John Logan Essay - Logan, John

Logan, John

Logan, John 1923–

Logan, an American Catholic of Irish ancestry, is a poet and critic. His characteristic poems are intense and often extremely personal.

Though it is true (at least in my opinion) that his poems about saints and martyrs are not his best, the surprising thing about this part of Logan's work is that the churchly bookishness is not dry and dead; it is oddly alive and felt, for in addition to being a Catholic, Logan is a man for whom intellectual excitement exists. Even so, to a religious outsider like myself, his formidable and detailed knowledge of church history and ritual is rather forbidding, and there are a good many times when I get lost in it. If one is patient, however, one comes to see that Mr. Logan's sense of what is sacred in his own experience is by no means limited to what is officially supposed to be sacred; it does not in the least depend on his having read Saint Augustine or on any of the rest of his orthodox or unorthodox learning. His poems at their best—and Mr. Logan's work is remarkably "level," with few peaks and declines—convey to a remarkable degree that degreeless and immeasurable and unanalyzable quality which Albert Schweitzer has called, in our century's greatest phrase, "reverence for life." In the face of this feeling, which is constant throughout Mr. Logan's writing, one does not really care much about talking of his literary means. His technical abilities are relatively slight, and really begin and end with an uncommon capacity for coming up with a strangely necessary and urgent observation and setting it among others by means of ordinary, unemphatic but rather breathless language which makes his lines read something like a nervous, onrushing prose. The heavy machinery of his religious symbology looks at times a little incongruous in this setting, but Logan himself never does. (p. 166)

James Dickey, "John Logan" (1962), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 164-67.

[When] we read, in the dedication of Logan's third volume: "The Redemption has happened. The Holy Ghost is in Men. The art is to help men become what they really are," it is apparent, even before we expose ourselves to the poem's action upon us, that we are not in the hands of a mere pietist, that Logan is possessed by no theory but a thirst.

Tautologically enough, in the understanding of Christianity, for a man to become what he really is means that he does not become something else, does not undergo or initiate upon himself a metamorphosis, which is the central symbol of divine love as the understanding of Paganism conceived it. For Logan, a man initiates or undergoes a transfiguration, is made over only by becoming more intensely and ecstatically himself—becomes what he really is to the exclusion of accident and change. That is the lesson, for him, to be learned from the lives of the saints and the deaths of the martyrs, and to be rehearsed, dreadfully enough, in the very realia of his own existence, no less profound for being the more profane: "if some people find my subjects less religious now than they used to be, the reason is that I now think poetry itself more religious than I used to do…. It's not really the skeleton in our closets that we fear, it's the god."

John Logan's most remarkable and happily most characteristic poems, then, will not be versified accounts of the torture and death of the British poet-martyr Southwell, or even Freudian aperçus into the overmothered life of a Heinrich Heine, individual and even indicative as the latter are…. Logan's highest achievement, I think, the basis and perhaps the residue of all the other poems, are those—they are to be found in all of his books, more densely in the later ones—of confession, the kind of writing in which experience has not been mediated by knowledge, or at least by learning, and in which the risk, consequently, attendant on transfiguration is greatest precisely where it is run most egregiously—fastest. The autobiographical mode allows this poet to exploit to intense profit the confusion, if not the identity, of his beliefs in God and in the Oedipus Complex. Sometimes indeed I am not so sure about God, but the Western tradition of parricide and piety is certainly furthered here, whether acknowledged baldly ("Man's central difficulty is his old hell with his prick") or in the terms of violent metaphor. (pp. 307-08)

[As] James Dickey has pointed out in one of the few critical notices of Logan's work that signifies beyond the jacket blurb, this poet's technical abilities are relatively slight, and really begin and end with an uncommon capacity for coming up with a strangely necessary and urgent observation and setting it among others by means of ordinary, unemphatic but rather breathless language "which makes his lines read something like a nervous onrushing prose." (p. 313)

