I have a love-hate relationship with William Logan, the New York Times Book Review’s fiery poetry critic, who eviscerates the new volume of selected Frank O’Hara poems on the cover of this weekend’s issue.
On the positive side, Logan is always bold, loud and exciting to read. He avoids the type of sniffy or simpering poetry criticism too often found in this and similar publications. He may even be consciously trying — and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — to be the Dale Peck of the poetry world. Fortunately for him, he does write well, as when he describes mid-20th Century poet Frank O’Hara:
Jazzy, elated as an eel, a talent giddily in search of a manner, the poet scatters exclamation marks like penny candy.
Elated as an eel? Honestly — I like it (though many may not). But here’s the problem with the bombastic William Logan: in his recent articles for the Book Review he has trashed Hart Crane, Derek Walcott and now Frank O’Hara. He’s had a lot of fun doing so, and his readers had fun as well, but he’s never actually landed a punch on any of these writers. We are conscious of a critic “having a go” at a superstar, but in the end Logan manages to express nothing but his distaste. Today he calls O’Hara a “trivial” author of “insouciant nonsense” with punctuation “limping along or missing entirely”, and he insults O’Hara’s entire milieu:
As he had fallen in among a crowd of painters and poets that included Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch, it was perhaps natural to make poems out of their parties, feuds, love affairs and drunken gossip.
Yes, Logan, it was called the Beat Generation. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. In fact, Logan’s argument is flawed at the center, because the loose, light touch that William Logan dislikes so much in Frank O’Hara turns out to be O’Hara’s main selling point. It’s why people (a lot of people) like him. Criticizing Frank O’Hara for being ephemeral is like criticizing Sylvia Plath for being dark. Ephemeral is all Frank O’Hara has, and he’s good at it. All Logan tells us in his review (repeatedly, and with less finesse than we’d like) is that he doesn’t like anything Frank O’Hara ever wrote. Fine, but who cares?
If Logan wants to keep bashing big poets, he’d better start championing some great dark horses as well. But I can only recall one rave poetry review from William Logan, and guess what? Treatise of Civil Power by Geoffrey Hill turned out to be as irritating and obnoxious as William Logan himself. Which must be why Logan liked it.
Mark Sarvas, as erudite as ever, evaluates Ed Park’s office satire Personal Days and finds it smart, well-targeted, but possibly “twee”. He also wishes that Park had grounded the book in more realistic detail about the company these hapless employees work for, and I agree with this point. One problem with both Personal Days and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to an End (which is referenced in Sarvas’s review) is that neither captures the fact that, despite all the chattering and office drama, most people with jobs actually work hard, face difficult challenges, and are often very emotionally and intellectually involved in the work they do. The banal hipster jobs in the Park and Ferris novels don’t capture this at all, and maybe this is one of many reasons why the TV comedy “The Office” is still sharper and funnier than either book. In “The Office”, people actually sometimes work.
Elsewhere today, Nabokov scholar Steve Coates is rather unwelcoming to Nina L. Khruscheva (yes, of those Khruschevs), who has dared to write a book on her ancestral enemy, Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics. I’d like to read it even though Coates warns me away. Mark Kamine is kinder to Michael Chabon’s literary musings in Maps and Legends, which I suppose I’ll check out as well. Rachel Donadio contributes an excellent introduction to late Israeli writer S. Yizhar, who I only recently discovered myself in a new Toby Press edition.
A grandiose letter criticizing the Book Review for not being politically conservative enough made the news this week. Conservative publisher Roger Kimball has declared that Encounter Books will not send any more titles to the “left-liberal” New York Times Book Review. Nice publicity work, but this is an artful feint, because the only people who consider the New York Times Book Review too “left-liberal” are the types of conservatives who consider John McCain too “left-liberal”. (And, yes, I do know that a lot of conservatives consider John McCain “left-liberal”, and yes, I suppose they have a right to consider the NYTBR the same way).
I don’t know anything about the personal politics of NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus or any other editor, but it seems clear that to the extent that the NYTBR has a political stance, it skews towards a familiar “intellectual Republican” stance — pro-Reagan, soft on social issues, bullish on invading foreign countries — that Roger Kimball may consider too liberal, but that most people I know would consider too conservative. I also observe that the NYTBR shows a more conservative sensibility than the New York Times as a whole (though, lately, the Op-Ed page is getting close). In today’s issue, a poorly argued dismissal of Arianna Huffington’s new Right is Wrong by Jack Shafer is one of several examples of the typical measured conservative voice that dominates this publication’s political coverage every week.
So, nice publicity stunt, Kimball, but back off. I’ll do the Review reviewing around here.
Folks, I’m getting married in a week. For real. I am nervous, totally unpacked, excited and happy. But I have to let you know that I’ll probably miss the next two New York Times Book Reviews. What will you do without me? Don’t worry, I think you’ll be fine.