The want for something finished completed and technically beautiful will certainly not be supplied by this writer, as it is by existing esthetic works. For the best poems both the old ones and later ones now accepted as first class are polished, rhymed regular, with all the elegance of fine conceits, carefully elaborated, showing under all the restraints of art, language and phrase chosen after very much has been rejected, and only the best admitted, and then all joined and cemented together, and finally presenting the beauty of some architectural temple—some palace, proudly rising in proportions of marble, entered from superb porticos and adorned with statuary satisfying the art sense and that of form, fulfilling beauty and inviting criticism. Not so his poetry. Its likeness is not the solid stately palace, nor the sculpture that adorns it, nor the paintings on its walls. Its analogy is the Ocean. Its verses are the liquid, billowy waves, ever rising and falling, perhaps sunny and smooth, perhaps wild with storm, always moving, always alike in their nature as rolling waves, but hardly any two exactly alike in size or measure (meter), never having the sense of something finished and fixed, always suggesting something beyond.”

With Walt Whitman in Camden
pp. 414-5

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.

Milosz Poem

Veni Creator

Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lifts its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,
not me—after all I have some decency—
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.

Czeslaw Milosz (translated with Robert Pinsky)
© 1988 by Czeslaw Milosz Royalties, Inc.
Read at the Poetry Foundation

A Lyric Virtue

Despite a volley of rhetoric over the last three centuries, our lives still stretch into dark places. What I mean to say is that our lives are still shrouded in mystery, that the demands of living as a human—as opposed to say a mere animal or thing—cannot be reduced to mere calculus. Reductive descriptions of life can and do happen, but they  continually fail to comprehend and include the whole. Such mystery can arrest us with terror, for mystery implies freedom and necessity of choice. These terrifying choices constitute a part of what we call living, what we call being human.

For those who reject reductive accounts of the world, some way must be found to meet mystery and camly make those choices which can overwhelm us. Some choose the various forms of religion; some choose the idealized character of heroism. Both postures can be gestured at by the things that we call poems, and in particular the lyric poems. Lyric poems, unlike he much longer dramatic or epics poems, condense a speaker’s experience to a brief moment, often a moment of decision. By its brevity, the lyric manifests the compressed complexity of any given moment and it suggests to us that minute and often painstaking care may and should be given to that moment. I am suggesting that working through a short, dense lyric poem requires an analogous virtue as the complex (and often terrifying) choices which we face within the mystery of human life. Poems teach us a necessary patience. The patience which they teach, I hope to show, can be used towards two ends: first, using an inherited form to participate in life, like religion does, or secondly, joining into the unknown with all the fortitude of one’s own resources, like the heroes of our myths.

As an example of the first pathway that a lyric poem might take us, I will examine the sonnet—perhaps the most ubiquitous rigid form of poetry in English. One sonnet in particular suggests its capacity by virtue of its self-reference, Wordsworth’s “Nuns Fret Not…” Here, Wordsworth subverts the notion of unimpeded freedom (a notion of his inheritor Shelley) by demonstrating that just as we readily submit ourselves to limitations of physical space, so we often find that limiting ourselves to intellectual, spiritual and linguistic spaces brings us into “brief solace” from the “weight of too much liberty.” Wordsworth’s sonnet employs a form at first familiar but simultaneously inventive. The poem at first appears to be a Petrarchan sonnet with two quatrains rhymed abba then abbba. In the final sestet, he defies any familiar arrangement by rhyming cddccd. The effect, which formally connects the sestet to the octave, is that the sestet can be dissected into two perfectly enveloped quatrains: either cddc or dccd. In his ingenious invention, Wordsworth forces us to pay close attention to the experience of the poem’s form which illuminates and sustains in a more elegant way the bare prose sense of the poem. Formal poems like this Wordsworthian sonnet teach us that patient attention to inherited forms can lead to “brief solace.” Like the room-like quatrains of the poem, form can house us from the expansive spaces of the mysterious.

