the following extracts; the first concludes a Larkin poem (“Show Saturday”), the second closes Kirsch’s “Arcady (Autumn)”:

Let it stay hidden there like strength, below
Sale-bills and swindling; something people do,
Not noticing how time’s rolling smithy-smoke
Shadows much greater gestures; something they share
That breaks ancestrally each year into
Regenerate union. Let it always be there.


… [A]s the stars above
Totter in turn and fall, so here below
This pageantry of nature and of love
Lives in its dying. May its death be slow.


Kirsch’s seasonal musings are more potent when pitted against classical allusions. It is as if he needed to color his abstractions with pigments from the Old Testament, Plato, or the Pelopponesian War, so that readers could better appreciate his secular art. In “Balsam,” the last poem of the first section, Kirsch calls on “Father” to pity a wanderer, but the supplication is thrown into relief by Arnoldian doubt:

City and night, and if there’s anyone
Who watches us with love, do not forget
Him proud and helpless. When he’s most alone,
And the city crowds around him desolate,
Lift up his downcast eyes; O Father, let
Your thirsty one know the redeeming taste
Of the thousand wells that stand around him in the waste.

The poem serves as a transition to Section II of the book, which features three consecutive triumphs, “Bacchus,” “The Dawn” (five sonnets), and “Heroes Have the Whole Earth for Their Tomb” (ballad stanzas), followed by “Three Odes after Horace,” and the lesser poems, “Washington” (heroic couplets) and “Y2K.” The section closes with Judaic themes, treated by the catechistic “Lebanon” and the more successful “The Chosen People,” where the poet extends the title to all brilliant outcasts:

Arrangements of such magnitude
Are given, not made. We who find
That all our shame and longing won’t
Make us like the rest of humankind

Should not feel slighted; after all,
Each tribe has something to resent,
And we at least are like the moon,
Lonely and strange and eloquent.

“Musicality, force, and yes, ambition”–those traits Kirsch ascribed to Lowell are also prominent in the book’s third section, where the theme is love. In these lyrics there is another kind of mythology at play; the very best poem in The Thousand Wellsis “A Love Letter,” which, in ottava rima, records the poet’s wooing in the context of all courtly versifying, so that Kirsch literally deconstructs the phrase, “I love you”:

The middle term, which seems the most abstract,
Is the least confusing. It is what remains,
The one irrefutable all-enduring fact,
Through a thousand ruptures, petty shocks and strains
That can only momentarily distract,
But never part us; love waxes and wanes,
But, like the hide-and-go-seek of the moon,
It is only hiding, never really gone.

The problem–or, since it need not be solved,
The mystery–is not love but the lover;
Us, the two pronouns so deeply involved
In the transitive verb. For I cannot discover
The element in me that is not dissolved
By a change of time and place; the days are over
When I thought that attaching to my name
Was a portable essence, everywhere the same.

Ultimately, the poet admits to the folly of such arguments, and if his logic has already disarmed the reader, it now effects capitulation:

Dearest, though it’s taken me so long
To reach the point where I openly address you,
I already fear I’ve written this all wrong,
Said something unwittingly that may distress you.
If you’ve found anything that’s true or strong,
Your presence made it so; but I confess, you
Will be justified if you are only critical,
Since all my powers, poetic, analytical,

Cannot do justice to the theme. You are
The atmosphere, the river, and the ground,
The ship, the destiny, and many more
Mysterious things for which I haven’t found
Appropriate or becoming metaphors….


“Epithalamium” ends the book’s third section, and, indeed, much of the fourth reads like occasional verse; however, the marriage of wit and whimsicality in poems such as “Zoloft” and “42 Up” reminds us that all verse is occasional. “Don Giovanni” is easily the section’s stand-out–a Shakespearean sonnet associating the decay of Latin with the birth of Romance. Without this declension, we would never have known Mozart’s “stranger art, this more uncertain life,” Kirsch suggests, and the closing couplet has the poet entertaining “fantasies of some/Barbaric masterpiece of times to come.” If the stuffy, respectable garb of American free verse continues to unravel along these lines, so that poetry like Kirsch’s gains ascendancy, we are justified in welcoming such barbarism.[/private]

About Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.
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