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Old 06-07-2002, 11:13 AM
Paul Lake Paul Lake is offline
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I just found a rather harsh review of Dick Davis's new poetry collection on the New Criterion website. The review is part of an omnibus review by William Logan, who's regarded by many as a kind of literary assassin.

Here's the review. What do readers who've read the book think?
* * *


Dick Davis was part of a group of proper English formal poets, ardent admirers of Yvor Winters, that made almost no impact on British poetry in the seventies and eighties. Like many New Formalists in America, their verse was a little too careful, a little too ordinary, and a little too dull. Sometimes as formal poets age they unbend (all too often they become fossilized instead) and use their trained ears to write in classical simplicity.


The sun comes up, and soon
The night’s thin fall of snow
Fades from the grass as if
It could not wait to go.


But look, a lank line lingers
Beyond the lawn’s one tree,
Safe in its shadow still,
Held momentarily.

The first stanza might have been written by Frost, it’s so cleanly expressive; but the second must have been by Frost’s deaf yardman, with its clogged alliteration and the awkward rhyme on a secondary accent. It’s amusing to find an exponent of the classical virtues guilty, elsewhere, of a dangling participle as bad as some freshman’s (“Lifting her arms to soap her hair/ Her pretty breasts respond”).
The poems in Belonging[4] have the soulless and manufactured air of kitchen appliances (they’re like a refrigerator talking to a microwave). They don’t have room for the personality of craft and their meter comes from a handbook, the righteous handbook of Winters. (In a good poet the meter is rarely confining—it seems liberating instead.) The poems are so professional and suburban, they don’t allow anything to ruffle their complacencies—if they were married they’d be monogamous, and dues-paying members of the Kiwanis Club. You long for a little rowdiness to trouble their surfaces, but all you get is a watered-down cocktail of Frost and Richard Wilbur.
Wilbur is a hero to young formal poets and has been generous praising them, but he was a more baroque and metaphysical and intellectual poet than poets now dare to be—too many laws (the kind poets unconsciously observe, the laws of taste) have been passed against such elaboration and decoration. Wilbur was a Bernini once, who could say things in meter that free verse would never allow (Davis is stuck saying the things free verse rejects). It would be stimulating to have a few Berninis again.
At times you suspect Davis is a closet skeptic, but you’d have to threaten his family to get him to admit it. He pursues his craft in a dogged way, writing monotonous monorhymes, or lines regular as a metronome and twice as determined (“A child let loose on Nelson’s Victory/ I fantasized his last quixotic quest,/ Trafalgar’s carnage—where he coolly dressed/ As gaudily as if he wished to be … ”), or passages like Kipling in a malarial fit:

And the sudden breeze of sunrise, like a nervous lover’s hands
Hardly touching, but still touching, as my body understands,
Like a whisper that insists on life’s importunate demands

Tugging me to love and pleasure, to what passes as we sleep,
To the roses’ quick unfolding, to the moments that won’t keep,
To the ruin of a childhood, and the tears that parents weep.
Such sentiments are best left to the experts, the greeting-card writers.

Amid the humdrum and predictable verse, however, are a few epigrams as astringent as anything by J. V. Cunningham.


The pretty young bring to the coarsely old
Réchauffé dishes, but the sauce is cold.
That has a pleasantly bitter taste; but the next, on teaching poetry workshops, is even better:

A house was rented for the visitor
BANNED POSTBANNED POSTBANNED POSTBANNED POSTBANNED POSTWho came to lecture here for one spring quarter:

In house and class his only duties were
BANNED POSTBANNED POSTBANNED POSTBANNED POSTBANNED POSTTo feed the hummingbirds with sugared water.

Those lines have a delayed sting and you have to be patient enough to wait for it. A poet who can write epigrams shimmering with such wit, ragged with such despair, has no business writing anything else. Cunningham, a Wintersian himself, gave most of his last forty years to epigrams and wrote half a dozen that are among the delights of the last century. Davis could do worse with his next few decades.
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Old 06-08-2002, 01:51 AM
A. E. Stallings A. E. Stallings is offline
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I think it would curdle the blood of anyone to learn Logan had reviewed their book of verse.

