Reviewed: The Undiscovered Country

Reviewed: The Undiscovered Country

Reviewed: The Undiscovered Country by William Logan. Columbia University Press. 2005. 400 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0231136389

The blurb is worth reading: William Logan has been called both the “preeminent poet-critic of his generation” and the “most hated man in American poetry.” For more than a quarter century, in the keen-witted and bare-knuckled reviews that have graced the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement (London), and other journals, William Logan has delivered razor-sharp assessments of poets present and past. Logan, whom James Wolcott of Vanity Fair has praised as being “the best poetry critic in America,” vividly assays the most memorable and most damning features of a poet’s work.

Logan’s 2005 collection {1} has extended articles on Walt Whitman, Robert Penn Warren, Sylvia Plath, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Geoffrey Hill, John Ashberry, A.E. Housman, John Milton, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, John Berryman and the editorial treatment of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Other poets get a shorter look in: Mark Doty, J.D. McClatchy, Marie Ponsot, Deborah Garrison, Andrew Hudgins, Mark Strand, Paul Muldoon, Rita Dover, Adrienne Rich, Eavan Bolan, Louise Gluumlautck, Frieda Hughes, Mary Jo Salter, Anne Carson, Sharon Olds, Glyn Maxwell, Phillip Levine, David Mamet, Joe Bolton, Richard Wilber, Thom Gunn, Derek Walcott, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, C.K. Williams, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Michael Longley, Franz Wright, Anthony Hecht, Stephen Dunn, Carl Phillips, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Maxime Kumin, Agha Shahid Ali, James Lasdun, Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Wright,  Alan Dugan, Cynthia Zarin, Dick Davis, Jorie Graham, Li-Young Lee, Elizabeth Spires, B.H. Fairchild, Glyn Maxwell, Kevin Yung, Karl Kircgwey, Les Murray and Henri Cole — few of whom Logan likes very much.

But it’s one thing to speak your mind, and avoid the usual mealy-mouthed review, and quite another to set the ‘phrasemaking machine to its usual setting’ {2} and belabour the offender with knock-about if often very funny send-ups of failings beyond their power to correct. The first example in the book: Doty is one of our more talented younger poets, full of the pizzazz of language; but you can take only so much pizzazz. At the drop of a hat, he’s seized by rapture—and that’s just in daily life. When it comes to sex, he’s Judy Garland bursting into song:  . . Sex makes a lot of sensible people go a little goofy; yet the campy tone (“God, my dear …., is in the damages”) grows insipid fairly quickly, as does the handkerchief-grabbing sentiment — some poems are so life-enhancing they need their own twelve-step programs. Good seaside entertainment, of course, except to the recipient: put up a straw-man and get Mr. Punch to beat the stuffing out of it. And perhaps that’s preferable to those prose poems that fellow poets concoct when reviewing each other’s work.

So, to ask the obvious: are William Logan’s own poems any better? Yes, sort of. None of the 25 pieces showcased on the Poetry Foundation site {3} is bad in the way of so many in the list above. They show wide reading, intelligence, a sharp eye and a serviceable knowledge of the craft. But they also, if we want a phrase à la Logan, come out as cold metal pressings, intelligent MFA manufactures that lack originality and a generous empathy with the human condition. Yes, we can see the poet at work, constructing lines to leave very few clichés or borrowings from others. And true, the themes are developed sensibly, and the poems securely rounded off. There are few wrong notes, moreover, and certainly nothing to make us squirm with embarrassment. But there is equally little of the poet’s special sensitivity to the larger dimensions of words  necessary to cadence lines pleasingly and make their phrasings seem inevitable. Logan’s poems do not build on each other, or do not seem to, and there is therefore no slowly emerging internal landscape that poets make distinctly theirs. Logan has great respect for openness and vulnerability — admiring Lowell’s later work, for example, far more than I do — but too many of his own poems can be summed up in Pope’s words:

Yet Cloë sure was formed without a Spot—
’Tis true, but something in her was forgot.
With ev’ry pleasing, every prudent part,
Say what can Cloë want? She wants a heart.

