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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)
J. K. Rowling
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007
784 pp.,

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Aaron Belz

Eliot's Rebellious Heirs

The Confessional poets as closet modernists.

In his essay "Hamlet," T. S. Eliot not only introduced a new term to the literary-critical lexicon—objective correlative—but also performed an audacious act of literary revisionism by questioning the aesthetic merits of one of Shakespeare's most widely admired plays. "Few critics have ever admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary," Eliot begins, and goes on to argue that this play fails precisely where Macbeth had succeeded: it does not build the necessary basis of symbolic action upon which to predicate Prince Hamlet's emotional outpourings and his descent into madness. It lacks, in Eliot's now famous formulation, an objective correlative between its action and emotion, "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of the particular emotion; such that when the facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked."

Adam Kirsch's The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets uses the same concept to perform a less radical act of literary revisionism. Kirsch wants to resituate the so-called "Confessional" poets—John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, and Delmore Schwartz—as Eliot's "rebellious heirs," prodigal modernists rather than sensationalists who commodified their most painful, private experiences. The vital link between this group and their immediate forebears, Kirsch argues, was their mastery of the art of the objective correlative, which enabled them to "transform experience into art" in a much more valuable and permanent way than their common caricature would allow. "The suffering that afflicted this group of poets," writes Kirsch in explanation of the book's title, "becomes significant only because they examined it with the surgeon's rigor, detachment, and skill."

If there is any doubt about what this "common caricature" entails, a brief anecdote might help. Imagine the otherwise gentle, soft-spoken poet Robert Bly shouting to a group of college students, "I don't want to see any more poems about your grandfather! Don't even think about your grandfather when you write poems, at least not if you're planning to turn them in!" By 1994, when Bly actually did shout these words to a class he was teaching at New York University, many poets had come to resent the shameless self-revelation and over-reliance on autobiography characteristic of much contemporary poetry and especially epidemic in the "workshop." Many blamed the Confessional movement for this turn, which they considered narcissistic in the extreme, and had perhaps subconsciously begun to write off poets such as Lowell, Plath, and Jarrell. Bly, with a cooler head in a subsequent class, characterized the poetry of the younger Confessional poet Anne Sexton as, "I've been traumatized; let me tell you about it. That'll be five dollars, please."

With that in mind, the ways in which the original Confessional poets diverged from modernism might be obvious. They no longer bought into Eliot's notion of poetry as an "escape from personality." They resisted the idea of the poem as pure object, its text entirely separate from its author. They felt no need to make poems that were purposefully cryptic or so verbally embroidered as to be almost illegible. They leaned away from élitism and high culture and toward a demotic, Whitmanic mode. But, argues Kirsch, born as they were into a literary-cultural milieu dominated by New Critical doctrines, they did carry a modern sense of artfulness and perhaps even artifice into their creative work. Berryman and early Lowell are a testament to this, writing with a formal intensity bordering on madness. The Confessional poets also wrote about many things besides their personal lives and troubles—Lowell's later work is marked by political concerns, for example. These poets' debt to modernism was so sure, in fact, that "the word 'confession' obscures much more than it reveals," Kirsch suggests, especially when it is applied to Lowell, whose work was "not personal and memoiristic but allegorical and cosmological."

Each chapter of Wounded Surgeon is devoted to one of the six poets under study, situating the poet biographically and thematically within modernism and then, through close reading, explaining how the poet both retained aspects of the modernist legacy and developed a new, more personally revealing style. Kirsch does a fine job interlacing historical detail, explications of poems (his strongest suit), excerpts from letters and memoirs, and his own prose constructions to trace each poet's orbit around modernism.

That the first and longest chapter is on Robert Lowell suggests that he is the linchpin of Kirsch's case. Lowell's lifelong admiration for Eliot, his studies with Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and his public role as poet-statesman place him well within the modernist pale. "Grotesque violence," intense religious symbolism, and an eclectic but obsessive sense of form remind Kirsch of Eliot, and rightly so; Lowell once described Four Quartets (the book from which the phrase "wounded surgeon" comes) as "the most remarkable and ambitious expression of Catholic mysticism in English." Kirsch's compelling readings of Lowell's early to middle writing, and especially of Lord Weary's Castle and Life Studies, support the argument that Lowell was indeed making use of the objective correlative, but doesn't the case rather make itself? In fact, Lowell employed modernist tactics at least through Life Studies, the book which, with an introductory poem about his grandfather, reveals the first sign of a new direction for Lowell.

