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Our Savage Art
Poetry and the Civil Tongue
Columbia University Press ($29.50)
by John-Ivan Palmer
William Logan has been called by Slate “the most hated man in American poetry . . . [and] its guiltiest pleasure.” He’s been threatened by a few angry poets and banned from certain newspapers for lavishing scorn on what he considers prize-winning phonies and crowd-pleasing flyweights. In his view, Franz Wright is “rancid and repetitive,” Dean Young “uses non sequiturs the way a snake uses mice,” and Gary Snyder writes poems like the “disconnected thoughts of a man trying to make verse with magnets on a refrigerator door.” Imagine A. R. Ammons reading this about himself: “Even if you paid through the nose to get a vanity press to publish this, you’d have to bribe the typesetter not to cut his own throat.”
In Our Savage Art, Poetry and the Civil Tongue William Logan argues that it’s time to end the “oath of omertà” between poets and critics “never to breathe a word of criticism against a fellow of the guild.” Sensitive subject matter should not be untouchable. This would include the ghosts of evil in poems by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, a Lithuanian holocaust survivor. Logan describes two of Milosz’s poems in Second Space as “so tangled in religious themes they’re like cats lost in a great ball of yarn.” Yet he credits Milosz’s skill at recognizing the dead as from an “unknown country” with a geography that “cannot be transferred to maps.” As for Rita Dove, writing of the Black experience in America, he sees her as an example of what critics too easily accept as poems not about ethnic identity but that are ethnic identity, offering only a “needle’s-eye” view of the world. He acknowledges the motives buried beneath the surface of her poems, but argues that ultimately they weigh out as soulless. His perspective is, “thank goodness Homer didn’t go on about being blind and Ionian.”
In spite of his learned references and closely reasoned arguments, reading William Logan is like watching an insult comic go from table to table—and hoping he doesn’t stop at yours. After a couple hundred pages, the jokes start to seem formulaic. Typically, he links a quality and a punch line with a conjunction. For example, with Thomas Pynchon (reviewed because of his poetic prose style) “you think he’s about to pull a rabbit out of a hat [quality] but [conjunction] there are always three hundred rabbits and twelve dozen hats [punch line].” Or Ted Kooser: “the language is as generic [quality] as [conjunction] a pair of blue jeans [punch line].” One wonders if Logan doesn’t sit around and compose these lines [quality] like [conjunction] knockouts from a punch press in his basement [rimshot].
Likewise, although initially we might welcome that pie in the face for certain overly awarded poets (especially if it’s made of Logan’s favorite ingredient—cement), after a while we begin to feel our laughter might be coming from a place not altogether pure. No poet has a kill rate of one hundred percent. Does Richard Wilbur really sound “like an old fussbudget sorry he threw out his last pair of spats”? Is Les Murray such an Australian hick he’s “the Crocodile Dundee of the poetry circuit”?
And this is what Logan says about the poets he likes: Frost had no sense of humor, Pound and Eliot were “iffy about Jews,” Wallace Stevens was a tyrant, William Carlos Williams a womanizer, and Marianne Moore “an emotionally stunted terror” who called blacks “coons” and American Indians “sluggards.” Philip Larkin was “one nasty misogynist and racist,” but his poems of ordinariness contain “a kind of heroism.” Robert Lowell suffered from revision disease and “revised his poems down to a line, then a word, and finally just a punctuation mark.” When the praise does come, as for the work of Amy Clampitt or Gjertrude Schnackenberg, it feels like a relief.
Of the sixty-nine poets Logan reviews, not all of them get plucked and gutted; with appropriate tweaks and fillips, almost forty percent could be construed as praised. The ones who escape the Logan abattoir are somewhat predictable: Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath all survive the day, along with a few lesser names. The longest and most positive review is of the obscure 19th-century novel in verse, Guy Vernon by John Townsend Trowbridge.
“Forward Into the Past” is an essay on criticism itself, which, together with Garrick Davis’s closing interview with the author, provides insight into the shape of Logan’s approach. As the title implies, he gestures to a Golden Age, roughly the first half of the last century, when individual talents like Cleanth Brooks, R. P. Blackmur, I. A. Richards, and William Empson, not to mention the overshadowing Pound and Eliot, criticized books on the basis of transcendent imagination and their relevance to other books. The judgment they passed was not scrawled on the chin of a smiley face. As Logan says, “The worst way to create readers is by praising everything under the skies.”
Our Savage Art does raise the question of how much natural habitat is left for poetry—is there room to support a viable ecosystem of predator and prey? A generation ago most large and small newspapers ran poetry reviews, and in the early 20th century literary magazines like Criterion, Horizon, and Partisan Review had substantial readerships. Audiences read Cyril Connolly and W. H. Auden to see whom they were going to eat next. Wyndham Lewis was a one-man death squad who went after everyone. In 1964 Vladimir Nabokov launched an attack in the New York Review of Books against Walter Arndt’s translation of Eugene Onegin, which he claimed sank “to the level of uncontrolled abuse”; the circulation department must have been elated when Edmund Wilson then attacked Nabokov’s translation, resulting in a cage match in print that went on for weeks.
One could argue that the biome of the poet and critic has been reduced to little more than a puddle in a public park, with every last poet and critic desperate for the other. Logan admits that it is naïve to expect poets to review their friends harshly. But what if that’s all there is to the audience? To keep from eating ourselves should talentless writing be praised by what Craig Raine has called “the lazy consensus”? The alternative, the “slow grinding of critical analysis,” might annihilate a few poets who are sincerely trying, but those who survive might indeed be the ones we’ll truly want to read—or reread—in a new and brighter light.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011