Monday, June 30, 2008

William Logan Doesn't Like Frank O'Hara. He Thought You Should Know.

So, the cover of Sunday's New York Times Book Review is a review of Frank O'Hara's new Selected Poems (replacing the old selection from the seventies) by William Logan. Here's the short version:

Logan doesn't like O'Hara's poetry much, and that should be good enough for the rest of us. The end.

The review is puzzlingly bad, and pretty depressing as a lead review on Sunday morning. It condescends to O'Hara without persuasively establishing that the reviewer knows much about how these poems work, and then near the end it becomes strangely dishonest about questions of fact. I found myself having the urge, and now find myself repressing the urge, to become catty about Logan, the reviewer, whose name didn't mean much to me when I saw the byline. I'm going to choke back the ad hominems here, because (of course, of course) the critic's ideas should stand or fall on their merits alone. Yet perhaps it's something about Logan's approach that provokes those ad hominem rebuttals, precisely because he bases his assertions on his own personal literary authority. (Everyone has the right to critique a poet, no matter how exalted, but damned few are entitled to talk down to one.) Logan doesn't persuade. He doesn't explain. He Pronounces from On High. This is not persuasive or edifying, but it is a drag.

Logan's essay is a kind of throwback to an earlier era, lamented by some but certainly not by me, during which the purpose of "literary criticism" was to establish a strict hierarchy of literary greatness through critical fiat. Enormous amounts of energy once went into working out fine shades of distinction between canonical figures, sorting them between "major" and "minor," endlessly working out the imagined pecking order of the great, the nearly great, the intermittently and would-be and not-quite great and so forth down to the hacks, sniveling mediocrities, and footnotes to The Dunciad. I'm talking about the period when an anthology could be titled Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century and when that anthology could include Philip Sidney (because, evidently, only Shakespeare, Spenser, and Marlowe made the "Golden" cut). This scholarly enterprise is now unfashionable and politically suspect, which is just as well since it is also intellectually bankrupt. This is not criticism, in that it explains how literature actually works, but literary appreciation, which at its worst merely tells its audience what they are supposed to like. The underlying premise here is that people should like some poems more, other poems less, and the rest not at all, and that their tastes need to be instructed so that they will be sure like and dislike the appropriate things. The role of the critic or teacher in this educational project is to provide the Voice of Authority and the Exquisite Taste. (Each is founded upon the other, tautologically.)

Now, I'm as much a part of upholding the famous-dead-white-male canon as just about anybody in my area code. I teach Big Old Dead White Guy survey courses. I give the Golden Poets and their Golden Poems more time, on the average, than the Silver, Copper, Bronze Alloy and Industrial Zinc Poets get. I've dedicated my academic career to the most canonical writer in that canon. I'm not complaining that some poets are more famous or more respected than others. What I object to is the notion that this canon of famous works and famous writers is the actual goal of literary study, rather than an approximate and necessary practical tool for that study. And what seems indefensible is building such a canon simply upon the personal aesthetic judgment of Herr Doktor Professor, whoever Herr Doktor Professor might be. Telling people what to think, rather than teaching them new ways to think, is not a legitimate intellectual enterprise. Telling people what to enjoy, or worse yet what not to enjoy, is not an intellectual enterprise at all.

William Logan, evidently, longs for the role of Herr Doktor Professor, and sets out to sort O'Hara into the appropriate less-than-entirely-great subcategory. In the second paragraph (the first paragraph is too absorbed in broad generalities to mention O'Hara's name), Logan complains that "it has been difficult to reach a just estimate of his wayward, influential talent." That the goal should be "to reach a just estimate" of O'Hara's talent is taken for granted; Logan is committed to evaluation, rather than comprehension, as the primary goal. The point is not to learn how O'Hara writes, but to conclude how important a writer he is. Logan devotes all but the final two paragraphs, which finally and grudgingly treat the actual book being reviewed, to the question of O'Hara's proximate distance from greatness. The paired modifiers "wayward" and "influential" suggest Logan's conclusion, and indeed might have served for it: O'Hara will be damned with faint praise, influential but "wayward" and "intermittent," the latter word a time-honored classic for demoting "geniuses" to minor status.

