William Logan: "A Critic Must Speak of What a Poem Does, Not What It Wishes to Do"
William Logan’s entertaining, acerbic and learned criticism reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s, Edmund Wilson’s, Samuel Johnson’s and Dwight Macdonald’s. Like the best critics,
In his poetry reviews in The New Criterion, Sunday New York Times Book Review and other journals,
1. You are accused of undue cruelty, even viciousness, in your reviews. Do you see this as justified? Outside of entertainment for your readers, what critical purpose do your barbs serve?
I think I can be blamed only for due cruelty. Let’s face it – most reviews of poetry are far too kind. Reviewers like Francis Jeffrey, or Edgar Allan Poe, or Randall Jarrell would look askance at what passes for criticism now. Critics are so genial to fellow poets! And surely that’s in part because they are fellow poets.
I have never said a vicious thing that I didn’t believe. The object of criticism is never to be cruel, however, only to reflect the experience of one poor sapheaded reader who has been enthralled or disappointed, and who thinks that his reactions should reflect that thrill or disappointment accurately. Perhaps I’ve had too much fun writing criticism; yet a critic must speak of what a poem does, not what it wishes to do – and not what readers wish it had done.
If film criticism were written by actors, it would be even meaner – that is, if they were as honest in public as they are in private.
2. You have taken aim at some of America’s most lauded poets, from Jorie Graham to Robert Pinsky to Billy Collins. Do you believe that many poets in
Most poets live on the bubble of an inflated reputation, at least while they’re alive. Readers tend to be kind; reviewers, kinder. It’s easy to write poems that speak to your age, harder to write for the age after, or the one after that – and perhaps the worst thing a poet can do is attempt to write for those later ages. But the taste of our age seems captured more by what a poet says than by the skill or depth with which he says it – I doubt that many of the poets I’ve criticized harshly will have much of an afterlife as poets. Perhaps they will be examples in the sociology of taste. Remember that most of the poets we revere now were not the taste of their times – the times had to catch up to them.
3 In your poems, you use traditional meter, rhyme, and allusion. Some see your poems as too abstract and emotionally distant. What is your judgment of your own poems? What poet is your biggest influence? Do you see yourself as part of a movement, such as the “New Formalists” (not so new anymore)? Would you rather be remembered as a poet or a critic?
Perhaps my work seems distant because the time is used to poems that tell too much too readily, like some jazzed-up acquaintance at first so full of life, so generous with talk. Only a few meetings later do you realize that the person is a terrible gossip, with nothing to say beyond his lurid stories – and is perhaps a little self-obsessed. I’m teasing, I hope.
I never considered myself a New Formalist, nor did the New Formalists, so far as I can tell. (I'm not in the anthology Rebel Angels, for example -- neither is Gjertrud Schnackenberg, though I think she was asked but declined.) Perhaps my work was felt to be too indebted to Old Formalism. But, yes, from the mid-‘70s I was writing poems in meter and rhyme as well as free verse, because it felt challenging and because it ran against the grain. I advise my students not to write in the current fashion, because it’s too easy.
As for my influences, I hope I’ve revealed them so well in my criticism that they hardly bear repeating. I don’t feel mastered by any one poet – I feel mastered by a whole unsteady crew of them. As for the last question, it’s a disaster for a poet to worry about his future reputation – in a whole generation, there will be only one or two poets whose future reputation will matter to anyone.
4. Your New York Times Book Review critique of the Library of
Crane is one of those poets hard to see plainly. He died young, too young; and around his life and his art there has grown a barnacled accretion of sentimental feeling. He still drags young readers into poetry by the scruff of the neck, and ever after they remain sentimentally fond of him. If I’m immune to that sentiment, I’m sure Crane will survive my reading. There are ravishingly beautiful lines in his work; but for me the poems are terribly flawed, full of lines so terrifyingly bad it’s hard to remember with what genius he wrote those that matter. He’s an American Icarus, and his lines were made of wax.
5. The poetry world appears fragmented, with many schools and a proliferation of poets from MFA programs, if not as many readers. What is your assessment of the state of American poetry today?
I fear that American poetry is having a run of middling generations, poets who struggle to produce work of any great moment. (Or, most recently, a generation that would rather write about tuna sandwiches and watching television – but perhaps I’m a little jaded.) I’d like to be wrong; indeed, it would make me cheerful to be wrong. My own generation is now breasting 60, and except for Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Henri Cole I don’t see much to celebrate. There are poets of great ambition, like Jorie Graham; but her ambition seems almost entirely wrongheaded. I’m still fond of her second and third books, but the books of the last 20 years seem worse and worse. Alas, most poets of my generation have been content to do, a little less well, what they did when they were 30. It’s sometimes honorable work, even serious work; but I think you could erase from the anthology virtually every poet born between 1945 and 1960 without anyone losing a night’s sleep. That’s an exaggeration, of course; but perhaps less one than it should be.
6. While many perceive you as unduly negative to today’s poets, you have written a number of appreciations of poets from the past, including Auden, Robert Lowell, Walt Whitman, Housman, Milton, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost. Do you see your reconsiderations of such poets as your most important critical role?
We don’t know what our present is without looking back at the poets who put us in our place. It would be impolite not to read them seriously and attempt to say one or two new things about them. Still, I wouldn’t necessarily claim that the center of my criticism is there, if there is a there there. It’s not for me to say.