Mar 20, 2007

Hart Crane Draws Out William Logan

The essays continue to sprinkle down upon us concerning the boozy, brassy, bombastic American poet Hart Crane, one-time friend of Yvor Winters before he committed suicide, and that new edition of Crane’s poems and letters that the Library of America published late last year. The New York Times has worked its way around to offering a review of the LofA edition, a review written by the redoubtable William Logan, a poet who has been a poetry columnist for the New Criterion, which I rate as perhaps the single best general journal that defends and publishes formalist poetry -- or, as I should say, publishes some “poetry” rather than nothing other than free-verse prosetic musings that, amazingly (at least to me), continue to pass for poetry among the educated denizens our long-confused literary culture. (I should clarify, though, by stating that the New Criterion does put out its share of rambling free verse prosetry besides its editors’ publication of some relatively strong work in traditional forms.)

William Logan writes entertaining occasional pieces for the New Criterion, called verse chronicles, in which he reviews five or six books of poetry at once, a practice in poetry reviews that gives readers a feel for how poetry is generally written nowadays. He’s a tough bird. He has strong opinions; trades liberally in witty, elegant, and sometimes nasty put-downs; and doesn’t think much of much in the world of American poetry. He doesn’t suffer fools, pretensions, or what he considers bad writing well -- and he appears to think that bad writing is the norm. His piece on the new edition of Hart Crane, revealingly entitled “Hart Crane’s Bridge to Nowhere” was published more than a month ago and can be found at:

Logan takes a half dozen sidelong whacks with his critic’s two-by-four at Crane’s standing as one of America’s finest modern poets, and even as a good writer, but it’s probably hopeless that Crane will fall. Crane has been embalmed and put on display for decades to come in his tomb on America’s literary Red Square. It will take more than a few cleverly snide, undefended adjectives for Crane’s body to be laid to rest in the dark dirt. In contrast to Logan’s whacks, you can easily find profuse praises sung to Hart Crane all across the web.

Let me just say that Crane does almost nothing for me, despite Yvor Winters’s unstintingly high esteem for his poetic style -- alleged by Winters to be no less than Shakespearean. John Fraser chose three of Crane’s poems for his New Book of Verse, all three of which were rather loftily praised by Winters (though he never said without qualification that they are great). I consider Crane’s inclusion in the Winters Canon to be unjustified, though not insupportable, but for now I can only promise that I will get to my case that his work is less than great some day soon. For his part, Logan offers no justification for his mostly disapproving take on Crane -- though that’s not surprising. For Logan is accomplished at delivering sidelong whacks that he doesn’t bother taking the time to justify. He’s a reviewer, after all. Yet I haven’t found Logan’s case for a lesser status for Crane in his other writings, either. He writes criticism like Winters in this way, too often willing to throw out a strong, definitive, seemingly irrevocable opinion for which no rationale whatsoever will ever be offered. As Winters also often seems to have thought, Logan appears to think that if you don’t see the obvious validity of his hard-biting, rapid-fire opinions, then there’s no use making a case for them. Winters practiced that method, to my repeated frustration, much too often, I would say.

Logan’s judgment of “The Bridge,” which I find sensible, differs not a lot from Yvor Winters’s:

Much of “The Bridge” seems inert now -- overlong, overbearing, overwrought, a Myth of America conceived by Tiffany and executed by Disney. Crane imagined the Brooklyn Bridge as a mystical symbol for art, for history, for America, for any old thing; in this spiritual version of Manifest Destiny, he threw his poem backward to Columbus and worked forward to the invention of the airplane. The canvas was broad, but its success would have required a language less Alexandrian than Crane possessed.

