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Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue

William Logan

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Paper, 368 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-14733-0
$25.00 / £17.50

April, 2009
Cloth, 368 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-14732-3
$75.00 / £52.00

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The Bowl of Diogenes; or, The End of Criticism

A man must serve his time to every trade
Save censure—critics all are ready made.


He was so generously civil, that nobody thanked him for it.—Johnson

The more criticism I write, the more I’m asked to write about criticism; and, the more I’m asked to write about criticism, the less I want to write about anything at all. Samuel Johnson once said, "When a man is tired of criticism, he is tired of life," or words to that effect; but at times I’m just tired of criticism. Then something gets under my skin. The other day, I was sent the proofs of a book of poetry, introduced by a letter from the publisher. "The real trouble with most contemporary poetry," the letter said, "is that it is piled high, mostly unread and gathering dust, in the attic of its own obscurity." Imagine someone thinking contemporary poetry too obscure, when it isn’t half obscure enough! Just as I was feeling rather blue, there was a man handing me an ax to grind; and before I knew it I was writing criticism again. (Readers who persevere with this volume will eventually discover whose publisher wrote such rubbish.)

In the first edition of his great dictionary, Johnson defined a critick as a "man skilled in the art of judging of literature; a man able to distinguish the faults and beauties of writing." Later he added a new definition. What was a critick, on second thought? "A snarler; a carper; a caviller." As a snarler in good standing (with oak-leaf clusters for carping and caviling), I would argue that a critic is a man—skilled, perhaps, in the judging of literature—who can’t resist the chance to criticize.

There have always been poetry critics. I imagine that when Homer had sung the last lay of the Odyssey and laid down his lyre, some scruffy fellow in the corner said, "Oh, come on! Why would anyone drag a wooden horse into Troy? What were they thinking? And who’s going to believe that stuff about the sailors? Those pigs must be more of a metaphor or whatever. Then that bit about the one-eyed guy—that, now that, was a little hard to believe. I liked a few lines, I guess; but your earlier work, that battle kind of a thing, was much, much better."

Critics are insects, as everyone knows, one of the plagues that poets have to bear. When Coleridge complained that the "meanest Insects are worshipped with a sort of Egyptian Superstition, if only the brainless head be atoned for by the sting of personal malignity in the tail," he was talking about critics. We laugh now at the critics who, reviewing the Romantics, got things so horribly wrong—Francis Jeffrey on Wordsworth, say, or John Wilson Croker on Keats. How dare they! Why, William Wordsworth could lick his weight in wildcats, if there were any wildcats in the vicinity of Dove Cottage; and John Keats’s little finger could write better poems than any of the poetasters hurtling around London. Yet the poets who are giants to us often seemed to their peers no taller than anyone else—and sometimes rather shorter. Time is the great discoverer of quality, and the great magnifier of difference.

When you read Jeffrey’s and Croker’s actual reviews, rather than rumors or opinions about them, you think those critics were blinded by their prejudices, certainly; but they saw clearly that such poets had their faults. Take Jeffrey’s infamous Edinburgh Review article on The Excursion, a review that starts, "This will never do."

Why should Mr. Wordsworth have made his hero a superannuated Pedlar? What but the most wretched and provoking perversity of taste and judg­ment, could induce any one to place his chosen advocate of wisdom and virtue in so absurd and fantastic a condition? Did Mr. Wordsworth really imagine, that his favourite doctrines were likely to gain any thing in point of effect or authority by being put into the mouth of a person accustomed to higgle about tape, or brass sleeve-buttons? . . . A man who went about selling flannel and pocket-handkerchiefs in this lofty diction, would soon frighten away all his customers.

This is hilarious, in part because it is at someone else’s expense, someone whose poetry we admire. (Do we secretly resent those we love? I leave that to the psychiatrists.) Hilarious, too, because its strictures are so misplaced. Two hundred years later, we scarcely care whether Wordsworth chose a retired peddler, or the parish pauper, or the wife of a poor weaver, or a retired army chaplain (all of whom he did choose, and all of whom put the critic’s nose out of joint). We don’t care, because such occupations are almost as obscure to us as the doctrines Wordsworth put into their mouths. To us, it’s merely literature; and we enjoy it for what it is, as well as for what it is not. To Jeffrey, Wordsworth’s peddler was an affront to taste and to the plain evidence of a man’s eyes. Even Coleridge, though he indulged in a good deal of special pleading on behalf of that peddler, was willing to admit that "whether this be a character appropriate to a lofty didactick poem, is perhaps questionable. It presents a fair subject for controversy."

