Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Hart Crane Controversy

A critic's take on his critics.

by William Logan
If you happen to be a critic, it may come as a shock that not all readers share your opinions. Worse, they write letters to the editor demanding that you be punished for the sins of your reviews. Some magazines and newspapers allow the critic to reply; others feel that, having had his say, he has undoubtedly said more than enough. Why give the critic the last word?

In the case of Hart Crane, there can be no last word. His star has been up and down so often in the three-quarters of a century since his death, it seems unlikely that critic or reader will settle the matter soon. Crane was the great might-have-been of American verse—superbly talented, ambitious as a hammer blow, full of plans and postures and persuasions galore. Most poets have their admirers by the time they arrive at that final mausoleum, the poetry anthology; Crane is one of the few who has votaries and devotees (Sylvia Plath is another). Whatever his flaws, personal or poetic, they pale before what some see as his genius. If you don't see the genius, all you have left are the flaws.

I've always loved Hart Crane; but I love him in fractions, delighting in half a dozen of those rhapsodic poems long on style and short on sense but finding the rest mystifying as a Masonic ritual. In some of his best poems, I merely admire lines, and in some of those lines I merely admire phrases—and yet what phrases and lines and, more rarely, what poems he wrote! When I reviewed Crane's Complete Poems and Selected Letters for the New York Times Book Review, I was not surprised that some readers objected, since many value Crane even more than Crane valued himself; and he valued himself quite a lot.

Reviewing Crane, if you don't review him fondly, is like poking a pencil into a hornet's nest. The Times had room to publish no more than half a dozen letters, which with one exception were furious. You discover a lot about readers from their letters, and most of what you discover leaves you dumbfounded—sometimes, however, you learn a thing or two. The most substantial letter came from Paul Mariani, one of Crane's biographers. I'm so used to correcting others, I'm delighted when someone corrects me—it's humbling to be caught in a boneheaded mistake, and critics generally need to eat crow every few months to keep them sane. Mariani noted first that, when Crane walked to the railing of the steamship Orizaba, preparing for his suicidal leap, he was wearing a light topcoat, not, as I had written, a jacket. Second, the sea he leapt into was not the Caribbean, but the Atlantic. Last, the sea was not glassy, as I had proposed, but had "sizable waves."

No error is trivial, but how are such errors made? Out of sheer doltishness, in my case. I can tell a man's jacket from a topcoat at a hundred yards; but I failed to check my memory against the four biographies I consulted (Peggy Guggenheim, who was in her cabin below deck, said it was a light topcoat used as a robe, and that Crane was wearing pajamas underneath). No doubt I'd fail a final exam in marine geography, but the notion that Crane leapt into the Caribbean came not from me but from his biographer Clive Fisher. He was wrong. I had forgotten the two rules on which all sound criticism is based: 1) Take no fact or quotation on trust, and 2) Buy a map. In revising the review for book publication, I corrected both errors.

The biographers disagree, however, about the condition of the Atlantic when Crane jumped. Mariani fails in The Broken Tower to describe the roughness of the ocean (he mentions the "impenetrable waters off which the noon sun gleamed," which doesn't sound choppy or rugged); Philip Horton in Hart Crane claims the "sea was mild"; and Clive Fisher, quoting Guggenheim in Hart Crane: A Life, says the sea was "like a mirror that could be walked on." I changed my "glassy sea" to a "violent wake" (the wake, some think, dragged Crane under). On balance, however, the "glassy sea" seems likely.

In his description of Crane's death, Mariani was attracted to the captain's notion that the poet might have been eaten by a shark—"Did he feel something brush his leg, the file-sharp streaking side of concentrated muscle, before the silver flash and teeth pulled him under?" This is sheer moonshine, but a biographer's fantasies—and gruesome fantasies they are—don't mitigate the critic's error of fact. (The biographer then throws some of Crane's purple prose—or rather purple poetry— back at him: "But this time the calyx of death's bounty gave back neither scattered chapter nor livid hieroglyph." The allusion is to "At Melville's Tomb," but as prose it sounds like a canceled passage by Sir Thomas Browne.) The aggrieved reader's fondest delusion is that a critic's sidelong errors undermine a disagreement about taste; yet don't we prefer Eliot's opinions, despite his habitual misquotation, to the arguments of some bozo supported by quotes correct to the last nicety? That doesn't make the errors less embarrassing.

