Tuesday, May 5, 2009

William Logan's Savage Criticism

Reading Alexander Theroux lately, I figured I'd met, as with his brother Paul, invective's epitome. Logan's criticism of fellow poets, as reviewed by Mark Ford in the NY Times, matches Two Terrible Theroux in brandishing a poison pen.

Here's a paragraph from Ford's summary of "Our Savage Art." Worth citing in full, as it's amazingly accurate in part and quite vitriolic in whole. I can't verify all of Logan's judgments-- as I confess to my wife in rare admissions of bookish ignorance, "American Lit and especially poetry's not my specialty. (Forget drama!)" It's intriguing that the world of poets must be a small one; for all my lack of hobnobbing with the literati, I have heard three of these poets speak and met one, a very kindly woman. She, along with her confreres and sorores excoriated, gets riddled with Logan's barbs.
Here, from “Our Savage Art,” is a taste of Logan on the warpath: “The only way Ammons could have improved ‘Ommateum’ would have been to burn it”; “Almost everything Graham writes offers the swagger of emotion, pretentiousness by the barrelful and a wish for originality that approaches vanity — she’s less a poet than a Little Engine that Could, even when it Can’t”; or, on Billy Collins: “He’s the Caspar Milquetoast of contemporary poetry, never a word used in earnest, never a memorable phrase. . . . If such poems look embarrassing now, what are they going to look like in 20 years?” The poems of the Nebraskan Ted Kooser come “slathered in sentiment like corn on the cob with butter,” those of Gary Snyder are compared to “the disconnected thoughts of a man trying to make verse with magnets on a refrigerator door,” while Anne Carson’s are like “parlor games of extraordinary tedium.” Reading a book by James Fenton is as bad as “chewing shoe-leather,” and the verse of Sherod Santos makes Logan want to put his hand into the whirring blade of a lawn mower. The experience of working his way through a particular Carolyn Forché long poem is one of “nearly unbearable agony” (not because it’s harrowing but because it’s so bad), while Tess Gallagher is pilloried as an “insufferable” drama queen whose poems are “so garrulous and windy” that “what’s intended sincerely often seems grotesquely funny.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning Franz Wright is characterized as “a sad-sack punk, a 50-year-old who . . . moans like a depressive teenager.” The recent poetry of Paul Muldoon is so “full of artificial sweeteners, artificial colors” that it is “probably regulated by the F.D.A.,” and even Muldoon’s Nobel-crowned countryman, Seamus Heaney, is sternly warned that he’s beginning to resemble “a faux Irish pub, plastic shamrocks on the bar, Styrofoam shillelaghs on the wall and green ale on tap.

Now, I tend to agree with Logan's run-downs of Muldoon's recent work-- I blame his swerve from extreme erudition (hello Alexander T.!) into pastoral plumage on his move from the North of Ireland into not only a happy marriage but tenure at Princeton. Not that he has not earned it, but he does seem a bit self-satisfied lately. If not as priggish as his rival Ulsterman, famous Seamus Heaney. I concur with Logan here; I've never warmed to the Nobel laureate from where "hope and history meet" as much as most "professional Irish" or for that matter worshipful readers. Michael Parker, in the "Northern Irish Literature 1956-2006" study I reviewed for Estudios Irlandeses and linked to "here" last March, captured the disturbing ambivalence of Heaney's gaze at the suffering of his fellow Northerners when Parker examines Heaney's "telling phrase 'artful voyeur'" as symptomatic of the poet's failure in "Punishment" to extricate himself from implicating him and us in exploiting the violence of the Troubles.

This may, however, wander far from Logan's more facile equation of Heaney with a Plastic Paddy. I'm not sure the Ulster sequences of his earlier agonized witness from four decades ago can be equated with Heaney's more conventional later verse. Yet, can he be blamed for such relief after such tension in his homeland anymore than Muldoon? Even Yeats could not sustain his engagement with such mayhem for long.

Moving on from the scene of the Irish accident, Logan's other victims, from those I've glanced at myself, appear in sturdy enough shape to totter up and fight back. My wide-ranging reading's touched on some and I've heard others, but I'm placing that patch of purple prose up more for delectation or a kind of talisman than any in-depth analysis. I might add that Logan admires Geoffrey Hill, as do I.

I've mentioned over on "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" blog of "Bo"-- who actually comprehends what Hill's conveying!-- that I'd heard a wonderful anecdote about Hill. He teaches at Boston U., and an associate professor I met at a Dublin conference two summers ago was chatting with me, and Hill's name came up. It turned out that when that professor was very ill, Hill not only helped to cover her classes but paid for an attendant to take care of her at home. Such kindness lifted him high in my esteem. I may not understand his dense, bricked, truly Anglian utterances any more than some of his undergrads, but I do recognize that talent may burst past the page into the person, where true criticism and true plaudits meet.

I reckon even Logan may agree here: poetry at its most profound turns more than eloquence or entertainment. In the hands of a master, we may hear the vatic pronouncement (sounds like Yeats!), the spirit within voiced by its best practitioners. The bard of the word can proclaim the summons from the soul.

Illustration: I searched images of "literary bad reviews" and found this as #11, the first one that fit! Read more about an only slightly altered version of what's a standard form letter from an LSU review. "Literary Rejections on Display." I know how it feels.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Have you read Logan's poems? Most people haven't--his work has had so little impact, is so utterly unmemorable, being neither good nor bad, that Wm Logan would not review a book by Wm Logan. He isn't successful enough. Logan's criterion: evidently, anyone who has had some success is going to be attacked by him. (I doubt anyone has been as savagely and personally attacked by him as I have, but take note of the fact that he never wrote a word about me, for thirty years, until in my late 40s I began to be published by Knopf, to appear regularly in the New Yorker, and so forth.) Franz

Fionnchú said...

Franz, thanks for your response. I wondered about Logan's own work, and how his gets reviewed, or ignored! Perhaps envy of and not counsel for his fellow poets motivates him? The NYTBR reviewer wondered about Logan's own creative writing students, who must have "skins like rhinos." Ford did weigh Logan and found him wanting in constructive criticism or simple compassion; Ford recommended more of the type of praise he gave Hill as a guide for what Logan should be doing rather than eviscerating poets such as yourself, who labor long before finding reward. All best wishes in your own craft and its publishing!

Bo said...

Logan rather resembles some of my colleagues. Thanks for the plug--God knows, I don't understand Hill more than half the time! But what I do understand leaves me in no doubt that he is a great poet. His wife is very nice, and very interesting (she's a C of E vicar, and a convert from Judaism.)