Point Blank: The Transparent Pleasures of Kirsch’s Memoir in Verse

The Discarded Life
by Adam Kirsch
(Red Hen Press, 2022, 54 pp., $13.95)

The evolution of blank verse from Milton to Wordsworth, via Cowper, was not solely a change in diction and subject matter. Even as classical and biblical themes were displaced by a sense of personal mythos—and even while plain speech triumphed over grammatical inversions—so, too, was there a recalibration of meter. At least as riveting as Milton’s engagement with Shakespearean blank verse, Wordsworth’s conduct of the Miltonic line took it into tranquil waters, where fewer metrical irregularities could obstruct a clear view to the bottom.

My point is not to suggest, risibly, that Wordsworth forswore such devices as trochaic or anapestic substitutions or the artful deployment of caesurae. It is rather to acknowledge how much less of a claim on our attention these choices are likely to make when we are in the current of Wordsworth’s thought. By contrast, even when we are wholly immersed in Milton’s vision and narrative, we reserve a capacity for awe at his placement of stresses and line-breaks.

As Robert B. Shaw reflects in his 15-year-old treatise on blank verse:1

Part of what we are calling the conversational effect in Wordsworth relies on an embrace of ordinary vocabulary and an avoidance of the ornate. But in his blank-verse poems a deliberately unshowy approach to the meter may be just as important, though less immediately noticeable. Not to be noticed as meter, in fact, seems to be a primary aim of Wordsworth’s blank verse. A kind of transparency is sought, and sometimes achieved in the best of his descriptive passages.

In his best blank verse, Wordsworth is every bit as propulsive as Milton: the enjambment regulates the syntactical pacing, which in turn mimics the flight of self-discovery. But the reader’s exhilaration is of a different order than that which Milton produces with his breathless build-up of clauses, his purposeful use of assonance and alliteration, and the emphatic stresses coursing through his verse.

It has pleased me to set up Milton and Wordsworth—or, more precisely, their blank verse—as archetypal variants of the form brought over from Renaissance Italy and cultivated by Elizabethan and Jacobean writers. One can seek to understand all subsequent titans or mere practitioners of blank verse in relation to these forebears, almost as dots on an axis. This test can seem unduly limiting, even staid and conventional, but it offers one approach to Adam Kirsch’s new collection, The Discarded Life. The book, a blank-verse memoir of this master literary critic’s childhood and development as a poet and thinker, is thematically all Wordsworth.

And prosodically? The iambic pentameter is even more regular, and there are fewer mid-line breaks, than in a comparable stretch of Wordsworth. The first characteristic often requires prepositions and conjunctions to take a stress—as is often the case when rendering idiomatic speech in blank verse. The second means that Kirsch does not exploit enjambment (and its opportunities for suspense) as fully as Wordsworth did, learning from Milton; each line is more likely to be a self-enclosed thought. In The Discarded Life, these effects seem not haphazard but central to Kirsch’s technique. They prepare the soil for insights to bloom, unforced, typically at the end of each numbered poem, which tends to fit cleanly on the page, or run just a few lines over.

For the most part, in each of the forty poems here, Kirsch retrieves a single episode—or a cluster of observations—from growing up in Los Angeles. Exceptions are: the first poem, a kind of apologia; a couple of poems near the end, when he has entered Harvard; and the final seven, which can be read as mini-essays, trying the validity of a general statement.

After the scattered reflections and vignettes throughout the volume, the closing poems distill a sensibility. Here are some of their openings:

Childhood is a long and restless sleep,
The kind of dream you know to be a dream
But can’t break free of, though the waking mind
Shrieks as an alarm from its imprisonment.

*

The world is watered by a stream of money
That comes and goes in seasons, like the Nile.
It seems so wide at first that you would think
That only fools would fail to get their share….

*

Why was I born, the old complaint and question,
Does not get answered till you are the one
From whose desire or thoughtlessness is made
Another I who turns to you and asks
Why he was born….

*

The pleasure of accumulation pales
Next to the reckless joy of getting rid:
The bonfire of Transformers, G.I. Joes,
And other loot from Hanukkahs gone by,
The adolescent posters stripped from walls
Dotted with pinholes making up a code
Of lost loves and allegiances outgrown….

