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Assuredly, many acclaimed poets are no match to Shakespeare.
December 6, 2011 12:56 PM   Subscribe

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove edited The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, released in October. Harvard professor and critic Helen Vendler objects to Dove's choices; Dove reacts (and Vendler, succinctly, replies, "I have written the review and I stand by it.") and so do other critics, with charges of racism and, relatedly, too narrow a view of poetic traditions.

More on Vendler's approach to poetry in this Paris Review interview, where she says, in part: I don’t believe that poems are written to be heard, or as Mill said, to be overheard; nor are poems addressed to their reader. I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice. You don’t read or overhear the voice in the poem, you are the voice in the poem. You stand behind the words and speak them as your own—so that it is a very different form of reading from what you might do in a novel where a character is telling the story, where the speaking voice is usurped by a fictional person to whom you listen as the novel unfolds.

Dove's reaction in part says: "From [Dove's] choices no principle of selection emerges," Vendler grouses, and at last we arrive at the crux of her predisposition: in her system, an anthologist must have an agenda and is expected to drive that agenda home, sidelining her enemies and promoting her preferences with no attempt at impartial judgment. Actually, I am proud that no principle of selection emerges. My criterion was simple: choose significant poems of literary merit.
posted by joannemerriam (77 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I haven't read all of the links yet, so I can't comment on the charges of racism, but I disagree with Vendler's approach to poetry. As a poet, I will say that my poems are written to be heard. With very rare exception, I write my poems with the intention of performing them for an audience.

Once they are out there in the world, published in a magazine or whatever, then the words do become those of the reader. But that is not my intent as an author, even as I acknowledge that it is generally the result of publishing (and even of simply performing the piece for an audience -- the audience may hear something difference than what I intended).
posted by asnider at 1:10 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


"different than what I intended"
posted by asnider at 1:10 PM on December 6, 2011


Having edited a few anthologies myself, I can but say that whatever selections an editor makes will usually draw criticism about the works selected. Best answer: You don't like, then edit your own collection.
posted by Postroad at 1:11 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


[replaced what i think was a misplaced link, let us know if that's not what you wanted.]
posted by jessamyn at 1:11 PM on December 6, 2011


Wow, that "Phillis Remastered" link is a nasty piece of tendentious character assassination. To take just one example of its style: Vendler says that calling Gwendolyn Brooks the equal of Shakespeare is overblown. Phillisremastered reads this as Vendler saying that no black poet can ever hope to be classed ithe same category as the best white writers.
posted by yoink at 1:12 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dammit. The "Dove's choices" link should go to http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/24/are-these-poems-remember - Mods, could you fix it? Sorry!
posted by joannemerriam at 1:13 PM on December 6, 2011


I don’t believe that poems are written to be heard, or as Mill said, to be overheard; nor are poems addressed to their reader. I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice

This is very similar to what Robert Pinsky says about poetry, "After a while, I realized that for me the medium of poetry is the column of breath rising from the diaphragm to be shaped into meaning sounds inside the mouth. That is, poetry’s medium is the individual chest and throat and mouth of whoever undertakes to say the poem—a body, and not necessarily the body of the artist or an expert as in dance."
posted by villanelles at dawn at 1:14 PM on December 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


Postroad, interesting aside, Vendler did edit a collection for Harvard, oh 25-30 years ago I think, in which she included Rita Dove's poetry and which I think is generally recognized as kind of launching Dove's career into the serious po-biz circles.
posted by joannemerriam at 1:17 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Whenever I pick up an anthology similar to this one I accept that a certain amount of subjectivity is brought to the table. While there is usually an attempt at a broad theme: 20th Century American Poetry or Early English Verse, whatever it may be - there is always something left on the cutting room floor. That particular collection is filled with poems or works selected by a particular person. They're going to have their own vision, their own idea of what should or should not be in that collection. No one said that this was the DEFINITIVE 20TH CENTURY AMERICAN POETRY COLLECTION - THE END ALL AND BE ALL - THERE SHALL BE NO FUTURE EDITIONS! As was mentioned above, you don't like the collection - edit one yourself.
posted by Fizz at 1:25 PM on December 6, 2011


Vendler is a great critic, and has done some really important work reclaiming or reworking female poets already in the canon (see Plath and Dickinson) but i wonder about her skills prioriitize formal skills, though I don't think I have read her on say Hacker. This is not to say that female poets or poets of colour cannot do great formal work, or that Plath and Dickinson were not great formal innovators, but you can see the tradition and history in there...so for other traditions, I think Vendler might be a bit on thinner ice.
posted by PinkMoose at 1:28 PM on December 6, 2011


I took Vendler's class when I was in college. She was an excellent teacher and I think she has a profound understanding of poetry. I think she's entitled to her opinion without being accused of racism.

