Reviewing the Review: November 2 2008

I happily begin William Logan’s review of Words In Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review, wondering if Logan intends to explain everything that’s wrong with the poetry of Bishop and Lowell as he previously has done in these pages with the poetry of Frank O’Hara, Hart Crane and Derek Walcott. But no — this is a love letter to a book of love letters, and now I realize that today William Logan is finally telling us what he likes. We begin:

A poet should never fall in love with another poet — love is already too much like gambling on oil futures.

Well, better than mortgage futures. A dubious assertion, but Logan sticks with it, developing the theme:

… therefore never have to wake to the beloved’s morning breath the morning after.

Is this not a problem easily solved by toothpaste? Well, of course, Logan is just riffing here, and by the third paragraph I’ve thrown aside my skepticism and begun enjoying the ride. He can’t resist overwriting, but who cares? Why shouldn’t a poetry critic bravely charge under the banner of bold intensity? Here’s how William Logan encapsulates Robert Lowell’s literary style:

His heavy-handed youthful verse, solemnly influenced by Allen Tate, laid down a metrical line like iron rail. (If Lowell’s early poems seems stultified now, they were boiled in brine and preserved in a carload of salt.)

That’s not bad at all. Yes, his ambitious overwriting repeatedly triggers my doubting reflex, as when he relates the rather pointless detail that Elizabeth Bishop once

… fell in love during a stopover on a long freighter cruise, while being nursed through an allergic reaction to a cashew fruit.

A cashew fruit? A quick glance at Wikipedia suggests that “cashew fruit” is what you can buy a can of for $4.49 at your local supermarket, so why the fancy talk? Then, Bishop and Lowell endorsed each other:

… trading blurbs, logrolling as shamelessly as pork-bellied senators.

Logan can keep one of the two metaphors; I’m sure he knows they do not mix. The poems Bishop and Lowell write are “as different as gravy from groundhogs”, and that really doesn’t work either. There are also problems of fact: the friendship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne cannot be described among various literary “hothouse friendships came to grief”, since there was never true reciprocity there: instead, Melville hero-worshipped the older and more esteemed Hawthorne for a short time before Hawthorne began brushing the excitable novelist off.

Still, William Logan’s enthusiasm is highly refreshing, and even his over-delivery is more pleasing than offensive. I’ll be happy to read any article he ever writes.

This weekend’s Book Review includes Judith Warner’s intriguing introduction to Stephane Audeguy’s The Only Son, which imagines the life and thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s long lost older brother. But the good times screech to a halt when Gary Rosen, reviewing Descartes’ Bones by Russell Shorto, delivers this shocker:

Though Descartes’s name has come to be associated with unrelenting rationalism, he was “as devout a Catholic as anyone of his time,” Shorto writes, and looked to theology to support his system. As Shorto recognizes, our own fundamentalists, religious and secular alike, might draw some useful lessons in modesty from Descartes’s example.

Can a NYTBR critic writing about Rene Descartes possibly not know that the philosopher was not a modern secular rationalist like Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins but rather a Continental Rationalist, which is something completely different? The lines above clearly indicate so. To confuse “rationalist” and “Rationalist” is like confusing “democratic” with “Democratic”. Rene Descartes was one of a small set of famous religious thinkers whose primary mission was to reconcile traditional faith with scientific method. His rationalism was intrinsically religious, whereas today’s athiestic so-called rationalists are closer to the Continental Rationalists’ opposite party, the British Empiricists, who emphasized skepticism over faith and abandoned the idea — the basic idea of Contintental Rationalism — that God can be approached through reason.

Confusing, sure, but a critic who reviews a book about Descartes for the New York Times Book Review must know the difference. A quick Google search indicates that Gary Rosen has written for Commentary and works for a progressive science foundation. He must be a smart guy, but the above gaffe indicates that he’s about as qualified to review a book about Rene Descartes as Sarah Palin is to talk about Supreme Court decisions she disagrees with.

This is a better than average NYTBR, which is a good thing since many American readers need to be distracted in this tense pre-election weekend. A useful Jon Meacham essay about Presidential reading habits delivers the hopeful news that Barack Obama has read Gandhi’s great autobiography and is familiar with the work of Nietzsche, and I hope he’ll hold the teachings of both geniuses close to his heart once he (I pray) becomes President of the United States. John McCain is stuck on Ernest Hemingway’s war novels, of course, and I hope America’s leading guerrophile will have plenty of time to read and reread For Whom The Bell Tolls in coming years. McCain, you old hawk, the bell tolls for thee. Two more days.

5 Responses

  1. Bishop’s probably my favorite
    Bishop’s probably my favorite woman poet. I own Lowell’s Allen Ginsberg-influenced Life Studies. Hart Crane, if he’d lived longer, would’ve improved.

  2. I agree with dlt – Bishop
    I agree with dlt – Bishop might be my favorite poet, period. Lowell was an incredible force of synthesis and mythologizing, a brilliant mind.

  3. Logan did a kind of fan-dance
    Logan did a kind of fan-dance around, before revealing that EB was gay: surely many readers interested in either poet or both didn’t know, and so were rather misled for most of the review. I’m waiting for a review that really tackles the fascinating parameters of their actual relationship, not one that projects a predictably hetero-romance plot onto their epistolary personae.

  4. “Logrolling
    “Logrolling as…pork-barrelled senators” is ok since “logrolling” by politicians has something to do with trading off projects. So Logan is quite right isn’t he?

  5. James, I suppose it’s a
    James, I suppose it’s a matter of opinion. “Logrolling” is a metaphor. “Pork-bellied” is a different metaphor, and I don’t see how they are compatible.

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