Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure: The Dirty Art of Poetry by William Logan

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I learned the term rudo, like most things I learn, from a New Yorker article. The villain in Mexican wrestling. I was simultaneously—and I mean exactly simultaneously—reading William Logan’s latest compilation of essays and reviews. Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure: The Dirty Art of Poetry.  Logan’s known as the barbed-wire-in-the-boot, vinegar-in-squirting-corsage rudo troll professional heel of contemporary poetry, but it feels dull to repeat that charge, partly because Brian Henry analyzed Logan’s reputation and style in a (more) thorough (than this) review at the Verse blog in 2007. “In an age of fawning or jargoned reviews,” I could begin, “Logan is the poet-critic one can most easily criticize without losing many hugs at AWP—because he ain’t in it for the hugs.” It feels dull, also, though, because Logan’s famed jabs (two backcover blurbs call him “the wittiest!”) so often land on his own chin; to mix metaphors, because who cares, he can seem so invested in the backhanded slice that he ends up far from the ball. This can be satisfying, in a petty way. E.g., in the new collection, Logan sometimes offers snark that passes for smart by playing dim; the results can seem specious. E.g., does he really believe, in his review of Cole Swensen’s Ours, that Swensen’s associative shifts in diction (e.g., linking balustrade to ballad) are “nonsense etymology” rather than intentional inventions? E.g., he can seem like one who can’t resist spitting into any wind—or who adores spitting so wetly, he thinks his spit is wind. And tries to catch it in a net. E.g., in a sentence suggesting that Sharon Olds’ depiction of her mother is “more confused than calculating” Logan tells us that Olds’ mother “stood only 4’11’’, no taller than Alexander Pope.” This tic of wittiest wit itself seems confused. Is he suggesting a calculated connection between the mother and Pope? Joan of Arc, Tila Tequila, and Dorothy Parker also share that height. Zing.


Anyway, I didn’t finish the article about Mexican wrestling because I got distracted by a poem loafing across two of its pages. I mean, I got annoyed by the poem because I care unreasonably hugely about poetry. Let me say this in a more sympathetic way. When I read I sometimes imagine dead people I knew or never met resurrected for the duration of my reading, consciousness filled just by the text: this is what they get of the world again. My dead have broad tastes—they love absurdity, experiment, intelligence, craft. But, given all I could give them to read, they’re disappointed when the resurrection’s ho-hum. Let me put it this way. Exercise: when disappointed by a New Yorker poem, compare its vigor and glide with the prose on the same page. On the page in question, one sentence of the article read: “He was wearing high-heeled black boots, close-fitting jeans, a rhinestone-studded belt, and a tight lava-splash-patterned shirt with silver buttons opened to show a silver crucifix against a lot of brown chest hair. His balance on the rope was impressive.” A composite description that isn’t piecemeal, thanks to the compounded compound of “lava-splash-patterned” and to the adept colloquialism and sturdy three-beat finish of “a lot of brown chest hair.” It’s not the “deep heart’s core,” but the prose balances with some dazzle in the line. Above it was a poem of, let’s say, Disneyfied duende. It used many words from the Sensitive Poet Magnetic Poetry kit: “blind,” “frozen,” “flying, “singing,” “dancing” (twice), “perfect.” We’re told a mouse has “little eyes,” but don’t worry, that description isn’t pinpointing anything, since the mouse also has “small hands.” In other words—guess what—this mouse is widdle. The poem also offers the stoner-deep revelation that mice have mothers. It’s a poem in which you wouldn’t be surprised to see a dog compared, with big metaphorical bum bum bum, to a large dog. I think the tone is VERY serious, not a parody of poetry? The setting is a kitchen at night but it’s less interesting than any kitchen I’ve ever been in, like right now I have this granola in a green-tinted jar and a vase with purple flowers and the compost is starting to mature. And so on. If I’d ever met the poet, we’d probably be friends. Or we would have been, before I wrote this. I felt disappointed, in part, because I’ve often defended the work of this poet (you could find who it is, but why bother?), telling friends let’s wait until his early relatively splashy surge dies down and he digs in more. So, given the prose on the same page, which taught me rudo and put “tight lava-splash-patterned” in my ear, and given my dead’s admittedly exacting desires for poetry, I read Logan later, reviewing the poet’s earlier work, pointing out its “sentimental cliches and false notes,” and I felt a bit like I do when I watch Colbert after a day spent among the news: verified in my fuming. Oh, look, now I’m a negative reviewer! Me who say perfect blind frozen flying singing dancing dancing all the time. Me who never in newyorker jealous not-newyorker poet reads a little Logan and turns mean.


Brief and mid-length reviews make up about half the book. Many take aim at inflated reputations that I suspect will already seem airless to enthusiastic readers of current poetry, or at least of this site. Yes, celebrity often outstrides accomplishment. Yes, most poetry published by big NYC presses is blah. It can be mildly satisfying—like criticizing a New Yorker poem—to have one’s tastes confirmed. But then you read the prose of another critic. E.g., Michael Hofmann. His tastes differ from mine. But his writing often changes my mind. Or I contend with it. And you realize that Logan’s perpetual cries of “the emperor has no…”—they mean treating everyone like an emperor. Crying out thus, Logan’s taste can seem mismatched to his appetite. Picture the restaurant reviewer who keeps eating at McDonalds and wonders why he feels sick. “Despite its popularity, the Big Mac at this McDonalds is also vile.” One wishes, at times, given Logan’s critical gifts (in discussing the notes to a volume of Philip Larkin’s poetry, he traces the phrase “the fields are sullen and muddy” to a similar locution in Vernon Lee’s The Sentimental Traveler, from 1908), that he’d try more substantial fare. E.g., in the period covered by these reviews, there were new editions and volumes by poets who should be on anyone’s list of notable figures in recent poetry, including Gustaf Sobin, Nathaniel Mackey, Lyn Hejinian, [any reader could insert three or four more of her favorites, go ahead]. You wouldn’t know it from this book. Does Logan review Armantrout, Ashbery, and Carson only because of their renown? Literary reputation/anxiety might be his true subject. I suppose the poets I mention above belong to the “avant-garde,” which Logan takes “little interest in.” He assures us he has “read the anthologies as well as too many of the revered names.” Just the names? Zing!


