Wednesday, June 03, 2009

`An Untarnished Sense of Possibility'

My copy of Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue, William Logan’s fifth collection of criticism in 11 years, just published by Columbia University Press, has arrived, and I turned first thing to his review of Geoffrey Hill’s A Treatise on Civil Power:

“English has rarely possessed a poet who listens so closely to its whispers or is as willing to expose its secret etiquettes. Hill lies at the end of a long line of Romantic poets with classical reserve – Coleridge and Eliot stagger though the background here.”

I read this when it was published more than a year ago in the New York Times Book Review, as I have previously read much of the new book’s contents, but Logan is a critic one returns to not only for clear-eyed, clear-earred evaluations but for his way with the language: I remembered “secret etiquettes,” and was struck by the notion of Hill as a listener to whispers. Most critics are likelier to suggest he hears only howitzers.

Logan’s reputation in contemporary letters is rooted in his harsh intolerance of the various smug, gimcrack, sterile, self-indulgent, theory-driven, tin-eared effusions dominating poetry today. He’s refreshingly unapologetic about his stance: “The critic’s besetting vice is generosity.” As the wisecrack suggests, he’s also the funniest critic since Randall Jarrell. Logan acknowledges as much in the new collection’s first essay, “The Bowl of Diogenes; or, The End of Criticism,” which serves as introduction and critical credo:

“Yet critics know the future may pluck up some writer they think a nonentity and say, `Here, here, the critics were blind to genius!’ Randall Jarrell said something similar fifty years ago, but Randall Jarrell often said fifty years ago the very things I want to say about poetry now.”

Critics ask why Logan continues to writes about contemporary poetry if he finds so little worthy of his admiration, but that’s a dumb question. On the positive side he might reply, as he does in “The Bowl of Diogenes”:

“A critic is, nonetheless, the most optimistic man alive, living in perpetual hope, like a Latter-day Saint. No matter how many times he is disappointed, he opens each new book with an untarnished sense of possibility. If, amid the dust heaps of mediocrity, he does find a few books rich and strange, such is the essential generosity of this peculiar craft that his first impulse is to call everyone he knows and to buttonhole strangers on the street.”

And, on the less positive side, the immediately subsequent sentences:

“It’s his duty, however, to hold up weaker books to public scorn. Bad books do drive out good ones – it’s the Gresham’s law of literature.”

I confess to a few reservations about Logan’s M.O., most related to one of Auden’s strictures: “One cannot review a bad book without showing off.” This gets complicated because most books – most human creations – are bad, and part of a critic’s essential task is to alert us to their badness, particularly when such creations come extravagantly blurbed. To his credit, Logan is generally funniest when he’s most savage, especially in contrast to the in-bred backslapping that usually passes for poetry reviewing. For the sake of his mortal soul I’d like to see Logan exercise more charity and less cleverness for its own sake. Too often he’s like the comedian who laughs at his own – admittedly funny -- jokes.

The collection’s title tells a tale, or many tales. Logan appends nine epigraphs, one from the 18th century, the others from the 19th, and all include the phrase “savage art.” Ann Radcliffe, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and George Saintsbury I know; the others are new to me. I would enjoy reading an essay on the phrase’s gradations of meaning among the passages. I would also enjoy knowing if Logan found each passage independently or relied on Google. Either way, it’s an impressive mustering of learning.

I’ve only just started reading and rereading Our Savage Art but already I’ve claimed several favorites. Jack Gilbert’s poetry, I’ve always thought, was false and boring, and I let it go at that. Logan is a diagnostician of badness in all its curious forms, and here he is on Gilbert’s:

“Gilbert’s prosy, cheerless sentences pile up in patient suffering, suffering that prides itself on being without pity or delusion (which means it’s riven with self-pity and self-delusion). One of the pleasures of his work is that the pathos is cut with masochism – you feel he couldn’t write so much about misery without a taste for it, and like many miserable people he writes about laughter in ways that make you want to weep.”

Logan is a nuanced moralist as well as a mere poetry critic, and would have earned the admiration of La Rochefoucauld and Dr. Johnson. One more example, this from a review of Franz Wright’s God’s Silence:

“He has few poetic gifts beyond displaying his wounds in public; but the breast-beating apologias are cast in language so clumsy and affected, they seem a lie. Has any poet ever wanted so badly to be sincere, or failed so miserably?”

Contemporary American poetry brings to mind the title of Charles Mackay’s bestselling volume from 1841, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Otherwise intelligent people read the likes of Gilbert, Wright (Franz, Charles), Ashbery, Collins, Hoagland, Kooser and their brethren, and delusion grips them like a straight jacket. The poor cusses believe with zealous certainty they’re reading poetry, even good poetry. Reasoning with them is futile. In rare cases, laughter works its restorative magic. Give Logan the final word:

“Jorie Graham loves big ideas the way small boys love big trucks.”


Anonymous said...