I had written that, after the failure of The Bridge, the "hope for a homegrown American epic...has never entirely revived." Mariani took exception to this, citing the long poems written since Crane's death by Williams, Olson, Berryman, and Lowell. I hadn't meant the idea to be contentious—the ruin of The Bridge cast a long shadow over long poems for a long while. In a way, it casts that shadow still. Will we ever have a truly American epic, a poem of American history? (I mean one that's any good.) I love passages in The Cantos and think Leaves of Grass the foundation of modern American verse, but The Cantos is hardly homegrown (the poem remembers America from London and Paris and Rapallo), and Leaves of Grass is not an epic but a collection of lyrics. Shakespeare's sonnets are not an epic, either.

The idea of the Great American Poem no longer seduces young poets the way the Great American Novel, that will-o'-the-wisp, still haunts American novelists. (The Great American Novel has already been written, and it is called Moby-Dick.) Because they have usually failed so badly, we forget how many long poems have been written in this country—who except at gunpoint would reread Delmore Schwartz's autobiographical epic, Genesis, Book One (Book One!), or the leaden historical poems of Archibald MacLeish or Selden Rodman? For Lowell, for Berryman, for many another, the long poem became a scatter of disconnected lyrics. That was Crane's legacy.

A second letter to the Times, from the poet and editor Daniel Halpern, grumbled that "in this era of conflict, when America can use all the good poetry it can find, it's dispiriting to encounter a reviewer who uses one of our most important reviewing venues to exercise an organ of bile." How poets like Crane are going to make readers feel better about a dirty and unpopular war is beyond me; but the unstated premise is even odder—criticizing poets is all right in peacetime; but, when the artillery begins to boom, critics should shut up. Halpern believes that "poetry is what people turn to during times of duress and celebration—marriage, death, 9/11—that is, our rites of passage." I'm not sure how the destruction of the World Trade Center qualifies as a rite de passage. As for such high-flown hopes for poetry, well, wouldn't it be pretty to think so?

Halpern groused that "when the Library of America takes on as part of its mandate the showcasing of essential American poets like Hart Crane, we look to our reviewers to address the importance of the poet's writing, not his lifestyle." A publisher would be gratified if reviewers assumed that every book under its imprint were beyond criticism. Halpern also reproached me for "disingenuously ignoring the memorable ending" of Crane's hapless little poem "Chaplinesque":

but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

A grail of laughter? A kitten in the wilderness? I failed to quote these lines because they're embarrassing—I don't see why they don't seem embarrassing to Halpern. Crane sent the poem to Chaplin, who kindly acknowledged it. Late one night, a couple of years later, a friend dragged Chaplin to the poet's apartment. "Having learned this," I wrote, "a hundred American poets will begin odes to Angelina Jolie." Halpern claimed that this was "delusional," a sign of the critic's "self-importance." A critic learns that no joke is so obvious someone will fail to get it, but I have it on good authority that seventy-seven American poets have now written such odes and anxiously await the results. Even so, Halpern was right that I hadn't quoted enough Crane, nor enough of the best of Crane—sometimes a critic sees everything but the obvious, and in revising the review I included lines from one of the most beautiful of Crane's poems, "Voyages III."

One reader accused me of slighting young women when I wrote that Crane made young men want to write poetry—yet I didn't want to ignore the fact that, in my experience, his audience remains largely male. (I take this as a sign that women have less taste for gassy romantic rhetoric.) Many readers tasked me for writing too much about Crane's life and too little about his art. Some assumed that I disapproved of his fondness for sailors. During the war, my own father was a sailor on the New York docks; had Crane survived and picked him up for some rough trade, I'd have been flattered. "How many sailors is too many?" asked one reader privately, apropos my remarks on Crane's love life. The answer is, it's too many when they start to beat you up.

