William Logan: School of Smirking Badass
The best reviewers make us laugh.
Laughter is just reward for the pain of pretentious, tedius, over-inflated writing.
The bad writer turns gold (nature) into lead (his work), and when, in turn, honorifics are bestowed upon that bad writing, the lead becomes millstones about our necks.
The good critic turns this lead and these millstones into gold (laughter).
There is no single individual (they are always alone) so vital in Letters than a good reviewer.
Without the good reviewer, our literary gardens would be weeds—and worse, the weeds would all be thought of as fruits and flowers.
Ron Silliman includes William Logan in his School Of Quietude, but this is a vile misnomer: Logan, like Poe (responsible for the term) provokes loud noises (both indignant on one hand, and merry on the other) with an eye that sees through quackery.
Join us for a little merriment, then, with our greatest living critic, William Logan:
Rae Armantrout’s poems are micro-dreams of sly vanity, their brute coyness typical of much late-generation avant-garde poetry. Money Shot lives in stark juxtapositions—sometimes there’s a snippet of science (“each// stinging jelly/ is a colony”), sometimes a scrap of old-fashioned suburban imagism (“Stillness of gauzy curtains// and the sound/ of distant vacuums”), sometimes a touch of cut-rate surrealism (“Give a meme/ a hair-do”).
The “money shot” is a porn-factory term for filmed ejaculation, the eruptus of coitus interruptus. The dust jacket demurely shows the Duchess of Alba’s hand from Goya’s famous portrait—the connection is scarcely less mystifying than a few of the poems, though it could allude to her alleged affair with the painter, her supposed appearance as “The Naked Maja,” the price of Goya’s commissions, or any number of things. It’s a tease, as much of Armantrout’s work is a tease.
Most of her poems offer little resistance to the conscientious reader (the book could be read on a lunch break), but now and then they revel in the iffiness to which experimental poetry is dedicated:
Able to exploit pre-
IndyMac was one of the big failed banks, the Independent National Mortgage Corporation.
Armantrout commented on this passage in an interview with Chicago Weekly Online: “‘Mac’
. . . suggests McDonald’s, but also now ‘Mac’ing down’ on something, or ‘pac-man’—suggests a greedy franchise. And it’s paired with the word Indy, which suggests independent boutiques.
. . . Then ‘Able to exploit pre-/ existing’—that’s a phrase that I got from a newspaper article about banking. . . . You know, the banking system was able to exploit the pre-existing blah-blah-blah. And then the poem breaks into single syllables: ‘Tain.// Per. In. Con./ Cyst.’ All those syllables . . . occur in words like maintain, retain, persist, insist, consist, and then there’s just the word—cyst. I guess the words that are just syllables are a kind of cyst, free floating references to acquisition and attainment.”
This is not nearly as helpful as it is hilarious—I don’t know which is better, the loopy free-association or the blah-blah-blah. Yet how private these associations are, and how hopeless the road map to them. (There are free-floating cysts in the iris; but how you get from IndyMac to Pac-Man is a mystery—as criticism this is the Higher Ditziness of the Humpty Dumpty School.) If the Mac in IndyMac can mean McDonald’s, then Indy can mean Indiana Jones, independent film, Indianapolis, or any number of irrelevant things. As for that jumbled wordplay, sure—persist, insist, consist, as well as pertain and contain (though not intain). As for maintain and retain, it’s as if she hasn’t read her own poem.
Armantrout relies on a cloud of knowing to organize this unknowing, but you have to be Armantrout to live in the cloud. The temptation to make meaning by juxtaposition can be overwhelming, but it’s a temptation that should sometimes be resisted:
in my lower back
rising to be recognized
The blue triangles
on the rug
on the uses
This is funny, then not funny at all. The self-absorption of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet should not come at the expense of those who have suffered real torture.
The defense of a poetry of splinter and shard, of tessera and ostrakon, has long been that our fragmentary, disconnected modern lives are best reflected in fragmentary, disconnected forms (no wonder that after a little post-post-modernism a reader would kill for a little story). But why should art always imitate life—and why should its form somehow be imitative, too? (I doubt that life seems more fragmentary and disconnected now than during the Wars of the Roses.)
But they’re lying,
which degrades them.
of twisted electrical wire
in front of the Rite Aid.
I look away before.
