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This review is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

A JAVELIN HURLED FORWARD ADAM KIRSCH, The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (Norton) $25.95

Sir Isaiah Berlin once wrote of an essay, ‘In reading it one had the sensation - for which there is no substitute - of suddenly sailing in first-class waters.’ In reading Adam Kirsch’s The Modern Element one has a similar feeling. If this sounds a little old-fashioned, perhaps I am being influenced by the blurb, which compares the book to the work of Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell and Elizabeth Bishop, and its author to ‘a javelin hurled forward from the lost best era of serious poetry criticism’. Certainly Adam Kirsch is a critic to read: serious, knowledgeable, stylish, traditional and insightful. His Wounded Surgeon (on Lowell, Bishop, etc.) showed us that much. Now he offers an Arnoldian compass to guide us through the predominantly American world of his essays on contemporary poetry. What gives his book bite is his sympathy with Arnold’s attempt ‘to redefine the notion of modernness, expanding it from a merely temporal category to an aesthetic and even moral one’.

Essentially, he has celebrated some poets and fashioned a very stimulating polemic against others for their flight from meaning, moral seriousness and even prosody. What annoy Kirsch particularly are certain contemporary poetic vices: ‘sentimental egotism, an obsession with staying up-to-date, and a belief that distortion of language is interesting and praiseworthy in its own right’.

Given Kirsch’s seriousness of purpose, it is thrilling to find oneself in agreement so often (provided, of course, that one is). In these essays there ...


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