The book under review consisted of a hundred and fifty pages of Crane's poetry and more than five hundred pages of his letters. Unlike many poets, Crane stands revealed in biography. It's difficult to ignore the life when you read the letters, because the messiness of daily living so often interfered with the art. Crane's wheedling, his inflated self-opinion (wildly in advance of any real achievement), his self-pity, his difficult relations with his mother and father, his plagiarism of Samuel Greenberg—surely these lie at an interesting angle to the art, even if, in the end, we have nothing but the art by which to judge the achievement. Letters should never be taken as gospel. I have my doubts that writing poetry was quite as painful or time-consuming as Crane made it out to be—the complaints to his parents sound like the exaggerations of a young man short of cash and the complaints to his friends like the excuses of an alcoholic. Crane always knew how to play on his reader's sympathy, at least until he got what he wanted. If the letters are unmemorable as literature, compared to those of Byron, or Coleridge, or Keats, or many another, they are riveting as the record of a striking and fame-hungry young man trying to make his way in New York.

Happy readers are all alike; every unhappy reader is unhappy in his own way. Yet I could not help but feel, knowing how infuriated I had made these lovers of Crane, that I had misunderstood the passions he still excites. There's something in this poet (in the life as much as the art) that calls forth the protective instinct in his readers, as well as an exaggerated sense of his loss, which Mariani called "unbearably tragic." Crane's death was sad, but not tragic—he was the author of his fate in a way few men are, but he was no Oedipus or Hamlet. It's not just that Crane was young, though poets who die prematurely, especially by suicide, often find readers who believe the world has done them wrong. (Though why not think that in all sorts of ways Crane and Plath did the world wrong?) If he had lived a lot longer and written a lot more, we might think much less of him.

Many readers want vision rather than poetry; and cold analysis of Crane's vague rhetoric, his naive sentiment, and his semi-religious adolescent yearning is not to their taste. A reader upset by a review often invokes higher authorities, roughly in this order: his own good taste, the taste of the mob, the taste of other critics, the taste of God—and all except the taste of God were invoked by these letter writers. Crane's prophetic zeal, his sense of his own destiny as well as that of his country (sometimes he mistook one destiny for the other), seems to give his words numinous meaning:

I feel persuaded that here are destined to be discovered certain as yet undefined spiritual quantities, perhaps a new hierarchy of faith not to be developed so completely elsewhere. And in this process I like to feel myself as a potential factor.

The poem he wanted to write was the Aeneid, to which he compared The Bridge. Some ambitions are disastrous.

The problem with taste is, yours is right and everyone else's is ridiculous. (I once knew a poet who, no matter how kind the reviews of his work, said that every specific complaint was "wrong.") Criticism is the exercise of taste under the guise of objectivity—the psychology of taste is such that few readers are perturbed when some mediocrity is praised, but mobs begin lighting torches when their favorites are ignored or damned. Yet criticism is surely most valuable when it argues against the grain—at least, the reader is likely to learn more from it, even if he disagrees down to his horny soles. We are forever grateful to a critic able to put into words something we have only vaguely felt. Barring that, a critic makes himself necessary to the extent that when reading him we whisper, "No! No! No!"

Critics are the sum of their biases—they begin as arbitraries and end as certainties (the course of my own criticism has sometimes been the other way round). You can't stand that ditherer Coleridge, she can't stand that whiner Keats, I can't stand that dry fussbudget Wordsworth, and we all hate Shelley—poets are Rorschach tests. If there's a negative case for Crane, it lies in all that waxy rhetoric, glossy on the outside and rotten within. Criticism, however put, can never harm Crane in the eyes of the devoted, because what such a critic despises is exactly what those readers adore.

