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This review is taken from PN Review 182, Volume 34 Number 6, July - August 2008.

FAILURE OF ENGAGEMENT ADAM KIRSCH, The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (W.W. Norton) £15.99

The title of Adam Kirsch's collection of essays on poetry invokes Matthew Arnold's inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, 'On the Modern Element in Literature', delivered in 1857 and first published in Macmillan's Magazine in 1859. In Kirsch's introduction, he distinguishes between Arnold's ideal of modernness and that of T.S. Eliot: 'while Arnold sees modernness as the achieved mastery of complexity, Eliot sees it as willing surrender to complexity'. This latter view, Kirsch suggests, has become dominant in the twentieth and twenty-first century and accounts for both the vices and virtues of modern poetry. Kirsch does not advocate a return to the Arnoldian position, because he believes that the best modern poetry entails an acknowledgement of the risk, contra Arnold, that complexity cannot be mastered; but his uneasiness about a surrender to complexity which leads to obscurity and incoherence recurs throughout this book.

The Modern Element consists mainly of essays on twentieth-century American poets - for example, Graham, Ashbery, Seidel, Glück, Simic, Wright (C.D. and James), Merrill, Wilbur, Justice, Hecht, Olds - and it is with these that his grasp of the broader cultural contexts from which the poetry emerges seems surest. His range does extend, however, further - for instance, to Walcott, Hill, Larkin, O'Driscoll, Murray, Zagajewksi - though here one feels that his grasp of contexts, and of the poetry itself, may be thinner (this is perhaps particularly evident for English readers in his account of Larkin). ...

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