Dickinson's Nerves, Frost's Woods: Poetry in the Shadow of the Past | William Logan | Columbia University
|Jul 3|| 3|
Review by James Matthew Wilson
The poet William Logan is perhaps better known for his severe literary reviews than his clenched, austere verse. The conservative-sounding lamentations over our “age of tin”; his almost speechless rage at a literary academy that has become nearly illiterate in every enterprise but that of critiquing ideology; and his willingness to hunch over a poem’s lines as if with a monocle screwed tight against one eye, combine to make his critical prose a pleasure to read, at once scrupulous and satirical, patient and bracing.
A Logan review can also be an occasion of terror. He keeps returning to the work of Anne Carson, for instance, insisting she is an important poet, even as each of his reviews enfilades the book under consideration. A room full of poets once gasped when one of their number cracked open a fortune cookie and found, written inside, “Your next book will be reviewed by William Logan.”
Folded into his six previous volumes of collected reviews, however, were occasional essays of interpretation that tried to illuminate points of style and the contingencies of a poet’s choices by surrounding an individual poem with its historical context. An essay on “Whitman’s Brags,” from a 2005 volume, for instance, settled the poet’s “barbaric yawps,” and arrogation of the democratic soul as his own very self, into the context of pioneer boasts that, perhaps, survive in contemporary memory only in the pronouncements of Warner Brothers’ Yosemite Sam.
This new volume offers, therefore, something not quite new but nonetheless very different. In eight extended chapters, Logan engages in comparative studies of fifteen well known poems from the English and American tradition. Though his comments are often evaluative, his focus is on elaborating a historical context that may provide speculative insight on the genesis, choices of craft, and meaning of the poems discussed.
History, of course, is a vast horizontal plane, stretching to the horizon, in every direction, from the upright “trunkless leg of stone” (to misquote slightly Shelley’s “Ozymandias”) that is the poem; and so, Logan’s attentions are bound to be various and uneven. In discussing “Ozymandias” itself, for instance, he considers on the basis of what little information and by what mediated pathways Shelley could have developed his fictional monument and its fragmentary afterlife as a lesson in mutability and finitude.
After examining the “wreckage” of drafts that led to Shelley’s best known poem, Logan turns to Horace Smith’s “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite.” Logan speculates that Smith and Shelley may have written their poems on the same subject, in response to a challenge by Leigh Hunt (whose Examiner was also both poems’ first publisher). We come to see Shelley’s poem as a response to things both universal and local, even as we also see how a superior talent realizes a lasting work while that of a mediocrity (mostly) fails.
Smith’s “In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone, / Stands a gigantic leg” is unintentionally comic, even as the sestet of his sonnet comes close to genius in elaborating by haunting fantasy what Shelley’s suggests by feigned memoir. Seeing that leg, Smith writes, as a ruin of “forgotten Babylon” may stir us, and also some future “hunter” who comes after us, to reflection:
We wonder, and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness,
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful, but unrecorded, race,
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Logan sees that the difference between mediocrity and genius is, here at least, a matter of achieving perfection more or less often, in avoiding a silly leg while capturing a ruined head. His study, however, comes to rest in observing the romantic poets’ highly literary, textual, and gaming practices of composition, which made the poems no “less felt, less authentic products of imagination.” Romantic art belies romantic theories of “inspiration” and “spontaneous feeling.”
He pursues similar game in writing on Keats’ “Chapman’s Homer” and Justice’s “Henry James,” where the literary sources of literature provide a backdrop for us to see where the poet has made some striking choice that takes license with history. By this he means not just Keats’ writing “stout Cortez,” when he should intend Balboa, about whom the schoolboy Keats had probably read in his copy of William Robertson’s History of America (1777). Rather, Logan highlights why Chapman’s translation should have seemed so raw, “loud and bold,” to Keats: In brief, he had no Greek, and the only other available translation was that of Pope, whose neoclassical “antitheses” and refining elaborations tamed the Homeric spirit in a way Chapman’s Jacobean fourteeners did not. Logan then proceeds to suggest how the two conceits that conclude the poem at once fulfill its beginnings and yet leap out into the world of Keats’ day as well. The account of Donald Justice’s “Henry James by the Pacific” is more muted, in part because less of history has to be reconstructed and in part because, having studied with Justice, Logan diplomatically restrains himself to drawing out James’ ambivalence regarding his native land and its western frontier.
