Monday, June 30, 2008

William Logan Doesn't Like Frank O'Hara. He Thought You Should Know.

So, the cover of Sunday's New York Times Book Review is a review of Frank O'Hara's new Selected Poems (replacing the old selection from the seventies) by William Logan. Here's the short version:

Logan doesn't like O'Hara's poetry much, and that should be good enough for the rest of us. The end.

The review is puzzlingly bad, and pretty depressing as a lead review on Sunday morning. It condescends to O'Hara without persuasively establishing that the reviewer knows much about how these poems work, and then near the end it becomes strangely dishonest about questions of fact. I found myself having the urge, and now find myself repressing the urge, to become catty about Logan, the reviewer, whose name didn't mean much to me when I saw the byline. I'm going to choke back the ad hominems here, because (of course, of course) the critic's ideas should stand or fall on their merits alone. Yet perhaps it's something about Logan's approach that provokes those ad hominem rebuttals, precisely because he bases his assertions on his own personal literary authority. (Everyone has the right to critique a poet, no matter how exalted, but damned few are entitled to talk down to one.) Logan doesn't persuade. He doesn't explain. He Pronounces from On High. This is not persuasive or edifying, but it is a drag.

Logan's essay is a kind of throwback to an earlier era, lamented by some but certainly not by me, during which the purpose of "literary criticism" was to establish a strict hierarchy of literary greatness through critical fiat. Enormous amounts of energy once went into working out fine shades of distinction between canonical figures, sorting them between "major" and "minor," endlessly working out the imagined pecking order of the great, the nearly great, the intermittently and would-be and not-quite great and so forth down to the hacks, sniveling mediocrities, and footnotes to The Dunciad. I'm talking about the period when an anthology could be titled Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century and when that anthology could include Philip Sidney (because, evidently, only Shakespeare, Spenser, and Marlowe made the "Golden" cut). This scholarly enterprise is now unfashionable and politically suspect, which is just as well since it is also intellectually bankrupt. This is not criticism, in that it explains how literature actually works, but literary appreciation, which at its worst merely tells its audience what they are supposed to like. The underlying premise here is that people should like some poems more, other poems less, and the rest not at all, and that their tastes need to be instructed so that they will be sure like and dislike the appropriate things. The role of the critic or teacher in this educational project is to provide the Voice of Authority and the Exquisite Taste. (Each is founded upon the other, tautologically.)

Now, I'm as much a part of upholding the famous-dead-white-male canon as just about anybody in my area code. I teach Big Old Dead White Guy survey courses. I give the Golden Poets and their Golden Poems more time, on the average, than the Silver, Copper, Bronze Alloy and Industrial Zinc Poets get. I've dedicated my academic career to the most canonical writer in that canon. I'm not complaining that some poets are more famous or more respected than others. What I object to is the notion that this canon of famous works and famous writers is the actual goal of literary study, rather than an approximate and necessary practical tool for that study. And what seems indefensible is building such a canon simply upon the personal aesthetic judgment of Herr Doktor Professor, whoever Herr Doktor Professor might be. Telling people what to think, rather than teaching them new ways to think, is not a legitimate intellectual enterprise. Telling people what to enjoy, or worse yet what not to enjoy, is not an intellectual enterprise at all.

William Logan, evidently, longs for the role of Herr Doktor Professor, and sets out to sort O'Hara into the appropriate less-than-entirely-great subcategory. In the second paragraph (the first paragraph is too absorbed in broad generalities to mention O'Hara's name), Logan complains that "it has been difficult to reach a just estimate of his wayward, influential talent." That the goal should be "to reach a just estimate" of O'Hara's talent is taken for granted; Logan is committed to evaluation, rather than comprehension, as the primary goal. The point is not to learn how O'Hara writes, but to conclude how important a writer he is. Logan devotes all but the final two paragraphs, which finally and grudgingly treat the actual book being reviewed, to the question of O'Hara's proximate distance from greatness. The paired modifiers "wayward" and "influential" suggest Logan's conclusion, and indeed might have served for it: O'Hara will be damned with faint praise, influential but "wayward" and "intermittent," the latter word a time-honored classic for demoting "geniuses" to minor status.

The traditional evaluative approach Logan follows leans heavily on the elegant variation of modifiers. Since it seldom breaks down the poems themselves, it must rely upon the laudatory and pejorative colors of its adverbs and adjectives. Indeed, this style of criticism is essentially Judgment by Modifier. If you list the modifiers that Logan uses for O'Hara and his work, you have his whole agenda:

"intermittently, wildly, unevenly, wayward, influential, jazzy, elated, giddily, vivid, outlandish, trivial, headlong, curiously impoverished, anti-Romantic, easy, off-course, heady, helter-skelter, compulsively, hilarious, vain young, homosexual, cheerful, comic, sometimes insufferable, effervescent, flat and stale, lunatic, influential, dull, lucky, very lucky, rambling, insouciantly unserious, oafish, grindingly self-conscious, campy, irritating, foolish, self-parodic, fresh, frantic, petty."

