On the Poetry of William Logan

I probably haven’t looked hard enough, but while I’ve found lots of criticism of William Logan’s criticism, I haven’t yet found criticism of his poetry. Perhaps one exception is an article in Slate magazine by Eric McHenry. McHenry demonstrates what others have only claimed, and that’s that Logan’s criticisms of others could be equally applied to his own poetry. McHenry writes for example:

“Then there’s the matter of his own poetry. The author of five collections, Logan tends to write a chilly, impersonal line. His poems have all the erudition of his reviews, but little of their vitality and swagger. And he commits offenses for which he’d pillory any other poet. Logan loathes contrived drama in poetry; how would he treat the lines, “The Spanish moss like hunger/ hangs from the dogwood tree,/ and no one pays the phone bill/ of eternity” if they’d come to him in a review copy, rather than in a moment of inspiration?”

I think the impetus behind this kind of commentary, sometimes, is the wish that the critic William Logan would turn his knives on the poet WilliamLoganWilliam Logan. That way, at least, all the rest of the poets he’s gutted could console themselves. But it’s a peculiar argument.  It’s true that Logan doesn’t always live up to the standards of his own criticism (if ever some might say) but what does this prove? Does this really exonerate the poets whom he’s criticized? Is it fair to accuse the critic of hypocrisy? Probably not, in my view. But it does raise the question: Why can’t he apply his own standards to his own poetry?

Criticism and artistic creation are two different abilities, it seems. It’s a peculiar oddity that though one may have the talent to recognize what is good or poor writing in others, that talent doesn’t always translate into the ability to produce art according to those same standards. You would think that it would, but apparently a superbly honed critical eye, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of any given art and its history isn’t enough. There have been any number of brilliantly prescient critics who were mediocre artists. In short, a capable critical mind is something different than the creative mind. It takes both faculties to result in the genius of a Shakespeare, Mozart or Bach.

  • The fact that certain MFA programs often seem to spend so much time fussing over history and criticism (as in critical schools) has always perplexed me. As if knowing Feminism, from Marxism, from Structuralism/Semiotics has anything whatsoever to do with how to write a good poem. Frankly, some of this criticism is, to me, like reading a credit card agreement. If I ever see evidence that a thorough knowledge of semiotics produces a good poem, I’ll change my tune.

Anyway, in lieu of Logan committing ritual seppuku by the tip of his own sword, the establishment (it would seem) chooses to ignore his poetry. (Though Maybe I should add a question mark after that, but it is a matter of record that Logan’s criticism has been variously blackballed.)

The Poetry

The first aspect I notice in Logan’s poetry says more about me than Logan, perhaps. I detest poetry written in the second person singular (because they almost always fall apart under close inspection) and my response to it might go some way toward illustrating why. In the poem On the Wood Storks, the reader (in this case me) is informed that they (I) have “walked to where you [I] wanted to be alone”.

Behind the movie theater’s neon beau monde
cooled the dank waters of a retention pond,

cyclone fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown.
You walked there when you wanted to be alone.

For weeks nothing stirred the blackened reeds,
which were enough, those days you felt in need.

Well, that’s funny, because I have no memory of this. Though I wanted to be alone, the evidence suggests that I wasn’t. William Logan was obviously not going to let me be. While nothing was stirring in the blackened reeds, he was obviously scribblng his little, black observations about my every move and thought. Later in the poem (presumably I’m still trying to be alone), Logan observes that a “black-edged wing, in search of food” somehow breaks my “somber mood”. Well, Logan has a fix for that. How about a timely reference to Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment?

Yet on they marched, like Dante’s souls through Hell,
awaiting the Last Judgment’s redeeming bell,

working their way in silence, fallen aristocrats.

Christ, no wonder I wanted to be alone. Apparently  I mumbled something conciliatory.

You said they looked like ladies’ hats,

white as the color of love, if love has color—
bright white, you meant, only a little duller.

“Yes, like love — I mean, you know, if love even has a color. I’m not saying it does, but if it did, maybe bright white? —  I mean, not bright white, but duller, okay?” And then ladies hats? What analogy was he going to dredge up next? Where do you go after Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment? So, anyway, this is why I detest poetry written in the second person singular.

