Jun 26, 2011

Sylvia Plath's "Mirror," Conrad Hilberry's "Tongue," Six-Shooters, Walking Naked

'Mirror' by Sylvia Plath

I'm offering Sylvia Plath's "Mirror" again because of a recent visitor comment about the poem at my June 4 post. Mr. Somewords says: "'I have looked at it so long / I think it is a part of my heart.'  This line, coming from the mirror itself, is one of my favorite lines of Plath, ever. The mirror confuses a wall with its heart. I love the idea of a mirror worrying about losing its own essence because of what it has reflected for so long.”

No argument here, Mr. Somewords. To offer one’s Self as a confusion (conflation?) of mirror, heart and wall—that takes guts, and it would probably be a worthy insight coming from any of us. 

I wonder if William Logan and Sharon Olds have found any walls within their hearts.

Wall.  Mirror?
Stones in water = wall or mirror?

Adolescent narcissism and self-pity are probably two of the risks Sylvia Plath takes repeatedly, and she’s been heartily criticized for it  (or was all of that criticism after death?).  But I challenge those who smugly condescend toward Plath from their imagined heights as scholars or reviewers.  How about we all reveal what we see in ourselves in our most honest, most naked moments.  Reveal it, force-feed it to ourselves—then share it with a reading public.
Climbing up a wall

Might that lead to world peace?   Some say toting six-guns is a way to keep the peace; some Texan even proclaimed, “An armed society is a polite society.”  Well, I 'spect. Maybe.

Or could it be that all we have to do is walk naked, in every sense of the word, everywhere we go?  Instead of muttering or chirping some meaningless “hey” to everyone, like Yeats’ “polite, meaningless nods” . . . we confess our most recent taboo thought or obsession. 

Would that lead to less violence? Or more? Might it lead to a mass scramble for cover, both literally and figuratively?

There may be a more polite, though brutal version of all that in Conrad Hilberry’s poem, “Tongue”:

   Conrad Hilberry - Tongue       

(my apologies for white on black—it’s the only version I could find—why do it that way?)

And here is Conrad Hilberry reading the poem:   Dr. Hilberry Reads Poem

 The poem involves behavior rather than thought, but I see it as the boy’s being caught unaware, fully exposed, as if he'd confessed to three counties all his puerile dumbness—which looks remarkably similar to adult dumbness. Hilberry’s youngster is King Lear’s “man more sinned against than sinning."

Embarrassment often overrides pain when we’re caught in our most moronic, vulnerable moments, as we all are from time to time. Don’t you think?  I’d love to invite examples, but for now I’m not offering any of my own.
Organic twisting

Thanks, Mr. “Somewords,” for starting this train of thought, which I think has some value. Although I too partake aplenty, I’m sick and damned tired of all our asinine pride and posturing, much of which has a frantic quality, because we’re trying to sprint away from self-awareness instead of swallowing whole the blood of our dumbness, like Hilberry’s kid, who has no choice.

Organic Thrust

Jun 22, 2011

Haiku, Basho, Sentence Structure

How Many Pedants Does It Take To Screw in a Light Bulb?

As I mentioned a while back, I’m not usually a fan of haiku, though I do prefer sensory language the way haiku lovers apparently do. What makes imagery resonate is a very subjective matter, perhaps even more so in haiku than other forms. The poem below, by Basho, works for me, and I think it’s because the syntax is a little unusual, a little jolting.  (By the way, I found this haiku in the magazine American Poet, Spring 2011, where poet Aimee Nezhukumatahil discusses haibun, in which haiku plays a role).

Since Basho was writing in 17th century Japanese, I won’t fuss over the line breaks in order to arrive at the prescribed 5-7-5 syllable count or the line structure. Here is how it might look in English: 

Taken in my hand
it would melt, my tears are so
warm—this autumnal frost.

A more natural (and pedestrian?) English syntax might go like this: 

My tears are so warm
this autumnal frost would melt,
taken in my hand.
This autumnal frost would melt,
taken in my hand,
my tears are so warm.