Reading such critics now, we laugh, and the world laughs with us; but we have the advantage of two hundred years of the slow grinding of critical analysis and the fine filtering of taste (however wildly mistaken in the short term, in the long run taste is as delicately tuned as analysis). We read, with our modern, sensible eyes, in the easy chair used by readers before us. Who cares about all the insignificant wretches who suffered when Jeffrey or Croker turned the screw? The difficult thing would be to like our Keats and our Wordsworth, if we have them, to scour out from anonymity our Hopkins and Dickinson, to call our Whitman a genius, instead of saying, as a critic of 1856 did, that Whitman must be "some escaped lunatic, raving in pitiable delirium" (another said he was "as unacquainted with art, as a hog is with mathematics"). Critics get things wrong all the time; if a critic ever suffered insomnia, it would be because he had dismissed the Emily Dickinson of his day. Yet critics know the future may pluck up some writer they think a nonentity and say, "Here, here, the critics were blind to genius!" Randall Jarrell said something similar fifty years ago, but Randall Jarrell often said fifty years ago the very things I want to say about poetry now.

I once suggested to an interviewer that a critic could best be compared to a district attorney. "You mean judge," he said, a little shocked. I took his point. A critic longs to be a Solomon, disinterested and wise, pronouncing impartial sentence upon the poetry of the age—the good, the bad, and the indifferent (many critics despise the age they were born in and look back with ill-concealed fondness to an earlier one, where they would have been equally miserable). Perhaps the critic starts by believing himself a judge, an incorruptible dispenser of justice; but there is so much bad poetry, and so little good, that often he ends by becoming an overworked prosecutor, presenting the case where the only crime is against art.

A critic is, nonetheless, the most optimistic man alive, living in perpetual hope, like a Latter-day Saint. No matter how many times he is disappointed, he opens each new book with an untarnished sense of possibility. If, amid the dust heaps of mediocrity, he does find a few books rich and strange, such is the essential generosity of this peculiar craft that his first impulse is to call everyone he knows and to buttonhole strangers on the street. It’s his duty, however, to hold up weaker books to public scorn. Bad books do drive out good ones—it’s the Gresham’s law of literature. The shock is not how often critics are wrong; it’s how often they prove to be right. The first reviewers of Whitman, however wrongheaded they were, often saw clearly the weaknesses of the good gray poet; and we can only nod now in respect.

However, if out of antiquarian curiosity we open the book reviews of the past, two things may surprise us: that often the harshest criticism was not nearly harsh enough and that mediocrities were praised to the skies (read some of the reviews Robert Southey received, and you’ll know what I mean). When critics get it wrong, it is usually in how kind they are. Open the old quarterlies and see how charitable the critics were to Harry Brown and Howard Baker and Winfield Townley Scott, poets of whom most readers today will never have heard, yet all had books in the classiest publishing project of the 1940s, James Laughlin’s Poet of the Month series. Read the benevolent reviews of Robert Horan, Rosalie Moore, and Edgar Bogardus, all chosen in the Yale Series of Younger Poets by the best judge the series ever had, W. H. Auden—and he chose them with the same eye that chose Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, James Wright, and W. S. Merwin. Jarrell said it better: "When we read the criticism of any past age, we see immediately that the main thing wrong with it is an astonishing amount of what Eliot calls ‘fools’ approval’; most of the thousands of poets were bad, most of the thousands of critics were bad, and they loved each other."