[Logan writes]: "A poet is a priest or a necromancer of the baroque who dissolves by the incantations of his cadenced human breath the surface of earth to show under it the covered terror, the warmth, the formal excitement …". Cadenced human breath, call it, as an instrument to get at transfiguration. The energy of spiritual substance driving through endless labyrinths, the very corridors of the lungs, which occasionally coil into form. There is a strange innocence about this voice, for all its ecclesiastical knowingness and all its bookish insistence, the innocence of a man who does not say, like Jarrell's despairing Woman at the Washington Zoo, "Change me! change me!" but rather, "Make me Myself!" Besides the centripetal mode of confession he has come upon, the one I think most effective and convincing in his repertory …—besides this guilt-ridden litany which manages never to sound like Robert Lowell even if it does so at times merely by not being very accomplished, Logan has two other means of approaching transfiguration: one is the historical commentary …, which in Spring of the Thief he brings to a characteristic pitch of laceration, as in "The Experiment That Failed"…. The other mode of access to transfiguration is the ecstatic identification of the poet's consciousness with objects, with landscape, with a weather intromitted into the self [exhibited] in his "Eight Poems on Portraits of the Foot"…. (pp. 315-16)

The wish for some geniune change other than our death, the transfiguration of life not in immortality but in the living of it—that is Logan's manfully shouldered burden and his quest: the body of this man's work cries out to be poems, and in that exploration, which is his own form of prayer, who can doubt he has already succeeded and will—over his towering argument as over his tottering art—prevail. (p. 317)

Richard Howard, "John Logan" (originally published in Chelsea), in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 306-317.

If the usual academic distinctions between major and minor have any validity, then it must be said that John Logan is a poet of major importance. Without question, Logan violates—and quite blithely—many of the currently accepted canons of poetic taste. In a generation which treasures the concrete and the visual, Logan does not hesitate to invoke a richly sensuous experience supported by all the linguistic devices he can muster. While the spontaneous, the immediate, even the "found" is being elevated to poetic dignity, Logan continues to make poems about the extraordinary, the fantastic, even the surrealistic and totally imagined experience. (pp. 69-70)

Harold Isbell, in Commonweal (copyright © 1970 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 27, 1970.

Yeats knows that our existence would be unrelievedly tragic if from our dying we could not create, so that dread can become hope, even in the face of biological decay. Much of John Logan's recent poetry faces directly this kind of awareness. He places his sense of man's tragic bondage against two equally powerful resolutions: the momentary obliteration of both dread and hope that comes through identifying himself with the dying animal, and the momentary release of the soul through identification with a creating spirit that transforms human hope and dread into grace. So much of his recent poetry seems generated from anxiety attending the uncertain fate of hope and dread because in life one resolution is likely to exclude the other. But only the two together would allow the dying animal to become the man who generates and creates through death. The soul of the man then must be embodied in what he can create beyond his body, as his words name and so release him (in the act of writing) from the animal obliterations of "dying" in all its meanings….

What keeps his recent poems from being in any narrowly conceived sense confessional is his stark drive to clarify ways in which all private losses are understood as dyings that can generate new insight. Many of the poems deal with the failure to achieve this. Once belief in the religious meaning of a personal quest is shaken, the problem of discovering new meaning from repeated losses is a problem of discovering new piety in the losses, not simply as a result of them—the solution that failed Wordsworth and many other converts. But John Logan is converting out of orthodox belief at the moment when religious myth is being tested against actual experience, and so his search for transcendent meaning in particular experiences is part of a further refusal to invest religious energy in religious objects (on the model of childhood's "faith" in parents, and adult man's "faith" in his institutions and beliefs). The search for meaning in new relationships is as well a search for new access to divinity, through which precariously freed identity might be extended and confirmed. But this is putting it backwards: the odyssey of losing old identity and confronting new selfhood opens up a quiet and patient freeing of awe and even worship. It is a search for reverence through turbulence, reverence sometimes mocked by institutionalized faith. (p. 19)

There is … an exploration for grace in Logan's recent poetry and a testing of its loss. Grace is found anew as the process of making and unmaking meaning is enacted; grace comes with the solemn urgency of a momentary deliverance, but it can be frozen too in the deliverance. Its picture, like the poem itself, needs constantly to be remade. Those things in personal relationships most fugitive and powerful thus become centers of its definition. (p. 22)

What John Logan's poetry gives back to life, out of the huge awkward torn cry, comes with an extraordinary economy and a desire to give release to the reader by shaping and controlling emotional response. It comes through the exercise of a craft that builds on all the resources commanded through echoing associations by turning one emotion into its opposite, so that the slow and deliberate paces, interrupted with more abrupt verbal gestures, are both guiding and assuring in the way they make inclusive meaning out of polarized feelings. His own assurance against leaving the reader with the work of inventing speed and contour is what he joyfully praises in Cummings' experiments with controlling how words are received. (p. 23)

