Dec 7, 2011

Mary Oliver, William Logan: Tenderness, Meanness, and How Much Is Enough

White-Eyes by Mary Oliver : Poetry Magazine

NEW CRITERION,  December 2008

Shock & Awe   


One of my problems with poet and critic William Logan—the Don Rickles or Simon Cowell of the poetry world—is that his wicked humor so often has a legitimate target, and I often, guiltily agree with him. Sometimes I feel as if he and I are the last two people on the planet who believe poetry is a pure, tight, sacred thing that examines objects, thoughts, feelings with the incisive care and intuition they deserve—often gentle curiosity, occasionally blunt force trauma.

But it’s usually with some shame and regret that I find myself in Logan’s camp because his words are often mean. I cannot believe that the poets he tries to marginalize or vaporize are so . . . professional? or aloof, detached, clinical?  . . . that they are immune to his mockery. He seems to want to hurt poets who offend him, and I struggle to find that okay, even as I grin at his jokes.

In speaking perceptively or provocatively, how acerbic is one allowed to be before the words turn back on their speaker and say more about her or him than the intended subject?

Here is William Logan on Mary Oliver’s 2008 book of poems Red Bird:
Mary Oliver is the poet laureate of the self-help biz and the human potential movement. She has stripped down the poetry in Red Bird until it is nothing but a naked set of values: that the human spirit is indomitable, that the animal spirit is indomitable, that she loves birds very much, that she loves flowers very much, that even her dog loves flowers very much.[1] . . .  If we trust the landscape of her poems, Oliver lives in a vast nature preserve she polices like a docent, strolling from bush to bush from beast to beast (I’m told the wildlife of Cape Cod have asked for a restraining order against her).
Let’s not deny it: that's funny stuff, that's awfully clever satire. And those who know poetry can see where Logan is coming from, whether or not they entirely approve of his content or his tone. But is he squashing an ant with an avalanche (or however that boulder-to-bug analogy goes)?

Logan concludes his review of Red Bird by tossing Sharon Olds, Ted Kooser, and Billy Collins into the Mary Oliver mold (onto the poet funeral pyre?), as he suggests that Oliver and, by implication, the others write the way they do for the money:   “The worship of simplicities is not a mean thing; but it is made mean when conducted with such hand wringing, such urgent tears, such Victorian sentiment. Those tears are shed all the way to the bank.”

I find it hard to believe that anyone would choose verse as an avenue toward riches, but I don’t have an insider's knowledge of how such business goes. Are those four writers and others really raking in millions from their verse and their readings? 

Even if they are, does it mean they write the way they do—call it populist verse—in order to get rich or stay rich?  Or do they write that way because that’s their mind and voice—the only mind and voice they have? That’s the way they see the world, and those are the words and sentences they use to talk about what they see. Even if some of us (occasionally? always?) find it inferior—shallow, simplistic—shall we take those putative wannabes downtown and lock them in the Poetryville stocks? And ditto their readers? Lock them up too, for aiding and abetting?

In any case, does it matter?  Those poets’ poems are there, on the market, and they offer additional ways to think about poetry. Quite possibly they are only enacting Wordsworth's dictum about the language of the common man. Moreover, they’ve brought tens of thousands of people to the reading of poems, which I like to think makes tens of thousands more observant, thoughtful, less aggressive humans. Maybe a handful will one day migrate to poems even William Logan can respect. 

In the meantime, I'll probably keep reading the man. But not at bedtime--my squirming would keep me awake.

White-Eyes by Mary Oliver : Poetry Magazine

NEW CRITERION,  December 2008
Shock & Awe   



Pasadena Adjacent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pasadena Adjacent said...


it appears blogspot decided to correct this act of rebellion against common form and decency - but trust me, it was formatted the same way

Anonymous said...

I don't think anything is sacred, but this snark is just one step up from "Ew, I hate it." He's pruning the rose with a hatchet. It's much funnier and more painful when criticism pulls off each petal one by one.

-K- said...

Yeah, he's mean and its not jsut individuals. I think he's gone after entire "schools" such as the New York school.

Still, I'd be interested in what he says about Billy Collins, who is way too cutsy for my taste.

Brenda's Arizona said...

"Different strokes for different folks" as my college English prof used to say.

I don't know Logan enough to know if attacks other forms of art? Or just poetry? Does his ridicule make him a snob? Or is beauty in the eye of the beholder?
I wonder if Olds or Kooser are making millions. Maybe Collins with his touring and readings can. But WHO cares? Is it taking money out of a purist poet's pocket?

And to think we used to sweat going to a poetry reading at the book/coffee shop near college. Logan would have smashed us all for just dreaming.

RuneE said...

This reminds me of the ever present discussion on "What is art" and on the critics of said art. In my case, especially photography.

If you (the critic, that is) don't like it - fine. If you can substantiate your claim - even better. But don't kill the guy in the process. You only inflate your own ego and may destroy a budding artist.

Banjo52 said...

I like these responses! I'm in the middle of a teaching gig for another week and a half and might be slow to respond in much detail, but I hope the comments keep coming. Should I rush to Logan's defense at some point?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Every circle has a smaller circle

audience - art - critic

and within each circle there seems to be a scramble to climb to the top and level those who are already there. Happy is the critic who can claim to have championed one of those eagles and happy is the critic who shoots the eagle and his or her champion in the process.

I'm going to delete my first comment (and keep the second)

Pasadena Adjacent said...


last words?

he likes Bukowski - kind of

Stickup Artist said...

He is blunt to the point of meanness. From the point of view of one who has from time to time found myself compromising my personal vision to a clients' will out of financial necessity and desire to keep the peace, I can only sympathize with the poets who are just trying to get by doing what they do. One does have to be accessible and connect on some level. But then, how far does one allow oneself to sink before all originality and daring goes out the window in the desire to please a wider audience. It's a fine line that every artist must learn to walk. How to stay true to oneself, grow, and at the same time, be commercially viable.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Interesting what stick-up artist has to say. I agree with her. Do poets in anyway fit into the perimeter of client(academic expectations)-and writer? I'd think poets were the least compromised because they're the least "economically" valued...

bettertry said...

Logan has deep seated rage . . .

PJ said...

Logan appears to be one of those writers that needs something to work against in order to form an opinion, make a statement. It's an us -vs- them and we're taking no prisoners kind of mentality. If he had taken the time to satirize their work, to show that he at least understands what motivates them (which he obviously doesn't) and poke fun at that, then we could all be in on the joke and that would be funny. But he's not funny is he?

Brenda's Arizona said...

Wow, Banjomyn, you have opened a bag of worms! What responses! This is a fun post to read and re-read.

Lovers' Lane