Expansive Poetry & Online Review



Edward Zuk

A review of The Wounded Surgeon by Adam Kirsch. 
New York:  Norton, 2005. 
ISBN    0-393-05197-8.  $24.95.

When The Wounded Surgeon was released earlier this year to modest fanfare, a large part of the attention focussed on the promise of its author.  Adam Kirsch is a young book-reviewer for such august magazines as The New Republic, The New Yorker, and the TLS, and he is also the author of the prize-winning The Thousand Wells, a volume of poems.  It was no surprise, then, that the blurbs on the jacket of The Wounded Surgeon, his first full-length book of criticism, praised the arrival of a new poet-critic.  However, the choice of subject matter was puzzling.  I could find no obvious reason why Kirsch chose to write at such length about “Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets:  Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz, and Plath” (to quote the book’s subtitle) instead of writing a survey of recent poetry, say, or a polemic defending the principles of his own art, two time-honoured ways of establishing a poetic career.  The book offers no answer to these questions.  Instead, what we have is a clear and fairly well-researched account of the works of these six writers, prefaced by a vague declaration that “the example of these poets, who put their whole humanity into their art, is more valuable than ever.”  We will have to wait for Kirsch’s subsequent books to see what  he has gleaned from this study of Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, and Plath in relation to his own art.

The Wounded Surgeon has three distinct aims.  The first one, which is announced in the introduction, is to correct our view of these six poets as “confessional” since they do not seek any type of spiritual healing through their poetry.  Instead, Kirsch hopes that they might be thought of “wounded surgeons” so that readers can appreciate “the resolve, not to say heroism [sic], that these poets displayed by submitting their most intimate and painful experiences to the objective discipline of art.”  While the basic sentiment is praiseworthy (I, too, wish that more critics of Plath would focus on her art rather than on her life), in this aim the book is destined to fail.  I cannot imagine critics speaking of the “wounded surgeon poets” instead of the “Confessional poets.”  Besides, the image of the wounded surgeon comes from Eliot’s Four Quartets (the fourth section of “East Coker,” to be more precise), and it symbolizes the healing powers of Christ.  Surely Kirsch does not want to compare the writing of Life Studies to the work of Jesus, whatever he means about the “heroism” of these poets?  Fortunately, the other two aims of the book are more reasonable, if still controversial.  Kirsch wants to show how these writers transformed their lives into art by providing what he calls “biographies of the poetry,” and he tries to establish them as the defining group of poets of mid-century America.

The Wounded Surgeon is not a history or a survey of confessional poetry, so important figures like W. D. Snodgrass and Anne Sexton are absent from its pages while Theodore Roethke is mentioned only once in passing.  Instead, the book is an attempt to assert the aesthetic worth of these six poets, which Kirsch believes to be independent of the lurid personal details that filled their poetry.  The starting point for these poets, Kirsch argues, was their negative reaction to the tenets of New Criticism and its championing of T. S. Eliot’s belief in the impersonality of the artist.  Eliot wrote that:

    . . . the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the
    man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind
    digest and transmute the passions which are its material . . . the poet has, not a
    ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and
    not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar
    ways . . . Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion;
    it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.  But, of
    course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to
    want to escape from these things.  (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”)
In fact, Eliot, argues for the separation between the work of art and the emotional life of the poet, an aesthetic approach to poetry that both Kirsch and the poets he discusses support (a fact which Kirsch, to his credit, acknowledges).  But for a generation of critics, Eliot’s remarks were taken as a declaration of what in our time has been called “the death of the author,” or the neglect of all biographical and personal concerns in studying a work of art.  The confessional poets exploded this notion by writing about their intimate lives, in the process “redefining what it means for a poet to write honestly” in Kirsch’s nicely-turned phrase.

This theory seems correct to me as far as it goes, but Kirsch fails to consider an important question:  what separates the use of personal details by these poets from the revelations in the poetry of Yeats, say, or of Wordsworth?  What made their use of autobiography unique?  I have no ready answer to this question, other than to note that the Confessional poets sensationalized their experience to a greater extent than any group of poets before them, and they provided more minor, novelistic details and a looser poetic form in order to produce the illusion that readers were encountering the poet’s actual life.  I wish that Kirsch had taken on this question directly.  But he has chosen to avoid it and many others besides.  Do the Confessional poets have any literary ancestors or heirs?  What is their relationship to the Romantics or their contemporaries the Beats, from whom they drew?  Are there any further reasons why they should be noticed now?  Sadly, none of these issues are addressed in the book, and we are left to speculate on what Kirsch’s insights might be. 

However, what we do have in this book is still valuable, if incomplete.  Kirsch provides a revisionary reading of each poet’s work.  For Lowell, Kirsch attempts to raise the later pseudo-sonnets of his book History into a major work; for Bishop, he argues that her poetry improved on the whole as she allowed more personal details to enter her poetry; for Berryman, he declares that the Dream Songs were successful because Henry cannot quite be identified with the author, and that Berryman’s attempts to write without a mask were a disaster; and for Plath, he suggests that her work is best read as a personal myth like that of Blake, which rescues her from charges of unfairness with respect to her portrayals of her father.  Kirsch has much less to say about Jarrell and Schwartz, naturally enough since they are minor poets, though he does make a spirited case for reviving Schwartz’s reputation as a poetic innovator.  None of these positions is indisputable, but each one is argued well and supports the overarching argument, which is sound if a little obvious:  the Confessionals succeeded in writing poetry only insofar as they treated their lives with objectivity and artistic care.