You can say various things about this poem, which seems perfectly easy to interpret. Ah, but I confess I just opened the book at random and picked out a stanza here or a line there—we have long needed a postmodern sors Vergiliana, and Armantrout is just the woman to provide it.
Armantrout is a museum exhibit of how unexperimental experimental poems have become. She relies on a very small bag of tricks, many of them old when free verse was young: the short, breathless lines; the smirking ars poetica (“‘Why don’t you just say/ what you mean?’// Why don’t I?”), the bodice-heaving antithesis (“The fear/ that all this/ will end.// The fear/ that it won’t”), with enjambments like stop signs—or, worse, bottomless abysses. Does she end a poem on “the”? Of course she ends a poem on “the”! Wallace Stevens once ended a poem on “the,” but he used it as a noun—and the poem was a much better poem. It wasn’t trying to imitate some fall into the emptiness of unmeaning.
I love Armantrout’s idea for a film genre called “diversity noir” (“a shape-shifter/ and a vampire// run rival/ drinking establishments”). She has a gift for the sneaky phrase (“Money is talking / to itself again”), but like a lot of experimental poets she can’t resist bossing the reader about. Poems that tease are appealing, but not ones that are teasing and bullying at once, that have a come-hither look and a go-thither command. The best poems here don’t try so hard to force the reader to go where the poet wants. Far too much experimental verse comes out of two phrases William Carlos Williams wrote in haste and perhaps regretted at leisure, phrases for which anthologists have been grateful ever since: “So much depends upon” and “This is just to say.” You could staple one or the other to the beginning of most avant-garde poems, and the poems would be no worse. They might even be better.
Those who think Logan is “being mean” miss the point. Armantrout is not funny; she may be clever, but she is not funny. Logan makes her funny, and this is a good that transcends right, or wrong, or mean. It allows the polite smile of approval to explode into merriment and glee, and gladness makes us see. Polite smiles are blind. Poetry may make nothing happen, but criticism—which makes us laugh—-does. For laughter changes the way we think. If we think like Armantrout wants us to think, if her poetry is “successful,” then, indeed, nothing happens. But if Logan changes the way we ought to think about Armantrout, something does happen: a dialectic, felt in the body as laughter, and this moves society’s stream.
It is also important to note that in his brief review, Logan presents Armantrout’s own words—the mere arrangement, the voice which tells us it’s OK not to like this, these two do most of the work: what we feel about her work is already there and Logan merely brings it out. Logan also points out what he likes; the dislike gets the attention—but this is not Logan’s fault.
What about Ashbery? He is funny. What does Logan do with him? As you might expect, he makes him even funnier.
John Ashbery’s nonsense is a lot more amusing than most poets’sense. What he does well is nearly inimitable, as the mutilated bodies of his imitators show (what he does badly nearly anyone can do, though most poets wouldn’t even try). In the past decade, as old age has stolen upon him, he has published over nine-hundred pages of poetry—if there were a poetry Olympics, Ashbery would take gold, silver, and bronze, as well as brass, antimony, tin, and lead. He turned seventy-three this year—when did poetry have a more boyish septuagenarian? Will Ashbery ever grow up?
In Your Name Here (a witty title that reminds us of all the sneaky things he can do with language), Ashbery has started making sense. This will come as a shock to most readers, because his poetry has lived a long time on the subsidizing strategies of sense without making much sense at all—Ashbery writes poems that promise everything and deliver nothing. He’s the original bait-and-switch merchant, the prince of Ponzi schemes. Over and over, you’re lured into a poem, following along dutifully in your poetry reader’s way; then the trap door swings open and you’re dumped into a pit of malarkey—or a pile of meringue. And that has been the pleasure.
This was from a review in The New Criterion (where you can always find Logan) from 10 years ago, and you can see how Logan won’t let himself take seriously the poets who don’t want to be taken seriously. No, Logan isn’t mean; quite the contrary—it’s the poets and the blurbists who waste our time who are mean—Logan merely presents the soul of wit in a 500 word review. Logan gets Ashbery better than anyone; Logan merely seems mean because he doesn’t pile on the reverence—the coin of ‘blurb my book and I’ll blurb yours’ po-biz.