Though a little more loosely written, and quite a bit cockier -- with a touch of a sneer in there too -- the substance of Logan’s assessment is strikingly similar to Winters’s, as delivered first in that oft-mentioned though seldom quoted (or studied) review, “The Progress of Hart Crane,” which was first published in 1930 in Poetry (it has been reprinted in The Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Yvor Winters, which is available in most university libraries and used book web sites):

And the “destiny” of a nation is hard to get at in the abstract, since it is a vague generality, like “the French temperament” or “the average American.” It reduces itself, when one comes to describe it... to the most elementary and the least interesting aspects of the general landscape, aspects which cannot possibly be imbued with any definite significance, no matter how excited one may get, for the simple reason that no definite significance is available. It is on this rock that “Atlantis” [one of the poems of “The Bridge”] shatters; and on a similar rock... occurs the wreck of “The Dance,” the other climax of the volume.
Despite Winters’s renown for being villainously harsh, you could say that this passage comes off as quite a bit less mordant than William Logan’s undefended summary of his take on “The Bridge,” however much either man be right or wrong about the series. Winters clearly, at the least, took Crane’s purposes very seriously, which Logan sounds as though he does not. For my part, I agree with Logan. I think Crane’s whole project, somewhat like James Joyce’s nutty endeavor to subsume the entire mythic history of the West into the story of one day in the life of a dreary Dublin man named Leopold Bloom, to be not a little silly. Even if it made perfectly good sense, even if it were blazingly well written, I would still find Crane’s “Bridge” to be mostly pointless posturing. I see little more than pretension in such woolly, grandiose cultural visions -- Joyce’s included, if I dare to take that long step off the cliff into literary heresy.

Some time, I must go through Winters’s review to study it from the perspective of a Wintersian, since it’s most often mentioned to disparage Winters by those who disagree with just about every central idea he propounded. Strange to say, the review has received little sustained attention from those who have sympathies with or have study Winters closely. Once again, I find Winters to be right in just about everything he says about Crane and “The Bridge,” except for the extravagant praise for Crane’s style. But the cocktail of praise and censure Winters served up in that 1930 review was a drink Crane couldn’t stomach, quite understandably. Here is one short passage that I think best sums up the tone of the whole piece:

It is obvious from such a stanza that we are analyzing the flaws in a genius of a high order -- none of the famous purple patches in Shelley, for example, surpasses this stanza [from “The Dance”] and probably none equals it; so be it. But the flaws in Mr. Crane’s genius are, I believe, so great as to partake, if they persist, almost of the nature of a public catastrophe.
You can hardly blame Crane for blanching with anger at censure as extravagant as the praise. Can Crane’s poetry be this direly dangerous? That’s another matter I’ve to get back to, as I’ve mentioned in other posts already. (So much to discuss: when will I get to it all?)

William Logan, I should add in closing, most often writes what I consider prosetry, work which is sometimes published in the New Criterion. His musings are dense, verbally sparkling, syntactically difficult, but thematically loose and rambling. His work is constructed on the associative method: one thought causes another to pop into the conscious and thence onto the page. His poems offer little rational insight into important human experiences, in my opinion. I seldom remember one of his poems five minutes after reading it a couple times. (Well, there you find me doing it: tossing out opinions for which I have no intention just now of making a case. I guess critics are all guilty of the practice.)

I don’t claim to be able to write good poetry, either. I’m just telling you what I have found, as a Wintersian. Logan is worth reading as an entertaining and occasionally insightful poetry critic (though there is no hint that he’s Wintersian), but not much as a poet, at least so far. Though I’m not offering a full, open endorsement of his criticism, so few have been the poetry critics worth reading in recent years that I will recommend Logan and his New York Times review of Hart Crane’s poetry and life. He appears to know good rhetorical style, if not truly superior poetry. Perhaps I shall I find time and consider it important enough some day soon to go through some of his hundreds of opinions and judgments and offer my assessment of his critical bent. You can find some of his verse chronicles on line by searching on his name at the New Criterion web site. But I think I will have to consider Hart Crane’s work and Winters’s evaluation of it more closely before I ever get to William Logan.

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