All This Scratching and Erasing
“A critic must be confident. But when his confidence hardens into certainty, he begins to constrict thought—his own and ours—rather than expand it, which is his job.”
Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue, by William Logan.
Columbia University Press. $29.50.
If you keep up with the least invisible venues for poetry criticism—New York Times Book Review, New Criterion, Parnassus, Poetry, tls—then you will have already read all but a few of the pieces in Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. Logan’s fifth book of criticism reprints ten of the New Criterion “Verse Chronicle” roundup reviews for which he is probably best known, plus extended considerations of individual poets (Geoffrey Hill, Derek Walcott); efforts to resuscitate or drown literary reputations (Lawrence Durrell’s poems and John Townsend Trowbridge’s Guy Vernon are hauledfrom the deep; Hart Crane goes overboard again, this time in a cement overcoat); works of semi-textual, semi-psychoanalytic criticism on Robert Frost’s notebooks, Robert Lowell’s letters, and Elizabeth Bishop’s drafts and paintings; a few oddballs from the bottom of the drawer (newspaper reviews of two anthologies, an essay on Florida’s place in the poetic imagination, two reviews of Thomas Pynchon novels); and three essays and an interview concerning that subject every critic loves to pretend to hate: criticism.
Logan has said so much about poetry over the past thirty years, and so much has been said about what he’s said and how he’s said it, and he’s said so much about what’s been said about what he’s said, that a reviewer called upon to review his reviews . . . do I even have to ﬁnish this sentence? In January 2007 Logan wrote a review of a new edition of Hart Crane for the New York Times Book Review which blasted Crane both as an artist (“Reading ‘The Bridge’ is like being stuck in a mawkish medley from ‘Show Boat’ and ‘Oklahoma’—you’d buy the Brooklyn Bridge to make it stop”) and as a human being (“Crane would have gotten on anyone’s nerves”). In February the Review published angry letters from illustrious Crane fans, and in April a little story about the fuss, which included Logan’s trenchant critique of those who’d critiqued his critique. For a time, all was quiet. Then in October 2008 Logan published a lengthy piece in Poetry on “The Hart Crane Controversy,” which in turn generated online discussion on Poetry’s website, as well as letters which were printed in the December issue of the magazine, along with a response from Logan. May I be forgiven for dreaming that Logan will write a letter responding to this review, and then another letter responding to his own letter, and then an essay titled “The Hart Crane Controversy 2:The Bridge Too Far,” and then another letter responding to that?
My primary complaint about “The Hart Crane Controversy” of 2007–? isn’t its endlessness (though that’s a close second). My complaint is that not a single fresh thought has come of it. This is because everyone involved has done nothing but reiterate that which they already believed to be true before it began. It is Logan’s utter self-assurance as a critic that makes this kind of stagnation inevitable. A critic must be conﬁdent. But when his conﬁdence hardens into certainty, he begins to constrict thought—his own and ours—rather than expand it, which is his job.
In his “Verse Chronicle” Logan again and again reviews poets who write the same poem again and again, and again and again reiterates identical criticisms. Logan ﬁnds Charles Wright’s Buffalo Yoga (2004) formally shapeless and faux-sagacious in tone, and says so in many different ways: “just bundles of lines, loose as kindling,” “images...pilfered from Pound’s notebooks,” “garden metaphysics,” “some bearded sage crossed with Mammy Yokum, puffing on a corncob pipe,” “pretentious humbuggery,” “maundering esoterics,” “Sunday school phrases,” “haggard and loose-hipped,” “cornbread platitudes,” “lyric fragments,” etc. Three years later, Wright publishes Littlefoot, and Logan once again sets his phrasemaking machine to its “Charles Wright” setting: “genial woolgathering,” “lackadaisical manner,” “valedictory gestures,” “a daybook or a night journal rather than a series of poems, catching whatever orphan thoughts strayed into his mind and got trapped there,” etc. And by the way, do you know what Logan thought of Wright’s Appalachia, back in 1999? Why, he thought that the poems were “mere sketchings and jottings; and without titles it would be difficult to tell where one poem ends and another begins.” Wright isn’t the only poet who receives this must-touch-the-doorknob-twenty-times-before-bed monomaniacal attention from Logan. Pretty much every time John Ashbery, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, Ted Kooser, Sharon Olds, Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder, Mark Strand, or Derek Walcott publishes a book of poems, no matter how undistinguished or indistinguishable from its predecessor, Logan will review it, and he will say roughly the same things about it that he said about the last one, and, not infrequently, he will also complain, in the same way he did last time, about how repetitive this once-interesting poet has become. (Only Geoffrey Hill gets relatively fresh consideration on each outing; Logan’s reviews of Hill are as ardent and measured as a thoughtful husband’s annual trips to the lingerie shop.)