Logan is the Rush Limbaugh of the literary world. He is stuck in the poetics of the past--there are critics like this in every generation, and he resembles the ones who tortured Keats, not R. Jarrell. Jarrell was, for one thing, a very fine poet, while Logan is a capable and utterly unmemorable poet. Jarrell can move one to tears--I challenge anyone to find a Logan poem that is anything but technically proficient. No one will ever be moved by a Logan poem. No one reads Logan. Jarrell was loved and admired by the best poets of his time--Logan is laughed at, pitied, pissed on, etc. by the best poets of his time., Logan would not review a book by Logan--he only reviews, and saves his special venom, for poets who have enjoyed some success. His poetry is undistinguished, and his vicious reviews are the only way he has found to get attention. It worked very well on you, and tends to work well on people accustomed to thinking as little as possible and getting their opinions predigested. Logan's a reactionary clown who could not make it in the literary world on the strength of his poetry. He is also some sort of sadomasochist--he clearly enjoys causing pain, and equally enjoys being hated. And I am willing to be you are a typical Logan devotee--which means you have not spent more than about five minutes with the works of the poets he attacks. Your the equivalent of an prejudiced and moronic backwoods trailer park nit wit nodding his head while listening to rightwing radio talk shows and then accepting what he hears as his own opinion. How strange it must be, to be so filled with envy and hatred, to take delight in putting down poets who have devoted their lives to this most difficult and thankless art. An intelligent person of goodwill would concentrate on the poets he loves. If you share Logan's contempt for the poets you've named, who gives a fuck? Who are you? You're no one, pal. You don't even exist. And again, I know perfectly well that you have no even read the works of the poets you take such delight in hating. You're a moron, friend, and there is a huge worm of hatred and envy who has taken up residence in whatever is left of your heart. Lots of luck.

Jonathan said...

There's an old saying that goes something like this: "When you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one who yelps the loudest is the one hit."

Based on his frothing about, anonymous seems to have had a moment of self-recognition.

William A. Sigler said...

Whether it’s just some scam that got hopelessly out of control, or part of a more nefarious, Platonic design, in America poetry is institutionalized. The lunatics inside are sedated by the calm voices of the doctors, who brandish straight jackets and shiny grants to keep their attention on the needs of the other inmates, and away from the outside world. Scraps of old poems are passed around and discussed as a means of getting the inmates to identify with something important, and they are told to write their own, usually indecipherable gibberish or over-wrought accounts of early childhood experience, as long as sharp objects like politics, religion or other people’s feelings are avoided. Such efforts are dutifully published in the funny farm journals, and passed around as if they represent a brand new language, as if they may someday aspire to be a captor themselves. Some of it is even used in outreach efforts, to convince others that they too can be part of the family. Some are called, but most people merely shrug their shoulders, saying “that’s just what crazy people do.”

It is in this context that I view Logan’s achievement. It’s easy to shine a distant flashlight on the windows of the asylum, but you won’t learn very much. Logan is on the inside, calmly taking notes, daring against all rationality to think there are people who care about the conditions in these barbaric places.

Although he himself claims he has, at his best, “the jaws of a shark, the heart of a lawyer, and the eye of a pawnbroker,” don’t be fooled. He is a humanist, bringing to our attention that there are real people inside, people worthy of love. Like old John Ashbery, “were he unfortunate enough to develop Alzheimer’s, the poems wouldn’t change a bit.” Or scrupulous Robert Pinsky, who “sounds like some old hipster dumping his verbs and commas in order to feel young again.” Or funny Billy Collins, who “wouldn’t hurt a fly—but couldn’t kill a fly, either.” Or self-absorbed Rita Dove, who “has the supreme confidence that comes to most people only after a night of binge drinking.”

Be honest. Don’t such accounts make these people seem so much more real than the poems they write, or the usual sanitized reviews they inspire? Can’t we all just thank William Logan for his herculean effort to pretend to care there is something more important in the most honored poetry of today than the number of published students one needs to earn tenure?

Anonymous said...

Really, there should be something built into Blogger/Wordpress so comments by anyone calling him/herself 'Anonymous' comes with a flashing "PSYCHO!" tag. Can't they even make up a name, like Bill or Dave or Otis? It's not that hard.

i hope, Mr Kurp, you're delighted to find you don't even exist.

The Tallest Elf said...

in response to anonymous: i appreciate that you take the time to think about things deeply, and to use repetition for emphasis for some intended person's benefit. but i'd have you know that i am deeply offended that you would call the host "a moron" etc etc without spending at least five minutes with him/her.

Anonymous said...

What difference does it make, whether somebody calls himself "Anonymous" or not? Who is Patrick Kurp--a marvelously Dickensian name, only it appears to be real--haven't heard of him. But I know him. Like Logan he is one of a creature of envy, a hater, in his secret 19th century hole wherever, who lies awake gnawing his one grievance: why Ashbery, why Dove, why Graham. Why not me? But what has he done. He lacks even Logan's gift for cheap one-liners, which verge on the most bizarre non sequitur. Neither he nor Logan are worthy, in terms of talent, to lick the shit from the bottom of these poets' shoes. Why does he not write about poets he likes? If his hatred to for these poets is so intense, why does he concern himself with them. Envy, envy.

Anonymous said...

Logan's one-liners are generally nothing more than cheap shots. But his comment on Ashbery and Alzheimer's is crude to a degree that can only be termed obscene. Anyone who does not see that is simply not a human being.

marly youmans said...

What a poisonous brew in the comments! Interesting world, Poetry.