 Those aren't bad, and they retain the physicality of language in the other version; but I feel that holding back “this autumnal frost” and making it the conclusion adds a tension and drama that I’d miss now that I’ve seen it Basho’s way, or the way of his translator.

Whatever else this amounts to, it’s an example of the kinds of structural decisions a writer labors over. And we see the ways those choices can change the power of a sentence by arranging the placement of what’s powerful. It's really a matter of the old subject-verb-object lesson:  Who does what to whom? In the first version, "this autumnal frost" achieves power by coming last, by being built up to, and by playing against expectation. In the other versions, it's somewhat buried, made equal to the tears, the hand, the melting.

Modern cop shows ask, “Who’s the perp? Who’s the doer and who’s the victim that got done to?” Maybe poems aren't all that different. So if I’m being a pedant, a soul-crunching counter of words, a nerd, at least I’m not alone.

A pedant, a nerd, and a geek walk into a bar . . . .


Jun 18, 2011

Pancho & Lefty, Part 2: Creators and Their Work

Pancho and Lefty
By popular demand, here are more versions of Pancho and Lefty,
two musical and four pictorial. Should we vote on which photo captures the essence of Pancho-Leftiness? 

If you choose to play along for a second day, please stay with the young Emmy Lou beyond the first verse, when the band joins her.    (By the way, was there ever really a 1977?)

Townes Van Zandt - Pancho & Lefty Video by searching for the sound - Myspace Video

YouTube - Emmylou Harris : Pancho & Lefty (1977)

Van Zandt singing his own song raises the question of how much stock we should put into a composer's performance of his own work. I think that's at least a question for Kris Kristofferson, or even the sacrosanct Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, yes, even the Beatles. I'd much rather hear Patsy Cline or Linda Rondstadt do "Crazy" than its creator, Willie Nelson (though he's good too).  And Patsy Cline/Linda Rondstadt or Hank Williams singing "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love with You"?  I'll take Patsy or Linda. Dylan doing "Blowing in the Wind" rather than Joan Baez or Odetta? I'll take either lady.

I don't mean to create competition where we don't need it; I'm harping on this because I think a lot of people don't want to hear that their idols are only wonderful in one aspect of a complex enterprise. The best of those composers' songs are masterpieces whether or not they're the performers, and often the songs are better off in someone else's throat.

Pancho and Lefty
I'm sure this is also true of classical music. Should we have stopped listening to Bach when he died?  Was Bach doing Bach the best Bach ever?

Most days this is a blog that's looks casually at literary matters. Whether or not you agree with my examples above, do you see why it's problematic to pay too much attention to the way a poet reads his own work? Writing with a pen and making sounds with the throat are two very different activities. Should we judge a composer by the way he plays the trombone? Greases his baseball glove?  The trombone and ball glove are instruments, tools; the human voice is an instrument. They often, often, often do not go together in one human mind and body.

Quiz.  Name three things that do not overlap or otherwise meld into one item:

a.    Monkey.  Screwdriver.  Alfalfa.
b.    Chewing gum.   Bedpost.    Overnight.
c.    Concept. Script. Performance.
d.   All the above.

Now I've caused myself to envision Lou Gehrig singing Verdi while playing first base . . . .

Pancho and Lefty

Pancho and Lefty
Townes Van Zandt - Pancho & Lefty Video by searching for the sound - Myspace Video

YouTube - Emmylou Harris : Pancho & Lefty (1977)

Jun 16, 2011

Pancho and Lefty

Pancho and Lefty
In the afterglow of four good versions of “Make Me a Pallet” (see my previous post), I was browsing YouTube music clips and came across “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes Van Zandt’s masterpiece on betrayal within a brotherhood. I probably hadn't heard it for twenty years.

Here's the famed recording by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard:

YouTube - "Pancho and Lefty" - Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

Here's a less known version by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings:

YouTube - Gillian Welch and David Rawlings - Pancho and Lefty (09-27-1997)

 Pancho “Wore his gun outside his pants/For all the honest world to feel.”  Don’t we all wish we could wear our guns outside our pants?  What do uyou think punkers’ purple hair is about?  In the sixties, I knew plenty of hippies who were Republicans-in-waiting. Wait. That's a digression.

