“I’ve always loved Hart Crane; but I love him in fractions,” declares William Logan [“On Reviewing Hart Crane,” October 2008], claiming to be mystified by the firestorm that greeted his now notorious review of Crane’s Complete Poems and Selected Letters for the New York Times Book Review. In replying to his critics, Logan admits he got a few facts wrong—for example, what sort of jacket Crane was wearing when he leaped to his death or how rough the water was — and he defends himself against those of his readers who naively “want vision rather than poetry” and hence forgive Crane for his rhetorical excesses. Sounding eminently “reasonable,” Logan now argues that taste is, after all, personal, and inevitably, “Criticism is the exercise of taste under the guise of objectivity.”
I was not one of Logan’s original detractors; at the time I read the review, I felt, in Frank O’Hara’s words, “that it will go away without me.” But now that Logan has offered us this disingenuous little defense, I feel it’s time to speak out. The dismay so many of us felt reading Logan’s review of the Library of America volume had little to do with the reviewer’s sense that Crane’s poetry is uneven, that The Bridge is a failed American epic, and so on. Many other critics have voiced such reservations. No, what makes Logan’s article so infuriating is its world-weary, condescending tone, coupled with a refusal—or inability—to justify his particular judgments.
Logan’s method consists of giving a few quotes—say, from “Chaplinesque”—and then declaring the poem in question a “dreadful mess.” Why is it a mess? How? Or again, speaking more generally, “When you clear away the clutter from [Crane’s] verse, often you find only banalities.” This may or may not be true, but Logan never bothers to tell his readers why the verse in question is banal. And it is not lack of space that prevents discussion, but rather the reviewer’s penchant for nasty biographical detail. He makes fun of Crane’s sex life (“his sexual appetites were voracious and involved far too many sailors”) and repeatedly reminds us what a hopeless and unpleasant drunk Crane was. For example: “Chronically out of sorts, creatively ill (his life would have been far happier after the introduction of decongestants), prone to ‘enthusiasms’ we might now call mania, argumentative, often spectacularly drunk, Crane would have gotten on anyone’s nerves.” Cute as hell, that reference to decongestants and possible mental illness, almost as cute as calling The Bridge “a Myth of America conceived by Tiffany and executed by Disney.” And even the “Proem” to The Bridge (“How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest”), a lyric even Logan admits is a “beautifully managed passage,” is said to have lines that “can be cloying, always an adjective too rich or a noun too boisterous”—a case, indeed, of “high-amp schmaltziness.”
Just which of the adjectives in the first stanza of “Proem,” cited in the review, is “too rich”? Which noun is “too boisterous”? I would honestly like to know. But Logan is too busy telling his snide little tale (of Crane’s Mexico period he says cruelly, “we are lucky he left nothing of his projected epic on the Aztecs”) to discuss a single passage—much less the overall plan—of The Bridge. The famous sequences For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen and Voyages are ignored. As for the letters, which most readers of the past half century have found intensely moving and poetic, these are dismissed by Logan as “rarely . . . memorable or even bearable.”
And what about the edition itself, prepared by Langdon Hammer?
Its “scattershot notes,” declares Logan, are “helpful.” Really? What makes them “scattershot”? Or again, what makes them “helpful”? Logan never gives a single example, never tells why or how “[Crane’s] best lines are extraordinary, even if there are few major poems, or even very good ones.” Evidently, this reviewer doesn’t care that every important American poet from Robert Lowell to the present or every major critic of the past few decades, beginning with Harold Bloom, has felt otherwise. Never mind: Logan knows better. Indeed, he confesses that when he looks over the early reviews of Walt Whitman, he “agree[s] with almost every obstreperous howl and every quiet reservation.”
There you have it. Even Whitman needs the slap on the wrist that is Logan’s stock-in-trade. Watch out, Emily Dickinson!
Pacific Palisades, California