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 (wow, I really have no memory of this) was obviously not going to let me be. While nothing was stirring in the blackened reeds, he was obviously being a complete butt, 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 (again I have no memory of this) 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? Will you leave me alone now?” Ladies hats? I must have been drunk out of my gourd. 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. It reminds me of my days before Alcoholics Anonymous—the black-outs, the binges, the benders—and all those damned poets following me around.

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 to verse what cholesterol is to a beating heart. 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 little grab-bag of 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 again and again, 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 implodes. 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. 2oth 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.

27 responses

  1. I believe you are being very harsh. I enjoyed Logan’s poetry and actually think it is well above average, with interesting images, metaphors and something interesting to say. Complaining about the second person address is nitpickingly silly. The poet can adress whom he likes, in any way he likes.
    Thanks anyway for alerting me to an interesting poet. And I’ll certainly look out for his criticism.

    Keep up the good work – I normally appreciate your lit.crit.

    • //I believe you are being very harsh.//

      I think so too. I normally pull my punches to a very great degree, but Logan is a fantastic critic, is honest and I think he deserves the same.

      And yes, you’re right about second person, but not entirely. I don’t see it as nitpicking. If the poet is going to write in the second person, then who is the audience? Who is the you of the poem? And who is the ‘I’? In Logan’s poem, things fall apart. The you is never identified. Not only that, the implication is that the you of the poem has gone somewhere to be alone, yet the poem makes obvious that you never got to be alone. You were being accompanied by somebody who was obviously with you, listening to you, observing you and even reading your miond. Who was it? Was it god? And if the poem is referring to a universal you, then do you remember that time you were standing at the retention pond? This whole poem is a performance. It’s a conceit. It falls apart when the reader actually peeks behind the curtain. This is what I don’t like about second person singular. I’m not willing to buy into the conceit unless it’s extremely well done. In this case, it wasn’t.

      P.S. I agree that it is well above average. If only each poem weren’t “above average” in the same way.

  2. I studied with William Lolgan and was rather intimadated by him as a critic and person, but he is brilliant and has the licksplit of a hedgehog when it comes to writing and criticizing work. As for his work, he is a meter maniac and he also is a modern day Auden writing like a dirty angel.

    • Hi Ann, thanks for the comment. I’m suddenly hip-deep in Logan. I’m just reading Desperate Measures. I got to the second sentence and disagreed with him. He writes that Frost was the “most metrically conservative of modern poets” and in the same breath states that he was “in a sense” the last American poet of the 19th century”. I’m not sure that either are true. He may have been, among the best known, the most conservative. He was also certainly not the last American poet of the 19th century. If I had to choose among better known poets, I would be more inclined to give E.A. Robinson that honor. (He died in 1935.) Frost did something with meter that was very 20th century, not 19th. Just today, at a used bookstore, I also found Logan’s poetry books Sad-Faced Men and Difficulty. On the back of the former is a picture of a very young William Logan looking like a sad-faced man. I’m leafing through his poetry. I think he’s a far more interesting poet than the vast majority currently writing, but I find that the books more confirm my initial impressions. In the poem, The Lost Fisherman, we find “blank water” rather than a “blank sky”. Progress, of sorts, I guess. All the familiar adjectives and images show up, slightly re-dressed for their new appearances. His poetry, though, strikes me as bleakly monochromatic. Is the guy ever in a good mood?

    • Hi. Great to get an in depth response from whomever you are?
      Logan is a complicated man small in stature but quite attractive
      Very articulate and sharp tongued
      Acerbic and knife -torn as far as the man of today’s critics I had a crush on him which of course he did not ever know
      But I consistently received the highest
      Grades in his classes he was a great professor but his lover and fellow poet,
      Debora Greger was the best instructor i I ever had for creative writing undergrad and post grad
      Logan said many wonderful things about my work especially my imagery
      I am a fastidious imagist
      I live the life of Waldon on 7 isolated heavily wooded acres alone in a refuge which I call Audenwood
      You have caught my poets eye
      I can tell you more about Logan
      But I’m curious of you
      Let’s chat
      Ann

    • //Great to get an in depth response from whomever you are?//

      You can find out more about me by looking under the blog header where you will find me. The picture is a bit old now (about ten years old), but I look the same (or so I tell myself).