Pancho and Lefty
Lefty was (apparently) the sidekick, and the two rode “free and clean” for awhile, in what seemed an eternal road trip. But soon enough, the idyll grows hard, and “you wear your skin like iron./Your breath's as hard as kerosene.”

For reasons that aren’t clear—chronic fear of the long arm of the law? living hand-to-mouth too long?—Lefty betrays Pancho. In exchange for “bread” and an escape to Ohio, he informs on Pancho. 
Then comes Van Zandt’s editorial, which is problematic. Shall we pray for Lefty, the narc, the Judas? Van Zandt asks us to:

“The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold
So the story ends we're told.

“Pancho needs your prayers it's true,
But save a few for Lefty too—
He only did what he had to do
And now he's growing old . . .”

Lefty can’t sing all night the way he used to because of dust in his mouth—is it just Mexican dust or the dust of Pancho’s mortality as well. Although Lefty (note that left in Latin is “sinistra,” the root for “sinister”) was able to reach Ohio with the payoff, who wants to live out his senior years in Cleveland? So maybe the gods have given sinister Lefty his due.
Pancho and Lefty

 But he’s also just another old fart, alone with his sins, living in literal and metaphorical coldness. Surely that elicits sympathy. And let’s not forget that Pancho was, after all, a bandit, the thief we all fear in our cities these days (or the thieves in our bank offices and Congress). Pancho is thug, menace, bully,  anarchist.

Yet we all love an outlaw, the antihero we’d all be if we had any guts, any character. Geoffrey Dahmer was a grotesque exception; most renegades are like Jesse James; they steal from the rich and give to the poor. And in that story, we all have our hands out . . . .

Pancho and Lefty
Should we agree with Van Zandt that life in a cheap hotel in Cleveland is ample punishment for Lefty, and we should save a prayer for him?  Did he only do “what he had to do?” Who or what coerced him? Is it enough that, in his old age, he’s wracked with guilt, huddled up against one blizzard after another?

When I paraphrase the lines and the narrative, I hear myself winking. But I really think there’s a moral, or simply human, complexity in the tale of Pancho and Lefty. If your friend is a crook, whom you aid and abet, what are you? But if you betray the same friend, especially for some filthy lucre, for thirty pieces of silver . . . what are you?

By the way, three minutes of scouting internet commentary makes clear that the song is not about Pancho Villa, but two generic outlaws roaming free and easy.  Van Zandt has a very charming story about two cops who stopped his car for going 67 in Texas. He thinks of them as Pancho and Lefty.  If you poke around, you can find that television interview, but you’ll need patience to sit through the composer’s halting speech.

Pancho and Lefty
If you know as little as I did about Townes Van Zandt’s life, I encourage you to check out Wikipedia’s version of his biography. It feels accurate, some of its details are gripping, most of them sad, and it goes to aspects of creativity we’ve looked at here before.


Jun 12, 2011

Roots Music, "Make Me a Pallet"

olive branch

If you don’t care for lowland blues, acoustic blues, bluegrass, or roots music (the inclusive term, I guess), you might excuse yourself from today’s post. And while you're away, get a life. Or you could sample each piece for a few seconds or more, just to broaden your horizons.

YouTube - Mississippi John Hurt Make Me a Pallet on the Floor

YouTube - Gillian Welch - Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor

YouTube - Doc Watson - Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor

YouTube - Mississippi John Hurt — Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor

The blog titled Robert Frost’s Banjo got me wandering around on YouTube, starting with Taj Mahal and Dave von Ronk, which led to Mississippi John Hurt, which led to young Christine Pizzuti at I Play Banjo Now, and that connected to Gillian Welch’s YouTube version of “Make Me a Pallet.”  She in turn credited Doc Watson as her link to the song.  I’ve liked “Make Me a Pallet” since I first heard Hurt’s rendition in the sixties, but the fact that I enthusiastically like all four of these versions makes me wonder if I should . . . worship it. 

