William Logan’s Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure is incisive, full of juicy assaults like these:

“Mary Oliver is the poet laureate of the self-help biz and the human-potential movement. She has stripped down the poetry in Red Bird until it is nothing but a naked set of values: that the human spirit is indomitable, that the animal spirit is indomitable, that she loves birds very much, that she loves flowers very much, that even her dog loves flowers very much. . . . Oliver’s humble requests and mousy prayers are sweetly bullying - she sounds like a Dominican converted to the Sierra Club” (24-5).

Or this on a collection from Billy Collins: “Collins has managed to be what he rarely was in the past - dull. The ending in many of these new poems falls flat, the speaker gazing at the moon or listening to a bird in hopes of revelation. If Billy Collins can’t joke about death, for example, when who can? . . . When comedians stop being funny, they must invent themselves anew or retire for good. . . . Poetry must do what Poetry does when a poet runs out of gas, or screws the pooch, or jumps the shark - it gives him a Pullitzer and shows him the door” (40-1).

On another Collins collection: “No one ever went to Collins for good poems. You went for the whimsical premise, the pang of ubi sunt regret, the genteel absent-mindedness. Now you get a poem that looks like a bird house slapped together in the back of someone’s garage. When there’s sorrow, it’s buffered sorrow; when there’s happiness, it’s discount happiness. You’re grateful for the whiff of despair, the faint breath of joy, but you miss all the highs and lows” (216).

He’s not being mean. His barbs are judicious. He is confident that he knows what he is about, and knows what his job is.

But the pleasure of reading Logan is something of a guilty pleasure. He’s most amusing and engaging on the things that he hates. There are plenty of things that he doesn’t hate - Eliot, Frost, Heaney, Wilbur -  and he claims at the outset that he always opens a new book in hope. He despises the kind of critic who hails every third book as “A miracle! A miracle!” but he’s in no danger of becoming such a critic.

What happens when he likes something is that he becomes, well, dull. He is still incisive, informative; he still has the occasional sharp one-line. But the criticism doesn’t dazzle, and the prose softens. He doesn’t turn sentimental; there’s no puff here. Still, he holds back. Withering scorn comes more easily from his pen than praise. Logan is more at home with what he detests than with what he celebrates. 

More on: Criticism, Literature

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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