      //Logan is a complicated man small in stature but quite attractive
      Very articulate and sharp tongued
      Acerbic and knife -torn as far as the man of today’s critics//

      I’m also irresistible. Many women have had crushes on me which, of course, they never knew. Anyway, where was I? Yes, if I were to judge by his writing, I would expect all the qualities you describe. Since I’m a recluse, I’ll probably never meet him, though I’m not sure what I would say if I did. My tongue is not sharp, but more usually tied or tripping. In the presence of a keyboard, it’s my fingers that are dangerous.

  3. This whole discussion was truly interesting. I never heard of Logan. And I don’t claim to be an expert on the writing of poetry. I do know this: too much of any one thing seems to burden a poem, to make it cumbersome. As I mentioned in an earlier message here, I have been reading Ashbery for that last couple of weeks. I am amazed at how confusing his work can be until you realize it was not meant to be figured out. I try to pick up bits and pieces as I meander along. Good poetry will rise above the excesses of blandness and the overuse of simile. Finally, if the poem is not speaking to someone directly about something worthwhile, all the technical gymnastics cannot save it.
    Keep going, up in Vermont.

    Tim Dyson

    • I think it’s great that you read Ashbery and enjoy him. As for myself, I think the world could lose all but a dozen of his poems and know everything that needs be known.

      He’s a one-trick pony.

      My 10 year old daughter, when she was served something like fried broccoli and cucumber soup, would say: I hate it! — It’s disgusting! — You’re a fraud! Eventually, my wife taught her to politely say: I don’t care of it. Ask me about Ashbery, and if I’m polite, I’ll say the same thing. I don’t care for him. :-)

      If you’re interested, you should look up Sven Birkerts — another good critic. He wrote a book called “The Electric Life” and read some Ashbery. He too, doesn’t care for him, but has/had much more patience (than me) explaining the reasons why. Here are some choice paragraphs:

      “John Ashbery’s Selected Poems: that forlorn codex, garden of branching paths, termite tree of the late Millennium… The assignment was to review it, and I find I cannot. To review is to have read and to be looking back. I have read at, toward, near, but never with that cinching tug of understanding. I have moved my eyes and felt the slow dispersion of my sense of self. I have flung back into the boredom and rage of childhood, when the whole world seemed to rear up against me, not to be had or understood. I find no sequence, no way of seriously discussing the poems as poems. I can only report on the defensive reflexes that their insistent refusal of meaning triggers in me.” p. 235

      “Ashbery partisans are forever telling me that I lean too hard on that old business of cut-and-dried meaning, that I need to accept that there are innumerable other ways in which language signifies and intimates. That I should, in other words, loosen up and let the poem work its way with me. I do have a problem with this., For me, verbal reference and linguistic structure are fundamental elements in the rule system of a game called meaning. IT is a game — I see that — but by my lights it’s the only game in town. I can respond to Dada and surrealism, but only so long as they are an excitement at the edge of a larger system of coherence.” p. 237

      “Ashbery has a fat magician’s bag of devices and tricks, all of which he uses to mock and undermine determinate meaning. It would be no trouble at all to work up an Ashbery “kit,” a how-to manual for would-be epigones. Let me list a few of the components and methods:

      1.) Use the definite article with nouns, “the,” not “a.” This conveys the impression that there is a clear context behind the poem, even if no one but the poet knows what that context is. The reader believes that if the other side exists, it can be reached; he keeps trying.
      2.) Use vague and inclusive pronouns –“we,” “you,.” “it”–mixing or “shifting” them frequently. This technique effectively breaks down identity lines, creates the sense that we’re all just parts of some large, unbounded consciousness.
      3.) Construct an indeterminate time=frame. Make something unspecified just have happened or be about to happen. Useful words: “later,” “before,” “soon,” “always,” “then” …
      4.) Import the unexpected, jarring word every so often–a word from another language or discourse. This keeps the reader from ever settling in, reminds him that language worlds are constantly impinging upon each other. Also: unexpected spurts of playful colloquialism — “Oh gosh!” — and obvious cliches.
      5.) Refer knowingly to some place or event, but make sure never to mention it again. The reader needs to realize that the world is always out there, material and inexplicable, and that things just happen. This works well with No. 1.
      6.) Confer concrete properties upon abstract or nonexistent entities: “a picture of treason” or “your portrait of God.”
      7.) Finish poems with elusive, important-sounding statements. They should feel like closure. (“In his book there was a picture of treason only/And in the garden, cries and colors.”)
      8.) Repeat procedures from book to book.

      As talk-show hosts are wont to say after doing their best to humiliate an audience member: “But hey, folks, this is all just good fun, right?” Well, only in part. I find that the bulk of Ashbery’s poetry is formulaic, and that the dross/beauty ratio is weighted dramatically on the side of the dross. Poems like “We Hesitate” far outnumber the gems upon which the reputation has been founded.” p. 240-241

      And there are some gems and brief little passages that Birkerts quotes. I agree with him:

      “The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
      Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed.
      Finally involved with the business of darkness.
      A sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
      The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
      Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
      Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
      The summer demands, and takes away too much,
      But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.”

      (From the closing section of “As One Put Drunk into the Packet Boat”.)

      That poetry is truly beautiful. Wow. That’s something you can learn from. But most of what Ashbery has written is mediocre. Just because his poetry intends to be meaningless (or that it’s aesthetic is a deconstructionist meaninglessness), doesn’t save it from the criticism that his poetry is meaningless. If one intentionally writes a boring poem, it’s still boring.

      Where was I?

      I don’t care for him. Is it too late to be polite?

  4. I had not heard of Logan before this critique. Nor of Ashberry before the comments. Honestly, I can’t tell a difference stylistically between their work and work posted on most poetry blogs.

    • Which gets me thinking, I should put together a list of poetry blog sites. Yours should be included Jack. I’d like to put something to together by word of mouth. What are your favorite sites?

  5. Just re-read this string – its fascinating and throws up more questions than answers. But thats all to the good. Poetry should be complex and difficult……unless youre Robert Frost or William Wordsworth who both made complex poems out of simple means. Both risk bathos in order to create a deeper surprise ( eg 2nd line of ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’) – the surprise being that the speaker/poet is not a versifier or simple country idiot after all but a consummate artist articulating profound common experience. Walter de la Mare is another master of this type of poetry……any others you’d care to recommend that I havent heard of…..some obscure poet not heard of this side of the pond (ie Britain).?

    There’s Les Murray of Os of course but I havent the faintest idea of what he’s talking about most of the time. A complex country idiot?

  6. Patrick, hi again. I recently got Logan’s take on the five most perfect poems in the English language: Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Shakespeare’s sonnets 73 and 116, and Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Wonder if you could provide me your quick vote?

    • Hey Cliff. You know… my first thought is: Who cares what Logan thinks? But then I’ve had the same thought concerning Harold Bloom. So it’s not personal. Which is to say, it’s nothing to do with Logan. And then there are the countless other editors and publishers who have deigned to choose the most perfect poems. Such choices are always more reflective of the person. Just to be contrary and prick the pomposity of the exercise, I might choose a limerick — The Man from Nantucket, maybe. (And what does that say about me?) I mean, in a sense, is there a more perfect poem in English? It’s immediately recognizable. Every schoolboy learns it by rote within seconds. It has rhyme. It has meter. Seems that no matter how many times one hears it, it brings a smile. It’s the quintessential bawdy poem. :-)

    • Btw, Patrick, something about your response reminds me of a poem I wrote long ago. It was not a very good poem but had one good line. And that came from his wife after an intense argument over his Beddoesian poetic style: “Rhyme should heft it up/ Or stop!” Good advice. Ya think?