The traditional evaluative approach Logan follows leans heavily on the elegant variation of modifiers. Since it seldom breaks down the poems themselves, it must rely upon the laudatory and pejorative colors of its adverbs and adjectives. Indeed, this style of criticism is essentially Judgment by Modifier. If you list the modifiers that Logan uses for O'Hara and his work, you have his whole agenda:

"intermittently, wildly, unevenly, wayward, influential, jazzy, elated, giddily, vivid, outlandish, trivial, headlong, curiously impoverished, anti-Romantic, easy, off-course, heady, helter-skelter, compulsively, hilarious, vain young, homosexual, cheerful, comic, sometimes insufferable, effervescent, flat and stale, lunatic, influential, dull, lucky, very lucky, rambling, insouciantly unserious, oafish, grindingly self-conscious, campy, irritating, foolish, self-parodic, fresh, frantic, petty."

The list suggests Logan's hostility. It's also clear that his concerns are O'Hara's youthfulness, O'Hara's lack of seriousness, and O'Hara's lack of heterosexuality. (The traditional vocabulary for implying one lack is the essentially the vocabulary used to imply the other.) Logan complains that O'Hara wrote too much (except later in his career, when he writes less, which Logan points to as a failure of creativity), that O'Hara is indiscriminate in the subject matter of his poems and lacks a serious attitude (Logan notes a lack of guilt over sex), and that O'Hara's poems about the quotidian life are banal. If it seems illogical to complain about the youthful immaturity of a poet who died at forty, or the lack of seriousness in poems dedicated to deflating pomposity, that's because logic has nothing to do with it. The important point here is that William Logan, arbiter of taste, doesn't like these poems. If you had already formed opinions of Frank O'Hara's work, well, you'll just have to change.

Logan does not seriously engage with the poetic technique, not even to note basic things like the love of enjambment. (Logan is not even up to the New Criticism in his methods here. He judges without examining.) He makes no serious attempt to place O'Hara's oeuvre in the context of his untimely death. (O'Hara's career reads very differently when it is considered as the beginning of an interrupted career, and when his late thirties, for example, are treated as a period of maturation rather than the beginning of his dotage.) And there is no serious attempt to engage with the values behind O'Hara's technique as actual, coherent aesthetic values. O'Hara will be judged instead against Logan's own values.

Here's a sentence that should be a parody, but probably isn't:

"O'Hara loathed academic hauteur, though he needn't have sounded so oafish about it."

This sentence beautifully demonstrates the critic's deep and abiding love for academic hauteur, using diction that no one still uses when speaking ("needn't?"), and haughtily sniffing at O'Hara's "oafishly" informal deportment. It also demonstrates the reviewer's utter lack of sympathy with the poet's intellectual and artistic ambitions. The Harvard-educated museum curator O'Hara, who palled around with John Ashbery and Jackson Pollack, chose to wear his erudition lightly. Logan sews curtain weights in his erudition's pockets, looking for some extra gravitas. In fact, O'Hara clearly viewed intellectual self-importance, the cultivation of gravitas, as one of the enemies of genuine art (and genuine feeling and genuine thought). Logan is from the enemy party, and sets out to prove it, however oafishly. (There is something hilarious and asinine about attacking a deliberately demotic poet as lacking polish.)

His poems present a world in which love of art (of Mayakovsky and Billie Holliday and Seurat alike) are inseparable from one's other appetites for life. For Logan, this gusto is suspect. Any poet who's suspicious of energy and appetite, as far as I'm concerned, is suspect himself.

Logan makes a particularly suspicious claim late in the essay, when he cites "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!) as "arguably [O'Hara's] most famous poem."

This is evidently some new use of the word "arguably." Usually that word means a reasonable position that reasonable people might dispute. Logan uses it to mean a position that virtually all reasonable people would dispute, because it is obviously not true, but which Logan means to argue nonetheless.

