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05 July 2005

William Logan and Goofball Poetics

In the current The New Criterion, William Logan writes "The Great American Desert," an omnibus review on John Ashbery and other poets in his wake. It's a witty piece of writing, and quite nasty--it takes up a conservative perspective that poetry reviews have been far too kind over the last thirty years. Time to take no prisoners.

Logan praises Ashbery lavishly, a familiar set-up for lambasting sycophants who mimic the master without really understanding the depth and for discrediting pretenders who could not maintain Ashbery's consistency. In Logan's cross-hairs, he goes after Dean Young:

The quality of whimsy is not strained. It falleth from Ashbery like the gentle rain—and it falleth on a lot of young poets now, students in the School of Goofball Poetics, boys who cut their teeth on Ashbery and Charles Simic and James Tate and now show little interest in any poems written before Dada came to town. Dean Young’s sixth book, Elegy on Toy Piano
, is fairly representative of the younger generation, full to the gills with geegaws and thingmabobs and dojiggers, but one tradition embraced is a lot of tradition rejected.

Logan then goes onto a predictable diatribe, detailing the simple-mindedness and facile quality of these pseudo-Dada experiments. He then goes after the current "not-it" girl, Jorie Graham, citing her complete lack of humor--as if that took insight. He continues with exposing the inconsistency in Kevin Young's poems (and again, as if that were a stretch) and on the numbing simplicity of Ted Kooser's poetry (and again, what a limb Logan goes out on!). He closes with a hardly startling paean of praise to Richard Wilbur.

Thus, Logan frames his argument with two "incompatible" poets, the discursive, breezy, improvisational Ashbery and the understated, masterful, and formal Wilbur. This is the critic's maneuver to show that he can appreciate all kinds of poetry, that his tastes are large. Once this is framed, the critic is at leave to search and destroy without compunction. Graham, with all the controversy Foetry has exposed (hers is the unhappy case that gives those watchdogs the greatest legitimacy) in regarding her unethical judging of poetry contests, and with all the burden of praise she received in her youth, is probably the biggest and easiest target to attack these days. He chastises Graham, specifically, for giving up her poetry of the minutiae and for adopting the posture of the propagandist. This reminds me of the attacks that the Partisan Review unleashed on Muriel Rukeyser, that the documentary poet became the poster girl poet during World War II. In other words, Graham has turned her back on a former poetics, trying for a grand sweep.

The attack on Kooser seems to come out of desire to chastise the Academy for granting this unassuming poet the mantle of U. S. Poet Laureate, and then a Pulitzer on top of it. Logan simply plops Kooser into the "aw shucks" school of poetry, the accessible, pleasing, monosyllabic verse of William Stafford. Kooser, like Graham, is a sell-out, according to Logan. Logan wistfully notes that Kooser used to have a hard, sardonic eye toward his subject matter--and here we have the New Critic's love of the hard, dry image, the unsentimental--but now he's gone soft on the Great American Desert.

His dismissal of Kevin Young is brief and predictable. News flash: Kevin Young's poetry is uneven!! Not quite getting the humor, mocking Young with his own brand of "noir" speak, Logan charges that Young's Black Maria fails because he's simply not up to the task. He just as casually dismisses Dean Young, simply for being a lightweight, a goofball, someone without bottom.

What's intriguing about this review is not whether or not Logan is on target about any of these particular poets and their books, but the pure posturing that upholds this omnibus. The frame is pre-fabricated, easy, and the content is sniping, snide, and complacent. Yes, there are the gestures toward fairness, that Logan may have read some of the poems with deep attention, but all of it ends up being the kind of display that cheapens criticism. Oh, we can call it polemic, admire here is a critic who is taking a stand against mediocrity--a guy who isn't afraid of pointing out the frauds of the poetry business. But that stance undercuts its integrity. It's fun to read, and we enjoy the meanness and superiority, but it is finally glib: worldly but tiresome .

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