I wonder too if Sarah Palin’s bus tour will . . . LISTEN . . . to all available versions of whatever. Taj Mahal (Harlem), Dave von Ronk (Brooklyn), and Christine Pizzuti (New Palz) are New Yorkers, but variety is the theme here, if I have one. Taj Mahal majored in animal husbandry at U. Mass.  There is a John Hurt museum in Mississippi (which I learned at Robert Frost’s Banjo, located in Idaho). Doc Watson’s place sits somewhere in the mountains of western North Carolina, and Gillian Welch is a Californian whose beginnings included membership in a goth band.  She performs with her partner, David Rawlings of Rhode Island, who does things on the guitar that strike me as original and terrific. 

Sometimes I forget to be grateful to the U.S. and the world of music for such happy accidents.  Yes, variety can be work; yes, it’s worth it.

(Biographical info is from Wikipedia).


Jun 9, 2011

Stuart Dybek's "Death of the Right Fielder": Fiction as Rich as Poetry

Pepper-Pots and Gum-Poppers: Something Will Happen Any Second Now
Meeting my son for a couple of Reds-Cubs games in Cincinnati reminded me of “Death of the Right Fielder,” a Stuart Dybek story in his second book of fiction, The Coast of Chicago (1990).  Last I heard, Dybek was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan but was a native and affectionate Chicagoan, which adds to the whole business of my mental associations, though Cubs fans are briefly disparaged in the story). 

For those who have forgotten or have never known childhood baseball, the worst player was always put in right field. Most batters were right-handed and usually hit to shortstop, center or left. So it was a rare and dreaded occasion when the right fielder had to do anything beyond remembering to come in at the end of his team’s half-inning in the field. (By the way, this changes dramatically as the talent levels in baseball rise—for example, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, and Roberto Clemente were right fielders).

What right fielder?
In a story that might be labeled magical realism, Dybek, in grimly comic yet probingly philosophical ways, extends the premise of the right fielder’s loneliness and irrelevance. His nameless player is so forgotten that no one notices he has dropped dead at his position. After all, it “was a long walk” to the outfield, and “he always played deep.”  But his mates get curious after “too many balls went out and never came back.” So “we went out to check. . . . Finally we saw him . . . resembling the towel we sometimes threw down for second base.”  (35)

From that bizarre beginning, Dybek weaves a curious tale—actually, a reflection more than a tale—which, in a mere four pages, paints a picture of an individual life span in the late twentieth century. I've always thought Alan Sillitoe’s title Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner promised such a portrait, but for me that novel never delivered it as well as Dybek’s story does:  “The infield is for wisecrackers, pepper-pots, gum-poppers; the outfield is for loners, onlookers, brooders who would rather study clover and swat gnats than holler. People could pretty much be divided between infielders and outfielders.” (35)

Nobody knows what’s killed the right fielder, but theories abound, from heart attack, to sniper, to gangs and random gunfire. In exploring the theories, Dybek offers a couple of gems: “Young deaths are never natural; they’re all violent.” (36)   Nor could it have been leukemia:  "He wasn’t a talented enough athlete for that. He’d have been playing center, not right, if leukemia was going to get him." (36)

Major League Swing

His mates create a shallow grave right there in the outfield and try to smooth it over “so that the next right fielder, whoever he’d be, wouldn’t trip.” (37)   But an elegant, trouble-free grave is not that simple: “. . .  we couldn’t totally disguise it. A fresh grave is stubborn.” (38) And maybe that’s a good thing:  "Perhaps we didn’t want to eradicate it completely—a part of us was resting there. Perhaps we wanted the new right fielder, whoever he’d be, to notice and wonder about who played there before him, realizing he was now the only link between past and future that mattered." (38)
The Catch, The Fall, The Blur

A good while ago, I met Stuart Dybek a couple of times, and I liked him. It seems everyone does. As I’ve said about some other writers, he came across as a perfectly regular guy, not some staggering, swaggering, histrionic exhibitionist (was that redundant? sorry).