"Lana Turner has collapsed!" is not, by any means, O'Hara's most famous poem. That honor probably belongs to the widely anthologized "The Day Lady Died" or else to one of the poet's five or ten other frequently anthologized lyrics ("To the Harbormaster," "Ave Maria," "Poem ("At Night the Chinamen jump"), "Why I Am Not a Painter," and so on). The odd claim about the Lana Turner poem is explicated by the contributor's note, in which Logan (having already admitted his longstanding aesthetic hostility to O'Hara's work) writes of hearing Richard Howard read that specific poem. So "arguably his most famous poem," means "most famous O'Hara poem in William Logan's private interior life." That's a strange and solipsistic standard of evidence. (Setting solipsistic benchmarks for measuring fame is especially paradoxical.)

More to the point, the poem Logan singles out as "most famous" does not appear in the previous edition of O'Hara's Selected Poems, which the new edition Logan is reviewing replaces. Surely, that fact is relevant to the review, even if not relevant to Logan.

Logan is most comfortable imagining a readership of naifs, like an auditorium full of unread freshmen, who have never heard of the poet being discussed and are willing to accept whatever Herr Doktor Professor tells them. The most famous poem by O'Hara is the one Logan believes should be most famous. Everything else is just a lapse of taste. If you've actually heard of Frank O'Hara, and read him, what Logan says might not match your own experiences. But Logan would contend that the fault lies with you.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

How to Negotiate with Enemies: Lieberman Edition

Sometimes, Barack Obama says, you have to negotiate with your enemies.

President Bush, being a genius, disagrees. He knows that negotiating with enemies is a sign of weakness, which is why he wouldn't negotiate with North Korea while they were only trying to build nuclear weapons but waited until they had actually built them. That way Bush would have no leverage and could negotiate from a position of sufficient weakness.

This is also, of course, John McCain's model of tough diplomacy, and Joe Lieberman's. They too view Obama's willingness to actually talk to our enemies as a symptom not only of weakness, but of naivete. The fact that Obama is willing to talk to enemies, rather than simply threaten them, is taken as a sign that he's some simple-minded kid who will lose his lunch money to the Iranians before he even gets to the bus stop.

McCain and Lieberman's preferred method for dealing with international enemies, like Bush's, is to make bellicose public threats that they may or may not find themselves able to back up. It's very important that these threats not be made directly to the party being threatened, but to large domestic political audiences in front of international media. The goal is to humiliate one's opponents and make them lose face, while looking more impressive to one's own local admirers; essentially, this is the Gangster Rap School of Diplomacy. McCain or Bush or Lieberman let it be known around the neighborhood that they will give that other kid a beating, as soon as they see him. The plan is to undermine their opponent's standing, and intimidate him through third parties. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in fact uses the same technique all the time, ranting about how he will humble America, and Fidel Castro used to be a past master of it. You see how successful it has been, what with Iran and Cuba bringing us to our knees. And you can see how effectively our stump-speech threats have curbed their behavior.

The main purpose of these public threats is their main weakness: any leader who gives in to them will be humiliated in front of his own power base, and weakened. And because they were made in front of the whole world, the threatened party can't comply without admitting weakness. (If you hide when the neighborhood bully threatens you, you basically have to accept his bullying thereafter.) What American leader can give any concessions to Ahmadinejad, until he changes his tune? Threats like these give the opponent a powerful motivation to defy you, but punishes them for cooperating with you.

The other problem of course, is that when you threaten someone indirectly, they often doubt that you mean it. How often have you lost sleep over Castro's vows to bring us down? How often have you worried that those parade-stand threats were connected to anything concrete he was planning to do? Everybody knows that the neighborhood bully who goes around talking about how he will beat you up when he finds is not the same as the bully who actually finds you and then threatens to beat you up.

Sometimes, and I hope even our most hawkish compatriots would agree, you have to threaten your enemies in person.

That principle of tough diplomacy was seemingly on display in the Senate chamber today, when the naive and dewy pushover from Chicago, Obama, approached the hardened street tough from Connecticut, Lieberman. Roll Call, via the Huffington Post, has the story:

Furthermore, during a Senate vote Wednesday, Obama dragged Lieberman by the hand to a far corner of the Senate chamber and engaged in what appeared to reporters in the gallery as an intense, three-minute conversation.

