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.”