Why make the case at all, then? Doesn't it harm that uplifting, ennobling, transcendent thing, poetry—the poetry people need and want and deserve, the poetry that in time of war raises the downtrodden spirit, the poetry that comforts the helpless in their distress and in their trial of spirit steels the weak? I once heard an undergraduate, a stack or two over in a faceless library, say plaintively, "What are you going to do about the Jesus in my heart?" What are you going to do about the poetry in my heart? If the critic were meant to offer solace, he would have taken up a different line of work. All he can do is record his feelings for the one or two readers willing to look again at Crane—the critic's job is not to pat the reader on the head and whisper sweet nothings in his ear.

However captious or confident a critic may be, even the lightest reading of the critical past shows that the mountains of one day may be molehills to another. Critic A and Critic B may disagree so strongly they threaten to cut each other's windpipes. A year may pass, or a hundred; and another critic will come along and say that a was right about such and such, and b about so and so, but that taken as a whole there was not much difference between them. When I look over the early reviews of Whitman, I agree with almost every obstreperous howl and every quiet reservation, yet mostly the critics missed the point. Such recognitions keep a critic awake at night.
Originally Published: October 23, 2008


On October 4, 2008 at 11:10am Keith Althaus wrote:
Poor Bill. I know just what it's like to try to correct one error and in the act of doing so expose another. I used to think that putting the car (big and old) up on the lift made it worse, as if the weight of the car and resistance of the road were responsible for holding it together. It was in fact Peggy Baird, first wife of Malcolm Cowley, who accompanied Crane on the Orizaba, not the more illustrious and flamboyant Peggy Guggenheim.

When thinking about Crane I'm often reminded of a short, touching letter Kay Boyle wrote to the NYRB, I think, where she cited the lines "The City's fiery parcels all undone,/ Already snow submerges an iron year..." as evidence of his greatness. Maybe we can agree on those.

Keith Althaus

On October 5, 2008 at 7:35pm William Logan wrote:
Keith's absolutely right, of course. I'm delighted he caught it.

On October 6, 2008 at 10:14pm Arthur Durkee wrote:
I'm sorry, was this a plea for

sympathy? I'm confused.

Critics are supposed to be opinionated.

Critics frequently get it wrong, telling

the public they're not supposed to

love something the public loves

anyway, regardless of what the critic

thinks. If they're honest in their

reviews, critics have nothing to be

ashamed of. On the other hand, very

few critics have anything substantial

to say, although they do like to hear

themselves talk. A lot of it is arguing

about nothing; the heat generated is

usually inversely proportional to its

relevance to the rest of life.

OF COURSE reviewing someone with

a big fan base is like poking a pencil

into a hornet's nest. Duh! This is so

unsurprising, it's not even worth

saying. Unhappy readers? I'm sorry, is

this a plea for sympathy?

if it is such, it fails to generate any.

On October 7, 2008 at 9:32am Sam Gwynn wrote:
When I read William Logan's review of the Hart Crane volume in the NYTBR I thought, "Oh dear, he's going to take his lumps for this one." Well, Mr. Logan, whose chin must be made of depleted uranium and is generally out, seems to stated most of my own reservations about Crane's poetry, which I have been reading with both puzzlement and delight for many years. One thing that I have thought for a long time is that Crane, an autodidact if ever there was one, carried a huge chip on his shoulder that usually took shape as "My dictionary's bigger than yours." Palling around with the likes of Tate and Winters, he seems to have constantly been playing the game (the serious game) of one-upsmanship. Still, if you want to really understand the Jazz Age, read "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" II and Fitzgerald's "Independence Day" in a single sitting.

On October 14, 2008 at 12:30pm Henry Gould wrote:
The history of Crane criticism is very curious and conflicted. Mr. Logan’s attempt, here, to extrapolate general observations (for the general reader?) from his experience in this area, understandably shies away from some of the odder aspects of this history.

Here is one of the most prominent of these phenomena : those who write negatively about Crane, or try to diminish his general standing, often make repeated statements of regret, remorse, even bad conscience about it. “I love Crane, but…” This mode of behavior can be traced all the way back to Allen Tate’s displays, in the 30s and 40s, of regret over the critical betrayal of his erstwhile friend and colleague. Mr. Logan’s rehash of his Crane critique falls into this historical pattern of hedgings, second thoughts, and bemusements.