While it was unclear what the two were discussing, the body language suggested that Obama was trying to convince Lieberman of something and his stance appeared slightly intimidating.

Using forceful, but not angry, hand gestures, Obama literally backed up Lieberman against the wall, leaned in very close at times, and appeared to be trying to dominate the conversation, as the two talked over each other in a few instances.

Still, Obama and Lieberman seemed to be trying to keep the back-and-forth congenial as they both patted each other on the back during and after the exchange.

Afterwards, Obama smiled and pointed up at reporters peering over the edge of the press gallery for a better glimpse of their interaction.

Was Obama threatening Lieberman? I can't say, and neither can you, and we're not meant to. Perhaps the new leader of the Democratic Party was simply giving Lieberman, who now caucuses with the Democrats but campaigns with the Republicans, an enthusiastic restaurant recommendation. Lieberman can certainly deny that any threats were made, which means he can cave in without losing too much face. This, of course, is the point.

Of course, the fact conversation wasn't supposed to be entirely private, although its substance was. The press in the galleries, and the other senators in the chamber, were supposed to notice that Obama was giving Lieberman some personal time, and that Lieberman wasn't enjoying it. It was important to establish that the new boss is, in fact, the new boss. Lieberman got a small taste of public humiliation, as payback for publicly dissing the leader of the party that gives him his committee assignments. But he also knows, and was intended to know, that the small taste could have been a full meal, and that Obama has the power to humiliate him much more publicly and thoroughly. Lieberman was also allowed the dignity of having the substance of the threat (if it was a threat) and the substance of the demand kept private so that he can comply with a minimal loss of position. And the "friendly" body language allows both parties to put the best possible face on things, and to stay in the negotiation. The move gives Lieberman the maximum reasons to cooperate, and the maximum penalty for not cooperating. It is, dare I say it, nuanced.

And that is the man whom Lieberman was calling soft.

The Richard Nixon Charm School

"And I want to say that one of the great features of America is that we
have political contests, that they are very hard fought, as this one
was hard fought, and once the decision is made we unite behind the man
who is elected. I want all of you to know, I want all of you to know
... I want Senator Kennedy to know, and I want all of you to know that,
certainly, if this trend does continue, and he does become our next President, that he will have my wholehearted support and yours too."

-Richard Milhous Nixon, election night, 1960

It's a sad day when Richard Nixon outclasses you. But here it is ... Nixon's supporters are shouting "No!" and "Boo!" to the news that Kennedy has won, there are official results still to come in, and yet the most resentful and grudging American politician of his generation manages to do the right thing, giving this important civics lesson to his backers and being graceful to his Democratic rival.

It would be nice if Senator Clinton could meet at least the Nixon standard for a fellow Democrat.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Clinton's Gift

The most important question to ask tonight is:

Can a woman be elected President of the United States?

I think the answer, at the end of Hillary Clinton's campaign, has to be a resounding "Yes."

No, she didn't win. No, she is not going to be the next President. But it's no longer possible to say that a woman couldn't do it. It is now undeniable that a woman can be a powerful contender for the White House, and that if a few things had gone differently (her campaign strategy; her vote on Iraq) Senator Clinton would have had the nomination.

There's no longer a question that a woman can be elected President. The only questions remaining are who, and when. That is Senator Clinton's greatest achievement, and it cannot be taken from her. Some of Hillary Clinton's personal ambitions came to an end tonight, but part of her campaign was always bigger than one politician's personal career, and that larger role on a larger stage, that place in the history of women and the history of this country, does not end tonight and will never end.

It's time to put aside the tactical posturing and small-bore politicking of the last few weeks. Clinton is a fiercely competitive and tenacious campaigner, as capable of hardball politics as any of the great American barnstormers have been, and she did not give up the field easily. But she should not be defined by the last-stand expediencies of the primary season. Least of all should her achievement be diminished by claims that the nomination was wrongly denied her, or that it was stolen. It wrongs Senator Clinton, and ill serves the women who will come after her, to imagine her not as the pioneer, the power broker, the master politician that she has become but instead as a victim.

