Poetry's cruelest and guiltiest pleasure.

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Jan. 28 2002 4:54 PM

Versed Nightmare

The most hated man in American poetry is also its guiltiest pleasure.

A recent issue of the Paris Review asked poetry critics to describe the most memorable author responses their reviews had ever provoked. Several of them talked about friendships sparked by favorable notices. One told of a grateful poet who mailed him "a beautiful fossil." Harold Bloom remembered Elizabeth Bishop saying she preferred his review to all others. Then William Logan answered:

One Pulitzer Prize winner claimed he wanted to run me over in his car. Two poets have written poems about their reviews, a witty and productive response to adversity (if only the poems had been better!). And another Pulitzer winner tried to buy every local copy of The New York Times Book Review, to keep anyone in town from reading the reviews.

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For the most part, academic poetry has managed to remain free of the rivalries, violence, and excess that trouble its more flamboyant cousin, gangsta rap. William Logan probably won't change that, but he is remarkably good at bringing out the bellicosity in a historically peaceful people. Logan, a professor of English at the University of Florida and a prolific critic, dislikes most contemporary poetry and likes letting that be known. If you write a book of poems, he'll pan it. If you write a poem about being panned, he'll pan that, too. He's a perpetual demotion machine. "I could almost review Adrienne Rich in my sleep (sometimes, reading her, I feel I am asleep)," begins one recent appreciation. Rich got off easy. Mary Oliver's "bland, consolatory poetry is a favorite of people who don't like poetry," and Les Murray's stanzas seem "badly translated out of Old Church Slavonic with only a Russian phrase book at hand."

Poets enthusiastically return the disfavor, of course, but Logan wears their animus like a merit badge. Look again at that Paris Review paragraph: He brandishes those Pulitzers as though they were his own. The Hudson Review once called him "the most hated man in American poetry"; he was so flattered, he began using it as a cover blurb.

The outrageous simile is Logan's weapon of choice, but he's got an arsenal. There's the caricature, the armchair psychobiography, the damning with inaudible praise, the insult within an insult, and the dreaded bait-and-switch—Logan will sometimes feint with his whole body in the direction of approval, then double-cross at the last possible moment:

[Philip Levine] long ago learned how to shape a sentence, and sometimes you can almost see him measure one by eye and plane it with his hands. I once saw a glassblower in Venice with such hands. He took the glaring bulb of glass from the furnace with his glassblower's pipe, and blew it and shaped it as it glowed. At each step it was a thing of extraordinary beauty, a bow toward the antique arts. In the end he gave a deft twist, a knowing knock, then held it out—and Ecco!, it was an ashtray.

There are good reasons, of course, to see Logan solely as a source of escapist entertainment. For all his curmudgeonly consistency, he is full of contradictions. He dresses himself as an enemy of dishonesty, but some of his assessments are like fun-house mirrors, relying on distortion for their effects. Reading the poems of C.K. Williams, Logan writes, is "like watching a dog eat its own vomit." No, it's not, and like the boy who cried "wolf," the critic who cries "dog vomit" does so at some cost to his credibility. Logan holds his nose in the presence of most autobiographical poetry, but he's happy to get personal when it suits his critical needs. "[I]t's a bit much," he writes of Mary Oliver, "when such a poet says, 'What will ambition do for me that the fox .../ has not already done?' Oliver has an agent and has not objected to the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She's not spending all her spare moments working on transcendence." This is Logan at his pettiest—reviewing résumés rather than poems.

Then there's the matter of his own poetry. The author of five collections, Logan tends to write a chilly, impersonal line. His poems have all the erudition of his reviews, but little of their vitality and swagger. And he commits offenses for which he'd pillory any other poet. Logan loathes contrived drama in poetry; how would he treat the lines, "The Spanish moss like hunger/ hangs from the dogwood tree,/ and no one pays the phone bill/ of eternity" if they'd come to him in a review copy, rather than in a moment of inspiration? He writes that Derek Walcott's rhymes are self-evidently "awful"; Les Murray's are "dreadful." This from the perpetrator of "To a Mirror," a poem that contains the lines, "No one who tried to stay in you/ would ever know to pray for you./ The words I would evade in you/ are lost in Everglades of you." Physician, heal thyself.

Still, judging Logan by his poetry is a little like judging Mary Oliver by her agent. It misses the point. Logan is, finally, a skillful and a useful critic. The same love of crispness and clarity that leads him to pass facile judgments also helps him, twice as often, say something essential with epigrammatic concision. Clichés, he writes, are "truth frozen into fraud." Robert Lowell's Life Studies "judged an America whose symptoms it exhibited." Reviewing a recent Library of Congress anthology, Logan wrote with remarkable evenhandedness about some of the past century's most uneven poetry, admiring the "beautiful hesitations and releases" in Ezra Pound's Cantos.

That's what's most valuable about Logan's criticism—the sincerity of his praise. Logan does, periodically and grudgingly, give positive reviews, and it's impossible to distrust a compliment that's coming through clenched teeth. His recommendation means something.

The world of poetry is small—two degrees of separation at most—and its little magazines teem with critics praising, for social and professional reasons, books they'll never open again. Logan may be wrong half the time, but he's right that poetry criticism needs more candor. He's right that "for every Stevens underrated, a hundred Robert Hillyers are called geniuses." I believe the world of poetry needs William Logan. And I'll continue believing it until the day he reviews me.

Eric McHenry is the author of Potscrubber Lullabies, which received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He teaches at Washburn University.

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