David Lehman uses half his introduction to Best American Poetry 2009 to attack William Logan.
Now we know things are really out of hand.
Lehman creeps up on his prey by first alluding to negative criticism in general:
“The notion that the job of the critic is to find fault with the poetry — that the aims of criticism and of poetry are opposed — is still with us or, rather, has returned after a hiatus.”
But who would argue against the idea that one of the functions of criticism is to find fault with poetry? Lehman implies that this “hiatus” was a good thing. No finding fault with poetry! Ever!
Even if Lehman is speaking of criticism rather than reviewing, why shouldn’t criticism be able to find fault?
“The critical essays of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are continuous with their poems and teach us that criticism is a matter not of enforcing the “laws of aesthetics” or meting out sentences as a judge might pronounce them in court. Rather, the poet as critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them. Yet today more than a few commentators seem intent on punishing the authors they review. It has grown into a phenomenon.”
Lehman has obviously never read T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Edgar Poe (From Poe to Valery, 1949) in which Eliot “punishes” Poe severely. Poe alone has been attacked by any number of critics: Yvor Winters, Aldous Huxley, Harold Bloom, T.S Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch, and earlier this year in the New Yorker by a history professor at Harvard. In fact, there has been no “hiatus” when the target is America’s greatest writer. Negative reviewing was, of course, practiced by Poe, among other things, and Poe said it very explicitly: “A criticism is just that—a criticism.”
When Lehman says, “A critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them” he sounds like a person who wants to eat without chewing. When did “enjoyment” of literature preclude honest opinion about it? Does Lehman seriously believe that being “nice” to a poem is how we “enjoy” it? What does he think we are? Little kids?
Lehman, like Camille Paglia, is dismissive of ‘French Theory:’
“The characteristic badness of literary criticism in the 1980s was that it was heavily driven by theory and saddled with an unlovely vocabulary. T. S. Eliot, in “The Function of Criticism” (1923), says he “presumes” that “no exponent of criticism” has “ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity” — that is, an activity to be undertaken as an end in itself without connection to a work of literature. Eliot did not figure on post-structuralism and the critic’s declaration of independence from the text. If you wanted criticism “constantly to be confronted with examples of poetry,” as R. P. Blackmur recommends in “A Critic’s Job of Work,” you were in for a bad time in the 1980s.”
But even worse than critics off in a world of their own, according to Lehman, are critics who review poetry without being nice:
“Every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one. As a reviewer, you’re not human if you don’t give vent to your outrage once or twice — if only to get the impulse out of you. If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you’ll injure not only your sensibility but your soul. Frank O’Hara felt he had no responsibility to respond to a bad poem. It’ll “slip into oblivion without my help,” he would say.”
Actually, it’s not “easier” to write a “ruthless” review–erudition and patience go into “ruthless” reviews all the time. It’s easier to be funny, perhaps, when being ruthless; this, I will grant, but ruthless without humor falls flat; ruthless and humorous is devastating–the review every poet fears.
As for O’Hara’s remark–echoed by contemporary critic Stephen Burt: Isn’t the critic a philosopher? And when would you ever tell a philosopher: ‘only write about the good stuff?’
Now Lehman goes after his real target–William Logan.
“William Logan typifies the bilious reviewer of our day. He has attacked, viciously, a great many American poets; I, too, have been the object of his scorn. Logan is the critic as O’Hara defined the species: “the assassin of my orchards.” You can rely on him to go for the most wounding gesture. Michael Palmer writes a “Baudelaire Series” of poems, for example, and Logan comments, “Baudelaire would have eaten Mr. Palmer for breakfast, with salt.” The poems of Australian poet Les Murray seem “badly translated out of Old Church Slavonic with only a Russian phrase book at hand.” Reviewing a book by Adrienne Rich is a task that Logan feels he could almost undertake in his sleep. Reading C. K. Williams is “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.”
For many years, Logan reserved his barbs for the poets of our time. More recently he has sneered at Emily Dickinson (“a bloodless recluse”) and condescended to Emerson (“a mediocre poet”).”
Oh Lehman, stop being such a big baby. Emerson was a mediocre poet. Logan has praised Dickinson’s work–calling her a ‘bloodless recluse’ is well…kinda…true. Should there really be a law against giving Frank O’Hara or C.K. Williams or Hart Crane a bad review?
Far better poets have been far more vilified–and for political reasons, too.
Logan is merely expressing his taste.
Lehman, you shouldn’t take this so personally.
One person finds the weather too cold and goes indoors; another remains outside because they find the weather pleasant.
‘But,’ Lehman might reply, ‘ poets are not the weather, they create in order to please.’
All the more reason why there should be a wider divergence of opinion on poems than the weather.
Poems ask us to love them, and in ways far more nuanced than a breezy, foggy evening balanced between warm and cold.
There is nothing worse for poetry in general than telling people they have to like it. Critics like Poe and Logan actually help the cake to rise.
Don’t you remember what Keats said about the talking primrose? It tells us to like it. So we don’t.
It goes without saying that I don’t agree with all of Logan’s judgments, but simple common sense impels this question:
Which statement is crazier?
I don’t like Hart Crane’s poetry.
Everyone has to like Hart Crane’s poetry.