THE THOUSAND WELLS

By Adam Kirsch

Ivan R. Dee. 76 pp. $18.95

A poet's ambition is a fearsome thing, especially when it ventures into self-appraisal. When a contemporary young poet proclaims, "See what I've done! No skyscraper or arch/ Of triumph is bolder, or will last as long," the reaction is bound to be one of skepticism, of pity for such brazenness. "Even in that town/ Where I grew up, they'll be force-fed my odes,/ And know I made it out, to conquer Rome/ And train the language into finer forms." Such assertions become harder to dismiss, however, when one has completed Adam Kirsch's debut collection, The Thousand Wells. All at once the affinity with Horace seems less ludicrous.

Kirsch, who at 26 has already established himself as one of our keenest critics and apologists for poetry, justifies a formal grandeur in page after page. Precocity and wit intermingle with rhyme, meter and a penchant for abstractions. That's precocity, not preciosity. Kirsch is a poet, after all, who can dispatch lines of such calm persuasiveness as "Some put on quiet misery/ Thoughtlessly every day, like glasses," or write of "the analyst's study, where the dream/ Told the transactions of its wild bazaar."

Clarity of metaphor makes Kirsch's loftier statements not only tolerable but credible. Contributing to the charm is Kirsch's awareness of the scope of his ambition, his frustrated yearning for absolutes, which often elicits a reprimand:

I tried to forget myself: now in the dark

With force, imploring, promises, attack;

Now hoping that sincerity and work

Would make up for the easy grace I lack;

And now at the desk, believing I could read

Enough to supply the spirit's speechless need.

Later, Kirsch concedes he has overestimated the ability of the seasons to effect lasting change: "There is no moment of eternal good/ In the cycle of vacancy and plenitude." The poem is "The Beginning," written in rhyme royal, and its title heralds "The Dawn," a sonnet cycle whose opening lines are "Begin at the beginning -- oh, I would,/ If I could find one." In that poem, he equates the 20th century's tyrants of historical inevitability with "grandsons [who] brought the night/ In which we still wander, and the mystery/ Of nightmare descending from the transcendental."

Like senior poets Anthony Hecht and Geoffrey Hill, Kirsch adopts classical figures to lament modern decay. His book, winner of the 2001 New Criterion Poetry Prize, is freighted with allusions to antiquity. At times, Kirsch is too insistent upon drawing lessons from the past ("We have lived by history,/ And with history will die"), but more often he extends to the reader the solace of "The Chosen People," a lunar meditation on Judaism. Other standouts are "A Love Letter," in ottava rima, and "One Weekend," which borrows the 16-line sonnet form from George Meredith's sequence "Modern Love."

A former assistant literary editor of the New Republic, Kirsch bids in "Goodbye Washington" to relinquish "the worldly city . . . to build for myself that prouder one,/ Angry and reticent, of the mind." For poetry lovers everywhere, this is less of a threat than a promise. *

Sunil Iyengar is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.