The critic’s besetting vice is generosity. (His telling virtues—well, I’m not sure he has telling virtues, because the critic is a mythological creature, a monster with the jaws of a shark, the heart of a lawyer, and the eye of a pawnbroker.) The critic’s vice compares very favorably with a poet’s deadly sins, pride and paranoia. Many an author, stung by his bad reviews, nevertheless believes his work so original it cannot be appreciated by more than a happy few. (Sooner or later, every artist finds his few.) No doubt such a fairy tale warms the poet’s heart, for what author ever felt his reviews, no matter how larded with praise, were ever good enough? Indeed, many an otherwise sensible poet is certain a conspiracy of critics is out to get him. (Of course, such a conspiracy exists. We e-mail each other to arrange bad reviews and plan the blood rituals for our annual convention in Salem.) But how often does a poet, by the pool of Narcissus where he dwells, actually listen to what a critic says? What a critic sees as a poet’s sins are often the very signs, to the poet, of his saintliness.

Coleridge claimed, according to John Payne Collier, that "reviewers are usually people who would have been poets . . . , if they could: they have tried their talents . . . and have failed; therefore they turn critics, and, like the Roman emperor, a critic most hates those who excel in the particular depart­ment in which he, the critic, has notoriously been defeated." Words like that are painted on the wall over every poet’s desk, to console him. Things have changed since Coleridge’s day, however, because the twentieth century of­fered one long string of poets who turned their hands brilliantly to criticism: Eliot, Pound, Empson, Auden, Blackmur, Jarrell, Berryman, and Lowell. For these poets, who had not been defeated (except for Blackmur, who, though a brilliant critic, was a dreadful poet), criticism was high-minded, an attempt to explain the art to itself. It might seem wise to make a distinction between those who practice criticism in its drier and more erudite forms and those who take off their gloves for a bare-knuckle brawl. Yet most of these critics were bare-knucklers, some of the time.

Coleridge’s own career gives the lie to his statement; but a critic is often a snarler when young. By the time he turns thirty, someone has usually taken him aside and explained the way things work in the land of Cockaigne that is poetry; and soon he has muffled his barks and muzzled his bites. In most arts, indeed, there is a guild rule against writing criticism. One looks in vain for the ballet reviews of Twyla Tharp and the film reviews of Angelina Jolie. In poetry, as in few other arts (fiction is a partial exception), the critics are the artists themselves—even though many poets, and wise poets they are, have sworn an oath of omertà never to breathe a word of criticism against a fellow of the guild.

When R. P. Blackmur called criticism the "formal discourse of an amateur," he flattered those of us who like the amateurishness of criticism, the implied distrust of professionals, even if a professional is sometimes just an amateur who has hung around too long. (Still, professional critic ought to be an oxymoron, like military intelligence or friendly fire). Poets grumble that there are too many critics, while editors complain all the time that there aren’t enough of them, that if only a few pale young poets could be convinced to write criticism the world of poetry would be a better place. Should we have camps for critics, then, the way we have music camps? (I’m sure some wit will think I mean prison camps.) Should a rising generation of critics sit at the feet of aging veterans, with their brutal scars and war stories? Is criticism something to be encouraged at all?

Part of me says we should leave things as they are, though that unhappily implies that once upon a time someone left things as they were so they could become things as they are now—and who is satisfied with the way criticism is now? Perhaps criticism ought to remain a private vice, unmentioned in polite company, quite possibly illegal in Georgia, and written for reasons obscure, because the critic can’t help but write it. I turned to criticism myself, not out of messianic instinct or the will to martyrdom, but out of the terrible knowledge that I was a better reader when I read for hire, that I read more intently when driven by necessity. I teach poetry for the same reasons—I don’t really know a poem until I scribble all over it.

I started writing book reviews thirty years ago, at the end of the great age of newspaper criticism. Poetry was still covered in major papers and even in quite a few smaller ones. My first book of poetry, published in the early eighties, was reviewed in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Worcester Sunday Telegram, and—in a review spread over half a page, with a large photograph of the long-haired, pasty-faced poet&,mdash;Winston-Salem Journal. The list reads like an elegy; today a book of poetry reviewed in one or two papers is fortunate. My students, when they take up criticism, publish their reviews on the Web, which is no doubt the future. It’s like the earlier swashbuckling era of newspaper publishing (in 1876 the tiny village of Plattsmouth, Nebraska, had three newspapers, one of them in German; Fargo, a city of only ten thousand in 1883, boasted eight). The problem with the Web is that everyone and his sister has a poetry blog, and you need a critic to tell you which critics to read.

