What Will Survive of Us Is Love

Okay, this is going to be a tricky one. For a few months now, I’ve wanted to write about William Logan for my little website, but two questions stopped me. First, Who am I? And, second, Who really cares?

The first question is complicated, or it’s easy. The complicated answer is that I write poems (when I actually have the energy and the time to write poems, but let’s not go there) and I read them, so I’m a member in good standing of the poetry biz, and all of us in the biz are engaged, to varying degrees, in a centuries-long conversation about what poetry is and means. Yeah, by the end of that sentence I was falling asleep, too, but it needed to be said.

The easy answer is that I've got a website and I am my own content provider (what I need to do, I think, is bring in a naïve and easily abused intern to ghostwrite), so I, uh, need to provide content. Originally, this website was going to be a place where I was going to whore my book, but I found the whole idea of my trying to move product mortifying in the extreme, so I wrote about everything but poetry.

But I know that many people (many? Okay, three or four; whatever.) have found my website through Google searches based on my being a poet and also through links from the blogs and websites of fellow writers (mostly poets), and I’m sure that some of them wouldn’t mind my actually writing about poetry. Besides, aren’t we all a little tired of the monthly Poker Reports being the only new content?

But enough of that. Let’s do this thing.

The whole Logan debate is a little too inside baseball for those interested only in trying to find and read poems that they might come to love, but even for those of us who are actually in the poetry biz (at last official count, there were about seventy-three of us left, give or take), it’s usually an easy debate to ignore.

But Logan’s voice is one that has some influence—there’s no way to get around that, though just how much would be impossible to say—so he’s one of those people about whose work and about whom you have probably formed opinions, even if they’ve only ever been provisional and untested.

How were those opinions formed? You’d read some of his reviews in various journals (nowadays, they’re mostly in The New Criterion), you were a little taken aback by the tone and the snarkiness, you thought that he was wrong about many of the poets he went after (sometimes, spectacularly wrong), and you started to wonder about Logan.

But you didn’t get far past wonder. Like so many other things, you let your feelings about Logan (feelings that had occupied you for a minute, maybe two, maybe even five if you were one of those obsessive types) slide into the recesses of your mind; there’s too much in the wide and lovely and unlovely world that’s much more immediate and of import than thoughts about a critic of poetry. I mean if he wrote about car stereos, you could see yourself getting really worked up.

Then there’re a few events that lead you to revisit your feelings. First, on 28 January 2002, there’s an article about Logan in Slate (probably your most consistent website read of the last eight years). The writer of said article, Eric McHenry, ultimately comes out pro-Logan, writing that Logan’s most valuable for the “sincerity of his praise” because, since Logan tends to praise so rarely, because, as McHenry admits, that praise comes through clenched teeth, it must be something like super-praise, or praise cubed, or a form of praise so pure and powerful that you can tell that it’s been cooked up in the finest labs around.

If you buy McHenry’s idea about the clenched-teeth praise, which sounds right to me, then he’s got everything else about Logan’s sincerity exactly wrong. If Logan has to fight himself to actually praise a poet’s work, then neither the praise nor some part of the condemnation (What part? Who knows? Maybe not even Logan knows, but we’ll get to that.) that Logan delivers is sincere. All of it’s marked, tainted, rendered suspect by whatever it is that forces him to clench his teeth in the first place. (But this isn’t about McHenry and his radical misreading of Logan and of his reviews.)

(Editor’s Note/Full Disclosure: You should know up front that Logan’s gone after one of my former creative writing instructors, Philip Levine, which I found out about in the above-mentioned Eric McHenry essay, and that I love Levine’s work, which I did long before I had ever become his student. You should also know that I hadn't ever read the full Levine review until I started working on this piece and had already decided pretty much what it was that I was going to say.)

The second event took place after I was nominated in mid-January for a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry (Okay, I want to acknowledge that I just sneaked in a mention of my NBCC nomination, but only because it’s the context for this next section. Yes, it was cool to know that somebody had noticed my book [because it had seemed for a long time that nobody had], but, no, in the larger scheme of things [not that I believe in a scheme], it wasn’t that big a deal.). Nominated in criticism was William Logan.