But I think and hope that my admiration for “Death of the Right Fielder” goes far beyond knowing the author or feeling casually connected to baseball. The story’s inventiveness, economy, and philosophical depth are intensified by its modesty and its brevity. It refuses to take itself too seriously, though its issues are grave. It is not at all showy, yet it deserves multiple readings, for it is full of gems. And like its author, it’s for regular folks; it gives them their due, grants them the sadness of their mortality, while refusing, for even one minute, to wallow in self-pity or its opposite, self-aggrandizement.


Jun 7, 2011

Sylvia Plath's "Mirror." William Logan and Sharon Olds, continued

I'm not ready to leave the issues and questions I've tried to stimulate in the previous two posts about William Logan, Frieda Hughes and Sharon Olds.  However, my mysterious attraction to my own photo of a fish, along with the humorous comment about it from Pasadena Adjacent at my last post,  have recalled for me a poem by Sylvia Plath.

Since Sharon Olds is sometimes discussed as Plath's psychic daughter, and Frieda Hughes is Plath's actual daughter, and William Logan writes about them all, and I write about William Logan writing about them all, a practice that William Logan has mockingly called Theory . . . well, all the stars seem in alignment for us to consider the three luminaries: William Logan, Sharon Olds, and now Sylvia Plath.

Here is "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath:  'Mirror' by Sylvia Plath

First, I'm interested in my own acceptance of Plath's bold, explicit, perhaps self-indulgent switch in speakers to open the second stanza (or verse paragraph): "Now I am a lake." Part of me wants to reply, "Really. You get to be what you want, when you want. Well, I'm an avalanche, baby, and I just crashed some boulders into your lake, just cluttered you up, just obliterated your arrogant damned lake."

Does she get to do that, simply change horses in midstream because she feels like it and then she can shout it from the rooftops? Doesn't that break some important rule? Is she thumbing her nose at old stuffed shirts, telling them (us? me?) to stuff it if we can't loosen up, can't take a joke? But this is no joke, is it? This is aging, this is shriveling, flesh-gone-to-scales mortality, isn't it?

I feel as if Plath has seized something of mine, and I've said that's okay, boss, go ahead, you can have it. Maybe I didn't want it anyway, though I wasn't sure yet. But go ahead, take it. It was only my cornucopia, my horn of plenty of male logic. It wasn't doing me much good, and your mood, or your mysterious . . . strategy . . .  is surely more important.

Secondly, I'm intrigued by the power of the poem's closing: "rises toward her . . .  like a terrible fish." Sometimes I have images, or personifying glimpses, of old age that are not unlike terrible fish. Yet I'd never have pinned them down and thought, "Oh, yeah, terrible fish, that's exactly what I saw-felt-imagined."  My images had nothing to do with fish, yet I'm perfectly satisfied with Plath's decision that a fish is what she and I both saw in the mirror.

Finally, I am thoroughly satisfied with her vague adjective, "terrible." Why?  Usually I'd ask for something more precise to describe the poem's most dominant image, the fish; but "terrible" seems not just acceptable, but perfect. Maybe it's because I don't usually think of fish as terrible; or maybe something more individualizing about this fish would distract and separate me from the real issue and its creator, while a "terrible" fish, rising at me, feels like just the right transmogrification to capture the universal insult of aging. From flesh to scales in the stroke of a pen. Or tick of a clock.

I wonder if William Logan would say that Plath has managed to capture an unflattering portrait of the human body without resorting to the peep show tactics he attributes to Sharon Olds.  I sure think such wondering is important fun, like a seventh grade dance, where we're all fools, and, whether we dance or stand against the wall with our hands folded, we're glad to be there. But don't tell a soul.

'Mirror' by Sylvia Plath


Jun 4, 2011

Sex, Literary Criticism, William Logan and Sharon Olds, Part Two

Here is William Logan writing about Sharon Olds, who is one of America’s most popular headliners at poetry conferences and other readings. 

. . . part of the hypnotic fascination of Olds’s poetry is its headlong, hell-bent hubris.

She trades in shameless prose chopped up into lines of poetry, lurid as a tabloid, returning to the primal scene more often than a therapist: her cold, sadistic father; her cold, masochistic mother . . .