[We] long for the "spirit of health." No poet, since Freud's discoveries have become the common property of the mind, has written with fuller mastery of the circumstances in which this longing finds itself baffled and fulfilled than John Logan. He has gone far to answer Freud's misbegotten charge that poetry is another from of fantasy; for he has dramatized the meaning of fantasy at work in his hope, then dramatized the way the need for transcendence goes beyond fantasy to become actual. He writes of our instincts for transcendence and discovers their lineaments without then turning upon them as if they were merely part of the child's primary illusion. This gives the Romantic concern with the self the added gravity of analyzed emotion, freed from the disguises and displacements of personae, but freed too of the reductive truths of psychoanalysis—where the meaning of the poet's particular and immediate situation is often analyzed in terms of its "original" significance. What is unique in his recent poetry is the drive to return to those origins and make them conscious, so that their meaning for the "spirit of health" can be included in his re-understanding of them. He goes down to the private sources of feeling through time and recovers them for the inclusive present. When he emerges changed, like us through him, it is with the sudden wakefulness of a newly created presence, vulnerable again, and "unpredictable as grace." (p. 24)

William H. Chaplin, "Identity and Spirit in the Recent Poetry of John Logan," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1973 by World Poetry, Inc.), May/June, 1973, pp. 19-24.

Logan has found, invented, has convulsed his way to that listening body which in viridescent America is generally identified not so much with a readership as with witnesses, people who prefer performances to books, the young:

          I want to open (willingly) the mouth
          of my youth
                      and breathe musical breath
                      into it.

And so he does; he does want to, and he does breathe it—into his youth, their youth, whatever youth is around, "for our conscience views itself / in the mirror of the flesh." With a choking intensity altogether characteristic of a man so deep-throated, so large-hearted, Logan has labored to divest his poetry … of all that is arduous, exacting, exclusive, professional, to make it efficient outside the clique of the learned. By efficient I mean operative, working, irresistible even, upon that kind of cursive exposure, which is not at all sure it will have—or require—a second occasion. This is poetry for the first time around, when the first time is at once acknowledged to be the last as well…. [The] designs upon us which Logan's language will have cannot afford that larger-scale ceremonial of hovering expectations—expectations met, violated, restored—which depend upon a unit, a model constituted by at least the line, at best the paragraph or, decorously, the stanza (the room in which to turn back, to walk up and down). A hand-to-mouth music is to be heard here, there is no time for setting the table, for courses; the rhymes are discovered in passing, and like anything which passes, they vary in quality, but they are there, usable, functional—they serve to mark the end of something which language itself accommodates, the end of effort.

But before I lounge a little among the dissipated ardors of The Anonymous Lover, with its idiosyncratic landscapes, photographs, paintings, inventories and addresses, I want to look back first to its predecessor, The Zig Zag Walk, which gathered up Logan's poems from 1963 to 1968. I want to look back, because I want to show, in brief, what it is that this poet has labored to divest himself of; what the baggage is, or was, that Logan is now the lighter for having jettisoned. In an earlier account of Logan's work … I remarked upon his versions of transfiguration, achieved by fervors of dedication to dead poets and mages, to landscapes and objects, and to his own insulted and injured experience, his confessed biography. In the case of past masters, Logan's apostrophes are always to them, not to their achievement. That is wonderfully so in the Keats elegy from The Zig Zag Walk, a representative (and gorgeous) achievement…. Logan's enterprise here is indicative of all that he has decided no longer to bother about.

