Reviewing the Review: June 29 2008

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.

18 Responses

  1. Is you is; or is you aint, my
    Is you is; or is you aint, my constituency – Homer Stokes in O Brother Where Art Thou. Is the New York Times a large multi-national corporation? Or aint it? As such, it has its own self-interest at heart. Not your interest, not mine, not that of the children in Darfur. Its own interest is purely economics, not altruism, not humanity, not the environment.

    Corporate economic interests demand cozying up to the extremely rich, not the poor, not the working class; not truth, not honesty, not decency. It is singularly about economic power.

    Quite simply put, corporations are large-scale Ponzi schemes. Their survival is share trading. Your shares either consistently out-perform all other shares; or your share holders will sell you and buy somebody else. And you will die or be bought out by some other corporation which will make you profitable or bury you. If that happens, the corporate brass (Sulzberger, et al) get fired and replaced with new company men.

    As Thomas Jefferson said, corporations are pure evil and should not be allowed to exist. But they do exist – in world economics, they are they only thing that exists. This means that their workers have to continually produce more than every other corporation, otherwise share holders will go elsewhere. And how does one corporation continually out-produce every other corporation? Quite simply – that’s impossible.

    But even to attempt it, to stay afloat, you need to buy governments, religions, the good will of the extremely rich, and you need to control the minds of the people to allow this to happen.

  2. Levi, congratulations, and
    Levi, congratulations, and good luck in your new life. Thanks for leaving us with an exceptionally good Review of the Review so we don’t have to go completely cold turkey for the next two weeks.

  3. I would be scared too!
    I would be scared too! Congratulations to you and your loved one.

  4. I don’t know that this was a
    I don’t know that this was a ‘trashing’. The worst thing that Logan says is O’Hara wrote more bad poems than good ones (true of all poets) and that his style can get wearying. Hardly damning stuff.

    And, congrats!

  5. Best wishes, Levi! So, where
    Best wishes, Levi! So, where are you going on your honeymoon? You’re packing? Sounds like a long trip or is it a move?

  6. Black Mountain beginning w/
    Black Mountain beginning w/ difficult Charles Olson. Berrigan and his mentor O’Hara, however,
    are about as accessible as–wish I liked Bruce more–Springsteen.

    People like what they like, often out of fear. Is
    Bill Maher getting married?

  7. Also, where ‘ephemera’ is the
    Also, where ‘ephemera’ is the actual subject of O’Hara’s poetry, the subject of Plath’s poetry is identity, depression, feminism, and culture. It is certainly ‘dark’, but if being dark were the content then her work would be boring and not particularly worthwhile her work is interesting because there is meaningful content, and darkness remains only her tone.

  8. Daniel, I’ll take your point
    Daniel, I’ll take your point on Plath — as for Logan’s review of O’Hara, though, this was a complete trashing. Read between the lines! At times Logan adopts a coy tone of “faint praise”, but if you read closely I’m sure you’ll agree that this review is as dismissive as any that has ever run in the Book Review.

    For example: “It’s hard to know whether Whitman, who took poetry seriously, would have laughed or wept.” These are fighting words.

  9. Thanks Levi. My routine has
    Thanks Levi. My routine has been, for some time now, to read your review, then to read their applicable review, and finally to head to my library’s website to place holds on books accordingly. It’s proven to a fail-safe way of doing things, really.

  10. Levi, it’s good to see you
    Levi, it’s good to see you acknowledging the Beats again after your self-professed overdose on them.

    Brando, I’ve read some good books by following that routine, too.

    Levi, you and Caryn are great people and you’re going to have a wonderful life together! I’m very happy for you both.

  11. Levi
    Eveything of the best

    Eveything of the best for the ‘Future Poetry’ of you and yours.

    The Future Poetry, by Sri Aurobindo, arguably one of the best least known books about poetry ever writ.

  12. Darn … I just mistakenly
    Darn … I just mistakenly spam-deleted a good comment by somebody who analyzed the William Logan article and mentioned Edwin Denby (this proves my brain is in a hazy pre-wedding state right now).

    Whoever posted this, if you see this message, can you please repost? Sorry …

  13. “but if being dark were the
    “but if being dark were the content then her work would be boring and not particularly worthwhile”

    I’ll take that. Plath is boring.

    As for the New York Times being accused of liberal or conservative bias (depends on who you ask), it always reminds me of an Ambrose Bierce definition from The Devils Dictionary.

    Bigot: One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

    But as long as I’ve got my favorite dictionary out, here are a couple more related to this post.

    Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

    Incompatibility: In matrimony a similarity of tastes, particularly the taste for domination.

    Love: A temporary insanity curable either by marriage or by removal of the influences under which he incurred the disorder. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than the patient.

    Marriage: The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

    Congratulations Levi and Caryn! The NYT should use next week’s book review to honor you.

  14. I had a similar reaction to
    I had a similar reaction to the O’Hara review-it seemed designed as an entry-level overview of the poet, but it was one that, as you note, threw one of the more appealing things about him under the bus in its dismissal of the ephemeral nature of his work.

    It also didn’t help that Logan implied that he’s never been a big fan of O’Hara in the “About the Authors” blurb in the issue, although I realize that reviewers don’t have to like what they’re going to read before sitting down to critique it.

    Good luck with the wedding!

  15. Levi, I forgive you for
    Levi, I forgive you for deleting my initial comments about Frank O’Hara and Edwin Denby…maybe 🙂

    I think my points were thus:

    1. I agree that Logan is pretty spiteful towards O’Hara, acknowledging his influence but dismissing his value outside that importance.

    2. Logan is right that, for many poets, a recipe of disregarding hard work and revision won’t turn out very well. But if ever there were an exception, it’s O’Hara, whose tossed-off style led him to, in my opinion, writing some of the best American verse. And in this respect, Logan’s review completely misses the boat.

    3. O’Hara’s circle of artist friends (the de Koonings, LeRoi Jones, Grace Hartigan, etc.) is well-documented, but the poet Edwin Denby is an underappreciated member of this group. I can’t say enough good things about his Selected Poems, which are very modern and NYC-themed but also cling pretty close to the traditional sonnet form.

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