Friday, October 31, 2008

Bulgaria: Beyond the Poisoned Umbrella

Here’s a fascinating interview from New Zealand TV with Edinburgh-based, Bulgarian poet and prose writer, Kapka Kassabova. The book she’s talking about, Street Without a Name, is terrific, and unclassifiable – a portrait of Bulgaria during the Cold War and then years afterwards, a memoir, travel book, a meditation on memory, politics, history, a reflection on how the past and present interweave…, and more besides.

I’d certainly give it five stars at Amazon, like most of the reviewers there, but it’s amazing to see that one reviewer uses the word “treason” and another feels “shame” at what he perceives “she has done” to her native country. I say 'amazing' because it links up well with this story on actress, Olga Kurylenko, who has been criticised by the Communist Party of St Petersburg for starring in a James Bond movie – Bond, of course, the fictional scourge of the old Soviet Union. The Party say:

“The Soviet Union educated you, cared for you and brought you up for free but no one suspected that you would commit this act of intellectual and moral betrayal.”

The dishonesty in that “cared for you” is striking! It’s a shame that those minority Amazon reviewers who didn’t like Street Without a Name appear unable to see that Kapka saves her criticism only for what’s been wrong with Bulgaria in the past and present. The book brings the country alive and certainly makes me want to visit it. The statements concerning Olga Kurylenko only illustrate how spot on Kapka's book is on Communist bureaucrat paranoia.

Anyway, anyone around Edinburgh can catch Kapka as MC at Poetry at the Great Grog on Sunday 9th November from 8pm.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another Great Grog Taster

You can now read a poem and bio (the bio is guaranted true 100 percent) from A.B. Jackson at the Poetry at the Great Grog site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Translating Zbigniew Herbert

Translating Zbigniew Herbert's poems from the original Polish is not for the faint-hearted. I mentioned in a previous article here that there had been controversy over Alissa Valles’s translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems. I'd advise taking a deep breath before reading this post...

It began with Michael Hofmann’s review of the book in Poetry magazine. Hofmann, although he admits to knowing no Polish, is an accomplished and admired translator and poet. He asks why John and Bogdana Carpenter’s translations (they have translated much of Herbert’s output up until now, but the books are out of print) were not used in the new Collected, and then compares their translations to Valles’s in several poems. In each case, he feels Valles does a poor job. His criticism is that the poems read – in English – as inferior to the Carpenters’ versions. He pulls no punches:

“Alissa Valles's Herbert is slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect. The original (I'm quite sure) is none of those things. This Collected Poems is a hopelessly, irredeemably bad book. The only solution to its problems would be a bulk reinstatement of the old translations.”

The reaction in Poetry’s letters page in the following issue took up the issues raised in Hofmann’s review. They published a good balance of opinion, I think. Some letters (on both sides) were more to the point than others, and one offered a moment of unintentional humour:

“I know Michael Hofmann about as well as he knows Polish, which is to say, in translation.”

Hofmann, of course, writes poetry in English (unless the letter-writer means that he has read Hofmann's translations of other writers)!

The balance of opinions exhibited in Poetry's letters' page was complemented by Don Share’s blog post at the Poetry Foundation. He tries to get to the root of things, raising questions wider than those congregating around Valles’s translations and Hofmann’s review:

“What constitutes competence in translators... and in reviewers of their work? Do great poets deserve many translators - or, as Hofmann said, not. In what sense is a translated poem the same poem as the original?”

These are huge questions and people have been arguing over the answers since translation began. A translated poem surely sets out to render the poem as effectively in the new language as in the original, but quite how that comes about has been a source of endless argument.

In addition, David Orr assessed the debate in the New York Times in an even-handed way. His conclusion was that, while Hofmann may have overstated his case, nonetheless there are deficiencies with the Valles book (although he also asks how there couldn’t be deficiencies in a work of translation). Orr writes:

“Herbert is now a complete poet in English, and he’s not as strong as he should be.”