The first thing to notice is how banal these openings almost are. In each case, the register is flat, the diction unchallenging, and the figure or sentiment so plain as to seem obvious. But the meter is ideally suited to the syntax—or the other way around. This is the “unshowy approach” to which Shaw referred: each irregularity is, if not deliberate, then consistent with our main impression of the speaker as tentative but willful, filtering—as Wordsworth did near Tintern Abbey—“gleams of half-extinguished thought, / With many recognitions dim and faint, / And somewhat of a sad perplexity.”

Like Wordsworth, Kirsch makes of blank verse a supple instrument for processing thought. Countless others have done so in the interim, but—among those writing today—few share his methods. One is to eschew what Frost called “loose iambic”;  in Kirsch, the rareness of each departure serves to accentuate his meaning. Thus, when “Childhood is a long and restless sleep,” as a dictum, gets a shade more gravitas than it deserves, this is due partly to what prosodists call a “headless” line. Then come two lines of straight iambic pentameter, with the second interrupted by a comma, to herald a qualifying clause. After the mist of these abstract statements, the action verb occupying a trochee at the start of the next line plunges the passage into immediacy. In similar ways, often to greater effect than shown here, Kirsch uses variation sparingly but decisively throughout his poems.

In the fourth passage above, note how, at the start of the sixth line, another instance of a trochee (again a verb) interrupts a brief catalogue. The next line arrives with its two balanced adjectives (one on either side of an abstract plural noun), and, as I read it, a trochee in the second position, followed by—in the fourth and fifth—a pyrrhic foot and a spondee. Kirsch’s rhetorical and metrical turns are judicious. The effect is a casual eloquence, which, more often than not, meets at the end of these short poems with a flash of self-awareness.

Or the epiphany can open out, the knowledge become wider. Let’s resume the third passage quoted above. Here is the poem, numbered 37, in full:

The world is watered by a stream of money
That comes and goes in seasons, like the Nile.
It seems so wide at first that you would think
That only fools could fail to get their share;
And yet the banks are always full of crowds
Waving their pails and buckets frantically,
Hoping to shoulder through the competition
And scoop up just enough to fertilize
Their parched, ungiving acre for a season.
A few, the brutal, fortunate, or smart,
Obstruct the flow or engineer canals,
Then bathe in the resulting stagnant pools.
(The weak and sick, of course, don’t stand a chance.)
And here and there you’ll see a person pause
Amid the anxious rushing of the crowd
To look around him or to watch the sky,
And wonder whether this is what we’re born for.
Of course, his problem is he got a sieve
Somehow, when tools were being handed out,
Making him so unfitted for his job
That there is nothing for him but dreaming.
And all the while, the stream goes rushing past,
Contemptuous, abundant, out of reach.

By avoiding the first-person pronoun, the poem stands apart from others in the series. It is also Kirsch at his most Larkinesque. There is the extended metaphor about lucre, which evokes Larkin’s “Money.” Parts of the poem recall the half-hearted contempt in Larkin’s “The Old Fools” (e.g., the “fools” of Kirsch’s Line 4, and his formulation, “The weak and sick, of course, don’t stand a chance”). Then there is the final line (“Contemptuous, abundant, out of reach”), echoing the close of Larkin’s “Here” (“Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach”). Still, despite these surface resemblances, the poem has a style all its own. Kirsch’s tenacity in pursuing a conceit or argument to fruition, from end to end in a given poem, is a neoclassical virtue. Instead of the vivid particulars of a finely rendered image, we get the universality of a trope.

In a book not characterized by visual acuity, place-names and brand-names can acquire totemic value. There was, for this Gen X reader at least, mounting excitement at spotting the detritus of one’s own childhood recast in plain but decorous speech. The Muppet Show, Star Wars, Choose Your Own Adventures, Star Wars, WarGames, and The Day After, find their way directly or indirectly into Kirsch’s poems. Together, such references embody the “discarded life” of the book’s title. In a poem on “the death of Mr. Hooper,” the kindly storekeeper from Sesame Street—played by Will Lee, whose real demise, in 1982, was made into a teachable moment on the show—Kirsch notes “the love / Of every cohort for its fleeting symbols, / A generation’s private names and jokes.”

