The Modern Element

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

With The Modern Element and his previously published The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets (2005), Adam Kirsch has established himself as a critical force on the American literary scene. He examines the leading, sometimes difficult poets of the postmodern period and sums them up with a youthful confidence grounded in a solid critical education, “the pragmatic tradition of Aristotle and Horace, Johnson and Arnold.”

A student of scholar-critic Helen Vendler and a 1997 graduate of Harvard, Kirsch widened his impressive knowledge base and honed his critical skills by working as assistant literary editor of The New Republic and book critic of the now-defunct New York Sun. He combines a scholarly background with a general-audience style: The essays in The Modern Element originally appeared in such publications as The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The Times Literary Supplement. One advantage of this style is that it is accessible and readable rather than weighted down by scholarly vernacular and academic jargon. The style also allows Kirsch to express his opinions sharply and memorably.

Besides writing criticism, Kirsch writes poetry, in the tradition of poet-critics such as Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) and T. S. Eliot (1888-1965). He has published two collections of poetry: The Thousand Wells (2002), winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize, and Invasions (2008). Both collections use traditional forms, including meter and rhyme, which is consistent with the traditional leanings in his criticism.

Kirsch takes his title The Modern Element from a lecture by Arnold, who, like Eliot later, defined “the modern element” in poetry as a response to the complexities of the modern age. Modernism and postmodernism are two phases of that response. Most of the postmodern poets about whom Kirsch writes in The Modern Element are either dead or aging, their careers often reflected in collected works. However, Kirsch seems to see contemporary poetry, which includes other, younger poets who in America are mostly graduates of creative writing programs, as a continuation of trendsnot all goodnoted in the postmodern poets whom he analyzes.

Although a collection of essays written at random over ten years, The Modern Element focuses on American poets and, together with The Wounded Surgeon (which covers Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath) offers a fairly comprehensive introduction to postmodern American poetry. The Modern Element also looks at a number of postmodern English, Irish, Caribbean, and Australian poets plus (in English translations) émigré poets from Poland and Russia. The last essay is on a literary critic, Yvor Winters. Kirsch’s analyses of individual poets enable him to form some conclusions about postmodern poetry in English that are scattered throughout his book but concentrated in the opening and closing sections.

Kirsch takes the common view that postmodern poetry is both a continuation of and a reaction to modernist poetry. However, he seems to agree with Lithuanian-Polish émigré poet Czesaw Miosz, whom he quotes at length, that modernism was not so much a startling new movement after World War I but instead a culmination of centuries of thought and tradition. Modernism, with its fractured techniques in the arts, was the broken phase of Western civilization that mourned the passing of old myths, beliefs, practices, institutions, and meanings. After modernism, what was a postmodernist poet to do except continue the mourning, use the new fractured techniques, and search for meaning among the shards? Kirsch further defines these two movements by juxtaposing two famous representative poems in one essay: modernism is represented by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which mourns the sterility of modern Western civilization, and postmodernism is represented by Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), which celebrates a wild counterculture of pleasure-seeking excesses.

Other postmodern poets in The Modern Element are shown seeking meaning in various ways, groping about in the darkness of a shattered, piecemeal world. One favorite way is retreating into the self, which is then spilled out in autobiographical and confessional poetry. Kirsch...

(The entire section is 1826 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, nos. 9/10 (January 1, 2008): 36.

Library Journal 133, no. 4 (March 1, 2008): 82.

The New York Times Book Review, August 31, 2008, p. 15.

Poetry 192, no. 2 (May, 2008): 154-163.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 2008, p. 33.