Poetry is the only art form in America that I can think of that no longer has a bracing tradition of real criticism. Novels, plays, films, operas . . . we expect critics to note honestly whatever flaws and failures they see in specific works.
Critical reviews often hurt sales and egos, but without them an art atrophies. Some people attribute the lack of critical poetry reviews to pusillanimity, an unwillingness to offend others in the small poetry world, where grants, jobs, and publication opportunities might be at risk. The cause might instead merely be an unwillingness to contribute to a perceived dismissal and marginalization of poetry in our culture today, the sort of uncritical solidarity often seen in police unions and elementary school talent shows.
William Logan is a thoughtful, well read, and perceptive critic known for devastating and acerbic reviews, not unmixed with praise, and this collection shows why. He is not afraid to declare that the emperor has no clothes, even when reviewing demigods like Rita Dove (“…once a poet of modest but real talent . .[now given to] self-serve opportunism”) and John Ashbery (who “has less matter behind his poems than anyone but a devout dadaist”). Logan is also honest and astute on poetry in general, and his long essays are well worth careful reading.
Even when Logan shocks and challenges our own sensibilities (for me, by his mildly deprecatory remarks on the wonderful Richard Wilbur), his criticisms are always rooted in an intelligent reading of the poems. To see if Logan’s reviews are memorable, startling, and true for you, you can sample them at The New Criterion, but you might as well get this book now and dip into it now and again as a tonic against the hushed reverence that too often greets bland, lazy or meretricious poetry. (adapted from my review at Amazon).