Logan’s review of Sharon Olds’s One Secret Thing in the December 2008 New Criterion (too recent to be included in Our Savage Art) begins, “When you open a Sharon Olds book, you know what to expect,” and ends, “Perhaps, aged sixty-six, Sharon Olds has at last grown tired of herself.” My question is, when will Logan at last grow tired of reviewing Olds? He isn’t yet sixty. He’ll outlive many old gray mares and stallions in the stables of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, W.W. Norton, and Alfred A. Knopf who have felt his whip. He seems desperately bored with them anyway, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one who’s getting bored listening to him rehash his boredom. So why not ﬁnd some colts and ﬁllies to break? I’m not asking for the man’s thoughts on Spoetry—I can imagine, thanks—but how about reviewing poets with three or four books instead of thirteen or fourteen? Wouldn’t this be a win-win-win-win? Logan could refresh his poetic palate and reboot his critical imagination, his readers would beneﬁt from seeing his deep understanding of the poetic tradition brought to bear upon that tradition’s newest additions, poor Sharon Olds wouldn’t have to dread Logan’s inevitable desultory lashing every time she publishes a new book, and Logan’s new quarries would discover that the sweet misery of being excoriated by a vast literary intelligence, however reactionary, is actually more satisfying than being favorably compared to late Yeats on your friend’s blog.
Sadly, it will never happen. Logan occasionally reviews early-career poets (provided they’ve appeared in the New Yorker, been published by a commercial press, won a major prize, or some combination of these), but he doesn’t and won’t make a substantive attempt to engage with what’s happening in poetry today, because apprehension of the new requires an accommodating sensibility, and Logan’s isn’t. Poetry changes. (It doesn’t evolve, by the way, like a monkey discovering a better way to peel bananas; it changes, like a monkey discovering that bananas are delicious.) You may think that fact happy or sad, but it’s a fact either way. In the face of it, the critic can elect to live in the past, or take up the task of creating the taste by which the present is to be enjoyed. Logan has chosen the former option.
The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation, by Fanny Howe.
Graywolf Press. $15.00.
Fanny Howe is a believer capable of being in uncertainties; the apparent paradox accounts for both the purpose and the power of her writing. Howe may or may not have come by her sensibility as a direct result of her Irish heritage and her family having always had one foot planted on either side of the Atlantic, but the principle is sound even if it’s merely metaphorical. In her new book of essays, The Winter Sun, she writes:
People who are destabilized by historical forces are more intelligent than the secure ones who have got the formulas in place. The safety of received tastes and opinions, conﬁrmed in furniture and inherited artworks, stops the true brain, the brain of the seeking blind. When people are uprooted and insecure, their tables are alive with the conversation of prophets—philosophy, music, literature, God. But when the people are safe, the repetition of a formula goes around and around.
Note that surprising set of equivalences: to be “intelligent” is to be “destabilized,” “blind,” and “insecure.” “The brain of the seeking blind”—a phrase at once empirical and spiritual, determined and doubtful—would make an apt title for Howe’s collected works. It would be a big book. She has written twelve novels and thirteen books of poetry, and The Winter Sun is her third book of essays. In its brief prefatory piece, “A Vocation,” Howe explains that her generation (she was born in 1940) was raised in “a double bind. . . . While we learned languages, poetry, science, and athletics, the prevailing social attitude was nihilist. . . . We grew up at the tail end of the Victorian period and at the beginning of the postmodern.” The twentieth-century artist’s twin idols are humanism and nihilism, and this impossible religion has shaped and shaken Howe’s thinking from the start. Despite or because of it, she notes with characteristic detachment, she has continued to write steadily for forty years, and now asks herself the obvious question most writers prefer to avoid: why?“Why was I chained to these language problems that I myself had created? Why all this scratching and erasing?” The Winter Sun, she continues, consists of “an effort to resolve the question: What was this strange preoccupation that seemed to have no motive, cause, or ﬁnal goal and preceded all the writing that I did. . . . What could I call what was calling me? A vocation that has no name.”
The Winter Sun includes nine essays, but three comprise the bulk of its pages and the substance of its accomplishment. “Branches” is mostly a memoir of Howe’s childhood; “Person, Place, and Time,” at ninety-some pages the centerpiece of the book, is mostly a memoir of her intellectual, spiritual, political, and artistic development; and “Waters Wide” is mostly an explanation, or at least an account, of her personal theology. “Mostly,” in each case, because of Howe’s tessellated style, which she describes in this passage concerning the main character of her (mostly) autobiographical novel, The Deep North:
I could not see a way to write her story coherently. I had in my hands a series of discontinuous episodes, including one from her early childhood, voice-overs, and scenes from her youth. In a gesture of frustration I threw the pages on the ﬂoor and kicked them around....