But what about the poem, technically? It hints at Iambic Pentameter but the meter (if it can be called that) is like a finicky bird trying to land on a nervous twig. There are too many irregularities. I notice that one can read each line as having five stressed beats. In that case, one could call the lines accentual. It’s a nice feint, but that in itself doesn’t distinguish the verse from prose.  It’s the couplets. The rhymes aren’t always full rhymes but I like them like that. The accentual lines along with the couplets move Logan’s poetry beyond the usual pablum of his peers.

Something else worth noting about the poem — it’s practically a study in colors. But here’s the thing, and it’s a quality that I notice again and again, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. There is one description after another and I can’t help be somewhat reminded of Ted Hughes. Any sense of narrative progression is undermined by one seemingly unrelated simile after another.

When bankers review their fat portfolios,
they draw such dark beaks open and closed,

There is, of course, a history behind this kind of writing, but the average reader isn’t going to know or care. The reader is only going to wonder why a banker and his fat portfolio materialized in the middle of a retention pond. There’s something almost Monty Python about it. No matter how the poet rationalizes it, the effect is to make the poem feel more like a patchwork quilt than a unified whole. The other factor that undermines a clean narrative are adjectives. Logan uses adjectives far more than he should, (a whole line is nothing but compound adjectives), and the effect is positively rococo: neon, dank, “cyclone-fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown”, blackened, gathered, Alpine, white, fat, dark, invisible, pale, newly, black-edged, somber, redeeming, fallen, bright.  Add to that the adverbs and you’ve got a poem that makes pea-soup look like a noble gas. Consider a poem like A Valentine for Matthew Arnold:

The Seas of Faith are full again with vain
Philosophies, empty orders of gods,
Demons of the mind and heart supplanting
The slow angers of love with hollow stares
And rhetoric. These are not days to love,
When the rare expectations of morning
Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…

If the poet is going to throw this many adjectives into the line, make them good ones, not borderline clichés. As it is, one gets the impression that Logan needed to fill out the line lengths (and there is nothing easier or more expeditious than adjectives). But adjectives are the cholesterol of verse. Unfortunately, it’s a habit of writing that typifies all the poems that I can find online. One would expect a critic of Logan’s caliber to know better. The oddest thing of all is that Logan’s poetry reminds me of passages in Hart Crane. But no, I’m not going there.

Logan’s choice of imagery is repetitive. There are twenty-six of his poems hosted by the poetry foundation. Let’s take a black & white look:

from Punchinello in Chains: VI. Punchinello Dreams of Escape

“The dream of life is just another dream…”

A Valentine for Matthew Arnold

“Philosophies, empty orders of gods…”

“The slow angers of love with hollow stares…”

“Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…”

Anamnesis

“The white robe of the communicant…”

“The cold and the age of the season. Now
“The shirr of the lake under cold wind”

“A hollow loon cry from the water…”

“To the lake, a late walk on a dark road…”

Animal Actors on the English Stage after 1642

“in frenzied howls accepted empty purses…”

“though Cromwell’s ass just muttered empty phrases…”

In December, Thirty-One Moons

“The dark invades the pines…”

“Now the snow in the thin light pales the sky…”

In the Gallery of the Ordinary

“treated that blank pasture of the “heavens”…”

“or sunset a dull, worn-out gilt…”

“The nights there were scumbled with light…”

Joseph Conrad

“Hypnotic moon on black water…”

(Notice how black is frequently associated with water.)

“Under a blank sky…” (There it is again.)

“In the uneasy light” (The word light will reappear again and again as pale, thin, dimly etc…)

“Against Aeneas and his dark Trojans…”

Medusea

“…the first tentacles of dreams…”

“I dream of a wide sea…”

“I dream of you…”

“And wave in a shifting light…”

“I wake to cold…”

“I see your black hair a snaky tangle…”

Monocular

“…and the fainter stars wink
Dimly around them…

On the Wood Storks

cooled the dank waters…”

“…nothing stirred but the blackened reeds…”

“…through the gathered gloom…”

“eight white ghosts floated faintly…”

“the waters like a chessboard scattered with white pawns…” (The implication being, here, that the waters are, you guessed it, black.”

“the draw such dark beaks open and closed…” (Beaks also appears in a previous poem, but one can only illustrate so much repetitiveness.”