The involvement of Adam Zagajewski in writing the introduction raises further questions. Zagajewski was born in Lvov, the same city as Herbert, but some twenty years later, and Herbert was a fundamental influence on his own development as a poet. It's surely unlikely that Zagajewski, who can also lay claim to being one of Poland’s great 20th century poets, would have lent his name to a book that was unworthy of his own mentor. That’s even if Valles did have the professional connection to him that’s claimed by some of the Amazon reviews.

The Amazon USA page offers comments of varying levels of insight, and includes one by well known poet, Stephen Dobyns, who writes:

“Believe me, I have been reading and teaching Herbert since the early 1970's and Alissa Valles' translations are a travesty.”

However, some reviewers there argue that the translations are, for the most part, very good. Valles's Collected Poems is also the only in-print, comprehensive Herbert that exists and anyone wanting such a book either buys it or does without entirely. If you’ve been dedicated enough to negotiate this labyrinth of opinion so far, you’ll realise that the only solution is to read the Valles, pick up the Carpenters’ books from the library or second-hand, and compare and contrast.

Alissa Valles has responded to the controversy in a fashion. She hasn’t quarrelled with any particular reviewer, which seems like the correct approach to me. Her article is well written and cool-headed, but the point she makes on the controversy is clear. The acerbic nature of this paragraph isn’t quite hidden by the measured quality of the writing:

“It isn’t possible to render a poet anew without disturbing many readers’ relation to that poet; I expected my own translations of Herbert, a poet much adored, to be controversial, and they have not disappointed me. Translations are the fruit of interpretation and part of a larger, complex process of bringing a foreign poet into view. I set no store by the notion of a definitive translation; like the term “spiritual leader,” as Herbert is unfortunately called on the dust jacket of his Collected Poems, it reeks of church authorization or a sales pitch. A truly great text—whether a Bible verse or a Paul Celan poem—has no final translation. It will go on inviting new attempts by arrogant young poets who want to measure themselves against the greats. At best, translators engage in the ongoing unfolding of a text, seeing their occupation, as the great philosophers of translation have, as a branch of applied metaphysics. At worst they are like old prostitutes arguing about who gave Napoleon his best night. The insights one may gain from these squabbles may be thrilling, but they are rather narrow if not informed by broader knowledge.”

Anyway, the Valles is now in my Amazon shopping trolley and I’m looking forward to reading it, although I will be keeping half an eye on the Carpenters’ two Selecteds as I do so.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Poetry at the Great Grog - November Taster

The next event for the Poetry at the Great Grog reading series will take place on Sunday 9th November 2008 from 8pm at the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh.

Featured poets will be Patricia Ace, A.B. Jackson, Colin Will, and James W. Wood and you can find links to each of them down the left-hand column at the above link. MC for the night will be Kapka Kassabova.

In addition, you can read a poem and bio by Colin Will of Sunny Dunny among other things. I’ll be adding poems and bios from the other November poets at irregular intervals on the run-up to the gig.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

First Thoughts on Zbigniew Herbert

Back from my October Week break in rural Perthshire – wet, windy, but nonetheless enjoyable in a “we’re going to enjoy ourselves no matter what” kind of way.

I was blown away, not by the wind, but by the Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert (Oxford, 1977), translations by John and Bogdana Carpenter. Astounding poetry. In their introduction, the Carpenters paint Herbert as having an “insistence on a clear moral stance which can resist the fluctuations of history and ideology.” They’re not suggesting Herbert was a dogmatist or that his moral stance was handed down by state or church – far from it – but that the history he lived through (1924-1998) made values important to him. “Rarely have positive values been won against greater opposition and with greater struggle” – the Second World War and its devastating effect on Poland, followed by decades of communism shaped his outlook. A moral vacuum, for Herbert, wasn’t an option.

In his prose poem ‘What Mr Cogito Thinks About Hell’, (‘Mr Cogito’ is a persona whose views sometimes correspond with Herbert and sometimes ironically contradict him), Cogito says that the lowest circle of hell is populated by poets and artists:

Throughout the year competitions, festivals and concerts are held here. There is no climax in the season. The climax is permanent and almost absolute. Every few months new trends come into being and nothing, it appears, is capable of stopping the triumphal march of the avant-garde.