There exists a sort of voodoo aura around Crane. The critics who attempt to take his measure and bring him up short, end up being judged retroactively by Crane himself. Recently, Mr. Logan and Adam Kirsch have both tried to take Crane down a peg, to put him in his place, to damn him with faint praise, etc. In both cases I think they fail to take Crane’s measure, and in so doing, they provide a disservice to his readers and to American literary history.

But why is it so hard to take Crane’s measure? Because, for one thing, Crane’s mode as a poet is one of ecstatic self-transcendence or self-surpassment.. This is not your ordinary genial author, master of literary decorum, with both feet on the ground, etc. We more easily forgive the weak passages and slip-ups of loquacious, prolific, worldly and sane poets – we are trained by them, as readers, for a certain beguiling informality and gregariousness.

But what Crane tried to take from Blake and Joyce and Keats and Marlowe was a tone of supreme concision and intensity. It’s not by chance that The Bridge is one of the shortest of the long poems around. When laconic precision is combined with a very high level of Platonic, visionary fury – well, we just don’t know how to take it. I imagine the rationalistic, didactic poets and critics of the Restoration era reacted with a similar puzzlement to Blake. Moreover, The Bridge is structurally designed to leap beyond itself, to surpass itself. The reader-critic therefore often reacts with a conflicted love-hate response : ie. Why isn’t this poem conforming to an even grander scale? Why isn’t it – instead of being in the mode or length of Virgil’s Eclogues or Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” – the great American epic I have in my mind?

But in conforming our image of The Bridge to our own hypothetical demands for a “possible” poem, we miss what’s actually there. Compare, again, the leap forward in scope, from both Song of Myself and Song of Hiawatha, to The Bridge. Crane took the architectonics of Joycean modernism – an array of voices from various personae (the Poet, Columbus, the Pioneer, etc.), designed to epitomize or recapitulate a national narrative – and melded them with a nouveau 20s discourse and metric, combining Marlovian blank verse, Whitman, ee cummings, TS Eliot, Joyce, et al. et al….. and it works. It’s very readable, in spite of its occasional gaucheries, and what now seems like dated forms of “nativism”. But more importantly, the poem makes an over-arching, visionary argument, about the relationship between poetry and reality, between language and truth, and about the role of the poet in modern life. This is what you might call the mystical or religious plane of the poem. If the critic dismisses this element with the usual clichés about misty-eyed Romantic blather – well, the result is a failure to comprehend what Crane is about, and what the poem as a whole is saying. It’s the recognition of this “anagogical” dimension of The Bridge which allows one to appreciate the elegance of Crane’s representations, or dramatizations, of same, by way of the figure of Whitman, Melville, Dickinson and other personae.

Just a couple further points about Mr. Logan’s piece here. In my view his response to the passage from the poem “Chaplinesque” gives evidence of the sort of picayune critical stinginess which, on a larger scale, is on display in the evaluation of Crane’s work as a whole. I for one find neither “the grail of laughter in an empty ashcan”, nor the “kitten in the wilderness” bad or embarrassing. The former epitomizes Chaplin’s “quest” to represent humor and pathos in the midst of poverty, hardship and humiliation; the latter summarizes the fundamental compassion which underlies this quest (compare Eliot’s “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing”). Contra Mr. Logan’s other claim that Crane is primarily a “man’s” poet, I well remember, from many years ago, poet Karen Donovan’s passionate avowal of love & admiration for Crane – and her recital of this poem.

On October 17, 2008 at 12:25pm Doodle wrote:
It is an amazing demonstration of the ignorance of contemporary poets and critics alike that Winters is mentioned only once, in passing, by any of the above. Has nobody read what he had written about Crane - which caused a far greater uproar than anything Wm. Logan has said so far?

On October 17, 2008 at 1:29pm Henry Gould wrote:
Yes Doodle, I, for one, have read what Winters wrote, along with Crane's very interesting (previous) correspondence with him about poetry, from the late 1920s. The Winters/Crane letters were pub. many years ago in book form.