If someone is raped in her apartment building, we never hear about the victim. We’re told instead about Olds having sex the next day . . .

Everywhere brute shock is taken as a sign of honesty.

Olds has as many teases as a strip show, and the psychology that drives her poetry is dourly exhibitionist.

‘Look at me! Look at me!’ the poems say, poems of someone never loved enough.

She loves to rub your nose in it: if you look away, you’re a coward; if you keep looking, you’re complicit.

Olds is sometimes mistaken for a confessional poet, but she has nothing to confess: she never feels anything as subtle or scouring as guilt, and it’s hard to believe she’d recognize a sin if it bit her.

. . . for all her radical pretense, she’s a homely Redbook moralist, believing in motherhood, family, and honey on her nipples.

Well, that ought to offer some of the flavor of both William Logan and Sharon Olds, whose poetry has provoked almost identical reactions from me. I’m particularly concerned with the question of whether it’s prose or poetry (as I am with many of the celebrated poets out there), and it’s comforting to have an aggressive intelligence like Logan on my side.

Although I'm a blogger, I’m also impatient (to put it nicely) with narcissism and exhibitionism (if there’s a difference), whether in blogs or poetry or conversation. I’ve often recoiled from Sharon Olds’ recurring exposure of her body, others’ bodies, others' vulnerabilities, her sexuality, and some other inglorious concerns, like her obsessive, repetitive hatred toward her father and her invasion of her children’s privacy (which is the way I see some of her poems about them).

However, there’s a counter-argument that Logan has not mentioned. Americans and other humans are slow to see their own flaws. Without an honest, humble reckoning of how disappointing or downright disgusting we are—cosmetically, , domestically, politically, morally—how can we begin doing better as sharers of the planet? If everyone looked at himself in the mirror as frankly as Sharon Olds does, no matter how uncomfortable the sights there, we’d surely be prompted to behave better—or at least more humbly.  Or maybe we could simply get out of the paths of others who have found a better way to be.

Or would we? And that is one of Logan’s most important points:  Olds may be willing to examine herself and her loved ones in full view of us, but the flaws she sees tend strongly to be minor, brief, or attached to other people. I rarely hear her reprimanding herself or feeling a need to change.

As Logan says, she’s not really a confessional poet because she doesn’t own up to any sins or guilt, without which she is simply demanding attention: “Look at me,” says Sharon Olds (and that’s undeniable).  Logan replies, “Why should I? The only insights you offer are centered, microscopically, on your body, your psyche, and your very individual biography.” 

However, I’m not comfortable thinking that’s the end of the discussion, whereas Logan might be finished. Ever the moderate, caught in the complex middle, I think there might be value in Sharon Olds’ invitation to think about what makes us uncomfortable and why.  For one thing, it’s worth wondering about the undeniable centrality of sex in human lives. From burqas to strip joints to wondering whether less is more and bigger is better, we don’t seem to know what to do about this troublesome feature within us. Shall we try to smother it completely or give it free reign? How wide is the middle ground in between?

In any case, sex, along with war, will win out, however grotesquely we may twist and turn it in an attempt to wring out the hormones, control the thoughts and desires. Maybe Sharon Olds’ poetry is one small step toward getting the genie more happily out of the bottle. Logan himself makes an unconvincing attempt to state that he’s on the sex team:  “Poetry in our prudent hour needs more sex, not less . . . .” But that’s one drop of honey in a bucket of vitriol he’s hurled across the distance between himself and Sharon Olds.

Still, William Logan’s challenge is essential:  if we must be made uncomfortable by our intimate knowledge of Sharon Olds, and the part of her that's a part of us, what’s in it for us and the rest of the world? If we are not elevated by poetry, why not go straight to Hustler or petty Cosmo blurbs about starlets and their troubled lives?

Notice, by the way, all this presumes that the details of Olds’ life are factual. For a variety of reasons, I still insist on the traditional, valid distinction between poet and speaker. Olds’ poems certainly seem autobiographical, but we don’t know that, and we shouldn’t care.

I think you should love my fish, and I'm going to keep posting him until you do.


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.


Lovers' Lane