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The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: The Poetry of Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz, and Plath

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Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Delmore Schwartz formed one of the great constellations of talent in American literature. In the decades after World War II, they changed American poetry forever by putting themselves at risk in their poems in a new and provocative way. Their daring work helped to inspire the popular style o Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Delmore Schwartz formed one of the great constellations of talent in American literature. In the decades after World War II, they changed American poetry forever by putting themselves at risk in their poems in a new and provocative way. Their daring work helped to inspire the popular style of poetry now known as "confessional." But partly as a result of their openness, they have become better known for their tumultuous lives—afflicted by mental illness, alcoholism, and suicide—than for their work. This book reclaims their achievement by offering critical "biographies of the poetry"—tracing the development of each poet's work, exploring their major themes and techniques, and examining how they transformed life into art. An ideal introduction for readers coming to these major American poets for the first time, it will also help veteran readers to appreciate their work in a new light.


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Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Delmore Schwartz formed one of the great constellations of talent in American literature. In the decades after World War II, they changed American poetry forever by putting themselves at risk in their poems in a new and provocative way. Their daring work helped to inspire the popular style o Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Delmore Schwartz formed one of the great constellations of talent in American literature. In the decades after World War II, they changed American poetry forever by putting themselves at risk in their poems in a new and provocative way. Their daring work helped to inspire the popular style of poetry now known as "confessional." But partly as a result of their openness, they have become better known for their tumultuous lives—afflicted by mental illness, alcoholism, and suicide—than for their work. This book reclaims their achievement by offering critical "biographies of the poetry"—tracing the development of each poet's work, exploring their major themes and techniques, and examining how they transformed life into art. An ideal introduction for readers coming to these major American poets for the first time, it will also help veteran readers to appreciate their work in a new light.

30 review for The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: The Poetry of Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz, and Plath

  1. 4 out of 5

    Joan Colby

    Kirsch is one of the foremost critics of poetry writing today. This book focuses on the confessional poets beginning with Robert Lowell and proceeding through Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. The sections on Lowell, Bishop and Schwartz were the most interesting. I didn’t like this book as much as his later work The Modern Element, but it was still insightful.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Nicolas Shump

    Adam Kirsch who is a poet and book critic wrote a study of six modern American poets titled The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets. The poets he considered were Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berrryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath. If you have read some of my earlier blogs, I have reviewed several books that cover similar territory or some of these same authors. As a KU undergrad I took a class on the poetry of Robert Lowell and Jo Adam Kirsch who is a poet and book critic wrote a study of six modern American poets titled The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets. The poets he considered were Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berrryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath. If you have read some of my earlier blogs, I have reviewed several books that cover similar territory or some of these same authors. As a KU undergrad I took a class on the poetry of Robert Lowell and John Berryman. I took another class on the poetry of Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. In another life, I might have pursued a PhD in American Literature and become an academic reader of poetry. I did not, but I still remain a dedicated and impassioned reader of poetry and I do confess that I have a particular fondness for what some critics call "The Middle Generation", which comprises poets like those mentioned above who came after the great American and European modernists like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and others. I have the collected works of Lowell and Berryman and individual collections of poetry by Plath. I've read Bishop's and Jarrell's poetry, and am least familiar with Schwartz. In addition to earlier blogs on Peter Davison's memoir of the Boston literary scene and Jeffrey Meyers study on mania in some of these poets, I've read the major biographies of Lowell and Berryman. I also read Bruce Bawer's study titled the Middle Generation that included all of these poets except for Bishop and Plath. So I was very excited to see what Kirsch would do with these poets. Overall, this is an excellent introduction to the work, if not the lives of these poets. If you have only read a few poems by these authors in your survey lit classes in high school and college, this would be a good place to learn more about them. If you want to see a very fine example of close reading of poetry, Kirsch's work is a great template. It is obvious that he is familiar with the poets under consideration and offers thoughtful and occasionally insightful readings of individual poems. However, considering that he considers all six poets in under 300 pages, the individual chapters are certainly condensed and I would recommend reading this book in parts rather than all at once. There were times that I felt there was no overarching organization to his reading of these poets' work rather than a rough chronological outline. He simply goes from poem to poem or work to work without providing much of a road map. Some thematic headlines or section divisions would have made the chapters more cohesive. For someone who has studied these poets, both academically and privately, I am not entirely satisfied with this work. A common theme that runs through the work of several of these poets is religion. Lowell began his life as Boston Brahmin Puritan, converted to Catholicism, and later seemed to have abandoned organized religion. Berryman had a similar conversion experience late in life after he went through alcohol rehab. Finally, Schwartz was born to Jewish immigrant parents and many of his poems reference his Jewish roots. Kirsch is not a particular sensitive reader when it comes to the the role that religion played in the poetry of this writers. He seems to be unable to consider the genuine conversion of these poets when they write "religious poetry." Instead, he tries to point out how the imagery or themes are inconsistent with organized religion. What this tells me is that Kirsch has a rather shallow understanding of religious belief. Just because someone calls themselves a Christian or a Jew does not mean that every word that comes out of their mouth or their pen has to be pious. However, this seem to be the standard that Kirsch applies to these authors. It is as if he can tolerate and appreciate ambiguity in their poetry, unless the topic is religion. As someone who has a great understanding of modernist and New Critical techniques in poetry, I do not understand why Kirsch seems to be unable to accept ambiguity, if not outright contradiction from religious poets. Personally, I believe that when they were writing their poems, that these poets were true believers. Does that mean the religion "stuck"? No, it certainly did not with Lowell and Berryman's conversion occurred so late in his life that we don't know what might have happened had he lived longer. Kirsch writes, "'Eleven Addresses to the Lord.' . . . But these addresses are born of urgent personal need, and they throw overboard all the irony, doubt, and grief that made the Dream Songs authentically religious poetry." Kirsch doesn't tell you what the criteria for "authentically religious poetry" is, except that it cannot be statements of faith or belief! Again, Kirsch's inability to understand the anthropology of religion is puzzling. He goes on to discount the poetry because it appears so soon after Berryman's conversion. "Yet the very recent date of the conversion, and still more the absence of any reticence or introspection, make this experience hard to credit; while it may have been real, it does not become poetically convincing." What the hell does "poetically convincing" mean? Also, is there a certain time limit on conversions, before the poets who have undergone this conversion become "poetically convincing?" When someone undergoes a conversion experience, it seems axiomatic to me that they don't show reticence or introspection. That may come later, as Thomas Merton's life and writing would illustrate, but any new convert is full of belief and their experience of the spirit of the divine. Kirsch's decision to focus on the poetry and not the lives of these poets is admirable, but there are times that the reader needs to know that Robert Lowell suffered from manic depression or that Sylvia Plath did have a passionately tortured life. Using Plath as an example, Kirsch notes how too much of the writing on Plath has involved her life and not her poetry, but he does not even mention that Plath sat in on Robert Lowell's poetry seminars. Might this have affected her poetry? In other places he notes the community these poets had, but curiously leaves Plath all alone. He does not hardly mention her marriage to Ted Hughes. Again, this area has been well documented, but does he consider how that influence and the influence of her being a wife and mother had on the work she produced in her short personal and poetic life? Finally, the book abruptly ends with his chapter on Plath. There is no concluding postscript or epilogue to tie the theme of this book and the work of the poets together. The Wounded Surgeon is a good introduction to how to read poetry and to the work of these six poets, but I'd still recommend Bruce Bawer's Middle Generation and the individual bios and critical studies of the poets that Kirsch includes in his bibliography.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jason Walker

