Nov 5, 2008

Faint Taste for Hart Crane

Did you notice that William Logan, poetry critic of the New Criterion and occasional poetry reviewer for the New York Times, came out with a defense of his challenge to the value of Hart Crane’s poetry? I discussed the challenge briefly on this blog a good while back, mostly because of its important bearing on the study of Yvor Winters. (The short piece came out in Poetry last month, and you can find it easily with a search engine.) Apparently, perhaps inevitably, Logan got a truckload of irate mail concerning that review he wrote in the Times about a year ago about the Library of America’s new edition of Crane’s poetry and letters. In that earlier piece, Logan took a couple genial swipes (rather correctly placed swipes, in my view) at the merits of most of Crane’s work.

Logan doesn’t exactly back down in the new piece in Poetry. He calls a good deal of Crane “gassy” and bashes a few lines as “embarrassing,” with the implication that a lot of Crane is just as, if not more, inept. But he doesn’t quite give what I would call a vigorous rational defense of his views, either. In fact, I found the new piece rather disappointing. I was looking forward to Logan’s lacing up the gloves and throwing a few good punches in the form of some sound reasons for his judgments concerning Crane. But in the Poetry article he no more than briefly repeats a few of his opinions concerning Crane’s style but then, quite feebly, defends those views on grounds of the infinite variability in literary taste. I must says that I find Logan’s stand on the relativism of judgment (to be facetious) rather distasteful:

You can't stand that ditherer Coleridge, she can't stand that whiner Keats, I can't stand that dry fussbudget Wordsworth, and we all hate Shelley -— poets are Rorschach tests.

This from a poet and critic as erudite and as sure of himself as William Logan? I find such comments rather alarming. I could hardly credit that I read them. Come on, Bill. Give us reasons. I agree with you on Hart Crane. I think he is far overrated. He IS full of gas. But enlighten us with some of your good reasons why you think he is.

Yet even Logan belies this limp defense. For at the end of the Poetry piece, he faintly, very faintly, implies that there is something more at stake in seeing Hart Crane’s work for what it is than a matter of relative taste:

If the critic were meant to offer solace, he would have taken up a different line of work. All he can do is record his feelings for the one or two readers willing to look again at Crane -- the critic's job is not to pat the reader on the head and whisper sweet nothings in his ear.

But why bother with trying to get anyone to “look at” Crane again if taste is wholly relative? There is no reason to look again if taste by this definition is all that counts and if one taste is as good as another. But Logan seems to want to say that something important is at stake in recording “his feelings.” It seems that he thinks that there is something important to readers looking at Crane again, whatever that might mean exactly and concretely. Tell us what it is, Bill.

Evaluate Yvor Winter’s judgments and tastes as you will, but he certainly took pains to give reasons in defense of his views -- and he gave them sometimes quite forcefully. (Nonetheless, as I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, more often than people realize Winters didn’t bother defending himself against many of his attackers.) Winters was out to change tastes and more. Something big was at stake. Winters fought his position in the belief that we readers of the modern age NEED to develop, first, a taste for a new brand of classicism so that a few and ever more poets would away from the damaging practices fostered by Romanticism.

What William Logan claims is that it comes down to style concerning Hart Crane: “If there's a negative case for Crane, it lies in all that waxy rhetoric, glossy on the outside and rotten within.” But Yvor Winters, as a classicist, thought Crane’s weaknesses laid in much more than his decidedly breathlessly bombastic rhetoric. Here is a taste of Winters’s sharp comments on Crane from Primitivism and Decadence, as reprinted in In Defense of Reason:

... the fragmentary, ejaculatory, and overexcited quality of a great many of the poems of Hart Crane is inseparable from the intellectual confusion upon which these particular poems seem to rest (for examples, The Dance, Cape Hatteras, and Atlantis). Crane possessed great energy, but his faculties functioned clearly only within a limited range of experience (Repose of Rivers, Voyages II, Faustus and Helen II). Outside of that range he was either numb (My Grandmother's Love-letters and Harbor Dawn) or unsure of himself and hence uncertain in his detail (as in The River, a very powerful poem in spite of its poor construction and its quantities of bad writing) or both (see Indiana, probably one of the worst poems in modern literature).

Well, I suppose I must admit that these particular reasons are not much fuller (and no sharper) than Logan’s in his two recent pieces. But in the context of Winters’s study of modern American poetry in Primitivism and Decadence, his assessment of Crane gives us much deeper insight into Crane’s weaknesses than William Logan has so far given us. The blatant, resigned relativism of Logan’s latest effort in Poetry helps little to clarify his views or further debate on Hart Crane or any other critical issue he has fulminated upon. For such ideas actually thwart debate -- by laying the whole of all such matters at the feet of the infinitely variable, ever-changing gods of mere taste. Despite this setback, I am still hoping for a lot more from William Logan.

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