JUNE 13, 2021
WILLIAM LOGAN, who has published 11 books of poetry and eight of criticism, is well known for his no-holds-barred, searingly honest “Verse Chronicle,” a review column in The New Criterion. His latest collection is Broken Ground: Poetry and the Demon of History.
PIOTR FLORCZYK: Forgive me for opening with a grim statement, but you are, as a poet-critic, a member of a dying breed, not the least because, as you remind us, “America is suspicious of the man who wears more than one hat.” What’s more, for reasons we’re about to get into, American poets shy away from commenting on the work of their fellow poets, even though doing so would allow them additional insight into their own poetry. What’s the relationship between your poetry and your critical work?
WILLIAM LOGAN: I doubt critics of a critical temper are dying out, but grumpy critics rarely remain grumpy very long. John Simon, whose temperament even I sometimes found captious, was still growling into his 90s. A number of critics of my generation and the generation after came out roaring in their 20s but stopped writing criticism within a decade. Critics who fail to go along to get along are punished, supposedly. It may not be entirely untrue — I’ve been told twice that I was on track to win some small award, which went sideways when one of the judges raged about my criticism. If that’s the punishment the world metes out, it’s a revenge small and pathetic — and hilarious.
To your question, though. If there’s some relation between my poetry and my criticism, other than a very occasional grimness or stringency of tone, I have no idea what.
Plenty of poems and reviews continue to be written and published, but the relationship between poets and those who write about their work has changed. As you say, many up-and-coming critics, who also happen to be poets (or vice versa), are afraid of antagonizing the community, whose approval they so badly crave, with a less-than-glowing review. What’s your advice for emerging poet-critics about to take the plunge?
Critics, critics who criticize and are not just play-acting, accept the critic’s code announced in Genesis: “His hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.” I’m hardly the first critic to quote that. As for younger critics, I doubt they would take my advice even if offered.
Many poets (and writers, and publishers) believe that the act of writing a negative review is a waste of time, and that the energy and effort should be directed at elevating deserving books instead. Aside from effectively narrowing the conversation about the state of poetry, as it were, this stance hints at the poetry community’s deep-seated insecurity in general. I’m no fan of rabid hatchet jobs, but I do learn a lot from reading intelligent and insightful takedowns. Don’t you think we’d all benefit if poets started taking themselves less seriously?
If all criticism were to descend into puffery, what would be the point of reading it? We already have blurbs for Barnum-style hoopla, and they’re painful to read. There’s no book of poems so bad that someone somewhere won’t declare it full of wonders. If poetry is, as Pound claimed, news that stays news, let’s treat it with respect, not like some wounded sibling of major arts. Poetry should not become an art now so minor we must pretend it’s doing serious work, no matter how awful the poems are. The critic’s job is not to puff and blow fair winds.
The last two sentences of Broken Ground read: “Poetry will never have the audience of Game of Thrones — that is what television can do. Poetry is what language alone can do.” Reading your criticism, especially the shorter pieces originally published in your “Verse Chronicle” column in The New Criterion, makes it clear that you pay a great deal of attention to the language of poems. What are your thoughts about today’s privileging of subject over style or, dare I say, craft?
I’d rather read poetry that said interesting things in interesting ways, that used language as a species of delight, rather than be forced to read poetry that has an “important” subject or, worse yet, a mission. Save me from missionaries. There was plenty of such guff in the ’30s, when a lot of poets wore their social conscience on their sleeve. It makes dire reading now; and to good critics it made dire reading then. The poet who can handle politics is spectacularly rare — but then so is the poet who can handle love.
In one of your pieces you write, “An Eliot or a Lowell, who reinvents himself brilliantly every book or two, is the rarest phenomenon in art, rarer even than genius.” As reviewers, shouldn’t we distinguish between those who fail because they have a wooden ear or weren’t good to begin with and those who fail because they exert and push themselves in new directions? Just as it’s supremely boring to read a book of poems lacking in variety, it’s equally tiring to see the same stuff from a successful poet book after book.
Supremely gifted poets who fail to evolve are rare — the only major example that occurs to me is Thomas Hardy. There are poets like Frost, like Eliot, whose best work was compressed into a relatively short span — and Eliot, of course, after a dry period, produced Four Quartets in his 50s, then in the last decades of his life wrote no more poetry worth reading. We can’t control or restrict the imagination, and some poets are — I don’t want to say doomed — fated to bring their work to a certain perfection and never tamper with it again. There’s great risk to changing your style radically. And great reward — if you succeed.
Most poets are content — too content — to do again whatever brought them success; and their poems lie on the page, swaddled in a style. For all but a few poets, that’s a terrible strategy, the golden ticket to diminishing returns. Think of a counterexample, Elizabeth Bishop, each of whose books seems an advance on the last, though some of the poems in the last book were first written in the decade after she graduated from Vassar. Your question begs questions — but the short answer must be that a critic should of course make a distinction between kinds of failure, just as he must between kinds of success. The poet who writes one magnificent sonnet must be given his due, or hers. The poet with ears of wood may still deserve a laurel branch.