Yet not all poems have a definite form. As the chief poet of the free-verse form, I will turn to Walt Whitman. In a short lyric—comprising ten lines—Whitman draws an extended metaphor form an encounter with a spider. This “noiseless patient spider” in order to “explore the vacant vast surroundings / …launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself.” As the poet observes the spider, her recognizes that he likewise stands in a vast intellectual, spiritual, and linguistic space; his Soul is “surrounded, detached in measureless oceans of space…” Just as the spider sends out its filaments, the Soul is “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.” But while the spider’s action serves the end of mere exploration, the Soul’s launching forth fulfills a need: “Till the bridge you need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, Oh my Soul.” The telos of the Soul’s action is finding; it must anchor itself to something. It is this anchoring that fulfills the need created by a life lived in “measureless oceans of space.” As the open form of the poem (its lack of rhyme or consistent syllabic or metrical count) shows, one way of meeting the mystery of life is this open venturing forth from the locus of one’s own repository of strength, the Soul. Such a venture is surely heroic; It makes an adventure of the mysterious spaces which surround us.

Poetry, then, teaches us patience, either to learn the inherited forms of our predecessors or to venture out on our own strength. I cannot recommend either path as correct, for they both seem to me to fulfill the function of poetry which Eliot proposes in “East Coker”:

Undisciplined squads of emotion. (172-82)
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
…And so each adventure

Both kinds of lyric poems teach us to participate in this “raid” with patience. We, perhaps unfortunately, are not the Soul of Yeats’ “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” for we cannot ascend the winding staircase to gain the metaphysical perspective of the dead. Instead, we must with Self learn from poetry the patience to “measure the lot. Forgive [ourselves] the lot!” Such grace as forgiveness is necessary in a world shrouded with mystery. In such a world, poems teach us to use a patient grace; they teach us to give more than we take.

And now gentlemen,
A word I give to remain in your memories and minds,
As base and finale too for all metaphysics.

(So to the students the old professor,
At the close of his crowded course.)

Having studied the new and antique, the Greek and Germanic
Kant having studied and stated, Fichte and Schelling and Hegel,
Stated the lore of Plato, and Socrates greater than Plato,
And greater than Socrates sought and stated, Christ divine having
studied long,
I see reminiscent to-day those Greek and Germanic systems,
See the philosophies all, Christian churches and tenets see,
Yet underneath Socrates clearly see, and underneath Christ the
divine I see,
The dear love of man for his comrade, the attraction of friend to
Of the well-married husband and wife, of children and parents,
Of city for city and land for land.

Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass

Often times, I attempt to condense the world onto the head of a pin. The following is such an endeavor:

…fill the element
with signatures of your own frequency,
echo-surroundings, searches, probes, allurements,
elver gleams in the dark of the whole sea.
Seamus Heaney “Station Island” XII

Each poet provides, whether explicitly or implicitly,  a justification for their particular aesthetic project. Poetry is, after all, a fine art—un-useful, un-servile; such an art needs justification. What ends will it achieve for the poet? For the readers? For the poet’s community? We might ask these questions relative to the rubric of history, culture, politics, economics, psychology, or religion. Such considerations, however, are not at least directly the poet’s; they are certainly our own. Perhaps this is unavoidable. Yet we are not at a total loss, for poems are things made of language—the very means by which we share our considerations and reflections. The poem, as a topos of the community of language, provides us with the place of sharing in our understanding not only with the poet who has created, but with other readers who also experience this place.  Therefore, insofar as our inquiry arises from and returns to the experience of reading the poems themselves, perhaps we might join our own reflection on the ends of a certain poet’s aesthetic project with that poet’s own explicit or implicit reflection.

I’m often fascinated with words more than ideas. Thus, when I attempt to insert logic into my rhetorical endeavors, I sense the voice of a sophist arising from the darkness of the mind’s trash can. It’s an intellectual weakness which I’m ill-prepared to fight.