Review: Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods: Poetry in the Shadow of the Past

By William H. Pritchard

William Logan, Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods: Poetry in the Shadow of the Past (Columbia University Press, 2018), 416 pp.

Criticism is messy by nature and messy in fact. The art of poetry is a dirty business. A critic is the construction of his errors, his silliness, his sincerity, his doubt.
—William Logan, “Against Aesthetics”

Over the past few decades William Logan has established himself as the leading critic and reviewer of modern and contemporary poetry. He has done this with a formidable willingness to review and review again the latest slim volumes from American and English poets. His frequent, omnibus poetry chronicles in The New Criterion are such as to make an aspiring young poet, or an established older one, worry that the Logan axe may fall on his or her latest effort. Speaking of Randall Jarrell, to whom he is regularly compared with approval (Logan’s first collection of literary essays and reviews was dedicated to Jarrell and R. P. Blackmur), he referred to Jarrell’s “genially murderous style.” Reviewers of Logan’s own books tend to quote instances of a similar style, of which a couple of examples: Billy Collins loves the “cheesy sentiment of the everyday”; he is “the Caspar Milquetoast of contemporary poetry; never a word used in earnest; never a memorable phrase.” On Sharon Olds, for whom Logan has a pensive and especially murderous fondness, returning more than once to review one of her books: “She trades in shameless prose chopped up into lines of poetry, lurid as a tabloid”; her poetry is “vivid as a bullet wound, and written without taste or depth”; “She loves being gruesome under the guise of being human,” and her poems are “as erotic as a greasy sock.” He has a good word for the critic Helen Vendler, calling her book on Shakespeare’s sonnets “a masterpiece of reader’s attention,” but finds in a sentence from another of her books “unnecessary exaggeration,” “leaden repetition,” and “rhetoric gone wild with self-esteem.” As a rule, any compliment to a poet or a reviewer or a critic is flavored with some less tasty additive.

However inescapable the comparison of Logan to Jarrell may be, there is a significant difference in how Logan has dealt with poetry over the 25 or so years that he has been actively writing about it. Jarrell wrote his brief, if genially murderous reviews of other poets early in his career—they would be gathered together only posthumously. His finest book, Poetry and the Age, has only a single omnibus verse chronicle, containing mainly sympathetic, not-at-all murderous treatments of the poets gathered. What we remember about Poetry and the Age are its two essays on Frost, along with admiring accounts of Whitman, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and appreciations of emerging talents like Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. So the main force of Jarrell’s writings about poetry is encomiastic. By contrast, Logan has followed his first, relatively short book of poetry commentary with five substantial volumes—each in the 300-page range—that contain all the verse chronicles he has been turning out since the century began. As with his return visits to Sharon Olds, contemporaries keep popping up for Logan to have a further crack at; not all the commentary is negative, but since a lot of it is strongly on the dismissive side it’s not clear just how much attention posterity will pay to these reviews, even when as often they are right on. Where Logan shines even more than his predecessor Jarrell is in the substantial essays on modern poets. Among those are Housman, Frost, Pound, Stevens, Hart Crane, Auden, Moore, Lowell, Bishop, and Geoffrey Hill. Many of them are outstanding examples of permanently valuable criticism. To single out just two, the appearance of Lowell’s Collected Poems prompted a 41-page survey of the poet’s work from Lord Weary’s Castle to Day by Day (The World Out-Herods Herod”). I know of no essay on the poet that matches Logan’s in its judicious but daring evaluations of the virtues and limitations of Lowell’s books. The second example, “The Other Other Frost,” with its allusion to Jarrell’s essay “The Other Frost,” proposes a number of underappreciated poems that more than repay close attention. After making what seem to me glaring misjudgments about “After Apple-Picking” and “The Gift Outright,” “poems I can’t imagine anyone liking” (he even confides that he “despises” the latter), he tempted me to throw the book across the room. (I was again tempted when in the essay on Stevens, while praising the final stanza of “Sunday Morning” he excepts it from this otherwise “tedious poem.”) But the heart of the Frost essay very convincingly makes a case for appreciating such fine poems as “The Exposed Nest,” “The Bearer of Evil Tidings,” and “The Draft Horse.” The combination of Logan’s expert noticing of poems along with some “silliness” (one of the qualities of his constructed critic) is often in evidence.

