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The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry

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Over the last ten years, through essays in The New Republic, The New Yorker, and other magazines, Adam Kirsch—“one of the most promising young poet-critics in America” (Los Angeles Times)—has established himself among the most controversial and fearless critics writing today. Sure to cause heated debate, this collection of essays surveys the world of contemporary poetry wi Over the last ten years, through essays in The New Republic, The New Yorker, and other magazines, Adam Kirsch—“one of the most promising young poet-critics in America” (Los Angeles Times)—has established himself among the most controversial and fearless critics writing today. Sure to cause heated debate, this collection of essays surveys the world of contemporary poetry with boldness and insight, whether Kirsch is scrutinizing the reputation of popular poets such as Billy Collins and Sharon Olds or admiring the achievement of writers as different as Derek Walcott, Czeslaw Milosz, and Frederick Seidel. For readers who want an introduction to the complex world of contemporary American poetry, from major figures like Jorie Graham to the most promising poets of the younger generation, Kirsch offers close readings and bold judgments. For readers who already know that world, The Modern Element will offer a surprising and thought-provoking new perspective.


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Over the last ten years, through essays in The New Republic, The New Yorker, and other magazines, Adam Kirsch—“one of the most promising young poet-critics in America” (Los Angeles Times)—has established himself among the most controversial and fearless critics writing today. Sure to cause heated debate, this collection of essays surveys the world of contemporary poetry wi Over the last ten years, through essays in The New Republic, The New Yorker, and other magazines, Adam Kirsch—“one of the most promising young poet-critics in America” (Los Angeles Times)—has established himself among the most controversial and fearless critics writing today. Sure to cause heated debate, this collection of essays surveys the world of contemporary poetry with boldness and insight, whether Kirsch is scrutinizing the reputation of popular poets such as Billy Collins and Sharon Olds or admiring the achievement of writers as different as Derek Walcott, Czeslaw Milosz, and Frederick Seidel. For readers who want an introduction to the complex world of contemporary American poetry, from major figures like Jorie Graham to the most promising poets of the younger generation, Kirsch offers close readings and bold judgments. For readers who already know that world, The Modern Element will offer a surprising and thought-provoking new perspective.

30 review for The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

    I thought his essays on poets were very articulate in explaining not just how he feels about their poetry but why. I'm not very articulate in that way myself--I can say that I like or don't like something but often find it very hard to explain why. I feel this way especially with poetry. His essays helped me understand what I like and don't like about certain poets and their work. He manages to distinguish between obscure poetry and complex poetry without coming across as one of those modern poe I thought his essays on poets were very articulate in explaining not just how he feels about their poetry but why. I'm not very articulate in that way myself--I can say that I like or don't like something but often find it very hard to explain why. I feel this way especially with poetry. His essays helped me understand what I like and don't like about certain poets and their work. He manages to distinguish between obscure poetry and complex poetry without coming across as one of those modern poetry-bashers that thinks poets should return to the "good old days" when "anyone" could understand and love poetry. He understands that poetry will not always be easy but also that it should not make a game of its own obscurity either. 6/09

  2. 4 out of 5

    John

    Excellent essays that mostly appeared in The New Yorker on modern and post modern poets. All of the essays take a thematic approach to what a particular poet is known for, and expand and illuminate on that. What has the poet achieved and the why and how of it. The essays on Richard Wilbur, Theodore Roethke, James Wright, and Frederick Seidel were my favorites. This book is a good entry way to a particular poet and may lead to a greater appreciation of the poet.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Craig Morgan Teicher

