Book Review: Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure: The Dirty Art of Poetry

William Logan Says What He Really Thinks in His Latest Book

Anyone who regularly reads poetry sooner or later thinks: I wish this poem didn’t have so many dull moments; I wish that poet didn’t keep tripping up in exactly the same way. Those of us who are also poets shake our heads, make a few snide remarks to close friends, then carry on, knowing the world of poetry is so small and clubby, it doesn’t pay to step on someone’s feet.

William Logan, however, is that rare exception in this claustrophobic environment: a practicing poet brave enough to say what he really thinks, in print, year after year. Imagine The Independent’s own Angry Poodle as a poetry critic: fearless, hilarious, chastising, relentless.

To claim that Logan dislikes all poets would be unfair. He admires Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, and a handful of others. Of course, these are canonical poets, so praising them isn’t exactly daring, and even his heroes and heroines are sure to be dinged at some point along the way. Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure contains 16 essays focusing on these major poets or on the art of criticism. There is a 50-page essay on Bishop’s summers at Camp Chequesset, a much shorter essay on Frost’s notebooks, another on Stevens, “our major poet of emotional extinction.” In his review of Phillip Larkin’s Complete Poems, Logan remarks, “There’s something nasty in Larkin—yet appealingly, gratifyingly nasty.”

That remark could be a description of Logan’s own best work: his lacerating reviews of much-admired poets. The other eight pieces in the book are “Verse Chronicles,” multi-poet roundups that originally appeared in the New Criterion. The subtitles of these chronicles give a hint of the sarcasm and vitriol to be found within: “You Betcha!” and “From Stinko to Devo” and “Weird Science” and “Blah Blah Blah.”

Logan is particularly hard on poets who have achieved a measure of fame. Mary Oliver “is the poet laureate of the self-help biz.” Maxine Hong Kingston “is a prose writer who lives with ghosts (as well as a mob of banalities), writing in a form she doesn’t understand.” Mark Strand’s “easygoing charm and labored whimsy have a seventies feel, as if the Bee Gees had never retired.” Quoting a passage from a Charles Bukowski poem, Logan observes, “after a little of this you want to drink a bottle of Drāno.” Billy Collins has a particularly big bull’s-eye on his back: “No one ever went to Collins for good poems. You went for the whimsical premise, the pang of ubi sunt regret, the genteel absent-mindedness. Now you get a poem that looks like a bird house slapped together in the back of someone’s garage.”

The “guilty pleasure” of reading these reviews is how well they are written, and how funny they often are. Like Randall Jarrell, another famous poet-critic, Logan’s criticism is far more lively and interesting than his verse. And while most poets would find it terrifying to bring out a book after savaging the work of their most influential peers, Logan has published nine volumes. Clearly, writing verse gives him an especially acute vision into the shortcomings of other poets. It’s too bad his own poetry doesn’t live up to his Olympian standards: what a body of work that would be!

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