World and Earth

Poet-critic Adam Kirsch has an interesting, if arguably somewhat simplistic, essay on the relationship between Heidegger and contemporary mainstream English-language poetry, in the January 2008 issue of Poetry. One of the essay's problems is that Kirsch tries to suggest that the early High Moderns (Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, for example) were "world" oriented, trying to impose a vision of mastery, remaking the order of things, while the "earth" poets, like "post-Catholic" Heaney (and I think the post may be a little overdetermined here) modestly, and ethically listen to things, and show the ordinary in an extraordinary light, unforcing nature's hand, but being midwife to its exposure and celebration.

The problem with this is that the so-called "metaphysical" approach of poets like Heaney, with its strong, neo-classical emphasis on an austere diction, and an ethos of silence and epiphanic apprehension, is deeply moral in precisely the ordering way of late Eliot - and the critical demands made by those poets who argue for such an earth-based (pace Kirsch) credo are not nearly as unassuming or modest as might be assumed. I also don't feel that all contemporary poetry can be easily subsumed into this dialectic. As Alain Badiou argues in his recent The Century, it was precisely the argument of Two Into One, that is, the refusal to agree as to the nature of dialectical synthesis, which leads to a celebration of power, reality, war and violence, in the 20th century. Kirsch's attempt to synthesise the various poetries into a neatly-defined twosome is admirable, perhaps, but perhaps incorrect. I think the quarrel that various poetics have with each other, language, decorum, tradition, and the world - let alone possibilities of enchantment in a disenchanted time (see Charles Taylor's new A Secular Age) is more complex, and unresolved.

But Kirsch is correct, I think, in noting that metaphysical issues are at stake. However, is it enough to want to notice (as Thomas Hardy did) such things, the small felicities of nature and the world, and inscribe them in words for others? Does poetry - does visionary writing - not have, potentially, more to do than that? The decline of the idea of the role of poet as visionary (after Dylan Thomas) - a tale of two Thomases - is part of this story, though Hughes and Heaney obviously are seeing things, too.

I am enjoying, and reading, his new book of criticism, The Modern Element. While Kirsch is an apologist for one dominant style of poetics, he is also a very insightful critic, and hugely enjoyable to read. Some of the essays in the new book have the wit, verve and apt quotations one associated with the great Poetry and the Age, by Jarrell - someone Kirsch has clearly closely attended to.

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