I hadn't really given further thought to Logan in between the time that I had read the Slate article and the announcement of the nominations, a period of over three years. Even in the period between the nominations and the whole New York City hoo-hah, I thought not at all about Logan; I was too busy worrying both about having to read in front of all of those NYC literary types and the CSPAN-2 cameras (though I didn’t prepare at all [unless you call asking the person at the hotel reception desk, right before you're catching a cab to get to the reading, for some Post-its or something so that you can mark a few poems preparation]; I like to just go up to the podium and “freestyle” it) and about having so little time to rearrange my life and make all of the necessary plans. I’m no good at planning, and just thinking about any type of planning makes me feel inadequate and sad.

The day of the Nominees Reading, 2 March 2006, was a real nightmare—missing baggage, hotel issues (they’d not heard of me), having to buy (because I'm on short time and in dire straits and not a little out of my head) an ill-fitting jacket and a worse-fitting shirt to wear to the actual reading—but I felt much better once I got to the New School. Along for the trip are Gerry Costanzo (the poet/editor who took my book when nobody else had wanted it; much like I owe the Wisconsin Institute more than I can ever repay for their getting me back into the writing life [when I had thought that that life was over and that it would never come back], I owe Gerry for pulling my book out of the oblivion toward which it was heading or that it was already in); Cynthia Lamb, the Managing Editor at Carnegie Mellon University Press and a soothing voice on the phone whenever I was freaking out; and Sonya Chung (of the Brooklyn Chungs), a fellow Husky and one of my favorite people in the whole world.

At the Nominees Reading, they saved poetry and fiction for the end. Who read right before the poets? The criticism nominees. When Logan got up there, he didn't go after any specific poet; instead, he read an essay about American poetry that was of a general nature. Generally, apparently, we’re in a horrid period for American poetry. Great. Not only is life a drag, but it also turns out that I’m writing about what a drag life is in a period when poetry itself is a drag. Awesome.

How to say this? Okay, he can read whatever the hell he wants (of course he can), but perhaps it may have been less than kind of him to read that particular piece. Some might even see his choice of material as an act of provocation, but it’s not up to him to read anything other than what he wants to read. Hey, man, free will, live your life, courage of one’s convictions, etc. Cool.

As a reader, though, it was hard to follow that. He may as well have said, “American poetry blows. Here are some American poets.” You feel a little embarrassed to have to go up there and try to do your thing when your thing, it turns out, is so obviously and irreparably deficient.

Meh. But you bought an ugly coat and they just called your name and you took a deep breath and, when that didn’t work, you took another one and then you were up on the stage and you read your poems (though that part is a blur, but you were reassured afterward that it went okay) and then you were back in your seat and then it was over and then Sonya had to bounce and then you were in a Chinese restaurant in Central Park South with Gerry and Cynthia and talk, inevitably, turns to Logan.

This dinner is when you first start to formulate your thoughts about Logan. You remember a review that Updike did of Michael Ondaatje’s book, Anil’s Ghost, and how the review had been less than positive. You talk about intention and love and ulterior motives.

It’s late, though, and you’ve been up for almost twenty-four hours and the next evening’s the announcement of the winners.

The next day, Jack Gilbert takes home the poetry gold (or whatever it is that they give the winners; you wouldn’t know because, uh, you didn’t win; Mr. Gilbert’s book, though, really is lovely and you would have been a little embarrassed to have won because you can just imagine the comments. Wait, wait, De Luna won the thing over Gilbert? The world makes no sense at all.) and there’s a nice feeling of having gotten through the experience with not too much tragedy and/or long-term damage to your delicate psyche.

The third event that leads you back to Logan and his work takes place when you’re checking your friend (though friend doesn't quite do it) Sonya’s blog for her latest recommendations.

You’ve known Sonya since 1996, when you were both MFAers in Seattle. Your and her first conversation took place while you were both waiting for an elevator, and it was about the gloves that you were wearing during your week of T.A. training.

Gloves in August? The reason that you wore them was that your life wasn’t exactly going as planned (having nearly everything to do with grad school), and you felt kind of trembly and somehow doomed all of the time (though you're pretty sure that you've always felt that way), and you thought that gloves might help. Like so many other things in your life, you were wrong about those gloves.

