In defense of William Logan’s criticism

Eight years ago I wrote a review of Logan’s poetry and part of the reason was that while Logan has made a career of critiquing contemporary poetry, and infuriating just about every last contemporary poet, his own poetry, for whatever reason (though I have my suspicions) seems all but ignored (though I did find a review of Rift of Light here).

“William Logan is widely admired as one of our foremost masters of free verse as well as formal poetry; his classical verve conjures up the past within the present and the foreshadowings of the present within the past.  In their sculptural turns, their pleasure in the glimmerings of the sublime while rummaging around in the particular, the poems in Rift of Light, Logan’s eleventh collection, are a master class of powerful feeling embedded in language.”

This is the ad copy from the back matter of the book. Like so many poetry books these days, the ad copy has become so overstated as to defy satire—each having to outdo the last with ever more grandiose claims of unrivaled importance. The staggering testaments to heartbreaking genius are legion. But I can tell you with staggering certainty that Mr. Logan is not widely admired as one of our foremost masters of free verse nor, heart breakingly, as a master of formal poetry. Of the public who has read Logan’s critical work, I would be surprised if more than a small fraction knew that he is also a published poet; and that fraction probably represents every poet he has ever barbecued.

And what does it even mean to be a “master of free verse”? There’s an argument to be made that one can be a master of formal poetry because there’s a prosody attached to traditional forms like rhyme and meter. One can objectively compare one poet’s skill with rhyme and meter with another’s, but the same can’t be said for free verse. There’s no prosody of free verse. Each poet makes up their own “prosody” along with their own valuation of said prosody. In short, to be a master of free verse is akin to making up ones own quiz and scoring an A+. Are we shocked? William Logan himself beautifully addresses this very sticking point:

If we took poets at their own valuation and judged them by their own methods, every scribbler would be a genius.

With a traditional poet, one can say that while the content of their poetry may be compelling, their skills as a formal poet are mediocre. Avoid. But all that’s left to free verse is the poem’s content. What else is there? Is the critic going to critique the lineation? There are other arts common to both poetry and prose, all the various techniques of figurative language including simile and metaphor, but if the writer of lineated prose (as is generally the norm) bypasses figurative language too, then there really isn’t anything to critique other than content. And that’s precisely Logan’s meat and potatoes. Logan is a bitingly brilliant critique of content. And that also probably explains why so much of his criticism can feel personal. It’s one thing to be told that your rhymes are clichéd and your meter thumps like a dog’s hind end, but another that not only is your clever repartee as dull as dried paint, but you are too. Take Logan’s opening paragraph on Billy Collins:

Bill Collins has a sideshow owner’s instinct for hoopla and a taste for one-ring-circus ideas; but his poems are gentle, mild, and awfully dull. It’s like finding that the weightlifter is an accountant and the bearded lady a housewife. He has an unthinking passion for nature that makes you long for a few polluters—his is a nature of continuous and helpless loveliness. In his peaceable kingdom, the mourning doves look like Robert Penn Warren and the titmice like Marianne Moore. Desperate Measures p. 133

I mean, yes? Logan nails Collins; and surely anybody not named Billy Collins has to laugh at that devastating coinage: “one-ring-circus ideas”. Everything after that is piling on. Logan could have stopped there secure in the knowledge that he had summed up the corpus of Collins’s works. That said, Collins gets the last laugh. Americans must love one-ring-circuses. Collins is one of only two contemporary poets, to my knowledge (the other being the late Mary Oliver), to make a living writing poetry. In the late 90’s Collins snagged a six-figure contract from Random House, surely due to the fact that Collins was one of the few poets to write with a sense of humor (hence Logan’s circus-jibe); (and also Kim Addonizio who is fun as all get out). But Collins would probably make a dull critic—much too nice. Logan’s sense of humor is a lowdown dog, a dog that knows just where where the ass-end of his victims’ pretensions are, and how to make us all laugh when he bites. We like that in a critic. We do. In a sense, I suppose, one could argue that the very poets who complain the most bitterly about Logan are the ones most responsible for his creation. And this is my point (and defense of Logan): 20th century poetry, with its naval gazing insistence on the primacy of content—as opposed to the aesthetic qualities of a poem’s language—makes the ideal hunting ground for a critic like William Logan.