    All I've read so far are the first two paragraphs of the jorie graham essay, but they weren't much fun. Even fancy writing about poetry should be a little bit of fun. Reading further, I'm actually pretty freaked out by this book. I fear Kirsch is too conservative to be a trustworthy reader of the contemporary poets--like Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, and CD Wright--that he's penned essays about. Reading even further, I actually think this book is a problem. Kirsch is flatly wrong about some of the m All I've read so far are the first two paragraphs of the jorie graham essay, but they weren't much fun. Even fancy writing about poetry should be a little bit of fun. Reading further, I'm actually pretty freaked out by this book. I fear Kirsch is too conservative to be a trustworthy reader of the contemporary poets--like Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, and CD Wright--that he's penned essays about. Reading even further, I actually think this book is a problem. Kirsch is flatly wrong about some of the more compelling and indefinite poets he writes about--like Jorie Graham, CD Wright, and Ashbery--and with the poets he does get, and with whose work his conservative tastes are comfortable--like Simic, Hecht and James Merrill--we don't need a critic's help at this point. That said, this is the kind of book that's fun to read because it provides opportunities to disagree. Though I would say it could do more damage to the cause of contemporary poetry than good.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    More like 3 1/2 stars. He writes clearly and seriously, which I admire, and he makes some excellent points, but he also sounds like a stodgy old man a lot of the time.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Miriam Jacobs

    For the most part a collection of real genius. Where he fails is in his near-hysterical and warped reading of some women poets. His wildly sexist response to the work of Louise Gluck, for example, is especially mad (and unworthy). It is disappointing to see such a serious flaw in the thinking of a writer so erudite, one whom I have deeply admired. I feel almost personally wounded by it. Still, there are essays here that I will read again and again.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    I've read Kirsch in magazines for several years. I've read some of his The Wounded Surgeon. I usually find myself liking his take on things. He has a chapter on Glück. Here are some snippets: The boast of deeper knowledge gained through deeper suffering is one of Glück's favorite rhetorical devices. She is forever flaunting this superiority before the reader. Glück's self-dramatizing impulse means that what her experience lacks in rarity she must supply in the form of rhetorical intensity. For Glü I've read Kirsch in magazines for several years. I've read some of his The Wounded Surgeon. I usually find myself liking his take on things. He has a chapter on Glück. Here are some snippets: The boast of deeper knowledge gained through deeper suffering is one of Glück's favorite rhetorical devices. She is forever flaunting this superiority before the reader. Glück's self-dramatizing impulse means that what her experience lacks in rarity she must supply in the form of rhetorical intensity. For Glück,it has always been the self that comes first. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - My impression is that Kirsch finds Glück to be someone who's self-involvement prevents her from doing truly great work. I read Kirsch's chapter on Jorie Graham. I found it to be an excellent description of what I don't like about a lot of MFA-driven poetry. He breaks the experience of reading a poem into two categories: the phenomenal and the theoretical. The phenomenal includes the musicality of the words, their surface meaning and their relatively easily accessible allusions, symbols, and metaphors. The theoretical is the intellectualization that can only be guessed at by the engine of MFA-driven speculation through deep reading. He finds much modern poetry, including Graham's, too much theoretical and too little phenomenal. He says Graham's style is algebraic, where she witholds important information from the reader, leaving the reader to solve for x. After I finished reading the chapter I thought to myself that Graham could put out a Selected Poems which would essentially be a statement "I want you to know that I think complex thoughts, but I don't want you to know exactly what they are, but by making them obscure, I want you to think they are deeper and more thought-out than I've been able to manage." As for Ashbery, Kirsch essentially says the reader must plow through many lines of worthless mannerism to get to the very few lines of epiphany. He seems to see some value in Ashbery, but basically a few scattered gems in the overall mud. Kirsch seems to feel that Geoffrey Hill is a poet who has potential but almost never quite reaches it fully. He describes him as simulating feeling as opposed to rendering experience. He says he uses solemnity, which is to seriousness as sentimentalism is to emotion. And that made me think of so many poets who read their poems in a solemn monotone as if that delivery itself confers a vatic significance to their bland drone. He says Hill does not move the reader because what he writes would be shocking hundreds of years ago, but is what's expected now. Kirsch like Hill best when he writes prose poems. He also seems to find some good things in a very recent book of poems. For the rest, he indicates that Hill allows himself to enjoy using language, even if that language is insufficient in dealing with its subject matter. At one point Kirsch says that what makes good literature is work that is not literary. He quotes Philip Larkin as saying "as a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly created universe , and therefore have no belief in 'tradition' or a common myth-kitty or casual allusions in poems to other poems or poets, which I find unpleasantly like the talk of literary understrappers letting you see they know the right people." - -- - - - - - - - - - - - - -- - - - - - - - - - - - - I learned about the Irish poet, Dennis O'Driscoll, whose work I'm looking forward to becoming more familiar with. I won't go into detail on all the poets Kirsch discusses. Let it be said that he has something good and bad to point out in almost all of them, so that I got a sense of balanced criticism as opposed to partisan polemic.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    To be honest, I only read the essays on Seidel, Simic, Milosz, and Gluck. I especially appreciated his discussions of Seidel and Gluck. I became interested in Kirsch after he skillfully dismantled the Bukowski myth and located the sort of "arrested development" at work in Bukowski's mostly male admirers in a New Yorker article(though I think Gerald Locklin's recent prose assessment of Bukowski--a good poet of his time but not great--was a bit more even handed).I've been a big fan of Gluck for aw To be honest, I only read the essays on Seidel, Simic, Milosz, and Gluck. I especially appreciated his discussions of Seidel and Gluck. I became interested in Kirsch after he skillfully dismantled the Bukowski myth and located the sort of "arrested development" at work in Bukowski's mostly male admirers in a New Yorker article(though I think Gerald Locklin's recent prose assessment of Bukowski--a good poet of his time but not great--was a bit more even handed).I've been a big fan of Gluck for awhile and believe, despite her tenure as laureate, her work, overall, is underappreciated. Kirsch talks about Gluck's concentration on tone and voice in poetry in her "urgent, reverent, hypnotic monologues." He writes about the elusive "self" in Seidel's poetry and the social critique in the poet's work, crystallized as sharp and sometimes absurd wit. Very helpful collection. Will probably dip into it as I encounter other the work of the other poets discussed by Kirsch.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Joan Colby

