The poets who came of age in the years before, during and after World War II were faced with a giant Freudian dilemma: How were they to come to terms with the
gigantic legacy of the preceding generation -- the great Modernists such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane? How were they to absorb the lessons of those masters and yet discover original voices of their own? How were they to avoid being crushed by the weight, solemnity and critical reputation of their esteemed predecessors?
In his eloquent and astute new book, the critic Adam Kirsch looks at some prominent US members of that post-modernist era -- Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and their slightly later cousin Sylvia Plath -- and examines how, in wrestling with the anxiety of influence, they helped redefine the boundaries of contemporary verse, pioneering a new level of autobiographical exposure while giving voice to a more informal sort of writing that expanded poetry's range of diction, tone and subject matter.
Most of the poets discussed in this volume began writing under the umbrella of modernism and the then-dominant school of "New Criticism," which enshrined the modernist dogma of impersonality, symbolism and obscurity, and its dense, allusive language.
In their early years, they tended to write poems that dutifully hewed to their mentors' strictures, but in time each tried, in his or her own way, to break free from the styles and subjects that modernism had deemed suitable.
"In Jarrell's dramatic monologues and Schwartz's family epic, Bishop's tense plainspokenness and Berryman's jagged comedy, the values of Modernism are tested, resisted, and transcended," Kirsch writes. "As Schwartz wrote in 1954, `What the [old] literary methods exclude from all but the privacy of the journal or the letter is brought to the surface and exposed to direct examination by the new method."
Kirsch, the book critic for the New York Sun, does a wonderfully nimble job of conveying each poet's individual achievement and the evolution of his or her style, as apprenticeship gave way to maturity, as new techniques and language were invented to accommodate new ideas and material.
Writing in a manner that is at once erudite and accessible, Kirsch proves equally adept at dispensing the sort of close readings of individual poems championed by the New Critics and at explicating correspondences between a poet's life and art in a fashion that would have been anathema to the high modernists.
Like Martin Amis writing about novels, he writes about the poets in this volume as a fellow practitioner; his poetry collection The Thousand Wells won the 2002 New Criterion Poetry Prize. He uses his firsthand knowledge of the craft to make the hydraulics and verbal magic of a given poem thoroughly palpable to the reader.
In addition, his easy familiarity with the complete oeuvres of his subjects enables him to convey authoritatively -- and succinctly -- the arc of each writer's career, while revealing the hard-won knowledge (the underwater part of the iceberg, as it were) that lies beneath the innovations of later years.
In fact, it is one of Kirsch's central arguments that the "discipline, seriousness and technical sophistication" that these poets acquired during their modernist apprenticeships enabled them to produce poems about newly intimate subjects that possessed the rigor and shapeliness of lasting art -- poems that stand in sharp contrast to the outpourings of earnest but flabby "confessional" verse produced from the 1960s on, in the wake of Robert Lowell's epochal book Life Studies.