I was going to say something about her being old, but then I realized she's actually only one year older than Amiri Baraka.
posted by snofoam at 1:29 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Lucky Me.

I was in a Poetry Seminar with Ms. Dove in 1982 at Arizona State University. (somewhere in that time frame, it gets hazy.) She's an amazing poet and an amazing teacher. I only regret that I was too young at the time to appreciate the gift that I have been given of being allowed to breathe that rarified air.

I should probably go read the link now so that I have something relevant to say about it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:29 PM on December 6, 2011


Of the twenty poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian-American), and five are white (two men, three women).

I appreciate that white men have been silenced all their lives, but is Vendler suggesting we should institute quotas so that they get more representation in anthologies like this?
posted by kmz at 1:30 PM on December 6, 2011


We clearly need a DEFINITIVE 20TH CENTURY AMERICAN POETRY COLLECTION - THE END ALL AND BE ALL.

All we have to do is get every poem ever published or performed in the United States between January 1, 1901 and December 31, 2000, and reprint them. I would go with chronological order, but I'll compromise if the majority prefer alphabetical by author.

My favorite bits will be radio-advertising jingos - such rhythm!
posted by jb at 1:30 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've edited an anthology myself and I know the frustration of "why doesn't it include such-and-such" criticism. But that's only a part of Vendler's critique--and she quotes enough of Dove's intro to make one pretty dubious about the grasp of 20th century history (literary and otherwise) that underpinned the project.
posted by yoink at 1:33 PM on December 6, 2011


I've said it for years and years. We need Poetry Boxing Slams!
posted by Fizz at 1:33 PM on December 6, 2011


Wow, that "Phillis Remastered" link is a nasty piece of tendentious character assassination.

The racism link puts her "racism" on the same page as that of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson which is high praise indeed.
posted by three blind mice at 1:35 PM on December 6, 2011


is Vendler suggesting we should institute quotas

I definitely agree that adding up poets by race is a poor way to make a point. Pointing out that Wallace Stevens may have been underrepresented is a much more informative way to make a point.
posted by snofoam at 1:35 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom.

Alluding to Maoism. Ballsy.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:48 PM on December 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


People get worked up over the darndest things.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:55 PM on December 6, 2011


Funny how this entire scandal--from the cliched assertions of the introduction, to Vendler's excoriation, to the responses both thoughtful and spurious--all seem quaintly modeled on the century-in-question's ideological teeter-totter between avant garde and formalism, radical and conservative, collective and individual, in art, politics, and everything. Makes me pretty grateful we're in a new millennium because good riddance to all that, hopefully.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:01 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not sure how I feel about this. Dove has made some choices I'd certainly not agree with, but I can't help but wonder if another, whiter, enphallused poet laureate would have been put through the same wringer. What might seem idiosyncratic or worthy of careful meditation when included by a white dude looks political or like special pleading when coming from a black lady.

And this? This is just a dick move, plain & simple (of Amiri Baraka):

Dove must realize that the new “literary standards” behind this example of Baraka’s verse don’t immediately declare themselves. Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines. Nor is mere presence in the scene at a given moment enough to pronounce a person a poet. Although Dove mentions oral literature, orality has its own high standards (and we recognize them in action in everything from oral epic to Walt Whitman to black spirituals to Langston Hughes). If one wants evidence of black anger against “whitie” and “jewladies” and “mulatto bitches,” here it is. But a theme is not enough to make a poem.

That's just shitty. And not at all illuminating.
posted by R. Schlock at 2:02 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Vendler's critique of Dove's intro didn't make me dubious about her grasp of 20th century history at all.

As a poet, I will say that my poems are written to be heard. With very rare exception, I write my poems with the intention of performing them for an audience. I think this varies enormously from poet to poet. I certainly don't feel that way about my poetry.

I'm not a fan of Amiri Baraka but I do think he belongs in the canon for his contribution, particular to his time and place.
posted by shoesietart at 2:06 PM on December 6, 2011


"...no principle of selection emerges..."

Uh, how about, "I like this one. This one, not so much."

