Follow Harriet on Twitter

About Harriet


Journal, Day Two

By William Logan

Frank O’Hara would have loved writing a blog, but it would have stopped him from writing poems—everything that went into his poems, all that helter-skelter of New York life, would have drained into the blog and stayed there, like sewage. The best poetry blog, avant la lettre, was the Dove-Viebahn Christmas newsletter (actually it was more of a tabloid, and could have had paid advertising), which Mr. Rita Dove used to issue sometime between December and July. I believe it may now be defunct; but it ran six pages, with photographs, and was divided into what can only be called news articles about plays produced, awards received, honors collected, famous people met and charmed. If you weren’t on the Dove-Viebahn Christmas list, no matter—it was widely redistributed by samizdat. (I know of at least two literary magazines that kept file copies.) I used to get copies from people who got copies from people, and I passed it on myself. It’s hard to capture the flavor, the particular awe, with which Mr. Rita Dove treated Mrs. Rita Dove (there was something tender and sweet about it, too—but the letter made it seem that she had married her own publicity agent). I recall the caption to one photo, “Rita with Mrs. Colin Powell (Colin in background).”

I’ve just finished the fall poetry chronicle for the New Criterion. I like writing criticism for about twelve days a year, but unfortunately it takes longer than that to finish a chronicle. At the end, I’m left with three feet of current poetry books, which I usually throw at a passing librarian. There are two kinds of librarians, those who love lending books so much they don’t care if anyone ever returns them, and those who hate readers so much they glue the books to the shelves. I like the librarians who hate readers—they appeal to my sense of the perverse.

The cook’s speech to the sharks in chapter 64 of Moby-Dick is as hilarious as anything in Dickens. Stubb, one of the mates, has complained to the black cook (called “old Fleece,” among other things) that the whale steak is overdone. He tells the cook to go preach to the sharks eating the dead whale drawn up to the Pequod, and the cook obliges.

“Fellow-critters: I’se ordered here to say dat you must stop dat dam noise dare. You hear? Stop dat damn smackin’ ob de lip! Massa Stubb say that you can fill your dam bellies up to de hatchings, but by Gor! you must stop dat dam racket.”

Stubb and the cook have a series of exchanges, and then the cook returns to preaching.

“Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now, look here, bred’ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don’t be tearin’ de blubber out your neighbour’s mout, I say.

It’s a humor that has never gone well in poetry. (It is, I would argue, a racial humor rather than a racist humor; but the issue is a swamp for good intentions.) Melville’s poetry contains almost nothing of this aspect of his genius; when you read his poetry, you think that he was a Ferrari trying to be a Volkswagen (or, to cut the metaphors from the cloth of his century, an Arabian thoroughbred trying to be a draft horse). Poetry now could use such complex ironies, rather than the goofball poetics and dumb-and-dumber jokes and precious surrealism (like Fabergé eggs made of bubblegum) that often hold sway.

A reader dropped off a question, but because he didn’t leave name or e-mail the editors didn’t post it. I’ll include it here.

Mr. Logan, Since you asked, I’ve got a question:

Do you think your somewhat notorious poetry hatchet has ever, after slicing clean through whatever subject stands before you, come back around to lop off one of your own legs? I mean, you DO seem to have some trouble walking around poetry land. I just wonder if you feel you may have caused this yourself.

Everyone knows that reviewing poetry is a dangerous business. The life expectancy of a poetry critic is slightly lower than for a ball-turret gunner flying B-24s over Berlin or a private walking point in the Mekong. I myself haven’t been stabbed or shot more than half a dozen times, and the car bombs were both defused. The Ninja assault was mere rumor. It’s true that I can’t travel in four Eastern states (all small and inconsequential) and seven west of the Mississippi. If the gentle reader is asking whether this is my own fault, well, of course it is. No one was ever forced to become a poetry critic (except in certain obscure provinces formerly under the rule of Queen Victoria), and I doubt any sane soul ever wanted to be one. I started in a much more gentlemanly profession, that of rock critic, and when thrown out found myself reduced to reviewing poetry. The reader’s surmise is correct—like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I am frequently reduced, my limbs having been lopped off, to biting.

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, October 31st, 2006 by William Logan.