The poem ends with similar irony:

Beelzebub supports the arts. He provides his artists with calm, good board, and absolute isolation from hellish life.

The whole idea of following trends, embracing moral relativity, or producing art simply for art’s sake must have filled Herbert with horror – understandable given the historical circumstances he lived through – and his stance is intriguing when looked at from today’s western world where offering a reasoned moral opinion can often be viewed, in itself, as taking oneself too seriously. He wrote (in prose) in 1970:

‘During the war I saw the fire of a library. The same fire was devouring wise and stupid books, good and bad. Then I understood that it is nihilism which menaces culture the most. Nihilism of fire, stupidity, and hatred.’

However, Alissa Valles, in a Boston Review article says that Herbert was very much a poet of “ontological uncertainty” and feels that the Carpenters concentrated too much on his moral side:

‘The fine later translations by John and Bogdana Carpenter did a great deal to fill out the picture, as did Bogdana Carpenter’s important scholarship. But it, too, tended to concentrate on Herbert as a “poet of conscience” rather than of ontological uncertainty.’

I certainly found both the morality and the uncertainty in Herbert’s work and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. All great poets play with the fire of contradiction and it’s partly those oppositions that give their work tension and power.

I borrowed the Selected from the Scottish Poetry Library and would like to buy some Herbert poetry. But what to go for? Valles’s recent Collected would be the obvious choice, but the controversy surrounding it has been considerable. I’ll leave that for now, but will return to the issue over the next day or two.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bernardine Evaristo's Blog

Poet and novelist, Bernardine Evaristo, author of The Emperor’s Babe, Blonde Roots and various other books, has started a new blog, which looks very interesting already. Her post on reviewing brings up many thorny issues: editors altering reviews after they’ve been submitted and so changing their entire slant, chance meetings with negative reviewers of your books, the balance to be struck between integrity and generosity, and:

“I have also been reviewed by people I know. Now if they’re nasty about my work, it’s no big deal. I just kill them.”

Yet another blog to bookmark.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Decent Family Man

The excellent Laila Lalami shows why the Daily Show rocks. Not that I know anything about the Daily Show, but this is great, satirical comedy.

A Day in the Life

I wrote an article on poetry blogging in Sphinx, issue 9. One of the first things I said was that I rarely write about my life because it is boring even to family and friends. But breaking rules is part of the fun, so this post is about my life, one day in my life. As days go, it's a little unusual for me in some ways, but not unrecognisably so.

I was hoping (in fact, desperately hoping) to get down to the Italian Institute tonight where Sandy Hutchison and various others are celebrating Sicilian poetry, translation, food and wine. However, we couldn’t get a babysitter, so I’m stuck here.

We’ll soon be away for a few days, leaving our house and two guinea pigs in the capable hands of Chris the bass guitarist and Sonic Youth friend, who will probably drive the neighbours crazy. I’ve been trying to get everything done that needs done before we leave, particularly work-related stuff. So I was up very early today and now I’m knackered.

I started off dealing with various emails and then I had a long and involved form to fill in, which took ages. I had about two hours left to write something worth saying about the ‘Kingdom of God’ – a slippery concept if there ever was one. But I managed it. Then I slipped a copy of Reel by George Szirtes into an envelope and addressed it to the winner of a competition I had helped to run. I had various things I needed to print and post off, but my printer cartridge decided to run out of ink. I also realised that I had hardly any white paper, so I went to Cartridge World to buy more, and then returned to the printer.

I phoned a few people – work-related. I then raced down to the Scottish Poetry Library to renew a book and pick up a couple for holiday reading (the first three below). I am going with:

Without End – Adam Zagajewski
Selected Poems– Zbigniew Herbert
Row – Tomaz Salamun
Sixty Poems – Attila Jozsef
Collected Poems – Weldon Kees
The Art of Memory – Frances A. Yates
Black Sea – Neal Ascherson

I do really like the writing of some UK poets, but I’m continually finding myself stuck in a Central and Eastern European/North American reading regime – a phase which has lasted longer than phases decently should.

