Thursday, October 02, 2008

William Logan, Redux

Some twenty months after savaging The Library of America's Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters (2006) in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, William Logan has surfaced in the October, 2008, Poetry to respond to the many critics of that review. In the first paragraph of his essay, Logan also asks an interesting question that he never bothers to answer: "Why give the critic the last word?"

Why indeed, one might ask the editors of Poetry, particularly when that critic is the egregious William Logan?

In his Poetry essay, Logan names only two of the poets whose responsive letters were published in the New York Times Book Review: Paul Mariani and Daniel Halpern. Logan's response to their more general criticism of his review is to dither about minutiae (in answer to Mariani) and to prop up an illogical straw-man argument about Halpern's premise and thump that scarecrow to the ground. Lost--through the intervening twenty months and within his self-serving argument--is any genuine response from Logan to the actual criticism (by Mariani, Halpern, and others) of his NYTBR review--a criticism that defended Hart Crane's poetry and the importance of his work and a response that suggested the poetry community at large has had enough of Logan's peevishness.

So, rather than let William Logan have "the last word"--at least in my small corner of the poetry world--I am reposting, verbatim, my original comment on his NYTBR review, which appeared in "Sonnets at 4 A.M." on January 28, 2007:

I was disturbed by William Logan's review of Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters (Library of America, 2006) in today's New York Times.* I wondered, after Logan's sneer-filled dismissal of Crane, why the Library of America wasted 849 pages on a poet so readily judged a failure:

"Defensive about his lack of education, a Midwestern striver out of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Crane tried to make it among the big-city literary men, gripping a rum in one hand and a copy of 'The Wasteland' in the other. Had beauty been enough, he might even have succeeded."

After telling us that Crane's early poetry "showed more style than talent," that Crane's poem "Chaplinesque" is a "dreadful mess," after sniffing at Crane's "voracious sexual appetites"--is there any American critic (or poet) more afraid of the human body than William Logan?--the critic writes of Crane's great project, "The Bridge":

"Much of 'The Bridge' seems inert now--overlong, overbearing, overwrought, a Myth of America conceived by Tiffany and executed by Disney. Crane imagined the Brooklyn Bridge as a mystical symbol for art, for history, for America, for any old thing; in this spiritual version of Manifest Destiny, he threw his poem backward to Columbus and worked forward to the invention of the airplane. The canvas was broad, but its success would have required a language less Alexandrian than Crane possessed. At his best, he stayed just this side of wild-eyed prophesying, though his grandeurs might easily be mistaken for grandiosity..."

I have friends--otherwise bright people, mind you--who actually like Logan's criticism; people who find Logan's work in the New Criterion and elsewhere "intelligent" and "bracing." I don't. I think his critical work is annoying, predictable and consistently mean-spirited.** I think even less of Logan as a poet. His claim that Crane's work is "inert" is almost laughable. Years ago, I paid $1.92 at a circus-tent "Book Blowout" for a remaindered copy of Sullen Weedy Lakes, Logan's third collection, a book so bloodless, so dead-on-the-page, I still think he owes me change.

Yes, Hart Crane's life was a mess. He drank too much, loved profligately and died too young. But he left us with poems like "My Grandmother's Love Letters," "Sunday Morning Apples," the "Voyages" sequence, all of "Key West: An Island Sheaf," and yes, "The Bridge." That is far more than poets like Logan have ever put on the table.

And Crane, for all the despair that led to his too-early death, also offered hope (instead of cynicism) for what we might accomplish as writers. In his Introduction to Marc Simon's edition of The Poems of Hart Crane (Liverwright, 1986) John Unterecker*** speaks of a letter Crane wrote to his father, a man who made his fortune as a candy manufacturer in Cleveland, and a man who hoped that his son might one day take over the family business:

"It was a difficult letter for Crane to write, for, as he was careful to indicate, he had no contempt for his father's world and his father's values. The 'dimensional world' has very real satisfactions. At the end of his letter, Crane tried hard to explain why creating something as useless and as invaluable as art seems to him the highest possible goal he could set for himself.

'And in closing I would like to just ask you to think sometimes,--try to imagine working for the pure love of simply making something beautiful,--something that maybe can't be sold or used to help sell anything else, but that is simply a communication between a man and a man, a bond of understanding and human enlightenment--which is what a real work is. If you do that, then maybe you will see why I am not so foolish after all to have followed what seems sometimes only a faint star. I only ask to leave behind me something that the future may find valuable, and it takes a bit of sacrifice sometimes in order to give the thing that you know is in yourself and worth giving. I shall make every sacrifice toward that end.'"


*"Hart Crane's Bridge to Nowhere," New York Times Book Review, (January 28, 2007)

**My thanks to "Avoiding the Muse" for a reference to Brian Henry's recent remarks on the critical work of William Logan. Here is a link:

Verse Magazine

***John Unterecker is Crane's biographer. See: Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane (W.W. Norton & Company, 1987)


Blogger Collin said...

Logan's reviews are useless to me. He can't put aside his own ego to give a review worth real consideration. I don't read him.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Justin Evans said...

This reaffirms my theory that every poet secretly wants to be Hart Crane.

I've been saying it for years, but more and more I see evidence that I am on the right track.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Leslie said...

Listen: I think you're right. He does owe you change. In fact, I think he might owe storage fees as well.

(Wasn't that a Loganesque crack?)

I agree with Collin: Logan can't stop showing everyone how smart and sarcastic he is—always at someone else's expense.

8:36 PM  
Blogger The Weaver of Grass said...

An interesting read, particularly as I know neither poet nor critic! But I do know that those of us who strive to say something in as good a poem as we can muster, are never helped by unkind, adverse comments from "The Critics". I really welcome constructive comments about how I could improve a line or enhance a meaning - but critics who carp and snipe have a lot to answer for.

5:05 AM  
Blogger Stephanos said...

Right on about Logan! Bravo.

4:45 PM  
Blogger glenby said...

You're absolutely right about Logan and Crane. Not academic, not poet. Long-ago UF Eng Dept chairman got boot-licked into hiring him and tho he sends out many resume, no one will have him, nor his wife. He envies Crane not just his talent but his balls. Logan: the most castrated lily white politically correct boring piece of shit on earth. His poetry reflects him exactly.

8:19 PM  
Blogger davideberhardt said...

I have posted a fuller defense of Logan in a letter to the NY Times Bk Review and on the Poetry Magazine/Foundation blog of controversy over Logan on Hart Crane-
I note that not in the bulk of this article nor the comments afterwards are there any specifics on Logan's complaints- just windy pontification. Please get specific.

I think living poets can stand a bit of criticism- they're generally so passionless and arch, so New Yorkerish. (except for Merwin, Wilbur, Rich, Snyder, Olds, Bly, Gilbert, Barks/Rumi and all my friends on Poetry in Baltimore.)

3:39 PM  

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