“The pale birds…”

“One lifted black-edged wing…”

white as the color of love…”

“bright white, you meant, only a little duller.”

Over the Dead Flatness of the Fens

“I watch the canvas of that underpainted sky” (Think “blank”.)

Queen’s Square

gilt silhouettes, the bars of soap..”

Song

It’s darker out and starting to snow…”

The Age of Ballroom Dining

“The hour’s thin contemplations recruit…”

“The flaking mirror wraps gilt faces…”

“they awake from the dream of ambitions”

The Desert of Reminiscence

“…The fragile, unreachable water
“Surrounded us, held us in the arms of the cold.”

The Moth Disturbs the Night

“…the inside light that glows/Duller…”

“Penetrating their white…”

“From a dark wall, a moth has/Fallen…”

“…it resembles/ The black clay…”

“…is as fragile as the/Feathers of blood…”

The New (Upper) Assembly Rooms

darker in these winter days…”

The Object

“in the weak/Reflection of light at dawn or sunset…”

The Other Place

“The sky revealed no sun.” (Yet another euphemism for emptiness or blankness.)

The Tree Frogs

“like dreamers awaking…”

“they hovered abovc the speckled pond’s black mirror…” (Yet again, the black waters…)

Thoreau

“as the fall’s chancels/ darkened…”

To a Wedding

“Miami sky turned gray as a blanket…” (Think blank or that it ‘revealed no sun’…”

Totenlieder

“..inviolate as the sulfur sky…” (This theme of sameness and hellish imagery runs throughout Logan’s poetry…”

“These notes, cast down the dark corridor…”

“…a woman/With black hair…”

“…back into the pale saffron dust…”

“Her husband and daughter under a/Cloudless sky in which no wind stirs,/and no music…” (In so many words, blank.)

“…which is like shouting, Shouting into the deaf light.”

So, these are just the poems at Poetry Foundation. It doesn’t take long before the reader starts having that repetitive deja vous feeling all over again. Each poem seems to be assembled from the same grab-bag of pale whatnots. Each poem seems to borrow from the other. There’s a monotonous sameness to their imagery and ideas. Has Logan ever seen a sky that wasn’t blank? Has Logan ever seen water that wasn’t black? Although I didn’t isolate every example, the imagery of “dreams” keeps popping up — again and again. Logan’s use of adjectives is unimaginative. Adjectives like black, dark, white, and dull are done to death. It’s no wonder McHenry refers to Logan’s lines as “chilly”. The landscape of Logan’s poetry, at least in this selection, is unremittingly dark, bleak, blank, dull, soiled, oily, black, cold, faint, pale, etc… In Christmas Tree, his parents kiss for a last time. In the ostensible re-write of the poem, The Box Kite, Logan just about repeats the very same closing line, respectively:

“I saw my parents kissing,/perhaps for the last time.”

“…the last time they stood at ease with each other.”

If this is any indication of Logan’s corpus, I think I could spot a poem by Logan a mile away. It would be unremittingly dark, bleak, dank — wait, I’m repeating myself. This too illustrates the problem with adjectives. It’s bad enough that they’re bland. It’s bad enough to use them too much. It’s a criminal offense to use them over and over in poem after poem, repeatedly. Logan once wrote that Cape Cod’s wildlife should get a restraining order to keep the poet Mary Oliver out of their lives. Likewise, I strongly recommend that adjectives, especially a select few, should consider a restraining order to stop Logan from fondling them. Similarly, Logan’s palate of imagery seems to always veer back toward colors, light, dark, black, green, red ,water, liquids, grime, blood, etc…

I mentioned before that Logan’s poems never seem greater than the sum of their parts. My stab at an explanation is that because Logan’s habit is to pile on adjective after adjective, simile after simile, metaphor after metaphor, any real sense of narrative unity is lost. One metaphor or simile may have little or no relationship to the next. Logan seems to write whatever pops into his head.  Consider a poem like Christmas Tree. It’s ostensibly a narrative poem — it’s telling a story. But watch what happens. Every time Logan gets just a little bit of momentum, just a little, he gets sidetracked by a simile. It’s like he suffers from a special kind of Tourette syndrome. Instead of barking out obscenities, he barks out similes (in italics). And then there’s the repetitive prepositional phrasing that keeps popping up  like whac-a-moles (underlined).