One or two of those “jokes” are there, all right. Recounting how it was to play Wizardry on an Apple IIe, he speaks of “five-inch floppy disks / You had to keep inserting and withdrawing, / Like turning hand cranks on an early Ford.” As a rule, though, the poems are elegiac in their wised-up way. In the Hooper poem, Kirsch writes:

Around 2060, when the last
Of Mr. Hooper’s mourners will be mourned,
He’ll die the second death that lies in wait
For famous men on Wikipedia—
A symbol now degraded to a fact,
Which is a symbol no one’s left to love.

This tone is echoed in poem #11, about a schoolmate who died in childhood.

                                                        Later on,
A patch of garden named for Julian
Was planted in the schoolyard, with a plaque
That meant a little less with every year,
Until a generation came that knew
Nothing of him except that he had gone
So far ahead of all the rest of us
That even now we haven’t quite caught up.

What stirs in these poems is not so much a fear of obsolescence as a concern about the limits of representation. Poem #26 begins:

Google, better than a private eye,
Tracks down my former teachers and reveals
The fates I wished upon them have all come true.
Mr. X, who in a purple rage
Once ripped a metal pencil sharpener
Out of the classroom wall where it was bolted
And hurled it at a fleeing ten-year-old;
And Mr. X, who paid me twenty bucks
A week to do his grad-school homework for him,
Until my parents heard and made me stop.

After other anonymous examples, the poem continues:

And all the other floridly unfit
Adults who we were told we must respect
Because they were our teachers, now are sick
And wheelchair-bound, or bankrupted, or dead.
Which would be justice, if the same result
Had not come for the ones like Mrs. L,
A bit standoffish in her self-respect,
Who taught us everything we had to know
Of RNA and photosynthesis
And then went home to lead another life
We never heard a single thing about.

In an earlier poem, about the Challenger shuttle disaster—and the death of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe—Kirsch asks: “Was anyone our age so cynical?” (He is referring to the pre-Internet speed at which sick jokes traveled among his peers.) To combat this attitude, but to do so with intelligence and not stock emotional responses, is the promise of his memoir. “Cold and challenge and severity” are, he admits, “melodramatic watchwords for a boy,” but they compose a pledge he makes to himself after experiencing a vision of palm trees at night, in “their witchy purity.” Before striking this deal, however, Kirsch’s speaker must dispense with less honorable ways of using figurative language. Here he is at summer camp:

It was a joke, a way of showing off:
Anything, I said, could be compared
To anything with just a little forcing.
For instance, God could be compared to hairspray:
Both were invisible but everywhere
At Jewish summer camp where daily prayers
And teased-up bangs were equally in fashion.
I don’t think anybody was amused,
But somehow the idea was a clue:
If everything could be a metaphor,
The world must be subordinate to language,
Which meant, to me and what I could come up with,
If I could play with the idea of God,
Who was more godlike? [….]

This poem, #20, appears halfway through the book; is it a strategic midpoint? After all, here the speaker comes to terms with the arrogance of making glib associations through language. This insight is a standard milestone in the record of a poet’s development. (The poem concludes: “Unless it is the God in everything / That makes the possibility of likeness, / In which case likening is not a game / But something like a tribute and a prayer [….]”) At the same time, just here—and only here, as far as I can tell—Kirsch fumbles with the rhythm:

But somehow the idea was a clue:
If everything could be a metaphor,
The world must be subordinate to language,
Which meant, to me and what I could come up with,
If I could play with the idea of God [….]