    . Excellent essays on contemporary poets. I particularly liked the ones on Derek Walcott, Geoffrey Hill (a really thorough examination of his career), Louise Gluck, C.D.Wright, Richard Wilbur (how I admire him), Theodore Roethke, James Wright and Joseph Brodsky. All the above and more examine the poet’s output and growth over time and offer stimulating and often surprisingly accurate estimations. Kirsch also takes brilliant swipes at Billy Collins and Sharon Olds, the former for superficiality a . Excellent essays on contemporary poets. I particularly liked the ones on Derek Walcott, Geoffrey Hill (a really thorough examination of his career), Louise Gluck, C.D.Wright, Richard Wilbur (how I admire him), Theodore Roethke, James Wright and Joseph Brodsky. All the above and more examine the poet’s output and growth over time and offer stimulating and often surprisingly accurate estimations. Kirsch also takes brilliant swipes at Billy Collins and Sharon Olds, the former for superficiality and condescension, and the latter for a single-minded narcissism. Both accusations are well-documented and thoughtful rather than mean-spirited. Kirsch is a superior critic—I was driven to highlight many of his observations

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kallie

    Adam Kirsch writes interesting and compelling arguments about the elements and qualities requisite to poetry, and why real poetry is an important and irreplaceable art form. He also discusses how some writing called poetry fails to qualify as such. Whether one agrees with Kirsch's opinions or not, anyone who wants to study and/or write poetry can benefit from considering what he writes in these essays. Adam Kirsch writes interesting and compelling arguments about the elements and qualities requisite to poetry, and why real poetry is an important and irreplaceable art form. He also discusses how some writing called poetry fails to qualify as such. Whether one agrees with Kirsch's opinions or not, anyone who wants to study and/or write poetry can benefit from considering what he writes in these essays.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Eric Muhr

    Intelligent analysis of some of my favorite poets.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    http://danpritch.blogspot.com/2008/08... http://danpritch.blogspot.com/2008/08...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Joelle

    Let's see if Adam Kirsch can do better than Camille Paglia. Let's see if Adam Kirsch can do better than Camille Paglia.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

  14. 5 out of 5

    MReza

  15. 4 out of 5

    Abby

  16. 4 out of 5

    Peter

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kristian

  18. 5 out of 5

    Joel

  19. 4 out of 5

    Matt

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nico

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ryo Yamaguchi

  22. 4 out of 5

    Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez

  23. 5 out of 5

    Francesco Levato

  24. 5 out of 5

    Austin Harold

  25. 5 out of 5

    James

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mike Heppner

  27. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

  28. 5 out of 5

    Edward

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tom Peters

  30. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

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