Logan is very much at ease trashing poets who hide beneath trash; the flip, the caustic, and the hip go down just like the rest of them:
The title of Tony Hoagland’s new book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, is the funniest thing about it. Along with Billy Collins, Dean Young, and a giggle of others, Hoagland has thrived among the gentle practitioners of gentle humor, sometimes with a gentle dash of the gently surreal, who have given American verse a New Age school of stand-up comedians. (Their motto: Humor, or else.) His new poems celebrate that great American religion, shopping, and that great American temple, the shopping mall. The art of American consumption was part of our literature long before Babbitt and The Theory of the Leisure Class—Henry James knew all about the golden bowls of the Gilded Age, Trollope’s mother went broke starting a Cincinnati bazaar (right idea, wrong location), Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses almost bankrupted her husband, and even Whitman was astonished by the ready commerce and “gay-dress’d crowds” along Chestnut Street. You might say that the subject of Americans and what they buy, from Thomas Jefferson’s rare books (or, when he went on a spree, the whole Louisiana Purchase) to O. J. Simpson’s Bruno Maglis and Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks, is an embarrassment of riches, or just a bunch of crap: “the little ivory forks at picnics and green toy dinosaurs in playrooms everywhere;// the rooks and pawns of cheap $4.95 chess sets made in the People’s Republic of China.”
There’s not a lot to say about American consumerism that wasn’t said by Veblen, even if shopping is a Darwinian metaphor for the manners and mores of American life. Hoagland wisely turns his eye to all those lives impoverished—or, who knows, made infinitely richer—by that endless buying, buying, buying. Still, when he thunders on about the “late-twentieth-century glitterati party/ of striptease American celebrity” he sounds as if he’s channeling Billy Graham channeling Billy Sunday. Denouncing Britney Spears is like invading Rhode Island.
Hoagland has a superficial ease and charm—he’s likable, and his poems are likable, but they’re often less than they promise. He’s a wonderful collector of the junk with which Americans furnish their lives, but it’s hard to turn junk into poems. Hoagland is the Updike of American trash, forgetting nothing—but he hasn’t figured out how to recycle rubbish into art. All too soon, Spears will seem dated as a Stutz Bearcat or a man shouting “Twenty-three skidoo!” There’s a quieter and more unsettled poet inside all this bric-à-brac:
And when we were eight, or nine,
our father took us back into the Alabama woods,
found a rotten log, and with his hunting knifepried off a slab of bark
to show the hundred kinds of bugs and grubs
that we would have to eat in time of war.
“The ones who will survive,” he told us,
looking at us hard,
“are the ones who are willing do [sic] anything.”
Then he popped one of those pale slugs
into his mouth and started chewing.
Hoagland doesn’t quite know what to do with the complicated feelings this evokes—it’s smug for him to say, “That was Lesson Number 4/ in The Green Beret Book of Childrearing.” (Things could have been worse—he might have turned the scene into Deliverance2.) In the silent desperation here, the real subject might have been the father’s misplaced expression of love.
Hoagland is skittish about love, though he knows that romance is often absurd and comedy the catharsis of fear. His hymn to American courtship scares me:
It is just our second date, and we sit down on a bench,
holding hands, not looking at each other,and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved.
This goes on to peacocks and walking-stick insects (“she might/ insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck”), but you get the idea: Man is the animal who spends a lot of time thinking he’s not an animal. Like so much of Hoagland’s work, the poem softens into sentimental mush; yet for a moment the poet has seen the darkness in love, the animal passions released and endured.
These whimsical, mildly satirical poems about modern anomie, composed with far too much corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, want to rouse primal fears, then comfort the reader with a warm glass of milk. Sometimes this arch joker forgets the point of humor—a poem on the D.C. sniper, which starts with the mystery of God (that riddle ever invoked when life is cruel or unfair), comes all too close to ridiculing the dead. Next he’ll be making fun of Holocaust victims.
Poets who often take themselves too seriously—Mary Oliver, Franz Wright, Don Paterson, or Carl Phillips, for instance, are easy targets for Logan; but again, he’s not mean when he reviews these poets, for a critic’s job is always to see—not to support. And if seeing poetry is easier for a critic than for the poet investing his or her life in their own work, this is not the critic’s fault. Critics who are “mean” are merely mean the way Nature is mean, and this is true in every case of mean. Even a critic with a grudge is better than a critic with a blurb. Grudges are more interesting and more complex—in their origins and their results—than blurbs. It doesn’t matter how we look at a poet, as long as that look is an interesting one. Every poem should be able to handle, and gain from, a different look—even if it’s mean.