Logan’s new book is an ambitious, original attempt to consider, as his subtitle has it, “Poetry in the Shadow of the Past.” His ambition is to restore “the lost background of poems,” by which he means a poem’s inner history, which is too often ignored by its critics. (“Reading the margins” is another way he puts it.) The New Critics, he writes, in their fierce concentration on the poem’s language removed it from its “setting.” To widen critical lenses, he examines how poems sometimes speak to each other. In eight essays, some of them lengthy, he pairs off poems about Ozymandias by Shelley and his contemporary Horace Smith, puts Frost’s “The Draft Horse” next to Wilbur’s “The Ride,” and Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” next to Seamus Heaney’s “The Skunk.” After three further essays, his final two cover 142 pages and juxtapose Pound’s “In a Station by the Metro” with Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” then Dickinson’s “After great pain a formal feeling comes—” with Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In respect to the latter essay, he admits that he has thrown in “everything but the kitchen sink—then the sink too.” In fact more than once he covers his tracks somewhat by admitting, in relation to Williams’s wheelbarrow, “Too much can be made of such things,” and before calling the wheelbarrow a “symbol of an occupation grasped” admits that “This goes too far, but . . . ” In throwing in the kitchen sink, he has recourse to such matters as, with regard to Lowell’s poem, the animal-control office in Castine, Maine (concerning the habits of skunks). He contrasts the physical being of a “muscle-bound” draft horse with the fragility of the “buggy”—not a wagon or some stronger vehicle—and presents us with varieties of wheelbarrows from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue of 1897, illustrated in the text. The meteorological nature of the “downy flake” (in “Stopping by Woods”) may be gathered by consulting snowfall records from different years in southeastern New Hampshire. The book is ingeniously equipped with 32 illustrations and drafts of poems; there are maps and census records from Rutherford, New Jersey and environs to explicate the wheelbarrow; there are glimpses of the Paris Metro and a map of Frost’s journey in “Stopping.” Logan notes what is indeed the case, that “Reading too much Dickinson is like suffering an attack of claustrophobia.” His own commentary in these essays is always “too much,” so that along with enlightenment, claustrophobia or something comparably defeating may overcome the reader.

To illustrate Logan’s practice in this book, consider the end of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”: he writes, with reference to the lines about how the skunks, searching for a bite to eat, “march on their soles up Main Street; / white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire / under the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church”:

The march of the skunks would usually take place in high summer, and Lowell has made a hellish burlesque of the town’s nineteenth-century traditions. Summer, the high-school band marching up Main under the white stripes—the red and white stripes—of the American flag: the skunks are making bleak mockery of the Fourth of July parade (in low light red and white read as black and white). The connections are perhaps subconscious, though Lowell was a student of American holiday and ceremony . . . yet the skunks celebrate that Yankee independence Lowell seeks to recover.

Do we pause to wonder about how “in the low light red and white read as black and white,” or whether the “connections are perhaps subconscious”? Probably not; rather, we read on to encounter the speaker standing on top of his back steps, breathing the rich air as the skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail:

Their dinnerware must be a small pail for kitchen waste, not the trailer trash-can a skunk would find difficult to tip over. Why has the speaker gone out on to the steps? We don’t need a reason, because the poem doesn’t require it; if we wanted one it would be to empty the day’s garbage or because he heard the skunk disturb the metal of the pail—or perhaps in despair, merely to escape the house for a moment.

After calling the skunk “a fierce, well-armed matriarch, like Lowell’s mother,” Logan asks where these skunks come from and provides an answer:

In coastal towns, skunks like to breed under the beach houses raised on wooden pilings. Skunks mate in March and give birth in May. The kits leave the mother by the end of July. Lowell’s hellish parade should be held at midsummer, not when the leaves are turning. If it’s not poetic license, it’s another way in which the time is not right. (Henry Erhard, animal-control officer of Castine, has confirmed that fall is too late to see such things there.)

