Poets and critics have been around for a long time, and some writers have been both poets and critics, but the “poet-critic” was invented in the 20th century. This hybrid role was created by T. S. Eliot and then adapted by a generation of poets who won positions in American colleges as literary critics, before the M.F.A. in creative writing gave poets jobs teaching writing workshops. The poet-critics of that era shared a point of view. They were against experimental literature. They valued rhyme and meter not only as expressive forms, but as safeguards against sentimentality, narcissism and even madness. They saw poetry as a way to preserve the individual’s spiritual and intellectual integrity in a society dominated by science and mass culture. They praised reason and proportion, but their mood was apocalyptic.
Adam Kirsch is a poet-critic of this type. He has taken up the aesthetic ideas of Eliot and his successors with anachronistic fidelity. Kirsch is not an academic; most of the essays in “The Modern Element,” his new book on contemporary poetry, first appeared as book reviews in The New Republic. Kirsch writes with admirable clarity for a general reader not automatically familiar with the poets he discusses. But when he is done with his poets, the general reader does not have much reason to read them. Like the poet-critics he admires, Kirsch mounts a defense of poetry at the expense of poetry he disapproves of.