Our Savage Art
William Logan could be accused of practicing a form of literary criticism akin to gonzo journalism, in which the writer’s personality and style are the center of attention (the word gonzo is from the Italian for “simpleton” or “blockhead”; fare il gonzo is “to play the fool”). Logan’s personality and style definitely cannot be ignored in his criticism, especially his harsh judgments on leading contemporary poets, his resort to ad hominem accounts of poets’ personal lives, his mocking italicized quotations of their bizarre diction and confused metaphors, and his withering depiction of them in terminology derived from popular culture. Logan is no simpleton or blockhead, however. He draws on a deep well of knowledge of literary criticism, immense reading of poetry, and decades of experience in the “savage art” of critical reviewing. In addition, he is a poet himself, with eight published volumes, as well as a teacher of creative writing, so he knows whereof he speaks. Author of four earlier collections of criticism, Logan received a National Book Critics Circle Award for the previous one, The Undiscovered Country (2005).
As in Logan’s other books of criticism, many of the reviews collected in Our Savage Art first appeared in the June and December issues of The New Criterion magazine, where Logan regularly takes on the recent works of five or six poets in a “Verse Chronicle” review. For example, in the June, 2009, issue he savaged Billy Collins’s Ballistics (2008), Katha Pollitt’s The Mind-Body Problem (2009), and especially Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulattica (2009), among others. Logan’s “Verse Chronicle” reviews seem to be tailored for the conservative New Criterion, whose announced purpose is to champion what is “best” and expose what is “mendacious” in culture and which sponsors a poetry contest emphasizing traditional forms. Logan’s own poetry tends toward restraint and conventional forms, which distinguishes it from most contemporary poetry.
Many of the reviews in Our Savage Art resemble those in the June, 2009, New Criterion. For example, the collection includes reviews of two Billy Collins collections, Nine Horses (2002) and The Trouble with Poetry (2005). Collins is one of Logan’s favorite targets: “I should have reviewed Billy Collins’s Nine Horses months ago, but I couldn’t stand the excitement.” Logan goes on to describe Collins as a singer of “the cheesy sentiment of the everyday” and “the Caspar Milquetoast of contemporary poetry.” Logan begins his review of The Trouble with Poetry with “Speak of the devil.” Logan admits that Collins is popular with the masses and can sometimes be funny but asks (“I feel like a grouch to ask”) “what happens when everyone [like Collins] writes poems that humiliate the art they practice.”
Another plainspoken poet who appears twice and is gleefully impaled both times is Ted Kooser, “a prairie sentimentalist who writes poems in an American vernacular so corn-fed you could raise hogs on it.” Logan’s first review attacks Kooser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Delights and Shadows (2004), his Flying at Night: Poems, 1965-1985 (2005), and The Poetry Home Repair Manual (2005). Even more devastating is Logan’s later review of Kooser’s Valentines (2008), twenty years’ worth of Valentines Day poems originally written on postcards and mailed to women around America. Logan titles his biannual “Verse Chronicle” after it (“Valentine’s Day Massacre”) and opines: “In the House of Fame, there’s no doubt a broom closet for Ted Kooser.”
Poets considered difficult to understand do not get off any easier in Logan’s hands. Two such poets who also appear twice in Our Savage Art are Pulitzer Prize-winners John Ashbery and Jorie Graham. Logan takes the multitasking Ashbery to task for writing sentences that go in every direction and do not cohere: “Were he unfortunate enough to develop Alzheimer’s, the poems wouldn’t change a bit.” One might argue that Ashbery mirrors the simultaneous nature of contemporary experiencessay, driving while listening to the radio, talking on the cell phone, trying to quiet the kids, and wondering what to have for dinner. Repeated looks into the same old mirror are enough for Logan, however. As for the megatasking Graham, with her big subjects and confused “dithering” style, Logan feels that she suffers from...
(The entire section is 1875 words.)