Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kirsch's Metaphysical Invasions

Adam Kirsch's second collection of poems, Invasions (Ivan R Dee, Chicago, 2008) compriss a sequence of 16-line rhymed lyrics, reflections in the main, with a brief interlude of versions from Boethius. Kirsch thinks about things, and his references range widely - there is plenty of metaphysical 'yoking' going on: a strip of flowers along the Broadway median is a homeopathic remedy is litmus paper is a St Patrick's day ribbon (page 22), and much topicality - 'the embedded editor who rolled / His Humvee to the bottom of a dune' (page 48).

Robert Frost in his short piece 'The Figure a Poem Makes' (1939) wrote: "The object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other, and the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, meter are not enough. We need the help of context - meaning - subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety ... The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless." And it is this variety that Kirsch strives for. The poems wear their form lightly, which is perhaps à la mode in this uncertain age, with the smoke of New Formalism's polemic still drifting over the academies. Modernism put form on the back foot, so that one find's statements such as Donald Davie's recommendation that one could write in form but get away with it, by writing blank iambic trimeters with a liberal use of substitution; form relegated to the writer's crutch. Auden's remark that "formal verse frees one from the fetters of one’s ego" is in neighbouring territory.

Kirsch's 16-liners at once raise the precursors of Meredith's Modern Love and Tony Harrison's The School of Eloquence. Meredith is of course working squarely inside the tradition, so form plays a prominent part in the structuring of the pieces, and works satisfyingly with the reader's expectations of pattern. Harrison plays with form brilliantly - there's something of what Bunting referred to as 'a boast' & 'a see-here' in Harrison's display. Kirsch lets the form recede into the background, not a bad thing, but one wonders about possibly unhappy choices such as ending rhymed pentameters on the relative pronoun 'whose' (pages 13 & 29), or the 'like' or 'as' of a simile (pages 28 & 58).

In the introduction to his collection of essays The Modern Element (Norton, 2008), Kirsch sets up his terms of reference for the contemporary poet: "In contemporary poetry, it is striking how often the tools of the modernists are used to summon a factitious authority and prestige, to obscure premises that would not bear plain examination. Still worse is the use of the ludic, fracturing techniques of postmodernism, which emphasize the poem's difficult texture in order to conceal its absence of genuine insight, accuracy, and challenge." (page 12). He discusses the virtues and vices of contemporary poetry: "The virtues are daring honesty, subtle self-kowledge, an intimate (if not always explicit) concern with history, and a determination to make language serve as the most accurate possible instrument of communication, even at the risk of estrangement. The vices, which correspond to the virtues and call them into question, are sentimental egotism, an obsession with staying up-to-date, and a belief that distortion of language is interesting and praiseworthy in ts own right." (pages 11 - 12); with so many Scyllas and Charybdises it might seem the poet-critic must steer a slalom course through the recognized faults of others. Kirsch is still on his skis.