Again, the practice, chapter by chapter, is uneven and deliberately evasive of being reduced to a method. Pages are spent speculating on the route Keats took in the early hours, returning from a friend’s home, where he first read Chapman, to his own dank quarters, where he quickly wrote his sonnet and then had it immediately posted to that same friend. He makes little effort to draw Robert Frost’s “The Draft Horse” and Richard Wilbur’s “The Ride” together, yoking them just by the equine subject matter, even though one senses a broader New England imaginary lurking behind these poems that are, respectively, a nightmare and a dream. Although he mentions Washington Irving, Logan attends more to the superannuation of horses as an everyday mode of transport.
In turning to Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Skunk,” Logan proves oddly circumspect—perhaps, once again, out of reluctance to speculate about the motivations of a poet who has only recently died. The unpacking of Lowell’s poem is one of the great rewards of the volume; here we have a poem deliberately prosaic in voice, form, and detail, even as it retains, just beneath the surface, all the intricacies of the metaphysicals and high modernists who had shaped Lowell’s earlier, more ostentatiously filigreed style. The poem requires close scrutiny and benefits from Logan’s showing the various ways in which that last patrician, Lowell, laid claim to his New England surroundings, including the village “fairy decorator,” with all the sense of being its one true heir, just as he would, at other times, anoint himself heir to New England puritan culture, the Catholic Church, the modernist tradition, and the America of the sixties.
The Heaney poem is a slight performance in comparison, and I had presumed Logan chose it only because it revealed most obviously a line of influence from Lowell to Heaney that is, by now, well established but which merits further discussion. To the contrary, Logan proves reluctant to make any definitive link between the two, merely suggesting as a possibility what might better have been affirmed and explained.
Nothing holds Logan back, however, when he turns to Ezra Pound’s sliver of a poem “In a Station of the Metro” and William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” where he overburdens the poems’ few lines with so much highly speculative contextual analysis that they do not so much break under the strain as get buried beneath the construction. That said, I found myself persuaded that Logan had actually identified the owner of that wheelbarrow “glazed with rain” and that, in doing so, he had made at least a plausible case for what “depends” upon it. And, additionally, he attempts to show how mythical, how deeply historical, Pound’s two-line poem is. Here, as we examine two imagist poems often read together and treated as interchangeable in their poetics, we find Pound a Virgilian poet of the history epic, descending into subterranean mystery, while Williams stays willfully on the surface of things, forgetting the past and forgetting much of the present, too, in his effort to appear authentically American.
Logan is at his most familiar, and perhaps his best, in discussing Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and Lewis Carroll’s comic parody of its style. Dana Gioia made a case for Longfellow “after modernism,” some years ago, and at least a few of the poet’s minor lyrics (e.g. “The Day Is Done”) are of enduring intelligence and beauty. Logan shows just how tough a row Longfellow is to hoe, however. The preponderance of mawkish, sentimental cliché, and Victorian optimism, lent itself to mockery from birth. We are now more likely to enjoy Carroll’s Hiawatha imagined as a family portrait photographer than we are the thumping tautologies of Longfellow’s epic. Logan similarly shows the strength of his critical practice in discussing Shakespeare, where he compares the manuscript and quarto versions of “Sonnet 2.” There, we really sense history and context weaving and unweaving the choices a poet makes, consciously or unconsciously. Much the same can be said for the final chapter, whose treatment of Dickinson and return to Frost suffice to justify not only the title but the publication of this book.