I won’t presume to ask what the benefits of criticism are for the reader, though there may be few beyond being provoked to sympathy or Schadenfreude. Devoted readers often feel, not that criticism drives them toward read­ing books, but that it drives them away. For every review that has led me to pick up a book, a hundred have convinced me not to bother—and, worse, I’ve been grateful. Even glowing reviews sooner or later end up quoting from a poem or two, presumably something that glows; the curious thing is, the quotes so rarely deserve the praise. Being a critic has meant, for more years than I care to count, reading a hundred books of new poetry a year and leafing through the pages of at least twice that number. When poetry books arrive at my door, they come singly like spies or in droves like petitioners. I look at them as I can, somewhat lazily and haphazardly, and sometimes after ten or twenty pages I put one down with a sigh and turn to another—there are so many waiting and so few I can review. In truth, if a poet doesn’t catch your eye in twenty pages, he probably never will. Life is too short, and poetry books, however short, are too many.

What are the benefits of criticism for the critic? (The critic must derive some benefit from his vice.) First, criticism has forced me to read books I would otherwise have ignored. I’ve read far more contemporary poetry than most people and far more than I would have, left to my own devices. I’ve probably read more dreary and ordinary books of verse than is healthy; and I have learned more, speaking selfishly, speaking artistically, reading the sermons of John Donne. Yet, on rare occasions, I’ve felt like Balboa staring out across an unknown sea or Herschel seeing Uranus swim before his telescope (or the Japanese marine biologists who recently saw a living giant squid): I’ve found a book that reminds me, not just why I write criticism, but why I write poetry. The second benefit of criticism is that it has taught me, more often than I care to admit, how to think about this minor art.

There are often subsidiary comedies to amuse the critic as he works. I’ve been threatened by a few poets and told by two newspapers never to darken their doorways again. Years ago the editor of Poetry, rejecting a review he had commissioned, warned me never to publish it, because it would harm my reputation. I published it elsewhere, of course; but during his tenure the magazine never asked for another review. A well-known journal recently asked me to review any poet I chose, as long as I chose only a poet I liked. A poet I’d ever whispered a critical word against—no, that would never do. Why? Be­cause I might be prejudiced against him.

When Plato banished the poets from his Republic, did he banish poetry critics, too? As he was himself a poetry critic in a big way, he’d have been forced to banish himself. His idea of utopia must have been, instead, a place where all the poetry critics stood inside the walls and all the poets outside. (Even the poets might have appreciated that.) Let us imagine a different world, the opposite of the Republic. Let us imagine a world where poetry critics are forbidden. Bad poets would continue to publish and be read, good ones to publish and be ignored, and occasionally vice versa. In that utopia without critics, authors would go about comfortable in the rich cloth of their illusions. I’m sure poets would think that a very good thing, for who does not like to be alone with his illusions, except those who want everyone else to share them?

Is there a place, then, for criticism? A critic looking for a classical hero usually thinks, all too flatteringly, of Hercules cleaning the Augean stables. I have cleaned a few stables in my time, but I’ve never felt like Hercules. Let me propose a different model. Diogenes, famed for his austerity, lived for a time in a terra-cotta tub in the Athens marketplace. ("What can I do for you?" asked Alexander, having come a distance to see this unusual philosopher, some­thing dictators and presidents do all too rarely these days. Diogenes looked at him and said, "You can get the hell out of my light.") In his frugality, the cynic reduced his possessions one by one, until he owned only the cloak he wore, a pouch, and a drinking bowl. One day he saw a boy drinking from a stream with his hands, and threw away the bowl. Diogenes here is the reader. The bowl is criticism. And the water . . . the water is poetry.

"For I am nothing, if not critical," said Iago, the patron saint of modern critics. Every now and then, I try to throw away my bowl and stop writing criticism (then I can drink the pure waters of poetry from my bare hands). But something happens, like that publisher’s letter, and I’m dragged back again. There are even now publishers and readers and even poets who think poetry far too obscure, who think poetry ought to be so simple it hardly needs to be read at all. I won’t castigate the poets who exemplify this age of prose. Their publishers say such poets open the door to poetry; but readers who go through that door don’t want poetry any less wooden than the door itself.