I didn't bring him up because I believe (perhaps mistakenly) that unlike the other critics mentioned, Winters, in his forthright opinionated way, exhibited no signs of hedging or second thoughts about his moralistic attack on Crane. Again, I could be wrong about this.

But it seems rather arrogant of you to slam everyone, rather than actually offering some information on the "Winters factor". Do you have anything constructive to add?

On December 13, 2008 at 3:36pm dr larry myers wrote:
i must say your writing style is spirited!

it was no less than tennessee williams in the late 70s who encouraged me to write a play abt hart crane

williams was at the time composing 'steps must be gentle'

at this time williams met my mother & proclaimed, 'yes that s what i want for grace crane!'

i must say the reason i cast my own play onto a shelf was that i found his life so disturbing--perpetuating the romantic notion all true poets must be distraught, 2 decades later i bring out my work 'hart crane,hard drinking poet'

your informed critique helped me to understans why...thanx

On May 30, 2009 at 8:48am Scott wrote:
You remind me of Satan watching Adam and Eve making love -- do you have similar difficulties?

You shouldn't participate in what you can't understand, nor should you try to argue about things you don't get.

Do you remember Hart Crane's lines about the bells breaking down their towers? This is probably a humorous line for you, but it was a big problem for Hart Crane -- an issue you probably can't understand.

On June 11, 2009 at 8:44am dave eberhardt wrote:
in NY T bk Review (abridged, naturally)

Referencing the article by poet William Logan and his discontents with various poets in the Book Review of April 26: having heard our poetic God/grandfathers- Richard Wilbur in person recently and W.S. Merwin on the radio- I can only be glad that Logan hasn't savaged them. Much of his targets deserve what he is dishing them- although- I think Hart Crane- he of the juicy, Latinate words and cadences- could be forgiven his obscurities, and Gary Snyder- who is rarely obscure- has a quite lapidary style that is not similar to choosing words like the ones on refridge magnets or Valentine's heart shaped candies- Snyder's work is allways (sp?) bracing and insightful.

Logan is onto something in his criticisms; so much of contemporary poetry seems very little different from prose- it's just prose broken into poetic looking lines (a technique started by Pound and Williams) , and few contemporary poets attempt anything deep. It mostly seems academic and cute- glazed over by a layer of faux insight. I think poetry should be amazing.

I rarely hear poets discussing such subjects of interest as sex or death or finances- especially their own. I have yet to attend a reading where the poet discussed his or her ego involvement- in other words- there's a lot of dishonesty and shallowness around in contemporary poetry. Logan has the moxie, the duende to strike a dissenting note- a rare thing in itself. How many reviews do you read where the writer really cuts loose? Are poets that fragile a group- that a little criticism might blow them away?

Dave Eberhardt
4 Hadley Sq. N.
Baltimore, Md. 21218

On June 11, 2009 at 8:49am david eberhardt wrote:
an addendum sent to wm logan re my abridged letter in the bk review- abt his scathing reviews of some other poets

would you "savage" me next...please?!?

you even got a drawing of yrself in the bk review- i'm thinking is he wall eyed? no- it's hart crane's revenge- you have a "seal's spindrift wide eyed gaze towards paradise"?

i sort of like the tough, mystical guys- robt bly, jack gilbert, rumi thru coleman barks- maybe i should take a look at yr. stuff- watch out- you're gonna get some treetments

actually- liking wilbur and merwin quite enuff- i'll say this- wilbur is annoyingly classical and merwin too vaporous- look i can b like u-

but actually- congratz- it takes a genius Tto recognize both other geniuses and other asses

On June 11, 2009 at 10:48am dave eberhardt wrote:
I forgot to mention Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds as favorites- lest anyone find me too sexist!

The poetry of today- and, Bill, I wouldn't pick on Billy Collins who is charming and insightful (think of Edward Lear or Ogden Nash)- o, let's say the poetry of the New Torker Mag- altho they will make concessions - is what we're talking about- it is arch, often incomprehensible, and just plain old foolish.