I sometimes think Logan must work like Housman did on his reviews--keeping notebooks of perfectly honed poisonous witticisms, in hopes of finding an opportunity for using them.

Of course, this is also what makes Logan entertaining, but I cannot imagine making a decision to purchase or not to purchase a book based on his recommendations, or opprobrium. The purpose of these reviews is generally to showcase Logan's own cutting wit. And there is some pleasure in seeing it unleashed on, say, a Jorie Graham.

Per usual, none of the poets in this omnibus review gets off unscathed, of course. To read this in context:

Falls the Shadow

Interestingly, while Logan slaps Davis' wrist for being too strict in his measure, this is what he has to say in the same piece about an Alan Dugan poem:

"doughy, overwrought pentameter (with feet added here and there, like a home improvement project gone wrong)"

When he says elsewhere of another poet that it would be churlish to mention that it is the larvae of moths, and not the moths themselves, that leave holes in fabric--I think, yes, that IS churlish.

I suppose it must be some sort of back-handed compliment to have one's book singled out for his notice at all.
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Old 06-08-2002, 05:55 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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When Hecht was our Visiting Lariat, I made a scathing comment about Logan at Discerning Eye. He cornered me after my reading at London's Royal Festival Hall, saying "I'm the guy you referred to on the Internet as 'That idiot, William Logan.'" I told him how angry I was at his churlish dismissal of Tony's new book and of Wilbur's Mayflies, and he challenged me to refute him in discursive prose, which I do not write. Instead I wrote him this flyting and challenged him to respond in like stanza:

To a Critic

“The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.”
--W.B. Yeats

The grand seigneurs are few
who write well in old age,
who rise and stand erect
on Pindar’s vacant stage.
I have known only two,
Dick Wilbur and Tony Hecht.

Another in recent years
took Thomas Hardy’s hand
and labored up the slope
where Delphi’s columns stand
and Mount Parnassus rears:
the Aussie, Alec Hope.

Hope’s “Western Elegies,”
Wilbur’s “A thing well made”
and Hecht’s “Musical chair”—
go seek them in that glade
under Mnemosyne’s
nine daughters’ loving care,

the Muses who select
among the dumb and young
few who will learn so much,
write wisely or so long
as Hope, Wilbur, and Hecht—
masterful men whom such
as you will never touch.

So now Dick has the glory of being treated just as shabbily as Hecht and Wilbur, the latter of whom responded to my poem in like stanza:

"In future should some jerk
From Gainesville denigrate
The merits of my work,
I shall not hesitate:
I'll just say "Sic 'em, Tim,"
And thus get rid of him.

To answer your question, Paul, I have Belonging in manuscript, and I think it includes some of Dick's most affecting poems. It is encouraging to me to see a guy five years my senior extending his range and doing his best work at a time of life when too many poets have burned out. So much of Dick's best early work is bitter and informed by his long experience of exile, that it is a pleasure to see him mellowing and "Belonging" with the approach of age.
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Old 06-08-2002, 09:50 AM
graywyvern graywyvern is offline
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Good poets aren't hurt by bad reviews.
William Logan is a god.
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Old 06-08-2002, 10:16 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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I am so freshly incensed at Logan (my Yale classmate whom I never met til February, strangely enough), that I have written a sestet for Dick Davis, which solves two problems in the poem: First, it eliminates Hope from the sphere of Logan's obloquy (he hasn't dissed Hope in print, to my knowledge, but given his unfailing disdain, he probably despises Hope's later work.) Second, it inserts the senior, controversial figure of my own generation:

To a Critic

“The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.”
--W.B. Yeats

The grand seigneurs are few
who write well in old age,
who rise and stand erect
on Pindar’s vacant stage.
I have known only two,
Dick Wilbur and Tony Hecht.

Another in recent years
took Thomas Hardy’s hand
and labored up the slope
where Delphi’s columns stand
and Mount Parnassus rears:
the Aussie, Alec Hope.