I’d arranged to meet K. for a coffee. We had a lot to talk about, both funny and serious. The welcome break in the day turned into an hour-and-a-half very quickly. I went home, played with my daughter, talked with my wife before she had to go out, made the dinner, helped get my daughter ready for ‘Rainbows’ (‘Brownies’ for under-7s). In ten minutes it will be time to pick her up, go through her bedtime routine, and then… I really have more work to do, but I am flagging.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Maybe I'm the Only Person Who Hasn't Seen This Until Now...

I found this on Collin Kelley’s blog and thought it was very well done.

Poetry at the Great Grog - October 2008 Report

I felt a little nervous before Poetry at the Great Grog on Sunday evening, but it went really well. Eleanor Livingstone was MC and began by reading one of Alice Howlett’s poems, Before Dawn – Alice had been due to read but had to call off through ill-health. I liked how Eleanor did the MC job and I was thinking I might have different MCs each month. I’d quite like to get a proper organising committee together for these events. Not so much because of the amount of work (which isn’t all that much, to be honest), but I feel awkward in the role. It confers a degree of power (e.g. as to who gets to read and who doesn’t) that I don’t want to have. One person was needed to get the event off the ground, but I think it’s best if more people come on board now. So if anyone is interested, let me know…

I was on first and read mainly from the forthcoming The Opposite of Cabbage, due from Salt next year. I imagine they’re not always the easiest of poems to take in at a reading, but I made my best attempt to communicate. My setlist:

1. Edinburgh in Summer
2. Everyone Will Go Crazy
3. Derrida
4. Holiday at the New Butlins
5. Fallen Villages of the North
6. Concentration
7. Hospital
8. The Preacher’s Ear
9. Preparations for the Final Hour

In place of Alice Howlett, five people each read a poem written by someone else and explained why they liked it. Colin Will, Elizabeth Gold (halfway down the linked page), Ryan van Winkle, Claire Askew, and Margaret Christie took part. They read interesting and entertaining stuff – a success, I think.

Many people know of Hamish Whyte mainly as editor at Mariscat Press and it’s true that Hamish has put a lot into Scottish poetry with his editing and publishing activities. A new collection is rare for him, but there’s one due on 8th December from Shoestring Press. On the evidence of Sunday evening, it’s a must-read. Hamish reads without somersaults and pyrotechnics. He has a quiet, but assured voice. In other words, he lets the poems do the talking. I thought he had some terrific stuff in his set, even better than I had expected.

People had told me that Kei Miller was a brilliant reader and I now know what they mean. It was one of the best readings we’ve ever had at the Great Grog. Part of it is in the sheer quality of the poems, part of it in the musical sonics, part of it in his presence when reading and the connection he makes with the audience. Fantastic.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Final Arrears

I have been too tired today to string two sentences together and will have to leave a report on last night’s Poetry at the Great Grog event until tomorrow, but I found one of my favourite songs, The Final Arrears, by the Mull Historical Society, one of the best things to happen to music in the past decade.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Rocky Road to a Reading

Not the best few days I’ve ever had. Not the worst either, but I’m hoping things improve fast. On Friday I got an email from Alice Howlett’s mum explaining that Alice was ill and wouldn’t be able to read at the Great Grog on Sunday as planned. Of course, I’ll reschedule her for a future date, and I hope things improve for her soon. I emailed another poet about reading in her place, but she must be away. I’ve heard nothing. However, I have a plan…

Yesterday I took my daughter swimming with the idea of dropping into the Scottish Poetry Library for a ‘poetry and music’ event that was happening all day. We were just heading back to the changing rooms from the pool when I turned and slipped and came crashing down. I landed on my arm. Nothing broken, but I am sore – my wrist, elbow and ribs ache with any sudden movement. Ow! We got up to the SPL about 5.15pm and everything had finished, the doors were locked. I arrived home to a message from Sally and Ian, great supporters of the Great Grog events (I think they have been at every one). Their car has broken down and, as they travel from a distance, they won’t be able to make it this time round.

