For years, to be a poet meant to be a critic — more precisely, a “poet-critic.” When T. S. Eliot was not writing “Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood / Teach us to care and not to care,” he was writing of tradition and individual talent, and of the emotional distinctions between Shakespeare and Dante. Matthew Arnold, Ezra Pound, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Adrienne Rich, and Randall Jarrell also practiced this art.
Why did it matter? To be an effective critic meant to read widely — of the past and the present — and with certain discernment. A breadth of reading offered a foundation, an architecture, to the poet’s own work. This is not to say that personal or confessional work is inherently bad, but see what Anne Sexton did in her appropriately titled Transformations: “I knew that the voice / of the spirits had been let in — / as intense as an epileptic aura — / and that no longer would I sing / alone.”
The poet-critic knows that this ancient art of poetry is a conversation with tradition, with mysteries handed down from the past. We seem to have fewer poet-critics now; among them are Dana Gioia, Michael Robbins, Joan Houlihan, Stephen Burt, and William Logan.
Logan’s erudition has become his literary calling card. Rift of Light, his new book of poems, is an intellectual experience. This is a smart book, but the intelligence doesn’t neuter its emotions.
Logan pairs epigraphs that play on the book’s title phrase: George Gissing and William Ingraham Russell see “rift of light” as portending both grace and doom. It’s an appropriate opening; Logan’s poems often turn on his ability to become magnificently dark, and yet appealing in his precision. From “Leaf Color”: “A steely torn silver, rusted along the edges; / the faint acidic yellow, like the backwash / of a polluted pond.” Another leaf is natural crimson, like the “false // bonhomie of the maraschino cherry.” He ends with a question: “Was it only the spilled-over, abandoned life / and, from the wastage, the broken buds?”
Logan lingers, watching the world and projecting it back to us, new. On clouds: “That morning, they resembled nothing, // no Rorschach in the sky kept un-empty / for the theologies of vacancy.” On a crow: “With cocked head, / it raked the ground / under one anthracite eye, // a shadow in shadow.” On suffering: “The day a steam bath, all life mildewed in incident.”
What do you get from writing criticism about poetry? You don’t get encyclopedic allusions and forced epigraphs; you get patience. Reading poems teaches you to slow down in your own poems. Slow means methodical, measured, and focused. Slow doesn’t mean moribund; slow poetry contains the possibility for surprise.
Logan’s pleasures hinge on that capacity to lift an eye, cause a smirk. His poem about Cranach’s Luther portrait contains the lines “The boy monk’s inkblot cloak / swallows him like a python taking a goat.” There’s a poetic education to be had in the density, the mouthful of those lines. They drag the tongue to the roof of the mouth. They bubble up, send you back to the painting, and make you look harder. Good poets make us see better. I returned to that art and saw through Logan’s eyes: “the dull face slope-jawed, bangs unbarbered, long / longing for the tincture of the cell.”
Elsewhere, Logan is surprisingly graceful and quiet, as in “The Field,” where we follow the narrator past “flowers oily in their despairing freshness” and past the “thumbed portion of stream.” We’re suspended during some afternoon, “gathering in that field, arguing with that sky, / as if there were nothing to be done.” Logan’s short poems have the feeling of being shaved down to their best portions; the best ones remain in narrative (there are a few brief poems that feel like the poet joking around; the punchlines don’t always land well).
At his best, Logan makes the reader work, but not because of obfuscation. He mixes the lyric with the conversational. I don’t mean to draw a line from Eliot to Logan, but “The Waste Land” and “Ash Wednesday” succeed for many reasons, not the least of which is Eliot’s ability to shift register and reference. Logan’s right there with him, as in the deceptively direct poem “The Mail.” The young narrator watches his family’s rooster-shaped mailbox, tail “cocked-up, enameled.” “Neighbors kept hens; we waited for bills.” The narrator’s father was a “gentleman / farmer,” who mowed a “vacant field” once a year on Labor Day. A veteran, he was looking to live in the country, content to wait out the years, while his anxious son waits for the mailman to arrive. Connecting this with other poems, including “My Father in the Shadows,” where “bills layered his desk / like drafts of snow,” we get a sense of anxiety, perhaps even darkness. That poem ends with a photo, propped on a desk, of “my mother, feathered hat askew, / grinning like a demon / with a bald baby in her arms.” Good collections bounce us back and forth between recurrent themes and images. Logan would give that a nod as a critic as well.
Rift of Light is moving, and moored in tradition — an appropriate work by one of our finest poet-critics, who traces the outlines of our mundane world while “in the air grew / the feathery sound of wings, / like an Annunciation, / among other things.”
– Mr. Ripatrazone is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributor to The Atlantic.