But if I were to object to that last paragraph, I would write: Come on. When have poetry critics not addressed the content of poetry? But there was a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) difference. Take Blackwood Magazine’s hostile reviews of Keats, Hunt and the other, as they called them, Cockney poets. The reason for the hostility had to do with the “pretensions” of poets like Keats and Hunt (who had the temerity to think that they could write among the ranks of the nobility, think George Gordon Lord Byron or the aristocratic Shelley). The criticism of Blackwood was an attack on their lower class, cockney, background. That said, the criticism was couched in terms of their poetry’s formal features and less their content—their choice of rhyme and diction. When Coleridge critiqued his erstwhile friend Wordsworth in his Biographia Literaria, it was largely for Wordsworth’s theory of poetry and poetic diction. If you go back further, to the Restoration, you will find Alexander Pope more concerned with technique that content:

    And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
    While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
    With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
    Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
    In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
    If Crystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
    The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.[5]
    — lines 347–353

He criticizes lazy rhymes, pat images, and clichés like “crystal streams”. During the Elizabethan Era, Jonson took umbrage not at the content of Donne’s poems, but that Donne’s Iambic Pentameter was too fast and loose. But getting back to the primacy of content in 20th and now 21st century poetry, there’s an added twist. It’s when the content of a poet’s work is so identified with their politics that critiquing their poetry is tantamount to critiquing their politics and identity. I notice that Logan has never reviewed Maya Angelou. He has reviewed Rita Dove and Logan is very careful to keep his criticism strictly confined to her poetry. He gets her prerogatives as a black poet but her poetry really isn’t that good. Anymore.

Logan has never criticized Maya Angelou, that I’m aware of, and that’s probably because he doesn’t consider her worth reviewing. Another reviewer, Helen Razer, has though. Razer goes to great pains, for example, to reassure the reader that she greatly respects Angelou’s courage, intelligence and activism but, let’s face it, her poems are “almost uniformly shit”. Razer spells it out:

…if I don’t mention how great Angelou the activist thinker was, someone will have me admitted to a hospital for the dangerously miserable. And I won’t effectively urge you to critically read her poems, which are almost uniformly shit. Unlike her activism.

I agree, by the way, with Razer’s estimation of Angelou’s poetry. Every time I hear someone swoon over her poems I cringe for the sake of the art. And yet many do swoon and one has to wonder whether it’s because they know so little about poetry or simply praise the poem because it’s “an Angelou”. One gets the sense that to criticize her poetry is to criticize Angelou unless, like Helen Razer, one goes out of their way to separate their admiration of the person from their condemnation of the poetry. With poets making poetry about themselves, is it any wonder then that they take Logan’s criticism personally? In some sense, can he really even avoid it? In the 50s and 60s confessional poetry was coined both as a genre and as a sobriquet. Poets learned to make their personal lives grist for their poetry, to expose all; and that confessional element continues to inform contemporary poetry. But do poets then get to complain when their personal lives are critiqued? It’s not an ad hominem attack to criticize a poet’s character if that poet has made their character the subject of their poetry. To restate, it’s not resorting “to ad hominem accounts of poets’ personal lives” if those same poets have made their personal lives their poetry. Many poets point to Logan’s ad hominem attack of Stephen Dunn: “Stephen Dunn is a rational man, probably a good husband and father, a generous and genial neighbor, homo suburbanus at his best.” But isn’t this precisely the confessional portrait Dunn has cultivated in his own poetry? I would give examples but Logan does so himself in The Undiscovered Country, p. 184. Likewise, one can’t critique a poet like Sharon Olds, if one gives the least attention to the content of her poetry, without critiquing the poet herself.

Missapplication of intensity is her cardinal vice: everywhere brute shock is taken as a sign of honesty (shock eventually makes the reader shockproof); finally, it becomes just a form of self-promotion. Olds has as many teases as a strip show, and the psychology that drives her poetry is dourly exhibitionist: that is, a form of punishment and abasement. “Loot at me! Look at me!” the poems say, poems of someone never loved enough. ~ The Undiscovered Country pp. 99-100

So, this is in some sense a defense of Logan’s criticism—which I mostly agree with (I do not agree that Frost’s Birches is sentimental tripe for example). If a poet writes formal verse, as AE Stallings does, then Logan will largely critique the verse, but if all a poet gives Logan is their own lineated psychodrama, then their psychodrama shall be Logan’s main course. And rightly so.

upinVermont | April 27, 2021

Something to Think About

No writer should expect their reader to work harder than they do.”

This was a comment I came across, reminding me of my post “Fetishizing Difficulty“. Something every writer and poet might want to think about. There might be readers willing to work harder than the writer, but not many. One can think up exceptions—T.S. Eliot comes to mind. But T.S. Eliot wrote very few poems in his lifetime and had a reputation for working very hard at them, writing wholesale revisions upon revisions. And so if Eliot’s poetry expects much from his readers, it can also be said that Eliot expected much from himself. If ones poetry is simply a cascading string of allusions to autobiographical effects, experiences and literary/artistic footnotes that no reader could possibly be familiar with without reference to the poet’s life and sources, then good luck to that poet finding a reader willing to work harder than they did. The poet who works hard is the one who makes their solitary existence universal and worth the reader’s effort.