I’m not superstitious. If I was, I could see this in two ways. Either these events are an omen that the event tonight is ill-fated. Or that it’s going to be a most brilliant evening to balance all the bad stuff up. So superstition is entirely unhelpful, as ever.

Anyway, I’ll be at the Great Grog tonight reading poems along with Hamish Whyte and Kei Miller – from 8pm (The Great Grog Bar’s back lounge, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh). There may also be another reader (there’s still time) or a special impromptu event I have in mind. Eleanor Livingstone is MC tonight. Eleanor, if you’re reading this, I’ll keep you up to date with events as they unfold today! For now, I have work to do.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Me and the Dead

For some time, I’ve been meaning to say something about Me and the Dead, debut collection from Katy Evans-Bush, a.k.a. Ms Baroque from the blog, Baroque in Hackney. This isn’t a review in the normal sense. I know Katy. I’ve even slept on the Baroque Mansion sofa after a memorable evening in London earlier this year. But it’s a very good book, so I thought I’d say something about it.

In the title poem, death is “an assemblage of fragments” with a sting in the tail, as life at times can feel like an assemblage of death-fragments. The poems in this collection have such variety in form and subject-matter that the collection might at first appear similarly fragmented, but it’s held together by clever sequencing and an eloquent, definable tone.

The subject matter ranges from narrative poems on love and friendship to an exploration of real and metaphorical eggs to a theological sweep through the history of London under the long shadow of its cathedral. Katy does narrative very well. In 'Cosi Fan Tutte', for example, the reader knows there’s an affair going on. The narrator walks off, leaving the man and the other woman to argue over her, and the resultant clash between innocence, guilt and upfront world-weariness spills over into the surrounding environment:

.................…Somewhere I heard a radio,
a different world. A sudden restaurant light
and a couple drinking under a pleated shade,
hands raised around thin stems, her bracelet gold
in the peach glow as she looked out at me.
Our eyes met and the moment froze. The crystal
set – I mean, the set-up – I mean glass coffin –
lurched, and out popped my particular poison.
She looked away and I went on, awake.

The poem is in blank verse, but the controlled variations in rhythm shift the narrative along like a page-turner. The narrative unfolds in a permanent state of tension. There’s a cinematic element to this and to many of the poems, a sense of being rushed from one image to another in rapid succession, each brief moment marking out its individual appeal to memory. ‘This is Happening’, a poem about a bus journey through the rainy city a few days after the narrator and her companion had visited the grave of a mutual friend, is a good example of this. The descriptions reflect more than the surface of what they describe. They make up the “sound of the universe” (there’s a risky phrase(!), but it works because its sense is so grounded in the quotidian), the constant living and dying and loving of the moment:

.....Beyond the teary windows of the bus
random elements form and unform themselves the shapes behind a theatre curtain – which always,
once it’s lifted, turn out to have been the stagehands
.....who set the whole thing up – and the city
peels back behind me as the bus cuts through puddles,
.....breaks reflections open, makes a noise
like the sound of the universe. We’ve never been closer.

Highlights of this collection for me were the lyrical chill of ‘Imitating Life’, the juxtaposition of astonishing scientific discovery and the amusing inability to find language to measure up to it of ‘Or Something’, the sheer ambition of ‘The Cathedral’, and the poems I’ve already mentioned above. You’ll find humour, irony, eloquence and death – plenty of death – in this book. And much that can’t quite be summed up in ordinary words because good poetry never can:

The snowball is hollow. Inside
is nothing and space for everything.
In the print of a painted pixel, that pixel holds
the pupil of your eye, and your eye holds me
as if I were hollow, as if I were a snowball,
as if I were a feather on a canal. (from ‘Imitating Life’)

What the poem says is clear, but not simplistic; the words and syntax are ordinary but not prosaic. It’s like an invitation to any casual reader, and says, “Read this. Read it again.” That’s what I’d recommend of the whole book.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Forward Prize Winners 2008

No sooner do I speculate than I find the result in the Guardian:

Best Collection: Mick Imlah - The Lost Leader
Best First Collection: Kathryn Simmonds - Sunday at the Skin Launderette
Best Poem: Don Paterson - Love Poem for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze

So I guessed one out of three, but the choices all seem fair enough to me.