Christmas Trees

How should I now recall
the icy lace of the pane
like a sheet of cellophane,
or the skies of [like] alcohol

poured over the saltbox town?
On that stony New England tableau,
the halo of falling snow
glared like a waxy crown.

Through blue frozen lots
my giant parents strolled,
wrapped tight against the cold
like woolen Argonauts,

searching for that tall
perfection of Scotch pine
from the hundreds laid in line
like the dead at Guadalcanal.

The clapboard village aglow
that starry stark December
I barely now remember,
or the brutish ache of snow

burning my face like quicklime.
Yet one thing was still missing.
I saw my parents kissing,
perhaps for the last time.

Any sense of narrative flow just doesn’t stand a chance. Besides that, the repetitive phrasing lends a formulaic feel. If we take out all the bric-a-brac, we end up with a very short poem and that’s part of the problem. Logan appears to get so lost in verbosity that he forgets that the snow was falling (and his face was being brutishly burned) and refers to the December night as being “starry”. So what was it then? Was the snow falling or was it a starry December night? Is all that bric-a-brac to keep the rhyme scheme?

There’s a difference between writing poetry and writing poetically. To judge by his writing, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that, to Logan, poetry is nothing more than adjectives, a string of similes and a cup full of metaphors. Compare this to one of the greatest poems in the English language:

robert-frostStopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There’s not a single simile in the whole thing. In truth, the whole poem can be read as a metaphor, and has been treated as such. That was one of Frost’s gifts. You’ll never find (or at least I can’t think of one at the moment) a Frost poem invaded by a bus load of similes, verbal and prepositional metaphors. It’s a peculiar thing that the very talent that makes Logan’s criticism a guilty pleasure to read is the pill that poisons his poetry. Here’s Logan dismantling our current Poet Laureate [sigh…], Natasha Trethewey. I’ve italicized all the little touches that ripple like cluster bombs in the black waters of his prose.

Though fond of form, she fudges any restrictions that prove inconvenient, so we get faux villanelles, quasi-sonnets, and lots of lines half-ripened into pentameter—most poems end up in professional but uninspired free verse. Trethewey wears the past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just [like] the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing—the slaves might just as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset. Trethewey’s moral sunniness has all the conviction of Scarlett O’Hara gushing, “As Gawd is mah witness, I’ll nevah be hungry agai-yun.

“Half-ripened into pentameter” is brilliant. I love that. Why can’t he write his poetry like this?  And that’s another strange dichotomy. There’s a wicked sense of humor in Logan’s prose. His timing is perfect. His poems? Maybe I’m supposed to read that line about the banker’s fat portfolio as a moment of wry, self-conscious, maybe ironic humor but the timing is all off. There’s a bleak, moribund and oppressive quality to his poems. They’re the place where the wickedness of his humor dies a pale death. Think of the poem “In December, Thirty-One Moons”. Logan sets the mood right away: “The dark invades the pines.” Substitute poetry for pines and you’ll catch my meaning. From there we go to “ruined columns”, “a sky heavy/With clouds”, “chalky moon”, a distant bird, an “arbitrary order”, the moon’s “starved shape”, a “thin light” that “pales the sky”, and then he wonders “if Death is a woman”. Yoiks! “Amid this dormant life,” he writes, “she is a friendly thing.” If we take the poem’s voice as Logan’s, then the poem could easily speak for Logan’s art.

  • It’s interesting to note that Logan has criticized Mark Strand’s poetry as being “shorn of metaphors and similes, prosaic as a paper bag”. Logan proves you can go too far the other direction.

If I were to draw an analogy, I would compare a poem by Logan to the music of a composer like Salieri. The center rarely holds. All the right ingredients are there, but all in the wrong proportion. The cake never rises. Haydn once referred to Sammartini (the true father of the symphony) as a “note spinner”. Logan’s poetry can be like that. I haven’t yet read a poem possessed by an over-arching idea, a central metaphor that could be compared to a symphonic melody (or theme the holds the entirety of the piece together). He doesn’t seem to think that way. He piles on his imagery like a John Fletcher (and that’s going to be an equally meaningless allusion so I’ll explain).