Why I love Bukowski

I know I’ve expressed this opinion before to the surprise of some of my readers (and dismay) but I really do think Bukowski was a greater poet than the current establishment favorites, and by establishment I refer to those publications like The Library of America, who have anointed the likes of John Ashbery and W.S. Merwin—having dedicated whole books to their collected works. For the record, I find Merwin ineffably dull—the consummate writer of the generic—always poetic, but rarely writing poetry. Every last poem by Ashbery is written in the same key. That is, if you’ve read his best poems, then you’ve read Ashbery. I suspect that Ashbery represents the consummate ideal of the latter twentieth century—the pursuit of originality as the consummate artistic accomplishment; and in that sense, he deserves recognition. No other poet was as distinctively original as Ashbery; and yet, ironically, Ashbery was also his generation’s most derivative poet. As William Logan said of Ashbery: “A poet who will do anything to avoid repeating himself must, at last, repeat himself all the time.”

Bukowski would seem to be the antithesis of everything I enjoy in poetry, but not wholly so. I would put it this way: I don’t go to Bukowski for his way with language. Bukowski writes lineated prose, but so do the vast majority of contemporary poets. What I love about Bukowski is that he has something to say and he’s a story teller. He’s a narrative poet in a sea of poets whose poems are the poems of affect—having neither narrative nor having anything to say. As an example of affect, I just tabbed over to Poetry Foundation and randomly chose a poem by Merwin:

The Animals
By W. S. Merwin

All these years behind windows
With blind crosses sweeping the tables

And myself tracking over empty ground
Animals I never saw

I with no voice

Remembering names to invent for them
Will any come back will one

Saying yes

Saying look carefully yes
We will meet again

There’s neither a narrative nor argument. Merwin’s poem is the poetry of affect—defined as “Affection; inclination; passion; feeling; disposition.” The poem is nothing if not a feeling or disposition—a momentary and ill-defined passion; so much so and so generic that one isn’t really sure what Merwin is even talking about. He just leaves you with the feeling that you ought to be feeling something. I’m guessing that one might successfully argue that this kind of poetry is a subset of confessional poetry (that burst onto the scene in the 50s and 60s and was internalized by almost every poet that followed). One could assert, for example, that Merwin was confessing his feelings. But poetry like this mostly puts me to sleep, and there’s so much of it (which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes enjoy such poetry or that I haven’t written the same myself). After Merwin’s poem, I returned to Poetry Foundation and randomly picked a poet I had never read. I found Heid E. Erdrich’s poem Last Snow. As in most such poems, Erdrich creates a landscape (which could be literal or figurative) meant to be evocative and emotive, and ends the poem with a kind of affective sigh. “Stubborn calendar of bone. Last snow. Now it must always be so,” the poet writes. If I were asked to describe what happened in the poem, I’d have to answer: Nothing at all. Some snow fell. And it was sort of melting and sort of not. If I were asked to describe what the poet was trying to say, I’d answer: He feels like this or like that. In fairness to Erdrich, the poem is well written (in the sense that it would do nicely as a paragraph in a novel, let’s say); but as a poem I get awfully bored reading stuff like this. My mind wanders.

Not Bukowski.

I can read Bukowski the way I read a short story or a novel. Inasmuch as his poetry also arouses feelings, he does so through story telling and by having something to say. This isn’t to say there aren’t real duds among Bukowski’s poems (and among my own) but by in large, if you give the average person a poem by Bukowski and ask them what happened and what Bukowski was trying to say, they’ll tell you. Though the stylistic and linguistic gifts of a Robert Frost (or Eliot or Keats for that matter) far, far exceeded Bukowski’s, they nevertheless all have storytelling in common. And so, despite the plain prose of Bukowski’s poetry, I would say he has much more in common with traditional poets of the 19th century (and earlier) than, probably, the vast majority of contemporary poets. Contemporary traditional poets, who write accomplished meter and rhyme rarely, to my knowledge, write narrative poetry or, it seems, have something to say. They write poems of affect like their contemporaries.

Tom O’Bedlam reading Bluebird

When I was offering my novel to friends, I’d tell them: All I’d like to know is if the story makes you want to turn the page. In some ways I’m more of a story teller than a poet (though I’ve only shared a handful of my short stories here). I’ve written hundreds. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve really come to value a good story, or at least a good narrative, in both poetry and fiction. Bukowski makes me want to turn the page. I finish reading a poem by Bukowski and I say to myself: I’ve had it in mind to say the same god-damn thing. I like that about Bukowski and realize that I like that in poetry.

upinVermont | April 11 2021