Forward Prize Speculation

The Forward Poetry Prize ceremony is taking place tonight, perhaps the results are already known. However, they’ve not been published yet, which allows me to indulge in a little last-minute speculation. It is speculation, as I haven’t read most of the books and poems – although I’ve read at least a few pages from all of them. Here’s the list, followed by my guesses:

Best collection:
Sujata Bhatt - Pure Lizard
Jamie McKendrick - Crocodiles and Obelisks
Mick Imlah - The Lost Leader
Catherine Smith - Lip
Jane Griffiths - Another Country
Jen Hadfield - Nigh-No-Place

Probable winner – Mick Imlah
Dark Horse – Jen Hadfield

Best first collection:
Simon Barraclough - Los Alamos Mon Amour
Andrew Forster - Fear of Thunder
Frances Leviston - Public Dream
Allison McVety - The Night Trotsky Came to Stay
Stephanie Norgate - Hidden River
Kathryn Simmonds - Sunday at the Skin Launderette

Probable Winner – Frances Leviston
Dark Horse – Simon Barraclough

Best single poem:
Seamus Heaney - Cutaways
Christopher Buehlman - Wanton
Catherine Ormell - Campaign Desk, December 1812
Don Paterson - Love Poem for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze
Kate Rhodes - Wells-next-the-Sea
Tim Turnbull - Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn

Probable Winner – Seamus Heaney
Dark Horse – Tim Turnbull

A Few Bits and Pieces

First of all, the HappenStance Press reading at the St Mungo’s Mirrorball went really well, as you can read on Andy Philip’s blog. I enjoyed Patricia Ace’s set. I bought her first self-published pamphlet a few years ago. It was OK, but her HappenStance pamphlet was stronger and her new stuff is better still. I was on before Helena Nelson’s closing poem about Duncan Glen and time was pressing, so I cut my set. I read three poems although I had intended to read only four in any case. The setlist:

The Innocents
Everyone Will Go Crazy

I bought new pamphlets by Paula Jennings and Anne Caldwell. Both look very good. My pamphlet is more or less sold out (there may be three or four back at the HappenStance ranch and I have about fifteen at home). The CCA pub afterwards was good fun and I managed not to fall asleep on the late bus back to Edinburgh.


Just realised that Surroundings had its 100,000th unique visitor a day or two ago. Whoever you were, congratulations. The jackpot will be winging its way to you.


I had meant to resume my comments on the daily poems at Poetry Daily and No Tell Motel this week, but circumstances conspired against me. I think I’ll have to leave it until after the October holiday week here and will try to do another fortnightly stint from 27th October. At the moment, life is stressful and chaotic.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Great Grog Taster

Over at the Poetry at the Great Grog site, you can read poems - so far - by myself and by Hamish Whyte. We’ll be reading on Sunday October 12th from 8pm in the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh, along with Kei Miller and Alice Howlett. The price is £3 and £2 for concessions.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Another View of Logan

Nicholas Manning expresses disagreement with my post on William Logan’s criticism of a few days ago. I’ve got to say, he makes some really good points. For Manning, Logan says things because they sound good, but his insults possess no critical intelligence and are, in fact, badly written.

I do agree that Logan’s perspective on Ashbery is “incompetent”. I’m not so convinced that Logan’s writing is as bad as Manning makes out. However, he makes a strong case for it not to be accepted as good critical writing. Have a look.

Friday, October 03, 2008

"Dig the Vacuum"

This clip is from a 1958 B-Movie, ‘High School Confidential’, which features the fascinating and mysterious Phillipa Fallon as a beat poet. Apparently, the guy playing piano is Uncle Fester from The Addams Family. One of the best things about it is the audience reaction. Look at those faces: the laughter, bewilderment, boredom and fizzing jealousy.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

What Kind of Reviews Do We Need?

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.