Broken Ground

Poetry and the Demon of History

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Pub Date 11 May 2021 | Archive Date 18 Aug 2021

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Description

In Broken Ground, William Logan explores the works of canonical and contemporary poets, rediscovering the lushness of imagination and depth of feeling that distinguish poetry as a literary art. The book includes long essays on Emily Dickinson’s envelopes, Ezra Pound’s wrestling with Chinese, Robert Frost’s letters, Philip Larkin’s train station, and Mrs. Custer’s volume of Tennyson, each teasing out the depths beneath the surface of the page.

Broken Ground also presents the latest run of Logan’s infamous poetry chronicles and reviews, which for twenty-five years have bedeviled American verse. Logan believes that poetry criticism must be both adventurous and forthright—and that no reader should settle for being told that every poet is a genius. Among the poets under review by the “preeminent poet-critic of his generation” and “most hated man in American poetry” are Anne Carson, Jorie Graham, Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery, Geoffrey Hill, Louise Glück, John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Frederick Seidel, Les Murray, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Johnny Cash, James Franco, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Logan’s criticism stands on the broken ground of American poetry, soaked in history and soiled by it. These essays and reviews work in the deep undercurrents of our poetry, judging the weak and the strong but finding in weakness and strength what endures.

In Broken Ground, William Logan explores the works of canonical and contemporary poets, rediscovering the lushness of imagination and depth of feeling that distinguish poetry as a literary art. The...


Advance Praise

"Most reviews don’t deserve this kind of permanence. Logan’s do. Broken Ground is a showcase of his vastly learned and extraordinarily sensitive expertise on poetic language."

—William Flesch, author of Comeuppance: Altruistic Punishment, Costly Signaling, and other Biological Components of Fiction

"Most reviews don’t deserve this kind of permanence. Logan’s do. Broken Ground is a showcase of his vastly learned and extraordinarily sensitive expertise on poetic language."

—William Flesch, author...


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ISBN 9780231201063
PRICE $35.00 (USD)

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Featured Reviews

William Logan writes with grace and fluency: he presents informed critical opinions with a commitment often lacking in contemporary criticism. Re-reading of his chosen authors was, in my case, sparked off by his views which are nothing, if not controversial.
The review of Gorgeous Nothings, a book dealing with Emily Dickinson’s use of envelopes and scrap paper points up the academic sterility of the discussion about the meaning of these fragments. Of course, Dickinson would use the paper to hand; paper, Logan reminds us, was an expensive commodity. Similarly, Dickinson’s use of capitals and dashes, much argued over among critics of the work, were as much the work of printers as a precocious technique of careful phrasing. Dickinson “had no reason to prepare printed copy”.
There are judgments here that are more questionable. Whether Kipling had the “emotional range of a schoolboy” (whatever that is) is, I think, an American misunderstanding of British reticence. Kipling’s ambiguous stance on the motives, meaning and effects of British empire building could be a more useful channel into his complex emotional tonalities.
The essay on Geoffrey Hill cuts in at an odd angle. Mercian Hymns, Hill’s finest work, is barely mentioned. An account of Logan’s somewhat star-struck encounter with Hill takes up space that could usefully have dealt with the resonances of the volume – “I liked that”, said Offa, “sing it again”.
Philip Larkin’s ‘I remember, I remember’ is handled in a dogged, documentary-style analysis which brings in railway-station architecture, the bombing of Coventry and the tracks between London, Bristol, Swansea and Liverpool plus the ferry crossing to Belfast. Larkin’s distinctive laconic and wry verse style gets lost in this welter of references.
There is a fine intelligence running through this volume. My concern is that this quality leans to the tangential which muddles its thrust; when on target, it is superb.

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Broken Ground: Poetry and the Demon of History by William Logan collects some of his critical writings and offers a nice glimpse into both his strengths and weaknesses as a critic. Even if you find him over the top and largely pompous, as I do, you will still be able to learn a lot, though maybe not always specifically what he would wish.

You have to come to this collection with an understanding that his view of what passes for good poetry is very narrow. I don't simply mean that he expects a certain level of skill or creativity, though that is part of it and no doubt what he believes his opinions to be. But more important is his disdain for the vast majority of anything other than very formal, conservative poetry (speaking of form here, not politics). This applies to his appraisal of others as well as the poetry he writes himself. If you only value that same narrow portion of poetic expression, you may well agree with much of his criticism.

Even with his inflated sense of self he offers a reader a lot of insight into the ways in which a poem can be more or less effective. Paying attention to the elements he looks at within a poet's work helps us to also look at those same things. We may disagree with him about how well they succeed, especially if it is something outside his narrow preference, but looking at a poem through the eyes of a poet is useful for those of us who are not poets (in the sense of verse) even if we are trained in literature but mostly prose, which he views with disdains except, maybe, in "small doses."

One thing I noticed is that when I went back and reread some of what he was so negative about I both understand it better (thanks to him) and appreciated it more (in spite of him). So if you enjoy poetry but don't enjoy wrestling with it at times, then you might not enjoy this book, even though it is entertaining. I can't say I was laughing with him but I don't think he much cares that I was laughing at him. If you enjoy reading poetry and find pleasure in word choice and the sound of some words when strung together, you will likely find a lot to appreciate about this book, no matter what your opinion of his opinions are.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

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William Logan presents a work of poetic critique and reflection that would be essential paired reading in a range of literature and composition courses. Erudite, insightful, literary, Logan probes what poetry is in a meaningful and dialogue-provoking manner.

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