The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin by William Logan. Columbia University Press, $29.50.
Reviewed by Brian Henry
William Logan is a tragic figure. Born at the wrong time--in the so-called tin age of poetry--and doomed to write about it, he earns his living by teaching in an MFA program, thus contributing to the very machine whose products he loathes. His talents and tastes would seem better-suited to a PhD program, but cultural studies and literary theory have taken over, shunning the likes of Logan (or so he would argue). Stuck with the poetry of this time, Logan rages against it. And the saddest aspect of this situation is that Logan’s criticism garners more attention than his poetry. The ignored poet, then, must content himself with being the notorious critic.
Logan’s primary attributes as a poetry critic--invective and predictability--serve him well as a regular knee-capper for The New Criterion but seem less fitting for The Undiscovered Country, a collection of his “odds and ends of criticism.” Predictability can be a critic’s greatest flaw. Worse than faulty judgment, predictability often accompanies a closed mind, or at least a mind already made up. Logan has his pets--Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Donald Justice, Amy Clampitt--as well as his bêtes noires--Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Adrienne Rich, and, more recently (and infamously, due to the poet’s public threat to thrash the critic), Franz Wright. For the most part, his reviews of such poets follow a pre-ordained path of praise or damnation. His writing on poets who receive mixed and varying reactions--Paul Muldoon, Anne Carson, Charles Wright--is more worthwhile, because Logan actually demonstrates how he has come to terms with their work. Too often, though, Logan remains content with the elevation of personal taste to a general standard, and Logan’s failures as a critic frequently stem from his scuttling of his hero Randall Jarrell’s admonition, “At your best you make people see what they might never have seen without you; but they must always forget you in what they see.”
Despite his claim to read too many new books of poetry, Logan seems oddly unaware of the state of contemporary American poetry. He admits that trade presses have largely given up on poetry, but one would be hard-pressed to glean this from this selection of reviews. Of the 66 books by contemporary poets under consideration, nearly half (32) have been published by Alfred A. Knopf (a division of Random House) and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Another 22 are published by W.W. Norton, Ecco/HarperCollins, and Houghton Mifflin. Ohio University Press, the University of Arkansas Press, Wake Forest University Press, and Louisiana State University Press are the only university presses represented; BOA Editions, Overlook, Graywolf, Counterpoint, and Seven Stories are the only smaller independent presses. Considering that major publishers release a small fraction of the notable poetry books published every year, Logan’s near-exclusive focus on books issued by these publishers skews his critical perspective from the outset. It’s difficult to imagine a compilation of 66 books of contemporary poetry that can be as safe as Logan’s and that omits almost every important university press that publishes poetry (California, Wesleyan, Chicago, Georgia, Iowa, Pittsburgh, Illinois) as well as nearly every small independent press (Copper Canyon, New Directions, Talisman House, Burning Deck, Story Line, etc.). For many poets and critics, contemporary poetry would be unimaginable without the work published by these presses, and Logan’s inability, or unwillingness, to acknowledge them does not instill much confidence in his grasp of the present age, be it golden or tin. Logan’s inability to find worthwhile poetry seems due, in part, to his looking for it in the wrong places.
Logan’s introduction to The Undiscovered Country illuminates his weak grasp on the current situation of poetry. This jeremiad rails against the usual enemies--cultural studies, identity politics, the confessional impulse--without engaging any of these issues. The introduction seems outdated (Logan’s diatribe against talk show poetry, for example, would have been accurate and necessary a decade ago but seems largely pointless now, not least because Charles Bernstein made similar charges--in 1980 [in “Thought’s Measure”]--and many other critics have attacked the confessional, and post-confessional, modes), as well as petty; he uses the piece to get in the last word against theory-headed colleagues and others who have disagreed with him. (He also demonstrates, throughout the book, a general disdain for his students, whose ignorance of everything from ancient Greece to scansion to Walt Whitman’s era seems to feed his apoplectic outlook.) This is unfortunate because the book’s introduction is the only thing, other than Logan’s sensibility, that might hold this miscellany together; as such, the introduction’s half-hearted attempt to make an overarching argument works against the book, especially since the crux of that argument--contemporary poetry is mostly terrible--is undermined by Logan’s blinkered view.
