re William Logan responds: (December)


I write with regard to William Logan’s letter of Vol. 193.3, and with no stake in the controversy, since I have never seriously read Hart Crane. In fact I found the letter accidentally—I was browsing the magazine shelves—and without the internet would not have seen the writings of which it argues in defence.

The letter, it seems to me, confirms Marjorie Perloff’s accusation that ‘Logan’s method consists of giving a few quotes […] and then declaring the poem in question a “dreadful mess.”’ I thought I should communicate my reasons for this judgement.

Logan takes fragments on Crane’s poetry and applies to them adjectives of disapproval: he does not make arguments for his descriptions’ validity. Here is an example, a random one from Adam Kirsch (The Modern Element, pp. 162–3), of argued evaluation. Kirsch quotes Anthony Hecht in ‘The Man Who Married Magdalene’:

I have been in this bar
For close to seven days.
The dark girl over there,
For a modest dollar, lays.

And you can get a blow-job
Where other men have pissed
In the little room that’s sacred
To the Evangelist.

And responds:

While there is a moment of genuine scabrousness in these lines—the fleeting suggestion that the prostitute’s mouth is ‘where other men have pissed’—the poem’s other elements work against the potential shock. There is the odd use of the word ‘lays’, which is usually not transitive; there is the far-fetched joke about the Evangelist (the ‘John’). These things conspire to separate the author of the poem—ill at ease with slang, but familiar with the Bible—from its degraded speaker.

Note that Kirsch explains his description ‘odd’ by reference to grammar.

Logan refuses so to argue. Instead part of ‘Chaplinesque’ is ‘hapless and tone deaf’ and other parts are ‘schmaltz’. The Bridge’s ‘Proem’ is ‘stuffed with excesses of detail’: ‘inviolate’ is ‘religious’ (Logan dislikes it), ‘flailing’ is ‘empty rhetoric’ (if it is empty, is it ‘detail’ too?), ‘silver-paced’ is over-rich, ‘shrill’ and ‘cloud-flown’ are ‘melodrama’, ‘speechless’ falsely pious and ‘A jest falls from the speechless caravan’ ‘slightly nonsensical’; ‘scuttle’ and ‘white rings of tumult’ are overegged, ‘rip-tooth’ and ‘acetylene’ exaggerated and ‘bedlamite’ ‘wretched’.

In the following paragraph, Crane’s ‘Dirigible’ is an ‘ungainly symbol’, ‘ludicrously addressed’. The words of this description (‘Cetus-like’ etc.) are not ‘exactly’ ‘obscure’, but are ‘childish and extravagant’ ‘rhetoric’ and ‘romantic goofiness’. Logan finishes with the news that—where before he did ‘like’ ‘chained bay waters’—he is ‘not even keen’ on Crane’s symbol of the bridge. No justification for either feeling is attempted.

The objection is twofold. One, Logan never argues the case for an adjective’s relation to a phrase: he just puts them in apposition. The result is that we could swap them around without much damage to his sense. We could even apply them to his own writing. (What if I said that ‘stuffed’ is over-rich rhetoric, or that ‘wretched’ is a false exaggeration?) Two, Logan never argues why the fact an adjective is, say, religious, means it is excess, or why any of these overeggings and exaggerations (which redundantly-varied terms beg his question) are in excess. There is no argument for his ‘stuffed with […] excesses’ point, only, in proximity, assertion, quotation and namecalling. A single Kirsch-like explanation would have been worth the whole list; indeed, to humiliate me here, all that Logan needs to do is provide one.

Logan may be right that ‘Criticism is the exercise of taste under the guise of objectivity’ (his response to Crane is certainly that of a critic-poet, and betrays experience with a poet’s drafting-process in its inexplicitly reasoned, aestheticised elections and rejections). The performance of this letter shows that, in shucking off this guise, Logan has forgone the task of persuasion. Logan is thereby ‘solipsistic’ in the word’s weakened sense.

Two further points. Logan should know that when he states, ‘I could not find that two critics I admire, Christopher Ricks and Geoffrey Hill, had written much or anything about Crane’, this can prove nothing, as it would prove nothing for me to state that, although I am a fascinated reader of Hill, I do not understand his poem well enough to extract an opinion from it or to know that ‘you screwed us’ is not a speaker’s phrase. I could quote in turn another phrase, one that seems to say that Crane is a ‘prodigal who reclaimed us’, with as much justice.

Last, Logan’s moralising Wintersian subtext should not go without exposure. He says: ‘Crane was the architect of his own grand disaster. The disaster of the life didn’t ennoble the art—it was responsible for the failure of the art.’ The question is, could no ‘disaster of the life’ (as Logan, under or out of ‘the guise of objectivity’, defines it) have been ‘responsible for the’ success ‘of the art’ (as Logan, out of ‘the guise of objectivity’, defines it)? The answer is unknowable: ‘disaster’ could have been a condition of the art’s possibility; it could, success or failure, have fed it. To me, it’s evident that Logan is reasoning, whether or not he realises, from a general premise of something like this form: ‘Unvoracious sexual appetites, no self-indulgence, no alcoholism and no mental illness—plus maybe decongestants—are generally “responsible for” success “of the art”; that is success in art.’ It remains only to wonder, recognising duly and again that Logan is a poet and critic, whether this formula for success is that of Logan himself.

Ps. Two relevant links.

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