To read the first line of this passage as iambic pentameter, one would have to stress the “the” before “idea” and the “was” before “a clue,” and read “idea” as three syllables. This is not disruptive by itself; but, further down, the word “idea” recurs in another line where the scansion is shaky. Again, “the” must take a stress for the meter to hold—though the article is unstressed in ordinary speech. Yet, this time, “idea” must be pronounced as two syllables. None of this would matter much if the line, “Which meant, to me and what I could come up with,” had not intervened. While it is possible to read the line to the meter, the short run of monosyllables with no obvious stress-words—when combined with the metrical ambiguities of the two lines just quoted—is enough to yield a rough patch.2

That one feels compelled to consider such minutiae, in reviewing Kirsch’s blank verse, is, to quote him again, “something like a tribute and a prayer.” On the whole, his line falls so effortlessly into the meter that most of the variations, as I have suggested, attend upon his meaning. This level of control enables the slow burn of revelation, with every artifact he puts to rest. From the beginning of Poem #31 (its first line is nearly Shakespearean), the poet exults in letting go:

Because all power is the power to waste,
The thought that every cigarette I smoked
Subtracted minutes—eight or ten, I’d heard—
From the tall, toppling stack of time I owned
Could not discourage me; it just aroused
The gleeful magnanimity a chief
Must feel to see the potlatch treasures go—
To lose all this, and still have more to lose!
Who wouldn’t trade the ash-end of existence
For the controlled burn of a summer night […]?

Compare this stance with that of the poet as a child, who, in Poem #9, coveted beer bottle caps:

                                                           […] on the beach,
On sidewalk corners, by recycling bins,
The treasures waited, precious though discarded,
To serve the child’s and the collector’s passion
For delegating their identity.
Buds and Miller Lites were everywhere,
But sometimes you would find a German name,
Much rarer then than now: a Michelob,
A Lowenbrau with lion’s body rampant,
A Heineken with red, five-pointed star.

The Discarded Life chronicles the poet’s gradual decision to quit such spoils. It is not so much the material objects he is shedding, as the disproportionate significance with which he had invested them. So, by the end of poem #31, we realize it is not finally cigarette-ash he will leave behind, but the smoking habit itself, a shorthand for unreality.

Addiction’s an achievement: like belief,
It seems absurd to those who never learned
The habit of impossible assertion,
The excavation of an inner space
For soul to waft and waver in, like smoke.
Still, there’s a debt that spirit owes to fact,
Fact that may bide its time, but in the end
Reminds us we don’t live in metaphor,
At least not in our own; reality
Is plotting constantly, in every cell,
Its squamous, imperturbable revenge.
Like every coward, finally, I quit.

The final line is cutting, for three reasons. One is the arrival of a single, one-line sentence after an argument that has played across two sentences and eleven lines. The second reason is that we may be surprised by the abrupt action (“I quit”) after the measured eloquence about smoke and addiction as metaphors. But the third reason is the most characteristic of Kirsch’s persona throughout these poems. Even as he walks away from “the habit of the impossible assertion,” and moves closer to “reality,” he looks backward with rue, faulting himself with cowardice. Don’t you believe it. To write poems like these, in strict blank verse, marshaling abstract nouns and well-reasoned arguments—in an age such as ours—takes boldness of a rare degree. Rarer still is the talent and technical finish Kirsch brings to the challenge. It’s bracing to witness the form used at length by a contemporary poet who is as comfortable with his literary heritage as he is with the pattern of a late-20th-century childhood in upper- or middle-class America. He reminds us that nearly everything is possible with blank verse, as with poetry in general, and that even the most circumscribed set of experiences, observations, and memories need not, and must not, be a bar to ambition.

Footnotes

1 Robert B. Shaw, Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use, Ohio University Press, 2007.
2  My editor and yours, Ryan Wilson, raises two excellent points. He argues that “idea,” in the final line I have quoted, is meant to be pronounced as three syllables—just as is the first instance of “idea”—though in this case the “a” elides with “of,” enabling the line to stay on meter. (One is reminded of Robert Bridges’ Milton’s Prosody, originally published in 1899. It shows the central role of elision in stabilizing meter in Paradise Lost.)  As for the penultimate line quoted above, Wilson remarks: “The oddness of the meter in this line seems, at least to me, in its clunkiness an ironic commentary on the powers of the individual to ‘come up with’ the world, or, at least, a self-deprecating joke about the ‘perfect’ world a self can create apart from God.” Distinctly possible, but I still view it as a weak line.
Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar has published a new chapbook of poems, A Call from the Shallows (Finishing Line Press).
Sunil Iyengar

Author: Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar has published a new chapbook of poems, A Call from the Shallows (Finishing Line Press).