Then, reverting to my interest in ﬁlm techniques, I began to move parts together according to theories of juxtaposition, montage, close-up, and distant tracking....
I saw surprising connections between one scene and another.... The pages themselves told me where they should go.
I confess I hate scenes like this. They play too much like those bolt-of-genius moments you see in movies about writers. It may be that I’m simply jealous, since I have often prayed for pages to tell me where they should go but, unlike Howe, have never enjoyed a response. It’s my experience that the writer, not the writing, decides—guesses, actually—how best to organize a text. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Howe assembled these essays via algorithms, focus groups, genius, or a Ouija board. The important question is whether they succeed, and the answer is yes.
It’s difficult to give examples of that success, though, because its nature is cumulative rather than local. Howe’s analysis of repetition and variation in Emily Brontë’s poem “No coward soul is mine” is illuminating in and of itself, but the pleasure I take in reading it is compounded when I realize its insights can be aligned with her discussion of Robert Lowell’s “imitations” eighty pages back, and her description of herself as a child—“the stairs were my territory that I occupied on my way to somewhere up or down; and as I look back I see this positioning as typical of the vacillation that would become my fatal ﬂaw”—thirty pages before that. It sometimes seems, in fact, that any of Howe’s paragraphs struck against any other would make a spark.
I’m never unaware, reading The Winter Sun, that it’s Howe’s voice speaking, so I suppose these are “personal essays.” But Howe moves between the personal and the political with such intelligence and grace, she makes them feel as inextricable as we know they are. She quotes a passage from one of her mother’s novels, describing the room the family occupied in Dublin in the late forties, and follows that list of intensely speciﬁc and nostalgic details—“The nearness of the gas stove to the toilet made fulﬁllment of the bodily functions extremely precarious, especially as there was always a kettle on the boil”—with three quick sentences which zoom out to summarize the entire age:
Meanwhile back in Harvard Yard experts were drawing up shapes for the countries of the world. As Melville said about the invisibility that lies before us, it ensured that the future was being formed in fright. The mushroom cloud loomed as only past and future can, when they are united by a single image.
In 1947, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment declared that “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” F.O.Matthiessen committed suicide in 1950, an act Harry Levin described as “a dramatic refusal to enter the 2nd half of the twentieth century.” In reaction to this post-war atmosphere of despair, Howe’s father “worked for social justice and was eviscerated” by the forces of intolerance; her mother co-founded the Poets Theater, where “money was always lacking, audiences were last minute,” and “no one asked what good was poetry in a such a brutal world.” Howe’s parents’ choices seemed to her heroic but doomed. Perhaps there was another way.
To ﬁnd it, Howe sought other models. The Winter Sun is salted with brief appreciative sketches of writers and religious ﬁgures, each of whose lives, at least in Howe’s imagination, was marked in one way or another by a quality of liminality. Howe’s fellow sitters-on-the-stairs include Edward Dahlberg, Robert Lowell, Henry Hampton, Jacques Lusseyran, Sara Grant, Abhishiktananda, the Abbé Dubois, Michel de Certeau, Antonia White, Emily Brontë, and the Dalai Lama, but the ﬁgure most important to Howe, it seems clear, is Simone Weil. Like Weil, Howe both doubts and believes in the value of theory, the usefulness of praxis, and, perhaps above all, her own capacities. Also like Weil, Howe has fashioned her ambivalence into an ethic at once ﬂexible and durable. Weil was attracted to Catholicism and Howe has converted, but religion is not for either of them a means of avoiding intractable problems; it’s a place to work on them. Howe’s rhizomatic spirituality constitutes not an abdication of responsibility but a forking path toward it:
The person looking for “me” (a ﬁxed identity) is also the same person looking for (a vapory word) “God.” This split search can only be folded into one process of working on something—whether it is writing, digging, planting, painting, teaching—with a wholeheartedness that qualiﬁes as complete attention.In such a state, you ﬁnd yourself depending on chance or grace.... Your work is practical, but your relationship to it is illogical in the range of its possible errors and failures. You align yourself with something behind and ahead and above you.
