What kind of critical writing do we need, or want? Poetry is a small world and many poets, understandably, don’t want to risk upsetting other poets by reviewing their collections negatively – even in part. I suspect this is more true in the UK (which really is a tiny world) than bigger countries, but it applies everywhere to an extent. Few non-poets review poetry collections, with the result that, often, reviews read more like adverts than critical discourse. Paul Farley said something about how previous generations were given criticism but his generation has been offered marketing.
I was thinking about this while reading this review by William Logan. He covers five books. To say the review is acerbic is putting it mildly. Logan is well known for this, of course. He appears to dislike almost all contemporary poetry. He very rarely gives a positive review and his dismissal elsewhere of writers such as C.K. Williams and Derek Walcott only serves to undermine his credibility. I certainly have issues with some of what he says about Ashbery and Seidel here. I haven’t read the other writers (I’ve read Lowell, but not the particular book he discusses).
And yet… Sometimes, he hits the nail on the head. Other times, even when I disagree with him, his reviews are at least brilliantly written. They entertain and provoke and, when he gives a book a hammering, you have to think out why you agree or disagree. Many people think reviews are boring to read, but you could never say that about Logan’s. From the above link, on John Ashbery:
“Perhaps I’m not the only reader who thinks that, while scribbling down far too much poetry in the past fifteen years, Ashbery lost the cunning of his sentences, which sometimes dodder about as if they’ve forgotten their subject. Were he unfortunate enough to develop Alzheimer’s, the poems wouldn’t change a bit. Besides, he long ago created a world nonsense surplus—with a nonsense mountain somewhere in Belgium, like the EU butter mountains of old.”
And on Frieda Hughes:
“Hughes is a perfect example of what happens when a poet, though possessing none of the art necessary to turn a plain old messed-up life into literature, is the sun in her own Copernican system (she puts the Sol back in solipsism)… The poems don’t make you like Frieda Hughes. They make you afraid Robert Lowell’s children will take up poetry, too.”
Of course, no one would particularly care to be on the receiving end of a Logan review, and he has made many enemies. But is it better to have a Logan than the critical praise offered to many very ordinary collections? Or, perhaps, a Logan who has greater ability in discerning the best in contemporary poetry when it comes his way now and again? In the UK, I suspect only a poet who had given up writing poetry to devote him/her-self to reviewing could carry this off.
Is such Logan-esque candour necessary for a healthy critical environment? Some people say that they don’t want to read why a critic dislikes a book, but it seems to me that dislikes, when well argued for, are as important as likes. Most critics don’t choose the books they review – they are sent them by magazines and asked to review them – but speaking one’s mind is fraught with dangers. Many critics, if they don’t like a book sent for review, will simply return it or ignore it. I can understand why. I sometimes find myself trying to find positive things to say about books I haven’t really thought much of, but that’s more because I’m not sure enough in my opinions. I think I might be wrong about a book being crap and try to work out why other people might have considered it good enough to publish or buy. Usually I can find reasons and write them down, but those don’t often really make me like the book any more than I did in the first place. William Logan would have no such qualms.