(You loved those gloves, by the way, black with little green grippy rubber balls on the fingers and palms. You had bought them in 1994, right before you went up to Bodie, California, on a photography class field study, thinking that the grippy balls might make it easier to hang on to your camera in the freezing cold, and they were great for that, but the elastic in the left wrist started to go out [it had to do with the thick watch that you were wearing in those years; that watch died in 2000, but it’s still in the glove compartment of your car because you can’t bear to throw it out], and now you can’t remember where the hell those beloved gloves [beloved because you wore them through so many years and in so many different places and because you’re sentimental that way and you want so many of the years that have gone past to come back again and again and again, to come back and stay, and then you think of Cavafy, of his poem, Grey: “dear memory, bring back all that you can of this love of mine, all that you can”] ended up.)

Then you became friends when you shared an office and Sonya was at the desk to the right of yours. You know how you do that thing where somebody comes into a shared space and you're already at your desk and you ask, Hey, how’s it going? and the other person says something like, It’s okay. and each of you goes about doing your individual thing? Not one word of that exchange is completely sincere, but neither is it unkind; it’s just what we do to acknowledge each other’s presence and the general concern that we have for those with whom we come in contact on a regular basis.

But when you ask Sonya how it’s going, she asks, Do you really want to know? and you wonder what you’ve just gotten into. You do want to know (because you're' just sensitive that way), but you can tell that the conversation might get heavy, and your life (the mess that you’ve unwittingly and irreversibly seemed to have made of it) feels heavy enough with just your own stuff to deal with (not that you're that confident about actually being able to deal because, so far, your track record in that area hasn’t been all that stellar). Also, you know that you're easily overwhelmed and generally worthless in serious situations.

But you say that, yes, yes you do want to know, and then you talk for hours that day and so often for the rest of the time that you will share an office that it doesn’t take you too long to understand that you’ve lucked into a friendship that’s going to be one of the few good things to have come out of your miserable time in grad school.

And, ten years later, after many different moves and ups and downs in each of your lives, Sonya is your first reader for poetry and one of the very select few who has had the utter misfortune to have found your short stories in her e-mail inbox. She also writes beautifully—blog posts, poems, stories, the novel excerpts that you’re grateful to have seen, and the e-mails that read like they should be essays in some journal somewhere. She’s also one of the good guys, a person who has thought and continues to think about what good, in all of its senses, is and means, and about what it means to try to be good (not that she’s a nerd or something; she’s easy on the eyes and she likes the rock-and-roll and she’s down with Larkin and with Roethke). That’s the long way of saying that you trust her completely, trust her as a person and trust in her taste.

I was a little taken aback, then, to see that, in mid-September, Sonya had recommended Logan’s “The Undiscovered Country” on her blog. I’ll admit it: it hurt a little bit to see the recommendation, but then it forced me to really think about what it was about Logan that I found troubling, if, in fact, there was anything about which to be troubled.

It took about five minutes, and then I knew that I would have to try to give shape to my thoughts/feelings for the e-mail that I was going to send to Sonya explaining why it was exactly that I found Logan’s work so dishonest and morally bankrupt and spiritually dead.

4. The Transition:
This is mostly going to be a transcript of those e-mails, with a few additions and deletions. But first…

5. An Anecdote:
It’s the summer of 2005. I’m in New York City to do research for my novel. (How’s the novel going? Don’t ask. I will say that writing a novel isn’t as easy as it looks.) I’ve walked all over Manhattan and Brooklyn with my big bro, taking pictures and making fairly obvious observations into my micro-cassette recorder.

But it’s not all about business; we engage in some of the standard activities and one of the things that we do is to go to Shea Stadium out in Queens in order to see the Mets play. Not that we were necessarily Mets fans, but we wanted to see baseball in New York and the Yankees were out of town, and, anyway, like all honorable people, I despise the Yankees. Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the rich to eviscerate the poor or for death to absolutely destroy life: way too easy because in the case of the rich you're betting on the side’s that’s got a pretty solid winning percentage—probably something in the high end of the high-90’s—and in the case of death, death, of course, is currently undefeated.

We’ve got some pretty good seats (one of the highlights of my life has to be asking the ticket guy for the best seats that he's got), along the first-base side and not too far back. A few rows in front and further up the line is sitting a guy in full Yankees gear. A Yankees cap and a Yankees jacket and a Yankees jersey. At Shea Stadium. Where the Mets play.