A Shakespeare scholar, William Spalding, was one of the first scholars to methodically wrestle with authorship questions in Shakespeare. In an essay called “A Letter on Shakspeare’s Authorship of the Drama Entitled The Two Noble Kinsman“, Spalding uses internal evidence (stylistic) to identify which parts of the play are by Shakespeare and which by John Fletcher (they collaborated to produce The Two Noble Kinsmen). Of direct relevance to Logan’s poetry is the following passage:

John_Fletcher_from_NPG[Shakespeare’s] poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the truest which tries the presence of the faculty [talent for poetry]; metaphor indicates strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it that the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forget the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which tis highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. His descriptions are sometimes beautifully romantic, but even then the effect of the whole is often picturesque rather than poetically touching; and it is evident that lengthened description can still less frequently be dramatic. In his descriptions it is observable that the poetical relations introduced in illustrations are usually few, the character of the leading subject being relied on for producing the poetical effect. Fletcher’s longest descriptions are but elegant outlines; Shakespeare’s breastfed metaphors are often finished paintings. Where Shakespeare is guilty of detailed description, [Fletcher] is very often labored, cold, and involved; but his illustrative ideas are invariably copious, and it is often their superfluity which chiefly tends to mar the general effect. [p. 17]

While Fletcher and Logan are obviously very different poets, and an aesthetic is being applied to Fletcher that can’t fully be applied to a 21rst century poet, there are still certain rules that apply. 20th century poets have chosen to utterly ignore them, if not flagrantly defy them, but we all know how wildly popular contemporary poetry is. I think the majority of the public would rather have their teeth filed than read a book of contemporary poetry from beginning to end. What gravity is to the architect, the human mind is to the poet. What architecture can do successfully is constrained by the laws of gravity. Likewise, what the poet can do, successfully, is constrained by the reader’s capacity to comprehend him. All this is a simplistic way of saying that what made a poem great in the 16th century still makes a poem great in the 21rst century. The observations concerning Fletcher are applicable to Logan.

  • If you choose to listen to Logan’s reading, at precisely 1 minute and 17 seconds, a “blank sky” will show up. I kid you not, preceded by “drowned light”. Lest I’m accused of reviewing unrepresentative poetry, this reading is from 2011 and from his latest book. Also, the first poem he reads will end “Of all the things you were, perhaps that would be the last.” There’s that same idea as in the Christmas Tree and the Box Kite. It’s deja vous all over again. In the second poem the lake (read water) is gray rather than black. All the usual primary colors will show up. One could almost make a drinking game out of Logan’s poems. Another black haired woman shows up at 8 minutes. At about 9 minutes a “polluted pond” will appear. I assume that means it’s black or gray? Is there ever such a thing as potable water in his poems? When he reads Summer 1968 at the 12 1/2 minute mark, you’re definitely going to recognize the Logan-ean grab-bag  of imagery.

Beneath that chalk-blue sky with iron
stirred through it, the whitewashed windows
burned in faint phosphorescence.

It’s all there. We’ve already seen “chalk” applied to the moon. The light, once again, is faded or pale. In this instance, faint. Do I belabor the point? I guess I’m just surprised by how limited Logan’s pallet remains.

This and That

I think very highly of Logan.  He’s brilliant and prolific. His review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost was so matter-of-fact’ly devastating that rumors suggested the book would be withdrawn from sheer embarrassment (or at least until Robert Faggen’s monumentally bad editing could be corrected). I could only wish I were as capable.

I suspect that if Logan is remembered, it won’t be for his poetry.

I’ve exchanged some e-mails with him but I doubt he knows me from Adam. He’s unlikely to ever review my poetry simply because my latest poems will probably never make it into book form. Certainly no publisher has ever deigned to publish my poems individually (and not for lack of trying). At the moment, it’s no longer something that interests me — and was the reason I initially created this blog. So, all this is to say, I’m not too worried about being in his cross hairs. I should be though. I think it’s a pity that he hasn’t delved into the world-wide web. We can all guess the rationale. Poetry that hasn’t been screened by the publishing industry (read editor), is probably poetry not worth reviewing (let alone reading). However, since he seems perpetually disappointed by what he reads anyway, what’s the difference?

I would encourage him to look around.

You should try it, Mr, Logan. There’s more to poetry than is dreamt of in your book catalog.