Even though I’ve ripped these sentences out of the five pages Logan devotes to elucidating the skunks, they are in no way untypical or more “extreme” than those in other parts of the book. What struck me as I read (and reread) these pages is what I should guess might strike any interested reader: how difficult if not impossible it is to disagree with what Logan says. Except for matters of taste (“Sunday Morning” is a “tedious” poem), disagreement is no more possible than its opposite, agreement. We are carried along instead by the confident tone and aplomb of Logan’s prose, as if it were a critical spectacle, a performance to be watched rather than an argument to be taken up, carefully weighed, and considered. If asked to name another critic whose sentences often conduct themselves without appealing to a reader’s measured response, I think of William Empson, who is at least as difficult to read as Logan. Think of the passage from Seven Types of Ambiguity about what Macbeth sees as, in Empson’s account, he “looked out of the window” where “Light thickens, / And the crow makes wing to ‘th rooky wood.” In both cases what’s going on is something other than more traditional “close reading” of a poem’s language. Logan’s own “method,” in its insistence that no fact is too insignificant to ignore in elucidating a poem, issues in something like what might be called “far reading.”

But “far reading”—reading the margins, Logan calls it—doesn’t replace his closer looking and listening to the pace, the rhythm, the syntactical drama of his chosen poems. He takes “The Red Wheelbarrow,” recasts its four couplets into two lines, then scans them to reveal a more uniform meter: “The iambic regularity of the opening assertion would be followed by five anapests and a feminine ending, a rhythm disrupted in the original by enjambment and stanza break.” In the original, “The rhythmic alternation of lines long and short creates minor dramas within the beautiful stutter of enjambment.” I never thought of that “stutter” as beautiful and am not sure I do now, but it’s worth thinking about. Logan is eloquent on Dickinson’s use of the dash, a troublesome matter to many readers including this one. He generalizes thus, taking off from the final line of “After great pain,” “First—chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—”:

Many of Dickinson’s poems end with a dash, which here acts like an ellipsis, the gradual lapse into oblivion—of a flourish, the end of things. . . . Often when there are two versions, one ends with a dash and the other with an exclamation point. A dash also suggests that there might have been more to say—or rather something that remains unsaid. Her punctuation has driven critics slightly mad.

Indeed yes, and he proceeds with further treatment of the vexed question of that punctuation. More than once in his vibrantly alive prose the poems coupled together strike off satisfying sparks, as with “The Draft Horse” and “The Ride”: “‘The Draft Horse’ is set during a blackout, in a tar-black grove with no lantern to see by; Wilbur’s dream vision lies in a whiteout, the nothing’s nothing of blizzard. (The seeing imagine that the blind are plunged into unearthly darkness, but some live in the swirling of an inner snowstorm.)” The figurative invention here reminds us that Logan has published eight books of his own poetry.

In the course of his 44 pages on “Stopping by Woods,” Logan ends a section titled “And Miles to Go” by calling Frost’s poems often “an excellent mirror of the reader’s ambivalence,” and he suggests that the first response to “And miles to go before I sleep” could be “a sort of harrumph, a Yankee’s ‘Well, I must be getting on. No more nonsense now’ . . . The second time the traveler says the line, it might even have been in a different tone.” And he refers to Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire: “In Pale Fire, Nabokov’s scholar, Charles Kinbote, calls ‘Stopping by Woods’ ‘one of the greatest short poems in the English language.’ Kinbote believes ‘And miles to go before I sleep’ is ‘personal and physical’ the first time, ‘metaphysical and universal the second.’ “In ending the “And Miles to Go” section with this allusion, it appears that Logan approves of Kinbote’s statement. Yet any reader of the novel knows how perilous it may be to agree (or disagree) with anything Kinbote, “Nabokov scholar” or not, says about himself or the world. William Logan is as multi-perspectived and impossible as Kinbote to sum up and pin down, never more so than in this overwhelming feat of operation on poems, not only in the shadow of the past but of everything Logan can muster from his richly stocked mind.