Jun 2, 2011

William Logan, Bitter Words, and the Nature of Criticism

Color, Upward
 Reviewers are often accused of being rejected, frustrated, embittered people who failed at becoming “real” writers. If it’s true that “those who can’t do . . . teach,” maybe it’s also true that those who can’t write  . . .  review.  And many a poet would go on to say that some reviewers are obtuse sadists who review with venom one wouldn’t fire at a rabid skunk.

Although I suspect that reviewing in recent years has become more of a family affair, tending toward generous remarks about “one of our own,” there might still be critics who have axes to grind. If so, William Logan, the Simon Cowell of literary scholarship, is probably the first to be accused.

Turtle Peeks Around

I marvel at Logan’s meanness when he doesn’t approve of a book or poet or poem, but I also marvel at his courage and what seems to be his integrity. I have no idea what impure agendas might drive him, or if any do, but this man is so willing to take a verbal machete to so many poet-luminaries that he must be one of the lonelier scholars in the university scene (he teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of Florida).

Whatever William Logan’s personal or professional agendas might be, his prose has a wit, an edge, an insight, a reverence for language as the art of poetry, and a search for truthfulness that are absent in many contemporary poems.  If a professor’s prose is livelier, more impassioned and more fun that the putatively lofty art he’s reviewing, maybe we ought to listen—and then reread the poetry with Logan’s criteria in our minds.
Carved Beech

In The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin, some of Logan’s analyses zero in on issues of character. We may not agree with this or that point about this or that poet, but we ought to listen to what he values or criticizes in human beings and their art.

We may find ourselves thinking, “I don’t want to be her,” the one about whom someone would say:  She “wants to be a poet a lot more than she wants to write poetry.” Or, “She likes to strike a pity-me tone; yet . . . you find nothing but static, lifeless observation.” Or, “She can bash out a simile whenever she wants to; but her damp clichés of feeling and blood-filled ideas act poetic for a line or two, then start faking it. She . . . grinds the images out like sausages.” 

These comments about writing (directed at Frieda Hughes, daughter of two significant modern poets, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes) also imply cautionary notes on how to be more thoughtful, honest humans. I haven’t thought often enough about the ways perceptive, probing literary criticism can take us toward insights about motives, integrity, aesthetics, even morality. I wonder how many of the principles of good writing transfer nicely to codes of decent behavior. Be honest; don't fake it; avoid histrionics; be economical with words and other material; look for big truths; reach out to your audience; treat people and other subjects honorably; perceive the world and yourself as accurately and completely as possible.

None of that means writers have suddenly become responsible citizens or poster children for mental health; but it does mean we can yank them by the short hairs when we hear their words bearing false witness.



gothpunkuncle said...

This is all pretty interesting. Do you think Hughes is taking an extra hit for not being the poet her parents were? (Ihaven't read her.) I like that Logan doesn't pull punches, but has his own work earned him this keener eye and sharper tongue? (I haven't read him extensively, but would probably answer "no" here.) Does it matter? While you're on this kick, take a look at Harold Bloom's Paris Review interview. Bloom, at least, has the common sense not to write verse of his own.

Banjo52 said...

GPU, I haven't read Hughes either. Logan puts some of the blame on her editors, and he acknowledges liking some of her images; but it might just be true that she takes an extra hit for being her parents' daughter.

I've read only a tad of Logan's poetry, so I'll be guarded: it hasn't called me back to read a lot more. But now that I've stumbled onto this topic, I'll probably give it another go.

Thanks for the Bloom tip. His book Visionary Company, on the Romantics, was probably my intro to lit criticism (at 19, who knew people could do this for a living?). That, plus the controversies around him make me interested. Is it available online? Or must I actually trudge off to find it in paper, as if Bloom and I were cavemen?

Thanks for coming by.

Lovers' Lane