For a poet-critic, Logan’s breadth--or generosity--of taste is dispiriting in its narrowness. He makes virtually no discoveries, champions only the already belaureled. The most experimental poets he writes about--John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, and Anne Carson--are now safely mainstream. Only Carson maintains anything resembling a cutting-edge position, but even Harold Bloom is wild about her work. Logan seems to read every contemporary American poet through the lens of Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill, or W.H. Auden. Though Logan likes to present himself as a contrarian, his major poets are hardly unsung. Logan also seems unaware of emerging or younger poets. One of the three younger poets reviewed in this book, Joe Bolton, committed suicide in his twenties and is a former student of Logan’s. (Bolton also happens to be one of the most interesting poets Logan discusses.) Nearly all of the youngest poets discussed in The Undiscovered Country--Carl Phillips (b. 1959), Li-Young Lee (b. 1957), Henri Cole (b. 1956), Mary Jo Salter (b. 1954), Franz Wright (b. 1953), Mark Doty (b. 1953), Elizabeth Spires (b. 1952)--were born in the same decade as Logan. Deborah Garrison (b. 1965) and Kevin Young (b. 1970), along with Bolton, are the only exceptions. Few critics of Logan’s standing have discovered so little.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Logan’s strongest essays and reviews concern non-contemporary poets: Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman, Housman, Marianne Moore, Auden. In these pieces, Logan generally allows his erudition to trump outrage, even as one suspects his re-readings of these poets somehow fuel his splenetic treatments of contemporary poetry. They are more historically based, but also more informative and less judgmental. Logan seems better equipped to unpack poems than to assess them; he is a good reader but a bad judge. Still, he does not hesitate to criticize these canonical figures, as when he writes that Moore’s “animals, those refugees from medieval bestiaries and emblem books, once offered her access to an ethical world; later they seemed merely the point, or beside the point.” Of the three pieces on Shakespeare (reviews of Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, Berryman’s Shakespeare, and the third Arden edition of the sonnets and Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets), the Arden/Vendler review is the most substantial. Yet one must wonder about Logan’s compulsion toward creating (and maintaining) hierarchies when he specifies how many Shakespeare sonnets “have changed English literature” and how many he would “sell [his] soul for.” The dual focus of that compulsion--on a verifiable canon and on the critic’s own soul--seems rather charming, as does Logan’s willingness to make broad claims about Shakespeare’s fitness for sonnet writing: “Shakespeare’s rhetoric was not well adapted to the sonnet. His signature violence of language . . . rarely survives the sonnets’ casuistic wrangle of heartbreak and passion.” Logan does a fine job of excoriating the trendy idiocies of the Arden editor, Katherine Duncan-Jones, while offering measured praise for Helen Vendler’s study (partly because she is “at odds with current criticism, that tar pit of vengeance and half-baked philosophy,” partly because her criticism, at its best, “sustains itself with self-renewing insight”).
Logan’s clear-headed essay on Sylvia Plath cuts through the haze of myth that has surrounded her work. Though “Plath is as close as we have come to a serious poet formed in the supermarket, with supermarket values,” she “wrote like someone who did not have to worry about consequences.” His review of Lowell’s Collected Poems seems less successful; it skims the surface of each of Lowell’s books, offering mini-reviews with little or no new insights into the work. (His take on the Notebook/History/For Lizzie and Harriet/The Dolphin saga is an exception: “What was intimate [in Notebook] has been rendered remote, supervised, parched.”) Considering how frequently Logan cites Lowell when bemoaning the lack of talent and ambition in contemporary poets, he seems eager to replace Vendler as Lowell’s “primary idolator” (Jed Rasula’s phrase). His statement that Lowell “wrote no major poems after For the Union Dead,” then, seems refreshing in its reluctance to lionize, even if one questions the “major poems” designation.
As a prose writer, Logan has his own tics, most notably the double adjective, which sometimes exhibits an alliterative flourish--“dry, delicate talent” (Marie Ponsot), “dry, devious authority” (Mark Strand), “headlong, hell-bent hubris” (Sharon Olds)--but usually stems from an excess of his own hubris, from a need to outdo the poets being reviewed. Why else would a critic refer to Mark Doty’s “easy, gaudy style,” Anne Carson’s “jaunty, intemperate lines,” Eavan Boland’s “steamy, observant lines,” Cynthia Zarin’s “delicate, whimsical poems,” and Les Murray’s “sloppy, booming ways”? Why would he allow himself such lame redundancies as “sketchy, hither-thither manner” (Charles Wright), “clean, well-mannered lines” (Li-Young Lee), “self-medaled, self-beribboned witness” (Adrienne Rich), “cryptic, sphinxlike poet” (Geoffrey Hill), “modest, untemperamental character” (Elizabeth Spires), “static, lifeless observation” (Frieda Hughes), “tidy, delicate images” (Gjertrud Schnackenberg), “glittery, jewel-like style” (James Merrill)?
