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

4 responses

  1. I have a rule to criticize only people who are smarter or more privileged than me (easy to be) and then only if they have an “attitude.” Yet, despite their attitude aplenty, I’m inclined to leave alone poems of ethnic and gender assertion like Angelou’s. Indeed, most of them without a name attached could be mistaken for something written by an emotionally challenged school girl. Sympathetic, if patronizing, encouragement would seem only humane. But Angelou was a fully vested adult poet—and would let you know it. And who’s the poet getting dorms and endowed chairs named after her and was never wanting for a multi-million dollar contract from Hallmark? Moreover, whose memory has put her alma mater Wake Forest in such a tether that a less than reverential word about her poetry or life is to risk the tender mercies of its so-called “bias report system”— a protocol which begins with a visit from campus police to “assess the situation for danger of imminent harm”? Your “insensitivity”—formerly known as literary criticism—is another sign that yet more names and portraits of the college’s historical founders need to be scrubbed from the campus architecture and their “infamy contextualized” in the library basement—after you are duly censured or expelled of course. And if this has happened at what was once one of the most conservative, whitebread liberal arts colleges in America, how must this zeitgeist express itself in New England colleges! Does the riot at Middlebury in 2017, in which a professor was injured by a mob of privileged snowflakes, give you a clue? So I can’t blame William Logan for avoiding this third rail of identity politics in academia. You are certainly braver, but because of this column you can forget a sinecure in academia forever.

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    • There are other reasons why I can forget a sinecure in academia forever.

      Trust me.

      Agreeing with another critic who calls Angelou’s poetry “shit” will be the least of it. Just as with politicizing rhyme and/or meter, I’m very uneasy with making a proper critique of a poet’s craft contingent on their race and or the “moral” content of their poetry. Bad poetry shouldn’t get a pass because the poet or their message is iconic in one way or another; and, for the most part, I don’t think it does as far as professional critics go. The problem is with “white knighting”, with activists who flame the controversy to further their own agendas (all while claiming to do so in the interests of the poet). It’s probaly satisfying to the poet/author to have readers come to their defense, but if authors and their critics can’t have grown-up conversations about art, then I think that’s a dangerous game. Sorry I’m not being more lucid tonight.

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  2. Btw, Logan’s poems I’ve read but can’t seem to remember. He’s not what I would call a personally engaging poet—a certain stone-cold sculptural remove maintains. The contemporary poet Logan most admires (and in one way resembles) is probably Henri Cole, who Logan has recommended for a Pulitzer. Cole shares Logan’s sculptural, faceted classism but with an intimacy Logan lacks. Logan indeed seems risk-averse to showing emotional vulnerability whereas Cole is quite open about his—loneliness and homosexuality, for example. Manly, of Logan, you might say, or is that only because Cole has the talent and poetic skills to manage the risk of potential bathos and exhibitionism to accomplish great art, and Logan does not. Perhaps if and when Logan decides to write a poem titled “Heterosexuality” we’ll find out. But I agree with you that Logan writes compelling criticism, and it would be my honor to have my poems reviewed by him—preferably at a time when I’m feeling too good and need to be depressed.

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    • Just read Cole’s “Haiku“. Thought it was banal. Then I read “Myself with Cats” and noticed that “needle” appears in both poems:

      “Deep inside, I could feel a needle skip:”
      “Her silence speaks needles”

      Then I read “Radiant Ivory“. The word “like” appears three times along with its equivalent “It was as if I were”.

      Then I read the poem “Twilight” where the word “like” appears five times (similes again)—along with other repetitions.

      And this is the guy Logan thinks should win a Pulitzer? What? The guy’s an amateur. I’m going to have to read Logan’s review.

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