Right away, it’s pretty obvious that this guy is trying to draw attention to himself, and the fans sitting around him, being true New Yorkers and true Mets fans, oblige by starting to heckle him. You know, the acknowledged masterworks from the received canon: Go back to the Bronx. Yankees suck. Get the fuck outta here.

Maybe his love for the Yankees was so powerful that he felt that he had to stand solitary witness (or sit, whatever) in the house of their rivals. Some kind of silent and principled protest. You can semi-respect that, you guess, even if you think that the whole thing is silly and that the guy’s mildly insane and, considering how many times the Yankees have won the World Series and how few the Mets have, that it's not much of a rivalry.

You were wrong about the silent thing, though, because he started jawing right back, dissing the Mets and expounding on the clear superiority of the Yankees. He wasn’t trying to engage in a serious and learned discussion about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two New York teams, though; he was just trying to incite them, and it was clear that the guy loved the hell out of the attention and the confrontation and the provocation.

He had professed an overwhelming hate for the Mets, but was that hatred real? He had held forth on his great love for the Yankees, but was that real, too? Was any of this sincere? I started to wonder if he had just wanted to take a beating, or if he was secretly badass and was hoping to dish one out. It was clear that it was impossible to take one word that this guy was saying seriously because not one had been honestly spoken.

He was misusing baseball and the people around him because of some twisted need for attention, but he wasn’t worth the time. For the rest of the game, I kept oscillating between contempt and pity for the guy. Contempt for how he was mistreating what he had said that he loved and for making the people around him into pawns for his sick little game. Pity when I felt sorry for him, because he was obviously damaged and not to be taken seriously and, ultimately, of no great harm to others, only mostly to himself.

6. Some Analogies:
Do you have a friend who is always going out on dates with new women, but always comes back with nothing positive to say about them, or, worse yet, delights in finding fault and then saying hateful things about his dates? He’s not really looking for love (which means that you can't really take anything negative that he has to say about his dates at all seriously); he just wants another opportunity to be dissatisfied and to thrill in his dissatisfaction and/or superiority. You start to wonder why he goes out of his way to find ways to be disappointed and unhappy, and why he keeps going out of his way to try to harm people. You start to wonder what's wrong with him, what sad and broken thing is going on inside of him that allows this to happen again and again, that allows him to do this again and again.

Do you ever sit there and listen to the blow-by-blow from the last miserable date and think to yourself that your friend needs help, lots and lots of it, because he is completely dishonest (with others and with himself most of all) and lacking in self-awareness?

Imagine that there’s a woman in whom you are interested and whom your above-mentioned friend knows. You go to him and ask what he thinks of her. He adopts an air of superiority and says, “She’s absolutely worthless, beneath contempt. Only an idiot could love her.”

Great, you think. What was I thinking? He’s got a dead, dead heart and he’s incapable of love. What could he know? Why did I bother asking?

Imagine another friend. He’s going out on dates, too, and he also keeps coming back disappointed. When you talk to him, you can tell that the disappointment is real, but you can also tell that he doesn’t want to be disappointed, that he doesn’t go out of his way to be disappointed, that he doesn’t get off on it. Yes, he’s disappointed (because, let’s face it, most of the time it’s disappointing), but disappointment wasn’t what he was chasing after.

You ask him the same question about the same woman in whom you might be interested. He tells you, smartly and articulately and comprehensively, why he likes the woman and why he thinks that, yes, you should e-mail her (because you're lousy on the phone, but you’re great at e-mail), though he does acknowledge that she, like all of us, has her moments and her faults. You thank him for his time and the thought that he put into his answer, and you go home and work for two hours on a three-line e-mail.

Imagine a different scenario with the same friend. You ask him the same question about a different woman. This time he struggles with his answer. You can tell that he wants to say positive things (because he's just a kind dude), but that he can’t. You can tell that it pains him not to be able to say too much or even anything that is positive (because who wants to be negative?), but he’s a good and honest person and he doesn’t hold back on what he thinks you need to know. Again, you thank him (of course you do), though you had hoped to hear different. (You might still call the woman because, let’s face it, it’s brutal out there and just about anything beats the hell out of being alone, but that’s a whole other thing.)