Agha Shahid Ali, being a Kashmiri-American, gets twice as many adjectives--“fabulous, delicate (even finicky), alien”--and later, Logan refers to him as “a charming, capable, even whimsical poet.” Perhaps because of her three-pronged name, Mary Jo Salter receives a trinity of adjectives from Logan for her “mousy, tense, off-kilter poems.” The double adjective appears two more times in the same paragraph: “honest, dutiful poems” and “fastidious, well-made poems.” In the space of three sentences, Logan has laid seven adjectives on Salter’s poems while saying very little about the work itself. He also compares her poems to those “a housewife would write, if there were such a thing as a housewife any more.” As if that nugget weren’t offensive enough, Logan later mentions her “hostlesslike sincerity” and “prom-dress exterior,” and toward the end of the review, her “well-mannered, well-manicured poems.” (Determined to win the award for The Most Tasteless Comment in a Review, he ends the review with “under the prim clothes there’s something wild and unmentionable and I wish she’d let it out.”) Logan’s comment on Henri Cole--“We reveal ourselves in our repetitions”--applies equally to himself as a critic, as does his comment on Jarrell: “Adjectives were not Jarrell’s strong point.”
Logan’s other major fault as a critic--his tendency toward the ad hominem attack--is what makes him an entertaining read (and a despised figure in a world full of back-scratching and false praise). These violations of critical decorum contribute more to his status as “the most hated man in American poetry” than his actual critical assessments do. Yet this matter is more than a lapse of decorum; it is a breach that undermines the reader’s trust not only in Logan as a critic but in criticism itself. A reader new to poetry, seeing Logan chastising a gay poet for his gaudy shallowness or an African-American poet for becoming a public figure, cannot be blamed for being turned off. Consider the following irrelevant comment: “Stephen Dunn is a rational man, probably a good husband and father, a generous and genial neighbor.” Predictably, this becomes a way for Logan to dismiss Dunn’s poems as “the stuff of scrapbooks.” While one might agree with Logan’s overall assessment of Dunn’s poetry, one should question his need to discuss Dunn as a person. If Dunn were an irrational man, a terrible husband and father, and selfish neighbor, would that make his poems more interesting? Of course not.
Elsewhere, he uses Kevin Young’s race as an excuse to take a shot at African-American writers in the academy, and accuses Charles Wright--one of the most prolific poets now writing--of “paralyzing laziness,” which apparently means not being as assiduous as Homer or Dante. Logan follows his half-vicious, half-perspicacious comment on Mark Doty--“Too often, he renders a world not transformed, just lacquered and varnished with a FOR SALE sign attached”--with a wholly vicious one: “If you hired him to design your house, it would end up looking like Versailles on a quarter acre, with gushing baroque fountains (concrete, not marble) and interiors by Liberace.” He might have had fun inventing this scenario, but it says nothing meaningful about Doty’s work.
The worst instance, however, concerns Rita Dove. Logan’s overarching argument--that Dove has become too famous to write good poems--turns on itself, since Logan’s entire review of Dove focuses on her fame. He spites his point to prove his point. Logan’s attack on Dove centers on her success--being named Glamour’s Woman of the Year, receiving numerous honorary doctorates, being Poet Laureate, etc.--which, he argues, has nothing to do with her poems. In other words, fame never guarantees good poetry. He’s right, of course, which makes his decision to review Dove’s career--rather than her poetry--questionable. Even when one agrees with Logan--say, when he writes, “[Eavan] Boland may want to bleed poetry, but often she just leaks self-importance,” “C.K. Williams is the guilt-ridden Peeping Tom of American poetry”--one has to question how being so personal can possibly benefit the criticism.
As entertaining as they can be, Logan’s barbs often serve as distractions from the matter supposedly at hand: the poetry. Because Logan is one of the few critics today who can write readable prose about Geoffrey Hill’s work, it’s unfortunate when he resorts to comments like “[Hill] would like to invent a poetry monks could enjoy (if poems came as hair shirts, he would have his own designer label).” There’s something schizophrenic about Logan’s critical persona: half scholar, half cocktail wag, he cannot let himself play it straight for more than a paragraph or two.
To Logan’s credit, he is willing to give a hard time to poets he usually admires--Hill, Schnackenberg, Anthony Hecht--while professing grudging admiration for poets who often annoy him--Carson, Charles Wright, Ashbery. He has come to admire Muldoon despite himself, gushing that Muldoon “sets himself impossible labors and exceeds them.” Sometimes, Logan’s put-downs can seem like wry compliments, as when he refers to Franz Wright as “a demonic version of William Carlos Williams.” And he can be brutally (and impersonally) right: “A poet’s talents exist in productive tension for only a decade or so. Before, the language is all main force, the subjects mistaken, the voice immature; after, the poet often hardens into manner.”
Logan’s model in wit, ambition, and ferocity, is, of course, Randall Jarrell. Like Jarrell, he can come up with zingers in his sleep, but Logan seldom puts them to legitimate use. His prolificness could be a source of this problem. Given limited time with which to engage a work, he too easily gives a book short shrift. If Logan were to live with a book for a year before assessing it, the resulting response would be fuller and more thoughtful, if not more positive. Logan possesses a strong mind and even stronger opinions, and despite its many faults, The Undiscovered Country is worth reading. Logan’s willingness to take a stand--even if for all the wrong reasons--distinguishes him from critics who seem intent on--and content with--passing off extended ad copy as criticism.