A backward-looking collection on numerous forward-looking poets--from Keats to Adrienne Rich--that recalls the pleasures and limitations of close reading and practical criticism. Birkerts (English/Harvard; An Artificial Wilderness) is romantic, judicious, and, above all, conservative in these essays, many of them reviews published during the last five years. His title, from Shelley's A Defence of Poetry, foretells his kinship to poets of linguistic energy--Wordsworth, Rilke, Amy Clampitt. It also marks his resistance to much contemporary literary theory and poetic practice. The fall guys in this collection are, by implication, deconstructionists, ""nihilists"" like John Ashbery (!), and feminists like Adrienne Rich, who test Birkerts' conservative patience. That leaves him with a fairly conventional literary canon. Essays on Robert Lowell, James Wright, and Marianne Moore offer shrewd but somewhat staid observations on the difficulty of poetry in a contemporary world of ""distractedness."" Birkerts' main contributions to originality here are his reviews of newer, lesser-sung poets like Michael Blumenthal, Alfred Corn, Jorie Graham, and Alice Fulton, and his fresh reappraisals of Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert and Mexican man-of-letters Octavio Paz. Despite his impressive range, scope, and reading acumen, one wishes Birkerts could interrogate more deeply, perhaps skeptically, his own claims on language and letters. In the end, much ground covered here remains unbroken. Exceptionally intelligent, caring, compassionate criticism, then, only too comfortable with itself.