Two of Kirsch’s arguments deserve to be questioned more closely, however.  First, he argues at length that Robert Lowell was a major figure in American literature.  Lowell is a “great poet,” Kirsch declares, proclaiming that Lowell is “a natural heir and companion to the classic English poets, starting with his beloved Milton.”  Well, no.  I would raise the following objection to Lowell’s canonization:  he is not a great poet because he did not write enough great poems.  Lowell’s two best works, it is generally agreed, are “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket” and “Skunk Hour.”  Both are flawed, at best.  The first shows no development in its seven parts, is exaggerated in its rhetoric, and fails to be convincing in its portrayal of either the Quakers or the Virgin Mary.  “Skunk Hour,” for all the brilliance that Lowell lavished on its details, is comical in its self-aggrandizement.  The hill that the speaker drives up is connected through the imagery to “the Hill of Skulls where Jesus was crucified” (as Kirsch notes), and the poem then goes on to compare the poet-speaker to Milton’s Satan.  Who can accept Lowell or his stand-in (if you prefer) as either a crucified Jesus or as Satan?   After these poems, there is a sharp drop-off in quality to works like “Jonathan Edwards and the Spider,” “Beyond the Alps,” “Waking the Blue,” “For the Union Dead,” “Water,” “The Dolphin,” and so on.  If we compare Lowell’s achievement to that of Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, or Keats – poets who stand solidly in the line that Kirsch invokes – we soon find that he did not accomplish what they did.

To prop up Lowell’s reputation, Kirsch attempts to raise the pseudo-sonnets of History into a major work.  For this I must give him credit:  he is the only one I have met, in person or in print, who actually enjoys the poems from that volume.  My own copy of Lowell’s Notebook (the book from which many of the poems of History were later drawn) was given to me by an English professor who begged me to take it from him.  “I’ll never read the damned thing any more” he told me as he shooed me out the door, book in hand.  Kirsch’s argument is that in these poems Lowell “is able to find a fruitful approach to nearly every subject, and his language is constantly vigorous and inventive.”  This is not how I remembered History.  Not wanting to “read the damned thing any more” either, I depended on Kirsch’s quotations to jog my memory.  Here are two snippets that Kirsch quotes in support of Lowell’s genius:  “Like Henry VIII, Mohammed got religion / in the dangerous years” and “What raised [Stalin] / was an unusual lust to break the icon, / joke cruelly, seriously, and be himself.”  Ah yes, good old Comrade Stalin did let it all hang out.  Kirsch’s comment on the latter ‘sonnet’ is that “we remember illustrious men and women, Lowell suggests, because of the intensity of their self-affirmation, no matter whether their actions are good or evil.  In this, the artist, the hero, and the tyrant are united.”  This statement is silly – is mass murder a ‘self-affirmation’?  Besides, I shudder at any theory of history that would collapse the distinction between Shakespeare and Hitler, and if this is the “fruitful approach” that Lowell found, I will cheerfully take a pass on it.

A second major argument of The Wounded Surgeon is Kirsch’s claim that these poets wrote the lasting poetry of mid 20th-century America.  At no point does Kirsch openly speak of canonizing them, but the tenor of his argument is clear:  Kirsch want us to view these writers as the defining “great constellation” of writers which current poets must either react against or follow.  This opinion need not be accepted, to say the least.  There are many good reasons not to overestimate the six poets that Kirsch analyzes.  Leaving aside Jarrell and Schwartz since even Kirsch cannot work up much enthusiasm for them, none of the other four poets (not even Bishop) produced an oeuvre that is obviously a classic, if only because they left so much human experience and so many modes of poetry untouched.  Of these writers, I would nominate only Bishop for a decent ranking in the history of English poetry while Lowell and Plath would receive much lower ones, though I cannot summon the enthusiasm for any of them that I can for Auden, Frost, or Yeats.  Besides, it is likely too soon to pronounce on the generation that came of age in the middle of the last century, though the temptation to nominate one poet or another for immortality is irresistible, as I myself can attest.  One or two more decades need to pass so that other revolutions in taste may occur and we can judge their poetry on its own merits, not on its possible connections to our own.  Only then will we be able to sort out whose work will survive, and whose will not.

In reading over what I have written so far, I realize that I have been quite critical of The Wounded Surgeon for the limitations which hobble it.  As both literary history and as a sort of polemic, I find that the work falls short of its promise.  But I wish to end this review with an acknowledgement of how much I enjoyed the book and how much I learned from it.  If I have been able to quarrel with its positions, that is because the author lays out his theses clearly and passionately, citing evidence and defending his points so that his readers can judge the matter for themselves.  It takes great courage to write clearly and passionately, allowing ideas to be grasped, weighed, and debated freely by anyone who reads them:  cowardice hides behind jargon, but bravery requires a clear prose.  May more critics take the risks that Kirsch has in this book, and may the result be a larger pool of ideas – true or half-true, brilliant or dubious – to inform our writings.