And when Logan’s bullets bounce off a poet, as here in this review of Billy Collins’ latest, the result is still funny, entertaining, and enlightening:
Billy Collins is funny, everyone agrees. The birds agree, the bees agree, even the fish in the sea agree: Billy Collins is funny. Yet why do I feel, half an hour after closing a Billy Collins book, a sharp grinding in my stomach, as if I’ve eaten some fruit cake past its sell-by date? His wry, self-mocking poems wouldn’t hurt a fly—but they couldn’t kill a fly, either, even if they tried. Readers who have whetted their appetites for drollery on previous books may open Ballistics and be puzzled. Our Norman Rockwell of sly winks, and elbowing good humor, and straw-hatted, flannel-shirted American whimsy is no longer funny. Worse, some of his new poems take place in Paris.
Billy Collins’s method has been to borrow a dry nugget of fact or some mildly absurd observation and see how far he can go. Say you read that the people of Barcelona once owned an albino gorilla, or remember that Robert Frost said, “I have envied the four-moon planet,” or find yourself talking to a dog about the future of America. Why, the poem would almost write itself! Collins’s gift was to make the poem a little odder than you expected. The problem with his new book is that the ideas are still there, but the poems have lost their sense of humor. Here’s what happens to that gorilla:
These locals called him Snowflake,
and here he has been mentioned again in print
in the hope of keeping his pallid flame alive
and helping him, despite his name, to endure
in this poem where he has found another cage.
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—
no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.
There must be a lot of comic things to say about albino gorillas, things that don’t require sentimental guff with a twitch of self-pity.
Say you recall the day Lassie died, when, after you finished your farm chores and ate your oatmeal, you drove to town and scanned the books in Olsen’s Emporium—and what books they were! An anthology of the Cavalier poets, The Pictorial History of Eton College, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po. Why, who knew? This is a send-up of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”—the book titles mock his purchase of New World Writing (as he said, “to see what the poets/ in Ghana are doing”). But then what?
I’m leaning on the barn door back home
while my own collie, who looks a lot like her,
lies curled outside in a sunny patch
and all you can hear as the morning warms up
is the sound of the cows’ heavy breathing.
And that’s it. This labored parody of O’Hara’s famous ending (“I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of/ leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT/ while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”) isn’t side-splitting at all. The premise has become just another excuse for softheaded mush—Collins doesn’t even get round to mentioning (SPOILER ALERT!) that Lassie was played by any number of dogs, that she was male (because males have glossier coats), and that, besides, Lassie is immortal and can’t ever die.
Collins has managed to be what he rarely was in the past—dull. The ending in many of these new poems falls flat, the speaker gazing at the moon or listening to a bird in hopes of revelation. If Billy Collins can’t joke about death, for example, well, who can? When he pokes fun at writers’ guides (“Never use the word suddenly just to create tension”), or of teachers who ask, “What is the poet trying to say?” he’s still our best poet at piercing the pretensions of the whole literary shebang. Get him off the subject, however, and the poems are suffused with mild gloom and misanthropy. He writes of having tea “with a woman without children,/ a gate through which no one had entered the world.” You think that he’s blundered, that he can’t possibly be talking about her vagina. Oh, yes, he can! “Men had entered the gate, but no boy or girl/ had ever come out”—I’m not sure whether this is wickedly inventive prudery or plain bad taste.
When comedians stop being funny, they must invent themselves anew or retire for good. A number of poems here mention divorce in a roundabout way, reason enough for a man to take off his rose-colored glasses and book a flight to Paris. Indeed, the most hilarious poem in the book is titled “Divorce,” and it’s also the shortest:
Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks
across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.
If Collins can become the bitter philosopher of such lines, there’s hope yet. Otherwise, Poetry must do what Poetry does when a poet runs out of gas, or screws the pooch, or jumps the shark—give him a Pulitzer and show him the door.
Logan is simply wrong here: Collins’ “Oh, Snowflake” and “the cows’ heavy breathing” is funny. But no matter: Logan’s sense of humor still prevails, and so the review, attempting to neutralize Billy Collins (O what do we do with Billy Collins?) is a great read. Poets are the first to tell you poetry transcends objective standards of wrong and right. And so does humor, when it reaches a certain charming pitch. When William Logan crashes into Billy Collins, pure joy ensues.