The question of Lowell's direction really arises during and after For the Union Dead. A classic of the Confessional canon, its poems have been endlessly imitated since it was published in 1964. "Fall 1961" laments atomic war and, in the same breath, Lowell's disappointment with his father. In "Middle Age," Lowell confronts the ghost of his father. "The Scream," containing a number of Lowell's childhood memories about his mother, ends with the stanza: "A scream! But they are all gone, / those aunts and aunts, a grandfather, / a grandmother, my mother— / even her scream—too frail / for us to hear their voices long." It is a short distance from this sort of strained familial pathos to later hyper-confessional work—by Sharon Olds, for instance, whose The Father obsesses about everything from her father's death-bed to the texture of his skin. Instead of explicating For the Union Dead in terms of the objective correlative (which perhaps he cannot), Kirsch writes: "[M]ost of the poems are presented as first-person utterances in immediate reaction to experience, as though we were hearing the poet in real time. The form is correspondingly stripped down, and tries to impart a sense of drama through repeated questions and exclamations. The result is a thinner and less powerful collection."

The chapter on Elizabeth Bishop, highlighting her well-known relationship to Marianne Moore, concedes that she was "never as much under the spell of Modernist doctrine" as some of the other Confessionals. Indeed, the young Bishop idolized Moore; Bishop's early work is characterized by an objective style, with only occasional, veiled references to an emotional response. Kirsch dutifully applies his thesis to these poems, arguing that they "do not just employ symbolism—they are themselves symbols, of the kind that T. S. Eliot named objective correlatives." Checking this statement against Eliot's definition of the term—"a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of the particular emotion"—it is hard to see how one might read a poem as a standalone objective correlative. The term implies that both the "objects" and the "emotion" are present in the text. Outside drama criticism, indeed outside criticism of longer works altogether, the term begins to lose meaning. If Eliot meant the term to be applied so broadly, one would have to include William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheel Barrow" and Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" as standalone objective correlatives. A better critical description of these works, and of Bishop's early poems, is that they are imagistic. An even better description for Bishop's work, and a cause to wonder why Kirsch sticks so doggedly to his thesis, is that it is a "scream translated into a clang"—a phrase he derives from Bishop's short story "In the Village."

In the end, it is not Kirsch's ability to drive his stated thesis through the collected works of six poets that is Wounded Surgeon's most impressive achievement; rather it is his patient and observant reflections upon the poems themselves, wherever they lead. He begins the third chapter with the mandatory identification of Berryman as a disciple of Yeats, and after arguing that Berryman's art was to transform his own life into "something nobler and more deliberate"—not just to recount it or confess it—he launches into 45 pages of exquisite explication, heedless of the objective correlative he had made so much of at the start. We learn that Berryman's two volumes of Dream Songs represent a watershed for personal poetry; here, the poet is the subject of painful self-exposition, his modernist mantle all but shed. It should come as no surprise that in the end Berryman, a poet for whom art and real life had become too closely intertwined, discarded the "mask" of Henry, his poetic alter ego, and committed suicide.

The final three chapters, covering Jarrell, Schwartz, and Plath, work the same tack between the poets' historical obligations to modernism and their tendencies toward a more personal, colloquial, and affective poetics. Kirsch succeeds in demonstrating both, and forcefully. However, he fails, ultimately, to rescue these poets (and their followers, who go unmentioned) from the caricature described above and to reposition them as literary pioneers who "tested, resisted, and transcended" the values of modernism. The reader is tempted to conclude instead that these six poets tested and, to varying degrees, rejected the values of modernism, moving American poetry away from crafty artifice that acknowledged a literary public and toward a more self-oriented, explicit poetry that suited the sexual revolution.

Aaron Belz teaches English at Saint Louis University, where he is finishing a dissertation on the influence of popular comedy on modern American poetry. His reviews, essays, and poetry have appeared in journals such as Boston Review, Fence, Wired, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and First Things. He is the author most recently of The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX Books), a collection of poems.

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