    I liked this book mostly because I was interested in the poets presented in the book and had a desire to know more about them. However, the writing did not convince me that the author had any mastery of his subjects and is often contradictory in his assessments of the value and quality of a poet's particular work. This is apparent particularly in the sections on Berryman, Jarrell and Plath. In one breath the author may cite a section of a poem as being juvenile or unartful and later claim the wh I liked this book mostly because I was interested in the poets presented in the book and had a desire to know more about them. However, the writing did not convince me that the author had any mastery of his subjects and is often contradictory in his assessments of the value and quality of a poet's particular work. This is apparent particularly in the sections on Berryman, Jarrell and Plath. In one breath the author may cite a section of a poem as being juvenile or unartful and later claim the whole a success. Of course, the author is not really a critic, he was supposed to be attempting biographical realism in meeting the real lives of the poets to their works - at least that is what the overleaf states in my reading. Overall, if you have an interest in the movement of American poetry away from the Modernist movement that died first with World War II and finally with Eliot, then this book is worth the read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Katie Marquette

    This book provides an overview of six writers all considered "confessional poets." Adam Kirsch explores how each of these writers' works evolved and changed over time. He also provides profound insights into famously iconic works, like Berryman's 'Dream Songs' and Lowell's 'Life Studies.' Kirsch treats each of his subjects with respect and admiration, but never hesitates to point out their flaws. Although I did not necessarily agree with all his criticism (you can only imagine my horror when I r This book provides an overview of six writers all considered "confessional poets." Adam Kirsch explores how each of these writers' works evolved and changed over time. He also provides profound insights into famously iconic works, like Berryman's 'Dream Songs' and Lowell's 'Life Studies.' Kirsch treats each of his subjects with respect and admiration, but never hesitates to point out their flaws. Although I did not necessarily agree with all his criticism (you can only imagine my horror when I read that Kirsch considered Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy' to be one of her worst poems), I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I especially liked the sections on the authors I am less familiar with and I now plan on reading more of their works. A comprehensive and interesting analysis of some of the 20th century's most fascinating writers.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Bartel

    While not as luminous and universal as Kirsch's second book of criticism, The Modern Element, this is a fine journey through a period of American poetry that has yet to be sufficiently explored and understood. Kirsch continually stresses, especially in the sections on Lowell, Berryman, and Plath, that confessional poetry should not be read as an unchecked gush of memory and emotion, but as carefully constructed pieces of art that stand or fall not by their honesty or authenticity, but by their a While not as luminous and universal as Kirsch's second book of criticism, The Modern Element, this is a fine journey through a period of American poetry that has yet to be sufficiently explored and understood. Kirsch continually stresses, especially in the sections on Lowell, Berryman, and Plath, that confessional poetry should not be read as an unchecked gush of memory and emotion, but as carefully constructed pieces of art that stand or fall not by their honesty or authenticity, but by their aesthetic qualities.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Fure

  7. 5 out of 5

    Anne, Unfinished Woman

  8. 4 out of 5

    Smith

  9. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jeneva Stone

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ewelina Trojanowska

  12. 4 out of 5

    Deidre

  13. 5 out of 5

    Martin

  14. 5 out of 5

    Starmy

  15. 5 out of 5

    Helen Andrews

  16. 5 out of 5

    Katelyn

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kelli

  18. 5 out of 5

    Pugugly

  19. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tsipi

  21. 5 out of 5

    Susan

  22. 5 out of 5

    michelle

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Reff

  25. 5 out of 5

    Zabeth

  26. 4 out of 5

    Evan

  27. 4 out of 5

    John Riley

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

  29. 4 out of 5

    Lee

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez

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