But this is true only in a very general way, and generalizations can short-change the reader. To illustrate, some quick impressions of Logan’s poems: Totenlieder does have a heart. To a Wedding has jocular (and appalling) rhymes. Thoreau doesn’t make sense. Tree Frogs has a galumping meter but a good line in they hovered above the speckled pond’s black mirror. The adjectives (sullen, ragged) don’t work in The Other Place. The Object is contrived and unconvincing. The New (Upper) Assembly Rooms doesn’t take us anywhere new. The Moth Disturbs the Night is excellent: I’m not sure why the (nocturnal) owl sleeps but such lines as Overthrows the violent night/With quiet heat, and A long absence of sleep . . . Cannot dilute and many others do have a fierce delicacy of phrasing that bears much rereading. The Desert of Reminiscence is equally good, the conceit or double meaning of letters in the third line earning its pay in a manner the last line of The Box Kite doesn’t. The Age of Ballroom Dining is a weird mixture of surrealism and eighteenth century formality with a silly ending. Song needs developing. Queen Square is an entertaining piece, but the rhythm in the last three lines needs damping down. Adjectives in Over the Dead Flatness of the Fens have a ‘do or die’ determination to be present: steam soiled, lumpish, tarred, jellied, oily add nothing but unpleasantness. On the Wood Stalks has a lot wrong with it: clichés in gathered gloom, floated faintly, redeeming bell  ‘somehow that’ should be that somehow, rhyme that’s not properly maintained and those days you felt in need is incomplete (of the nothing or blackened reeds?). Monocular is all over the place. There are good lines in Medusae (each marking the currents/With a transparent grace) but the tentacles of dreams/ The evanescent jellyfish is more ingenious than convincing, as is the whole poem. Larkin is lugubriously apt, with its mischievous like a boiled egg with spectacles. In Joseph Conrad ‘Exile’ should be ‘Exiled’ and the last line is aimlessly tacked on. In the Gallery of the Ordinary is muddled: it’s not that the clouds/ possess the grandeur of eighteenth-century oils but (Logan is arguing — wrongly, I’d have thought) but that we see clouds differently now. In December, Thirty-One Moons is a good poem marred by a couple of slips: ‘Its’ should be ‘In’ and ‘needle size’ doesn’t make much sense (the moon waxes and wanes just the same every month: it’s the sharp, thin appearance in winter that Logan is probably trying to convey). Christmas Trees has some unnecessary wrapping and ‘perhaps’ in perhaps for the last time needs something stronger. Strict forms get Animal Actors on the English Stage After 1642 into a lot of trouble: words stacked up like trailers to meet the rhyme, and silliness (and the north/ the stunned survivors . . . lime trees burned . . . chastened/ seditiously, etc.) Perhaps it’s just a bit of fun. Anamnesis is tame but successful. A Valentine for Matthew Arnold is crass and pretentious (empty orders of gods. Demons of the mind), employing tired phrases while the old order is being described (slow angers, hollow stares, rare expectations, shoddy evening).

Do these one-liners give us a fair impression of Logan’s poems? No, but then perhaps it’s not the reviewer’s job to hand down summaries without saying exactly what does and does not work, and why. Critics a poet will actually listen to also need show how to fix the problems.

The brief reviews are therefore unhelpful, but are their quality ratings to be trusted? Do their authors deserve this treatment? Probably. On the basis of the work Logan illustrates, matters are now rather dire in the American Republic of Letters. And these are not neophytes but poets putting out their umpteenth collection through prestigious publishing houses.

Logan doesn’t always go for the knockout. On the major poets he is appreciative, balanced, perceptive and unafraid of controversy. With Sylvia Plath, he notes: Plath existed only in the words that gave her identity: she was imagined by her fictions.. . Her poems are allegories of the literal — you can never trust their raw facts . . .  In a strict sense, Plath was not a confessional poet, because she could never admit she was wrong.  But that is prefaced by: It doesn’t demystify her unhappiness to suggest that the poems are a simulacrum, an imitation, and that Plath’s anguish was less original than the means she chose to express it.

Of Marianne Moore he is similarly unsparing: Moore was an intrepid and reckless reviser of her work (one who preferred the ax to the scalpel), taking poems cast into delicate stanzas, among the most beautiful syllabic verse ever written, hacking out lines here and there or crushing their fine crystalline structures into squarish masses closer to prose, and then printing the mutilated versions without apology. But adds: Marianne Moore is loved for her beasts—her jerboa, her ostrich, her pangolin. Late in life, when the brilliant strangeness of her early poems had receded into the mists, she became a fabulous beast herself, poetry’s most endearing mascot.

‘The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’ is one of Lowell’s best poems but so much sound and fury can’t help being willed and portentous. ‘Life Studies’ is a queer, malformed book — that is its brilliance. . .  Imitations is a messy, debt-ridden, out-at-elbows book, containing some superb English verse. Who could argue with that?

About the dog’s breakfast critics have made of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Logan is mischievous but surely right — don’t academics use editors? —  though his own textural amendments seem hardly better.

No one, I think, will buy Logan’s book as an introduction to the contemporary poetry scene, but those who stare incredulously at rave reviews of modest accomplishments may well find it a useful prophylactic. Stephen Sossaman, an Amazon reviewer, put the matter succinctly:

Poetry is the only art form in America that I can think of that no longer has a bracing tradition of real criticism. Novels, plays, films, operas . . . we expect critics to note honestly whatever flaws and failures they see in specific works. Critical reviews often hurt box offices and egos, but without them an art atrophies. . . To see if Logan’s reviews are memorable, startling, and true for you, you can sample them at the web site of The New Criterion, but you might as well get this book now and dip into it now and again as a tonic against the hushed reverence that too often greets bland, lazy or meretricious poetry.

Sources and Further Reading

1. The Undiscovered Country by William Logan. Columbia University Press, 2005.

2. All this Scratching and Erasing: All This Scratching and Erasing: A Critical look at new prose from William Logan, Fanny Howe and W.S. Di Peiro by Joel Brouwer. Poetry Foundation. June 2000.

3. William Logan. Poetry Foundation. Accessed September 2013.

Relevant Website Pages

Language Poetry.

Open Forms in Poetry.

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