American poets should generally have to read Che Guevara's "Little Green Book" and other passionate Latin and Spanish poets.

poetry is not just lawn parties- it's life and death (and i love liteness and humor along w you)

dave froginbog in Md. check out web site Poetry in Baltimore

On September 5, 2009 at 7:03am Carl Ploss wrote:
In Wm Logan's criticism there is no little courage, rather meticulous scholarship, stylistic flair, humour (even the self-deprecating kind), sharp insight, and an underlying desire to teach (a truth we ignore at our peril) that it is the good that makes the beautiful true.

On November 8, 2009 at 3:31pm Dan wrote:
Reading portions of Logan's defense here, and Keith's letter, I find this controversy amusing. I have not read all of the letters nor all of the original piece, where is it online? But it seems Logan is a tad unfair to Crane in equating his (Logan's) distaste for Crane's sordid lifestyle with the inadequacies of his verse. We may dislike the person's lifestyle but then must we condemn the person's work? This is especially odd because Logan's view is based on a scholar's perusal of secondary sources. Did Logan ever meet Crane?

Relatedly, as a casual onlooker on this intellectual debacle, even I caught the Peggy Guggenheim error; maybe Logan should not review or comment on certain authors in print?

Lastly, am I the only one to find some of Logan's remarks simply a bit homophobic? I dare say?

Some of Crane's poems sound wonderful, some of the poems contain vivid, memorable images, and even as I enjoy the opening "Proem" of "The Bridge" I find its other sections less successful. "Black Tambourine" reverberates with the same percussive force as Heaney's poem "Death of a Naturalist." There are stanzas by Robert Lowell and Dylan Thomas which sound just as strong. Many poets, perhaps most, never achieve even a single stanza with such great music. Well, so some of the sense may have been lost, well?

I think some readers may object to some critics in positions of power telling us all what we should and should not like. Logan and his cohorts should unsnap their tab collars, and loosen their silk ties, and realize there are readers who do not hold tenure in academia, nor control the editorial boards of a handful of literary journals. These other readers deserve to be heard, and Logan and his ilk should realize that their small-minded, narrow community should get off their high horses to learn there exists i a real life out there. We don't need William Logan and his tastes, nor Logan telling us all how to enjoy or read poetry. Give us a break please!

On November 27, 2009 at 1:44am Chris DeGroot wrote:
Logan is right that Crane is uneven and often obscure, but he makes no mention of Crane's wonderfully sonorous cadences (hard to equal in American poetry), discounts the amount of his truly successful “logic of metaphor,” and seems a generally unimaginative critic: where dull-witted Logan sees obscurity, others see imagination and a deft dance of the intellect. See, e.g., "The Broken Tower."

I struggle to concieve of Logan enjoying any Celan as well as the Rimbaud of the Illuminations. But the worst thing is that Logan is, as it were, a vulgar tale-bearer. The object in question is Crane's poetry. If Crane’s logic of metaphor is indeed too obscure, that is not reducible to the poet’s lifestyle choices. Trakl is often obscure; say now, how can we judge Trakl's shortcomings and failings (like Crane, he drank a lot, and shh, don’t tell Logan, did drugs too!) so as to account for this? Or can Celan’s obscure (yet to many readers magnificent) Breathturn be explained via some bad decision or other that the poet doubtless made (as who has not)?

Logan’s approach is irresponsible and inappropriate, and recalls those Americans who make the sex lives of celebrities a national concern. Perhaps Cormac McCarthy and Susan Howe, John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, should join Logan and Newt Gingrich on The O' Reilly Factor. There, to our national delight, Newt and the two Bills could castigate the poet and the novelist.

Logan is a very minor and tiresomely over confident critic. His frequent goal is to vent his spleen; he’d be a better radio talk host than critic. His poetry is unoriginal, dry as dust formalism. Both his verse and his criticism suggest a rather narrow mind and bland sensibilities. Who can imagine the dullard enjoying any avant-garde poet? Crane's work, albeit uneven, does make the new a little hard to see. This requires a mind adequate to the poet's step forward. Much wit is lost on those who have little, and it is so with dull Logan.