The best poetry has often been difficult, has often been so obscure readers have fought passionately over it. The King James Bible comes closer to poetry than faith usually dares: I Corinthians used to say, "For now we see through a glass, darkly," and then along came someone to improve it. Until a century ago, a mirror was called a glass, so the meaning is not as obscure as it seems, though the Jacobeans were already updating their source—the literal meaning of the Greek is to see one’s face in the haze of a bronze mirror (Corinth specialized in bronze mirrors). One recent translation reads, instead, "For we see now through a dim window obscurely," which is far from the literal sense and lousy prose as well. (What the hell is a "dim window" ?) In bowing to the prose literacies of our day, the translators have scrubbed out the rhythm and the poetry, leaving little for the ear and less for the eye. If they’d wanted to translate I Corinthians into modern English, they should have said, "For now we see ourselves as in a tinted windshield."

For two centuries, well-meaning vandals have been trying to dumb down Shakespeare, wanting to make him common enough for the common reader, in the doltish belief that, introduced to poetry this way, the common reader will turn to the original. Yet the reader almost never does. He’s satisfied with a poor simulacrum of poetry, never realizing that Shakespeare without the poetry isn’t Shakespeare at all. The beauty of poetry is in the difficulty, in the refusal of the words to make the plain sense immediately plain, in the dark magic and profound mistrust of words themselves. Does it surprise anyone that there is a Web site, Shakespeare Online, that translates the Bard’s sonnets into modern English? Or that "When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes," the opening of sonnet 29, is rendered, "When I’ve run out of luck and people look down on me"?

Surely we read poetry because it gives us a sense of the depths of language, meaning nudging meaning, then darting away, down to the unfathomed and muddy bottom. Critics, generations of critics, have devoted themselves to revealing how those words work, to showing that each sense depends on other senses. Not every poem has to be as devious and shimmering as Shakespeare (there is room for plain speaking, too); but the best poetry depends on the subtlety and suggestiveness of its language. If we demand that poetry be so plain that plain readers can drink it the whole plain day, we will have lost whatever makes poetry poetry. (This plainest of plain poetry often goes, "Once upon a time, blah, blah, blah . . . ha! ha! ha!") It’s curious that complex or difficult poets of the previous generation, Robert Lowell and Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur, are still praised for the elegance and intransigence of their words, while young poets are told, in not so many words, that subtlety is old fashioned.

It is notoriously difficult to define poetry, because any definition leaves out something (it’s almost a definition of definition that it leaves something out); but I like Michael Oakeshott’s idea that the poet "does one thing only, he imagines poetically." And the critic? The critic is someone who imagines critically, for what is good about good criticism is that it imagines with the same sympathies as the poet—and then, of course, decides whether he is worth a damn. If critics, all of them, threw away their bowls, it might be a very good thing—for the critics, that is. (Artists are said to suffer for their art, but I don’t recall anyone saying a critic ought to suffer for his criticism—no one except the poets he criticizes.) If it is too much to believe that criticism can alter the taste of the age, a critic may at least whisper to the future that not everyone agreed with the taste of the age.

The critic, if he is to be a critic, must risk being wrong, must say what seems right to him, though it makes him a laughingstock for generations afterward. A critic who does his job must be a good hater if he’s to be a good lover, because if he likes everything he reads he likes nothing well enough—and the critic lives for the moment when he discovers a book so rare his first instinct is to cast such a pearl before readers (some of whom will be swine who ignore it; others, the real readers, simply people with a taste for pearls). The daily job of the critic, what he does in the meanwhile, is to explore the difficulty of poetry, not for other readers, but for himself, because who is the critic critical for, if not himself? This may seem to make a minor craft more a moral virtue than a moral failing; but a critic needs no deeper philosophy or impulse than that criticism is what he does—it is, in Blackmur’s phrase, his "job of work." When Diogenes threw away his bowl, in other words, he made a mistake.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Columbia University Press and copyrighted © 2009 William Logan. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For more information, please e-mail us or visit the permissions page on our Web site.

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About the Author

William Logan is the author of nine volumes of poetry and five books of criticism, including The Undiscovered Country, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. He has received the Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism from the Poetry Foundation, as well as the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle, the Corrington Medal for Literary Excellence, and numerous awards for his poetry. He teaches at the University of Florida.

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