Now Davis climbs that Way.
He is only fifty-six,
but him, too, you have trashed.
How does a vandal fix
or trade for meager pay
the canvas he has slashed?

A “Lonely friend, Louise,”
Wilbur’s “A thing well made”
and Hecht’s “Musical chair”—
go seek them in that glade
under Mnemosyne’s
nine daughters’ loving care,

the Muses who select
among the dumb and young
few who will learn so much,
write wisely or so long
as Davis, Wilbur, and Hecht—
masterful men whom such
as you will never touch.
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Old 06-08-2002, 12:33 PM
Richard Wakefield Richard Wakefield is offline
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What's criticism for? Some critics see themselves as keepers of the gates to immortality and tremble at the thought that an unworthy poet might sneak through. Others see themselves as slightly more observant or, perhaps, slightly more articulate but otherwise ordinary readers, with the advantage of a forum. The first sort lectures and berates like a Puritan in a whorehouse; the second sort converses with saints and sinners alike, aware that their common humanity greatly outweighs their superficial differences.
To my mind the only useful thing Logan points out is the dangling modifier. As a poet, I'd love to have someone alert me to such a slip of my own (although I'd have to take a deep breath to keep from being defensive in response to such needlessly dismissive language). The two stanzas he contrasts? His discussion is merely an assertion of taste all dressed up in critical terminology. It's okay not to like one or both, but why pretend you're invoking the eternal verities in condemning it or them?
There's enough bad poetry published to keep a churlish critic busy for life, but who wants to spend a life that way? Gresham's law does not apply to art; if it did, the good stuff would have disappeared long ago -- so there's no service rendered by wholesale condemnation.
Submit to the spell. Subvert your vanity. Trust me, it'll come back soon enough.
RPW
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Old 06-08-2002, 02:35 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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What really bugs me about this kind of review is not that he failed to appreciate something that I appreciate greatly --though he did-- but that his agenda was to prove to his readers how clever he could be in issuing his negative opinion. To make such mean yet ultimately pointless barbs such as saying a given poem could have been written by "Frost’s deaf yardman," for example, makes one wonder if he can be equally humorous when issuing praise, and, if not, whether he sometimes prefers to display his sense of humor rather than being fair and accurate.

Just as I don't like critiques at Erato when people come up with wittily condescending one-liners in place of criticism, I don't like reviews that use the same tactic.

Anyway, if I were Dick, I'd look upon this bad review as the fortuitous cause of my inclusion in Tim's poetic tribute, and I'd therefore be grateful to the reviewer who attacked me. (Well, almost...)

[This message has been edited by Roger Slater (edited June 08, 2002).]
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Old 06-08-2002, 05:54 PM
epigone epigone is offline
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I pity William Logan. All he got out of Dick Davis' beautiful monorhyme was the dangling participle. Dick knew better than to remove the birthmark from his beloved's cheek.
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Old 06-09-2002, 12:40 AM
A. E. Stallings A. E. Stallings is offline
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Very nice response, Tim!

On the bright side, a negative review and any attendant controversy in the protected world of poetry can sometimes increase a books sales better than bland praise. And all of us who have copies of "Belonging" here heartily recommend it.

Although (or perhaps because) he can be infuriating, I do think William Logan performs a valuable service for poetry. A healthy art needs its negative reviews, and a reviewer who isn't afraid to make enemies (boy he sure isn't). He is especially good at poking a pin in the many overinflated reputations that pass for successful poets these days. And I must confess that I always read his reviews, both for their wit and their iconoclasm. I only wish he were as generous with his wit in his praise. (And about the only time I see him give unstinting praise, it is to a poet's previous book, to which he is unfavorably comparing the current, less successful effort.) He is very good at close readings, but I don't think I've ever seen an appreciation of a poet by him.

It is interesting in his review that he says he should "eat his words" referring to Hill's previous book, "Speech, Speech." I wonder if he often has second thoughts about books he has panned.
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Old 06-09-2002, 02:41 AM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
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Putting aside the relish Logan shows in his own acidulous rhetoric, I did think his comments on Geoffrey Hill, some of whose work I rate very highly indeed, were not unjust.

Clive Watkins
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