So, these two guys: Which one would you trust?

7. Back to Sonya:
So you wrote Sonya a pair of e-mails, with them being perhaps a bit on the intemperate side. The gist, in its original epistolary (though edited [though still pretty close to original]) form:

The problem is that he gets a complete thrill out of being so dismissive; there are ulterior motives and, thus, his opinions are less than completely reliable. Remember when Updike wrote that review of Anil's Ghost in the New Yorker a few years back? (Editor’s Note: It was in the 15 May 2000 issue, and the review was entitled Dangerous Into Beautiful [but good luck finding it on-line]) Updike hadn't loved the book, and it was pretty clear that this fact had pained him. Updike had wanted to like the book, like all of us who love literature should, but the book had let him down, and he was troubled to have to say so, but he said it clearly and forcefully, which seems like the right and honorable way to go about reviewing.

(Editor’s Note [Again]: No, I’m not saying in any way that Updike should have won the NBCC criticism award, for which he had also been nominated along with Logan; it’s just that that review, which wasn’t even in his NBCC nominated book, so struck me as being a great example of how to write a less-than-positive review that I could recall it almost five years after my having read it.)

Logan, it seems pretty clear to me, is just looking for a reason, any reason at all, to not like whatever it is that he's reading. I think that he wouldn't be so maddening if it seemed that he was giving the literature a completely fair shot. But his reviews sometimes read as merely means for him to get off his zingers. You've got to wonder what needs (psychological or otherwise) are being met by his so delighting in the cruelty (and, no, I don’t think that delighting or cruelty is overstating it) of his reviews. He seems to derive pleasure, tons of it, obscene amounts of it, from the malice that is revealed by and seems to thread through his writing.

And I'm not saying that he has to like more poetry than he does; it would just be nice if he didn't derive so much glee from not liking the work that he chooses to condemn because that very glee is what calls into question every judgment that he renders.

([Yet Another] Editor’s Note: Here comes the equivocation.)

But, yeah, he writes really well, and he's a smart dude and he has some ideas that are of value. I'm not saying not to flirt with the guy; just don't marry him.

([One Final] Editor’s Note: Yes, I’m all about analogies.)

8. One Final Anecdote (About an Anecdote):
It got a little tense when they were getting ready to announce the NBCC criticism winner, and there was actually some booing when Logan’s name was announced, though, because I was properly raised, I clapped. I think that many of us were expecting Logan to say something just truly appalling/wildly inflammatory/incredibly ungenerous when he got to the microphone.

(When he had won, I had looked across the aisle over to him just in time to catch him doing a joyful little right-handed fist pump, as if he’d just won fifty dollars on a lotto scratcher, but, hey, if I would have won, I would high-fived Sonya, probably hugged her just long enough for it to get awkward, spiked a copy of my book as if I’d just scored a touchdown, thrown up the metal, and then run up to the podium to call out all of the haters who had disrespected my game.)

Upon first stepping to the podium after his victory, though, the first thing that he did was to joke that his mother had told him that as a baby he had rejected the breast. It was a pretty slick anecdote to have shared. It acknowledged his reputation for being, uh, quite particular and also for rejecting that which is generally accepted. But it also poked fun at that reputation, and it also served to remind us that he, like those of us in the audience, was human. The bit got a good laugh and it did much to defuse the room.

He gave the rest of his acceptance speech, then we applauded again, then there were more winners, then there was a reception where I felt more fraudulent than usual, then the night was over, and then months passed.

When I was writing this post, however, Logan’s funny anecdote kept coming to mind, how it contained so much of what I find so troubling about Logan: the self-congratulation, the weirdness, the smug sense of superiority.

He rejected the breast? Of course he did. Of course he did.

(The Final [Really] Editor's Note: The title of this post is the last line of Philip Larkin's An Arundel Tomb.)

hearing about Sonya makes me sad

Sonya has become a mythic figure for me when I read your blog. She seems to bring you warmth and security, but always at at a distance. This makes me sad.

Right on post BMD. I'll

Right on post BMD. I'll have to look up that Updike review on The Complete New Yorker, which I own but which works on no computer I own, so I'll have to wait for Chrissy to detach herself from hers, but she's writing a pilot for NBC, so I'll get back to you in a few months about that.

Metal Hand,