The book’s introduction consists of a loose essay on the practice of literary criticism. The New Critics were sound in their attention to the text, Logan writes, but even they had to concede, in the end, that their “autotelic” analysis of the poem as a closed, little world, had to have the windows opened, now and again, to let the light of history in. What Logan is describing, though he does not say so, is just what T.S. Eliot had called for in “The Function of Criticism,” an essay that in fact led to the rise of the New Critics. There, Eliot distilled the critic’s duties as twofold: the “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” By “elucidation,” Eliot primarily intended the presentation of “fact” such as a work’s “conditions, its setting, its genesis,” in a word, that vast horizontal plane of history surrounding the work.
Eliot was right then, as Logan is now. Our understanding of a poem depends upon the kind of refined perceptions Logan has always possessed and the kind of wide-ranging assembly of facts that he gives us here. But there is a problem. Eliot was rightly suspicious of reducing criticism’s wide aims to a narrow method. Logan has gone farther and proposed not only that no method is desirable but no general critical principles are possible. It would all be a “mug’s game,” he has written elsewhere.
Eliot reached an opposite conclusion. His first book of criticism, The Sacred Wood, demonstrated criticism as a practice that must treat literature as literature and not something else. Having established that literature, that all art, is “autotelic” (by which he meant that it has an integrity of its own) he soon moved on to trying to understand how that real object stood in relation to other dimensions of reality. A poem has not been fully understood only when we see how it works in itself, nor when we have seen it in historical context. Rather, to these integral (or, as it were, interior) and horizontal dimensions, Eliot insisted be added a vertical dimension. Beginning in the late twenties, many of his essays and lectures attended to the relationship of poetry with political and moral life, but above all to that between art, personhood, and the Christian revelation.
He was correct to do so. Part of the power of a work as having its own existence, its own form, its own beauty, is the way in which it leads us at once deeper into itself and beyond itself, as we see how the work of art fits into the reality which transcends and contains it. As the ancients knew, every being is a microcosm that gives us purchase on the otherwise incomprehensible splendor of the macrocosm. The power of the work of art in an otherwise (apparently) disenchanted modern age comes from its insistence on two things: its own independent existence and its capacity to contain multitudes, that is, to stand in significant relation to many things, perhaps to all things.
The introduction of a vertical dimension—a genuine metaphysics and also a theology—brings order to the otherwise sprawling and indifferent plane of history; it directs the attention to what matters more or less. Lacking this organizing principle, Logan’s approach to both history and formal analysis, to criticism in general, can seem at times arbitrary, even capricious.
This leads Logan, in a handful of instances, to render obtuse judgments or axioms, as when he makes a sweeping claim about religion and gives a clear misinterpretation of Pascal (in one breath) that would give any theologian pause. Or, when he ruminates on Wilbur’s description of the horse’s neck as “the pillar of his mane,” listing uses of “pillar” for a whole paragraph, without once having recourse to Exodus 13:21. Perhaps also there are traces of this absence of vertical distinction even in such incidental moments as his condescending reminder that wine is aged in oak, the oddly hectoring apologia for Lowell he offers the reader that there were once people in the world who found homosexuality a sin (as if anyone did not know that), or his rare lapse into impressionistic aphorisms in the manner of Arthur Symons.
Logan’s criticism demonstrates that the refusal to practice criticism within the context of deeper commitments or firmer first principles is superior to criticism leashed to any narrow set of ideological commitments. But, then again, ideology is by definition narrow and false; that’s what the word was invented to denote. Criticism of this sort gives individuated delight and specific insights; in Logan’s hands, it can pass over the surface of a poem with finely sensitive fingers. It can even suggest that there must be more. Poems are products of history that also transcend their history. As Eliot indicated in “Religion and Literature” and the Use of Poetry lectures, literary criticism is also called to be more than itself.
Logan may reasonably counter that just treating poetry and history is a sufficient practice, and the vertical dimension a possible addition. But I would counter, with Eliot, that learning to understand art in terms of this vertical dimension actually transforms and deepens our practice of reading the poem as a poem and the poem as a part of history. It does not just supplement, but interiorly fulfills. It could make a very good book a book still better.
This review was originally published in the spring 2019 print edition of FORMA Journal.
James Matthew Wilson is an author, essayist, poet, and critic. He is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University. His most recent book of poetry is The Hanging God.
If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal.