The Undiscovered Country is William Logan’s fourth book of poetry criticism. He is a poet himself – whose poems I confess I have never read – but I think it would be hard for his poetry to come up to the level of his criticism.
Contemporary poetry is one of many blind spots in my education. But I think Mr. Logan is as good an orienting guide as any, and I’ve come away from his essays with a reading list and some heuristic opinions to structure my investigations. Opinions he does not lack, and most of his are negative: a good portion of the book is comprised of the “Verse Chronicle” column he publishes twice a year (in June and December) in The New Criterion, essentially whack-a-mole with poets. In these columns the reader is treated to the alarming but refreshing vision of Logan laying about him with a critical truncheon, disposing of one shallow, jumped up, ersatz book of poetry after another. The mental image one gets is that of some horror movie where the poor protagonist is climbing hopelessy up the pinnacle of a crag, beating back the swarming monsters that climb up after him.
He acknowledges and defends his, well, critical criticism:
The reviews in this book try to treat contemporary poetry with a seriousness intended as respect. If my criticism of some books has been harsh, it is because the effort of reading was not repaid by the pleasure of having read. I don’t review books so awful even secondhand booksellers wouldn’t want them – at least, I don’t unless the books have received much attention elsewhere. If I’m not always a cheerleader for the art, I’ve heard other critics are taking care of that.
Though the truculence of the Verse Chronicle essays is a treat in its own right, I actually found Logan’s longer, biographical essays far more interesting and useful. The best are about Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, A.E. Housman, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell (all poets, you will have surmised, that Logan rather likes). Logan’s style vastly improves when he’s running distance rather than sprinting, and especially when he turns to narrative.
A terrible tic that almost put me off the book at first is Logan’s tendency – especially in his shorter pieces – to sprinkle three or four parenthetical asides into every paragraph. Sometimes they’re quotations, sometimes jokes, sometimes reservations – but they break the clean lines of his prose, are seldom worth the damage they do to concentration, and ultimately suggest an author either snidely whispering alongside his own speech or else one who doesn’t edit very well. At one point he says something about the poet Jorie Graham (whom he particularly dislikes), which could very well apply to his own prose:
In their gauzy preoccupations, the lines forget themselves, the antiphonal parentheses interruption of second thoughts and hesitant reversals of meaning… Graham’s poems [and Logan’s essays] often seem monologues of a metaphysical personality disorder, every perception analyzed in Freudian duration for its false starts.
But perhaps the reason Logan is so given to these obnoxious asides is that he’s such a great machine for one-liners. His bon-mots come thick and fast, and often they are incisive.
Here he is on poetic diction: “Poetry negotiates between a language too far removed from its time and one that merely succumbs to its time.”
On American poetry after Whitman: “It became the model of its own difference.”
On a poem whose author I shall leave to the mercy of obscurity: “It’s a general rule that when the leaves start singing the reader should look for the emergency exit.”
On Sylvia Plath: “Being an outsider made her an observer, but being an observer kept her outside.”
On confessional poetry: “You might have thought confessional poetry couldn’t exist without confessionals, but really it couldn’t exist without psychiatrists.”
On why we tolerate the experimentation of the modernists: “The obscurities of modernism depended on convincing the reader the writing was worth reading, the tangle of tenses or snarl of syntax made to be unraveled, that notes did not clatter down the page to no purpose, that ignorance preceded bliss.”