The perverse triumph of Senator Clinton's campaign is that she lost, by and large, for the reasons other politicians lose. She was tied to an important vote that became a political disadvantage as circumstances changed; that vote alienated a serious chunk of the party base, who energetically supported her main rival; she faced an unusually gifted opponent in Barack Obama, backed by anti-war elements in the party; and her campaign strategy initially underestimated that opponent, leaving her with no contingency plan for the string of contests following Super Tuesday (when she expected to clinch the nomination herself).

There was sexism, as there always is when a woman opens doors that have been marked "Gentlemen Only," but Clinton proved far too serious and too powerful to be dismissed with any sexist labeling. There was never a question that she was qualified, and never a way to doubt her qualification for the job without exposing oneself as a fool. It's a mark how far she and we have come that she began this contest the prohibitive front-runner, rather than the long-shot, and part of Clinton's achievement that she could lose like a front runner, like any other established party chief in a political season running against the establishment. Clinton never had to prove that she could compete with the men; they has to establish their bona fides to stay in the race against her. She faced sexism, as every female candidate must, but she largely beat it. She lost instead to a combination of a powerful anti-war movement and Barack Obama. There's no shame in that.

Don't tell your daughters that the nomination was taken from Hillary Clinton. Don't tell them that the door to the Oval Office will always be closed, that no matter how well they do they will never get a fair accounting. Don't tell them that even the best candidate, with the best message and best campaign, will always be cheated by sexism, that a woman's best will never be good enough, or that even great women end up as victims. Tell them the truth: that there is a chance for them no matter what they do, that sexism will always have to be confronted and defeated but that it can be, and that while they will have to work harder and fight longer that in the end they will have the chance both to fail and to succeed, to take upon themselves the responsibility for their own defeats and their victories. Do Senator Clinton justice as a woman who made her own decisions, as a historic figure who held much of her political destiny in her own hands.

Tell your daughters that Hillary Clinton ran a great campaign, but not a perfect campaign. Tell them that she was a great woman, but not the last great woman. There was a better campaign to run, and there will be another woman, on another day, to run it.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

McCain Gets Tense

So McCain claimed that we have drawn American troops down to pre-surge levels. This is not true, nor will it be true soon.

When confronted with the error, McCain's campaign said that any criticism was simply quibbling over "verb tenses."

Verb tenses. Riiight.

Verb tenses of course are only grammatical details, and not really important. For example, the difference between the past tense (or in this case, the present perfect) and the future tense is really extremely pedantic.

What is the difference, for example, "I have paid you," and "I will pay you?" None that I can see. Only a schoolmarm, or a linguist like Noam Chomsky, could tell the difference.

What is the difference between "We have eaten," and "We will eat?" Between "I have left her for you," and "I will leave her for you?" Between "We have found a cure," and "We will find a cure?" It's really just a grammar thing, after all.

The difference between things that you have done and things that you will do, or might do, or would do, is ultimately only a grammatical detail. What do quibbles like that matter? (And while we're at it, what about the mathematical cavil in the complaint, with its third-grade, New-Math obsession with academic concepts like "more" and "less?")

If you want to say you have accomplished the mission, or won the war, is it really so different from saying that you will accomplish the mission, or that you will win the war, someday, if everything goes the way you plan?

What's catching McCain isn't just verb tense, of course. It's also something that pedants call grammatical mood: the difference between verbs used in the indicative mood (to describe the world as it is and is not), and the subjunctive mood (to describe the world as it is not, but might be, other under circumstances). But that's just academic trivia, really. English seldom makes the subjunctive distinction grammatically anymore, and we can all just go along using the indicative verbs for everything: things we have done, things we will do, things we would do if we had remembered our wallet, things we hope to do, things we actually did do except it was in a dream.

The election should not be about hairsplitting grammatical points such as the difference between what we have achieved and what we hope to achieve, or the difference between strategies that have succeeded and strategies that might, or the difference between people who have been killed and people who will be killed. It's time to leave schoolroom distinctions behind, and return our focus to the real world.