  7. Pingback: Three Ways to Write a Poem « PoemShape

    • I can live with that. Soon as I see a poem written to “you”, as in “me”, as in the poet thinks he or she is smart enough to speak for me and basically anybody reading the poem, I can’t be bothered to finish it. It’s the pinnacle of “we our the world” presumptuousness and it always, in my experience, ends with a poorly written poem.

    • “You”
      ~ Dedicated to Stourleyk.

      You sit,
      Grey windowpane
      conceding your pain,
      Thinking of your dog’s cancer
      And your father’s affair,
      And rise from the keyboard’s untidy alphabet.
      You walk outside
      Into the disarray of the wind
      And you swoon.
      You swoon because you are circumspect
      And I am not.
      You stare, grieved by the shallow
      Confection of leaves
      That shuffle listlessly at your feet
      And you know
      You must live in a world that is
      In decline.
      And though I accompany you I
      Cannot accompany
      You because
      I am not circumspect.
      Because your dog
      Has cancer,
      Your father is having an affair
      And your girfriend
      Left you for the barista
      At Starbuck’s
      And you think to yourself: Etcetera.
      Etc. and
      Etc.

      [Now, to do this poem justice, I need to read it with that wafty, workshopped, dripping with sentiment, poem-speak that makes nails on a chalkboard sound like Mozart.]

  8. UPINVERMONT

    Thank you for this post which I enjoyed a great deal. I thought you made a number of excellent points. I am a very big fan of Logan’s criticism which I often find spot on, but feel the opposite about his poetry which seems to be both clunky and, at times, even grammatically incorrect. For example, these lines which end his poem, “The Locked Closet”:

    It was only an obscure

    New England town, but once the Magi
    had left their luggage behind, intending one day to return.

    I am amazed that such a brilliant thinker/writer cannot hear inconsistent verb forms which completely obscure and confuse any possible meaning. And, as the climatic ending of a poem, it is simply terrible.

    My conclusion, Logan while a great critic of a complex art form is not an artist. Similarly, Leonard Bernstein who was such a great interpreter of music, both verbally and as a conductor, wrote an appallingly and embarrassingly bad ‘Mass’. I find this piece of music(?) both impossible to listen to all the way through and am never less than amazed that Bernstein actually liked it. Conclusion: Some people find it impossible to hear their own voice with any accuracy.

    • That’s a good way to put it: “Some people find it impossible to hear their own voice with any accuracy.”

      Most every artist thinks they’re God’s gift to their respective art forms. Self-confidence is a good thing. The problem is when they lack the commensurate ability, as you say, to hear their own voices. They never really develop, but remain defiantly stuck in their limitations. It’s a peculiar kind of tone-deafness. I’m not really sure what to ascribe it to—lack of ability? lack of experience? lack of innate talent? Dan Schneider is the poster child for this sort of thing, by the way.

      Yeah, and the Bernstein Mass—doesn’t do much for me either.

    • Artists need to have a lot of confidence in order to remain faithful to their work when it’s attacked, rejected, ignored, stomped on and denigrated. That’s understandable. It becomes irritating when the ‘artist’ projects full confidence while being both bland and banal or just desperately trying to attract attention with obnoxiously sensational work that’s also obviously shallow. This last is how I’d characterize Dan Schneider.

      For me, he takes a Donald Trump approach to poetry. He doesn’t bother to learn anything about the subject. He just unleashes a rant, sometimes peppered with profanity and obvious sexism, which he hopes will sufficiently shock people enough to get any sort of response. The theory is, being booed is better than being ignored.

      Indeed, there are always plenty of people ready to follow the loudest voice in the belief that no one would make so much noise if they didn’t know something worth knowing.

      In today’s poetry world where so many poems are published that are completely without any poetic feeling, Schneider’s criticisms are not that inaccurate. He has none of the intellect of Logan, but by aiming a bazooka at the poetry world, he is able to land some blows. The fact that his own poetry is no better is not an accident. He is a very lazy practitioner and has no intention of trying to improve. Like Trump, he can get attention simply by screaming and shouting, so why bother learning how to write?

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