But even reading the anthologies seems like the wrong way to approach recent poetry. In my Introduction to Contemporary Poetry course last year, college freshmen read a full-length book each week. Who’d we read? Richard Siken and Claudia Rankine and Shane McCrae and Don Mee Choi and Maggie Nelson and Matt Hart…Logan’s lumping characterization of the “avant-garde” might be forgivable in a brief review, written under the constraints of deadline and word-count, but it seems disingenuous in a book. Again, incredulity seems like an appropriate pose of reply: does he really think “experimental poets” sit around talking about “the elitist patriarchy of syntax” and “the hegemony of the lefthand margin?” He says he’s heard both things. Well, I’ve heard proudly aesthetically conservative poets claim that “theory” and “Ashbery” have ruined literature, but I wouldn’t dismiss conventional metrics because of it. Zing?


But Logan trusts anthologies. “The maker of a good anthology is as close to an ideal critic as a critic can be,” he writes in “Against Aesthetics.” In that essay, I should note, he also compellingly articulates the “promiscuous” regard a good critic should have for reading. For questioning the authority of his preferences. Logan’s criticism, in contrast, seems most ideal when it’s closest to unquestioning editorial conviction. His highlighting of errors can feel pedantic (“miniscule,” “pleasurefull,” confused pronouns) but indicates larger laxities in the books under review. These lines from Maxine Hong Kingston’s poem-memoir, for example, would seem inane with any spelling: “Oooh, the mud, the pleasurefull / mud, my free and happy toes.” In the essay that might be the most valuable to future scholarship, “Frost’s Notebooks: A Disaster Revisited,” Logan documents the thousands of transcription goofs in Robert Faggen’s edition of Frost’s notebooks. The essay shows Logan in his most dogged Editorial Devil role. One feels grateful for his criticism of the book’s errors. They’re laughable. The insertion of the scholar’s notes to himself into the transcription. The rendering of sensible Frost’s phrases into nonsense. “Picktie exhibition” for “public exhibition.” “Columbus brooch alone awhile” for “Columbus broods alone awhile.” “Use of lipstitch and howdy” for “use of lipstick and powder.” Still, it reflects an actuarial mania that, overall, is less valuable to my thinking about poetry than, say, that thing Frost said about that ice cube.


Anyway, I was going to try that New Yorker experiment again, comparing a poem to the prose surrounding it, but then I remembered that thing O’Hara says about how the bad stuff (all the stuff, really) will find the abyss on its own, no need to nudge it, and thinking about O’Hara I read a couple James Schuyler poems instead and felt all right and different from mildly satisfied or affirmed in my tastes. In the last couple of years I’ve found myself starting to chuckle at New Yorker cartoons, so maybe I’ll still come around to the poems, too.


Still, I sometimes wish, when I see people praising books that people are currently praising, that they had a pinch more Logan in their prose, with his willingness to tilt and lunge. I’m not talking about being “positive” or “negative.” I’m talking about showing one’s discernment further. Like this one book everyone seems to be praising lately? I’d love to ask publicly for someone to explain to me why they love it, because the reviews don’t clarify, don’t discern, and I don’t see much of note in the poems. But we don’t do that, in most current poetry circles. Anyway, everyone seems to agree that the author is sanctified cool, is a friend of my friends’ friends, gets invited places, is totally making it. It’d be way uncool to not already see why.


William LoganLogan’s writing is best when it avoids both cheap and sophisticated digs, when it’s less jocularly witty by half, to use a phrase he likes (Komunyakaa, for example, is “at times too solemn by half”). In these cases, it achieves what he claims so-called negative reviews can: revealing qualities (and critical perspectives) that praise cannot, which might look different with a longer view, after we’ve stopped caring (we already have) about who might be “the most hated man in poetry.” They serve a purpose. The other day, a friend asked me what Franz Wright’s poems are like. I started to describe them, then read from Logan’s review of Wheeling Motel. The review is direct; I happen to agree with its charges when I think of some of Wright’s work (“Wright would like to be a poet of rapture,” Logan writes, “but his access to the metaphysical proves slightly banal”). Still, Logan’s representation of the poetry is concise and lively. And he seems to hope the book will defy his expectations: “The surprise is that some of the new poems in Wheeling Motel are tender, considered pieces of work. Of course, there’s pissing and moaning in abundance, overwrought piety and breast-beating—Wright can never do something by halves. There are moments, even so, when his flaws work almost like virtues.” A description fitting, also, to the prose of William Logan.

Zach Savich is the author of the poetry collections Full Catastrophe Living (U. Iowa, 2009), Annulments (Center for Literary Publishing, 2010), The Firestorm (CSU Poetry Center, 2011), and Century Swept Brutal (Black Ocean, 2014). His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Open Award, among other honors. He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series. More from this author →