Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Killjoy of Contemporary Poetry

In case you wanted another take on the state of contemporary poetry, its current killjoy, William Logan, reviews the current works of six poets (C.K. Williams, Tony Hoagland, Don Paterson, Keith Douglas, Derek Walcott, and Anne Carson) in June’s New Criterion. Perhaps there is a part of me that takes delight in William Logan’s nonstop bashing and snide contempt for much of contemporary poetry. God knows, I would not want to have his jaded eye trained on my work (Oh Oh Oh, if only my work would warrant such a look!) Mostly though, I find Logan’s tireless criticism wearisome. Perhaps it’s just me, but I prefer to have a critic point out what works in a poem than what falls flat.

In Logan’s world, almost all of contemporary poetry is just not quite right. Williams is too moralizing: “What but poetic deafness could make so many passages read like sociology texts.” On the other hands, Hoagland is too concerned with consumerism: “Hoagland is the Updike of American trash, forgetting nothing—but he hasn’t figured out how to recycle rubbish into art.” Likewise, Patterson is too sentimental: “The book ought to come with linen handkerchiefs from the broken mills of Glasgow or Aberdeen.” The dead war-poet Douglas can’t write a good line: “You need to go a long way to find the good lines in these poems, and when you do they’re surrounded by bad ones.” Meanwhile, Walcott can’t stop writing the same line, “I wish that in almost every book the flash of the sea weren’t compared to coins or the surface to a sheet of tin or the flight of birds to arrows.”

The only poet he saves praise for is Anne Carson, whose latest poetic effort Nox literally weighs in at two pounds and thirty dollars. I very much admire Anne Carson’s work though haven’t read Nox (I’m waiting for the ‘paperback’ edition). I found Plainwater and Eros, The Bittersweet, excruciatingly beautiful and over the top smart. Nox, which was written in large part as elegy to Carson’s disappeared brother, is also a meditation on Catullus 101, likewise a lament for a lost brother though written by the 1st Century BC poet Catullus. Does it seem surprising that Logan saves his praise for the one poet whose work hearkens back two thousand years? But I’ll reserve my take on Carson’s work until I’ve read it, which I admit, I’m looking forward to,

Granted, Logan has an unerring ability to hone in on a poet’s weakest lines and faults. Moreover, Logan’s critical prose is beautifully written if not uplifting. Finally, I suppose poetry needs at least one curmudgeon if only to balance the praise most poet/critics tend to heap on one another’s work. But his criticism won’t stop my reading of any of the poets whose work he derides, and, of course, I won’t stop reading his criticism. Sigh.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry I had to post a comment to this. Yes, Logan is a curmudgeon and rarely finds anything to say positive about contemporary poetry. BUT, don't we need some of this? I mean where are the critics? It always seems as though we poets are just patting each other on the back rather than openly and freely and with criticism discussing the art. Of course that's when we're not admitting that we're the only ones that read each other's work. Sad.