If not despairing, then desperate in their fluttering apostrophe, Logan's "Lines for the Twice-drowned" (once in death, again in the realization of death: "You, Keats … and I … drown again / away from home … as you once drowned in your own phlegm, / and I in my poem. I am afraid.") [offers] that typical terror of process which is this poet's signal—his signal to write poems, one might say, at any rate, at any cost, to break silence by that fond utterance of the situation, that Recognition Scene he sets over and over again. Logan's zeal of identification is of course to the man Keats—the Keats of the letters quoted in the epigraph and of the terrible deathbed so hallucinatorily figured in the body of the poem itself—rather than to the poet Keats, the Keats of the Odes, say. The slow, unpersuadable triumph registered by a poem like "To Autumn" is not to be collected from an exile in the sopping Roman graveyard. Logan cannot, in his own poem, keep from casting experience in its charnal terms, for so the occasion appears to demand of him ("Since my birth / I've waited for the terror of this place"), but his capacities and his task as an artist come to his rescue here, save him from being no more than the Beddoes of the affair. For the care he takes with notation, indeed the almost musical play against each other of things heard and felt and seen … is warped by the end into a kind of patience: reluctantly, painfully, the revelation is given; the living poet can read the gravestone of the dead one. He can learn, by fraternal concession, that there is a process in that final fierce violet, as in the "furious August rain" which, if only acknowledged, if only imagined intensely enough, can permit the kind of ultimate acceptance which so loads "To Autumn". For all Logan's pangs, he achieves or is granted a patience, for that is what patience originally means: a suffering, here a sufferance of the worst in order to gain not the best but no more than being—that ongoing life which is writ in water indeed, "streams that shape and change", for we must alter in order to exist.

There are not many poems in The Zig Zag Walk so good as the Keats elegy, nor need there be; there is throughout the book a passionate striving between language and experience to represent each other—an energy toward that transfiguration of experience which will relieve Logan of the process, the patience….

In [The Anonymous Lover], there is no patience to be relieved; the transfiguration has always and already occurred—elsewhere, outside the poems, which are merely the marginalia of metamorphosis, a prolegomenon to any future ecstasy. It is foolish to speak any longer of Logan's "task" as an artist, for these poems are the discovery of a method which will obviate tasks, their mastery, and in a sense their mystery. The poems of The Anonymous Lover are perhaps the first in the history of the art which are set down, by an authentic artist, to take care of themselves; hence the buck-shot lines, the broken words, the determination of movement by the "revealed" rhyme of language off the transfigured tongue-tip. In the representative achievement here, the final poem "Tears, Spray and Steam," Keats is indeed mentioned (there is someone around who "knows / all the Odes / by heart / as well as many / bawdy songs"), but he is merely a prop, not a passion now. Logan is past passion in these exploded notations—he is ready and willing to let the language wash over him, noticing its casual arrests, and declaring, there! that will be the poem. The risk of his decision is ours, and of ours, his. (p. 7)

Richard Howard, in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1973 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Richard Howard), September/October, 1973.

This book of love poems [The Anonymous Lover] makes me feel the way all good poems do—both humble at the incredible gift one writer is displaying and also strangely peaceful—that sense that perhaps he has shown us all the way to write a poem we thought we never could even try. (p. 46)

Diane Wakoski, in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1974 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Diane Wakoski), January/February, 1974.

John Logan is keyed to immediacy and his senses are extremely sharp; he is essentially a poet of sensibility. Line breaks are extremely important for him, and no one else breaks the poetic line quite as he does. Often the break occurs in the middle of a word, creating surprise but never surprise alone. Logan distinguishes between the different syllables in a word and often wants to emphasize one which is not the last; as a result we find a sequence like "All the heavy / wet- / ness" and are forced to rethink our concept of the line break. Logan's breaks are never arbitrary; they provide emphasis and make an interesting point about language—that ultimate syllables are often flat and ponderous, and have little place at the end of a poetic line.

The poems have an admirable honesty and directness; Logan looks at the world and his life intently, and there are almost no "effects". He is honestly sentimental. The carefully pitched voice of the poet can go on at considerable length, and many poems are not at all concise. But something quite remarkable often happens. At a certain point in the poem the entire world seems to come into existence by virtue of his way of looking at it—not just selected details, what is pretty, or what he has managed to transform. The poems do not consist of high points and "successes"; instead, each is a much larger package based on a way of looking at the world that can accept any detail with which it is presented. The poems have few pinnacles or startling cliffs one can admire; they proceed by very small increments and build up into large, deliberate structures with a high point at the end which we realize is high only after the rather flat voice has stopped, the poem ends, and we are falling from it. This happens in "The Dead Man's Room," "Three Poems on Aaron Siskind's Photographs," and "Only the Dreamer Can Change the Dream". It is the entire poem which has created a highly metaphorical structure out of ordinary, everyday details. These metaphorical structures are the world as we know it. (pp. 171-72)

John R. Carpenter, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1974.