On August 17, 2010 at 2:12am Chris wrote:

At the end of the day, Crane (like Wallace Stevens, another poet at the receiving end of Logan's barbs) is still a major American poet, albeit a flawed one. Logan is a minor poet without a single important poem to his name. Logan can talk the talk but he can't walk the walk. There isn't a single great poet in history without any blemishes. Even Shakespeare wrote some obscure or perfunctory passages, even Goethe produced some duds. No, Crane isn't in that league, but he's one of the best American poets, with only Stevens, Frost, Dickinson, and Whitman as his obvious superiors. If they are the "A" crowd, he's a solid "A minus." Logan, by contrast, is and always will be a dry-as-dust poetaster.

On March 1, 2011 at 10:42am Darren wrote:
I like the last comment. It saved me the bother of writing a similar diatribe. Young poets now are becoming increasingly disenchanted with poetry that amounts to nothing but 'chopped-up prose'. There is an aesthetic turn on the horizon which will bring with it a renewed appreciation for Dickinson, Stevens, Crane, Thomas, etc. and maybe a generation of great poets will emerge that swallows up those mediocrities who condemn a poet for having the ambition to attempt to write a modern epic.

On March 3, 2011 at 8:51am Linda Marshall wrote:
Mr. Logan, I enjoyed your "review" of your review. I will look at Crane a bit more now.

Reading the comments is always fun: the silliness, the mean-spiritedness, the bad writing, the ego ego ego, and the occasional sense.

I am unfamiliar with your poetry but will look for it now.

Thanks again.

On March 7, 2011 at 10:43am Laurie Woods wrote:
Reading tiny little Logan's "review" of the
"review" delivered to him on his original
"review" of the giant, Crane, is much like
having to painfully listen to the angry
bawlings of a naughty spoiled brat, whose
correction, though much deserved,
results in yet another boring loud
tantrum. Shush! That's quite enough!
Now go to your room, you've been
tolerated long enough!

On March 29, 2011 at 8:12pm Francis wrote:
Don't read these comments, especially the pretentious ones in painful free-verse. Read this instead:

this guy got Logan good!

On October 2, 2011 at 3:38pm Joey Frantz wrote:
Some people seem to think that Logan shouldn't have
impugned Crane's character, but they ignore the fact
that this is a volume of poems and letters, not just a
book of poems. And boy are there a lot of letters.

When you're reviewing a book of poems, it's best not to
get too personal. But how is one supposed to review a
book of letters without having one's take on the
author's personal life? Reading Ginsberg's poems, for
example, I found it easy to simply think about whether
the poems themselves are good or bad. But reading
Ginsberg's letters to Jack Kerouac is a different story.
How am I supposed to talk about his letters without
discussing his personal traits?

Logan did nothing wrong to rail on about Crane's
personal life.

On January 25, 2013 at 2:29pm Sam Worley wrote:
I'm glad to know I'm not alone wishing those last lines of "Chaplinesque"
weren't there. I feel the same way about "The bottom of the sea is

On December 29, 2013 at 7:06pm Burt wrote:
If you don't see the genius, all you have left are the flaws.


I've always loved Hart Crane; but I love him in fractions, delighting in half a dozen of those rhapsodic poems long on style and short on sense but finding the rest mystifying as a Masonic ritual.


In some of his best poems, I merely admire lines, and in some of those lines I merely admire phrases—and yet what phrases and lines and, more rarely, what poems he wrote! When I reviewed Crane's Complete Poems and Selected Letters for the New York Times Book Review, I was not surprised that some readers objected, since many value Crane even more than Crane valued himself; and he valued himself quite a lot.


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This prose originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2008


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Poet and critic William Logan was born in Boston in 1950 and earned degrees from Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since 1975, his work—both poetry and criticism—has regularly appeared in major journals and publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Poetry, and the New Criterion. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Sad-Faced Men (1982), Sullen Weedy Lakes (1988), . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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