Do you think bad writing or minor poets have a role to play in the poetry ecosystem? I would think so, especially if we can tell the difference between good and bad writing, and for that, of course, we need to be able to freely share our opinions about what we read. My thinking on the topic of “what are bad poets for” is informed by the world of sports: Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer in United States history, no doubt about it, but he wouldn’t have become so without all the minnows he trained with and raced along the way.
Most poets in the long run are minor poets — they form the backdrop, the funeral curtain, for the few who are better. It can take decades for a consensus to emerge. Critics of the day offer only a first sampling, and inevitably they’ll get a lot of things wrong. Ezra Pound will long be remembered for what the did for Eliot and Frost, among others. He also backed a number of poets simply embarrassing now. Auden, in the 13 years he judged the Yale Series of Younger Poets, chose no one in two of those years, and two of the poets he did choose died young. Among his nine other choices were Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, James Wright, and W. S. Merwin. The slightly less successful poets he chose were John Hollander, Daniel Hoffman, and William Dickey. Robert Horan and Rosalie Moore were the only two poets who despite living a long life never achieved much of a reputation. No judge for any contest, before or since, had such keen eyesight.
So, sure, we don’t learn enough about art by looking only at masterworks. For any depth, we must look at the also-rans with talent that could never equal the masters. Then we see how much further the masters were able to go. It would all be easier, of course, if poetry generated BA, OBP, and slugging percentage. Art can’t be reduced to baseball stats.
In one of your essays, while discussing British imports, you make the claim that “most poets don’t travel well; apart from an oddity like Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott, poets are rarely known outside their home countries (worse, they’re rarely known outside their hometowns).” I couldn’t agree more; in the world of translation, for instance, poets with a strong individual idiolect are disadvantaged in comparison to those whose language seems universal (not to say generic), which makes them easier to translate. I’m curious, do you find American poetry, and the criticism written about it, too homogenized, especially since, as you write, “American poets are too often rewarded for an aw-shucks vision of immensities”?
There’s always a period style, or a bunch of period styles, no matter where you are. The style of our moment happens to be earnest, dull, unadventurous, and complacent, and probably makes readers duller by the book. The poets I’ve reviewed who have my respect are often writing against the grain, or possess the talent to make whatever they write gripping.
Many poets whose work you’ve reviewed found your comments acerbic, to say the least, and one even threatened to inflict bodily harm on you. Reading Broken Ground, I kept wondering: When you choose to review a poetry book, do you do so because you find it that good or that bad? After all, underhanded compliment never killed anyone.
I’m not sure what an “underhanded compliment” is. Damning with faint praise or praising with faint damns? I review books I react to — the great majority of modestly talented or mildly interesting books don’t provoke me enough for me to raise my pen. I’m more likely to review books I’m surprised and delighted by, however few, and poets who have been wildly overpraised. I’ll also review books about which I have mixed feelings — I reviewed a lot of John Ashbery, because my opinion so often wavered, like a spark gap between two electrodes.
Would you yourself be open to naming any poets whose work might be read 30, 50 years from now?
Certainly, but my reviews have placed those bets already. Among poets not entirely obvious (Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill, say), I’d put reasonable wagers on Gjertrud Schnackenberg (early books), Henri Cole (later books), Amy Clampitt, Jorie Graham (second and third books), Ada Limón, and one or two others. I hope that serious but modest poets like Claudia Emerson are not forgotten, either. These are obviously hedge bets.
As you mention in one of your pieces, many beloved poets — Moore and Bishop and Larkin, among others (Szymborska!) — were not prolific at all. This fact clashes with the MFA model, which seems to encourage consistent practice that can also moonlight as an excuse for graphomania. As a longtime teacher of creative writing, what wisdom you hope to impart to your students?
I wouldn’t characterize anything I teach as wisdom. Teachers who act like gurus always seemed a little shady to me. I try to expose students, at the least, to English poetry since Whitman and Dickinson, bringing them up through the modernists to the generation born in the ’20s and ’30s, with a smattering of poets thereafter. It’s never healthy to teach too much poetry of the moment — my taste might be too much at variance with theirs, and they should in any case begin to discover poets for themselves. Beyond that, I try to teach craft — and I give them snake-bit assignments to push them to write.
Finally, I want to end where we started, with mentioning your work as a poet. If we agree that most, if not all, criticism is autobiographical, what are the things you dislike about your own poems? Are there things you wished you were better at?
I’ll leave such matters to my critics. The poet is the last to know.
Piotr Florczyk is an award-winning poet, essayist, and translator of Polish poetry. Born and raised in Kraków, Poland, he has lived in the US since 1994. For more info, please visit www.piotrflorczyk.com.