The list suggests Logan's hostility. It's also clear that his concerns are O'Hara's youthfulness, O'Hara's lack of seriousness, and O'Hara's lack of heterosexuality. (The traditional vocabulary for implying one lack is the essentially the vocabulary used to imply the other.) Logan complains that O'Hara wrote too much (except later in his career, when he writes less, which Logan points to as a failure of creativity), that O'Hara is indiscriminate in the subject matter of his poems and lacks a serious attitude (Logan notes a lack of guilt over sex), and that O'Hara's poems about the quotidian life are banal. If it seems illogical to complain about the youthful immaturity of a poet who died at forty, or the lack of seriousness in poems dedicated to deflating pomposity, that's because logic has nothing to do with it. The important point here is that William Logan, arbiter of taste, doesn't like these poems. If you had already formed opinions of Frank O'Hara's work, well, you'll just have to change.

Logan does not seriously engage with the poetic technique, not even to note basic things like the love of enjambment. (Logan is not even up to the New Criticism in his methods here. He judges without examining.) He makes no serious attempt to place O'Hara's oeuvre in the context of his untimely death. (O'Hara's career reads very differently when it is considered as the beginning of an interrupted career, and when his late thirties, for example, are treated as a period of maturation rather than the beginning of his dotage.) And there is no serious attempt to engage with the values behind O'Hara's technique as actual, coherent aesthetic values. O'Hara will be judged instead against Logan's own values.

Here's a sentence that should be a parody, but probably isn't:

"O'Hara loathed academic hauteur, though he needn't have sounded so oafish about it."

This sentence beautifully demonstrates the critic's deep and abiding love for academic hauteur, using diction that no one still uses when speaking ("needn't?"), and haughtily sniffing at O'Hara's "oafishly" informal deportment. It also demonstrates the reviewer's utter lack of sympathy with the poet's intellectual and artistic ambitions. The Harvard-educated museum curator O'Hara, who palled around with John Ashbery and Jackson Pollack, chose to wear his erudition lightly. Logan sews curtain weights in his erudition's pockets, looking for some extra gravitas. In fact, O'Hara clearly viewed intellectual self-importance, the cultivation of gravitas, as one of the enemies of genuine art (and genuine feeling and genuine thought). Logan is from the enemy party, and sets out to prove it, however oafishly. (There is something hilarious and asinine about attacking a deliberately demotic poet as lacking polish.)

His poems present a world in which love of art (of Mayakovsky and Billie Holliday and Seurat alike) are inseparable from one's other appetites for life. For Logan, this gusto is suspect. Any poet who's suspicious of energy and appetite, as far as I'm concerned, is suspect himself.

Logan makes a particularly suspicious claim late in the essay, when he cites "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!) as "arguably [O'Hara's] most famous poem."

This is evidently some new use of the word "arguably." Usually that word means a reasonable position that reasonable people might dispute. Logan uses it to mean a position that virtually all reasonable people would dispute, because it is obviously not true, but which Logan means to argue nonetheless.

"Lana Turner has collapsed!" is not, by any means, O'Hara's most famous poem. That honor probably belongs to the widely anthologized "The Day Lady Died" or else to one of the poet's five or ten other frequently anthologized lyrics ("To the Harbormaster," "Ave Maria," "Poem ("At Night the Chinamen jump"), "Why I Am Not a Painter," and so on). The odd claim about the Lana Turner poem is explicated by the contributor's note, in which Logan (having already admitted his longstanding aesthetic hostility to O'Hara's work) writes of hearing Richard Howard read that specific poem. So "arguably his most famous poem," means "most famous O'Hara poem in William Logan's private interior life." That's a strange and solipsistic standard of evidence. (Setting solipsistic benchmarks for measuring fame is especially paradoxical.)

More to the point, the poem Logan singles out as "most famous" does not appear in the previous edition of O'Hara's Selected Poems, which the new edition Logan is reviewing replaces. Surely, that fact is relevant to the review, even if not relevant to Logan.

Logan is most comfortable imagining a readership of naifs, like an auditorium full of unread freshmen, who have never heard of the poet being discussed and are willing to accept whatever Herr Doktor Professor tells them. The most famous poem by O'Hara is the one Logan believes should be most famous. Everything else is just a lapse of taste. If you've actually heard of Frank O'Hara, and read him, what Logan says might not match your own experiences. But Logan would contend that the fault lies with you.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I grew up on that Silver Poets anthology and still love it. I aspire to silverhood myself.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Sure. Those are great poets, and if they're the silver standard, it's quite an achievement.

I hear you about aspiring to silverhood. B-list immortal sounds great to me, too, actually.

What I'm bothered by is the obsessive need to categorize betrayed by that title. "These are great poets, but God forbid anyone prefer these sonnets to Spenser's." The need to explicitly label some poets as the B list (or the B+ or A- list) is the odd thing.

Charles Lambert said...

This is a great response to a squalid review. Thanks.