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Reputations of the Tongue: On Poets and…

Reputations of the Tongue: On Poets and Poetry

by William Logan

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0813016975, Hardcover)

Like his great predecessor Randall Jarrell--who, as Robert Lowell famously noted, "had a deadly gift for killing what he despised"--William Logan has a real genius for wielding the critical truncheon. Yet he never descends to merely petulant potshotting. Even the devastating one-liners scattered throughout Reputations of the Tongue are the product of a rigorous and reflective mind. They are also irresistibly quotable, for their wisdom or comic pungency or both: "Auden began as a major poet and ended as a minor one, the first since Wordsworth to achieve such negative inversion." "The hysterical voice of Allen Ginsberg's Howl seems, a quarter of a century later ... no more threatening than a cap pistol." "Reading Michael Palmer's poetry is like listening to serial music or slamming your head against a streetlight stanchion--somewhere, you're sure, masochists are lining up to enjoy the very same thing; but for most people the only pleasure it can have is the pleasure of its being over."

As the previous quote should make clear, the Language Poets are not William Logan's cup of tea. His reluctance to mince words or engage in the odd bit of logrolling has made him a figure of controversy, and at least one Pulitzer Prize winner has offered to run him over with a truck. Here and there it's impossible not to pity the hapless poet who has flapped and fluttered into the bug zapper of Logan's sensibility. Yet it's important to note that he's no less eloquent when it comes to praise. Reputations of the Tongue contains ardent assessments of Geoffrey Hill, W.D. Snodgrass, James Merrill, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Donald Justice, and even a lesser book from the likes of Seamus Heaney provokes a shrug of awe from this habitual skeptic: "Poets this good are natural forces, like avalanches. They cannot be argued with--one can only get out of their way." And finally, in "The Condition of the Individual Talent," itself a leapfrogging update of Eliot's famous essay, Logan produces a classic formulation of why poetry matters in the first place:

Every poem of value must have a residue. A residue is not a mystery or a withholding. It is the result of a continual ignition in the language, a combustion in the nearness of words--it is what lies beneath the surface value of words. We can wear out a poem as we wear out a favorite jacket or joke. In a minor poem the residue is small and easily exhausted, but in the greatest it suffers a constant renewal. It cannot be exhausted because our lives are not long enough to do so. Indeed, in the greatest poetry the residue may seem to increase as our experience increases--that is, as we become more ruefully sensitive to the fire in its familiar words.
At this level, criticism too is a kind of a renewable resource. And the formidable, flammable prose on display in Reputations of the Tongue is likely to last as long as the art it celebrates. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:34 -0400)

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