This paragraph appears twice in the book, in slightly different versions, separated by about a hundred pages. The discovery of this editorial hiccup brings to mind that image of Howe kicking loose pages around the house; accidents are bound to happen under such circumstances. Still, might it be worth wondering whether the repetition was deliberate on Howe’s part? Perhaps she intended us to read her revisions—a dependence on an “unknown model” in the paragraph’s ﬁrst appearance, for example, becomes a dependence on “chance or grace” in the second—as evidence and demonstration of her pilgrim’s progress? Well, worth it or not, I’ve wondered. Perhaps the thought doesn’t have to be true to be useful.
City Dog: Essays, by W.S. DiPiero.
Northwestern University Press. $17.95.
It may be inappropriate to tack a brief notice of W.S. DiPiero’s new collection of essays onto the end of this review, since his book differs in kind from the other two. Our Savage Art applies a single set of tools to a variety of subjects; The Winter Sun applies a variety of tools to a single, albeit multifaceted, inquiry; as such both books feel whole unto themselves. City Dog, on the other hand, is a genuine miscellany. DiPiero makes a brief effort to pretend that’s not the case, suggesting in his preface that the pieces here have been “chosen and sequenced” to evoke the way “the inner life keeps changing, troping along with whatever reality gives it to work with,” the way “everything streaks into everything else,” but not even he seems to buy this as an organizing principle: “The writing—all my writing—has been driven by awkward curiosity and uncertainty, a panicked desire for sights and sounds and sensations. So the story essayed here, such as it is, lurches and swerves.”
If that’s an apology, it’s not only unnecessary but ironic, since it’s precisely DiPiero’s variousness which makes his essays such a pleasure to read. (And his poems as well. When I read DiPiero on how he assembles his poetry collections—“I don’t go looking for subject matter and don’t have ‘projects’”—I feel like cheering. When did poetry collections become projects? And how can we make them stop?) The city dog of the book’s title is DiPiero himself, who loves cities not as metaphors, symbols, or treasure chests of imagery to be plundered, but as fellow organisms, constant in their changeability: “the more vital the city, the more it gives and takes, the more its people come and go.” The same might be said of the mind of an essayist: the more comings and goings of impressions, ideas, and subjects, the less risk that the mind’s “lurches and swerves” will calcify into a “project.” There’s little chance of that happening here, as DiPiero’s attention skitters from standing along the balustrade at the opera, to his working-class Italian childhood in Philadelphia, to a Shih Tzu howling Sting’s song “Roxanne,” to Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, to the sociology of whistling in public, to Dion and the Belmonts. That’s all in one essay, “Fathead’s Hard Times,” which, believe it or not, is mostly about the author’s ankylosing spondylitis, a painful inﬂammatory syndrome which untreated can leave victims “shaped like grasshoppers, bent over a cane, looking up through inverted bifocals.”
DiPiero has written nine books of poems, but he also writes extensively on music, visual art, and ﬁlm, and the best pieces here—“Fathead’s Hard Times” among them—bring together all his interests and get them talking to each other. DiPiero has also worked as a translator, and perhaps that’s as good a metaphor as any for his modus operandi, since his criticism seems driven less by a desire to analyze or judge than by a need to apprehend the ways in which art can be used to illuminate the darker corners of human nature. “Force” begins, “In the autumn of 1995 I fell into despair,” and we brace ourselves for a generic memoir of depression. But the essay is only collaterally concerned with depression (as well as with formlessness and form, Hart Crane, Paul Cézanne, poetry, and painting). What it’s really about is DiPiero’s experience of Crane as a poet “remote and insidious, completed and volatile,” his experience of Cézanne as a painter who “struggled to wrestle down into adequate forms his profound instabilities and dreads,” and ﬁnally DiPiero’s consoling realization that “formal dynamics are themselves a vision of existence.”
As DiPiero feels his way through art and memory toward discoveries of the self, he sometimes turns up blind alleys, as might well be expected. Unwashed dishes pile up in his kitchen, “the smell starts to ooze from every porous surface, while I’m in Maupassant, and I think of Ciccio. . . . caretaker of the American Legion post where my father...and his cronies drank.” DiPiero may well have thought of Ciccio while reading Maupassant in a dirty kitchen, but that doesn’t mean these things have anything to do with one another, and hiseffort to try to connect them is awkward. Elsewhere, DiPiero describes a walk from Venice Beach to Santa Monica with terriﬁc and incisive detail, but his abrupt transition to a potted history of the ﬁgure of the ﬂâneur feels more like machination than association. Still, false steps like these may be a necessary evil, or even simply necessary. As any lover of cities knows, you discover nothing new when you know where you’re going.
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, poet Joel Brouwer is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Syracuse University. Brouwer is the author of several collections of poetry, including And So (2009); Centuries (2003), a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book; and Exactly What Happened (1999), winner of the Larry Levis...