I mean, seriously, across the quad in the college of sciences we've learned to accept that while determinism looks great on paper it doesn't really work out that way in real life.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:06 PM on December 6, 2011


I always look forward to the dustups in the NYRB letters pages, and this one did not disappoint. I thought Dove really had the better of the exchange. When I first read Vendler's review, it seemed flawed, and I thought that Dove picked those apart. In some cases, it can be the better response to stand on what you've said, as Vendler did here, but I think it would have been useful to readers (i.e., not just a matter of winning an argument) if she had responded.
posted by chinston at 2:07 PM on December 6, 2011


Also, "her preferred demotic style"??

Tell the truth, but tell it slant, Helen.
posted by R. Schlock at 2:07 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Honestly Vendler's whole review is a mess. She imagines motives to Dove's choices ("exposing underexposed works" and "accessibility") and then chastises her for diverging from those ascribed intentions. WTF?

Dove's reply is really quite good, much better than the other responses linked.

The racism link puts her "racism" on the same page as that of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson which is high praise indeed.

I'm utterly confused by this sentence. I hope you're not suggesting Washington and Jefferson (though in fact the linked essay praises Washington in re Wheatley) are stalwart examples of non-racists.
posted by kmz at 2:12 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think this varies enormously from poet to poet. I certainly don't feel that way about my poetry.


I agree, actually. But I got the impress from the quoted text that Vendler was implying that her interpretation is the be-all-end-all. I may be misreading her, though.
posted by asnider at 2:12 PM on December 6, 2011


Well, I'm not yet through reading Dove's retort, but I had an off-topic question: did Vendler choose the photos to accompany her review? Because I find it interesting that there are photos of white poets in suits and ties/dresses, attending a reception and receiving book awards, and then a photo of Amiri Baraka wearing rumpled clothes and looking exhausted in a bare kitchen. I just thought they all make for a striking visual accompaniment to her argument about who possesses the privilege of being anthologized.
posted by swingbraid at 2:13 PM on December 6, 2011


I loved how the reviewer complained "she didn't include enough middle Stevens," only to have Dove respond, "My publisher couldn't get the rights - blame excessive copyright control." Sometimes something is not included just for a practical reason like that.
posted by jb at 2:13 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorry if I missed it, but is the table of contents for this anthology online somewhere? It's hard to argue without it.
posted by roll truck roll at 2:14 PM on December 6, 2011


I love these little literary spats.
They make poetry seem alive.
posted by ovvl at 2:34 PM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Dove's reply is really quite good. I found Vendler's critique much more indicative of her own biases than of Dove's. And I thought Dove's objective of including a broader range of the best poetry of the 20th century much more appropriate than merely providing more works of the already well regarded.

She states, "it is a gathering of poems its editor finds outstanding for a variety of reasons, and by no means all of them in adherence to my own aesthetic taste buds; my intent was to offer many of the best poems bound into books between 1900 and 2000."

Obviously, the debate is which ones are the 'best' but I think a century's worth of poetry should be reflective of that century. America is slowly 'browning' and that brings with it a voice or different voices.
posted by shoesietart at 2:38 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
posted by incandissonance at 2:40 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Roll Truck Roll: Here you go, all the poets included.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:41 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


To Rita Dove's credit, she's not threatening to sue Helen Vendler.
posted by lukemeister at 2:42 PM on December 6, 2011


In a much less serious media, I remember someone pointing out that if you had a superhero comic with all white heroes, no one would say anything, but if you had an all black superhero team, it clearly was about being "politically correct" and "having an agenda".

I'm just replacing superheroes with poets and it seems to be exactly the same.
posted by yeloson at 2:49 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


That's just shitty. And not at all illuminating.

I'd be interested to hear a defense of Baraka's poem, because Vendler's critique of it seemed pretty fair to me. Jerry Gafio Watts calls the poem "nothing more than mere thuggery superimposed on hurt black feelings" in his book on Baraka--so it's not as if this is some kind of "white woman can't understand where black poet's anger comes from" thing.
posted by yoink at 2:52 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm just replacing superheroes with poets and it seems to be exactly the same.

If Vendler had been reviewing an anthology of 20th century US poetry that had included no black writers she would have pointed this out as a serious fault in the editor's selection, and we'd have all nodded along in agreement.
posted by yoink at 2:54 PM on December 6, 2011


In a much less serious media, I remember someone pointing out that if you had a superhero comic with all white heroes, no one would say anything, but if you had an all black superhero team, it clearly was about being "politically correct" and "having an agenda".

I'm just replacing superheroes with poets and it seems to be exactly the same.


? I don't see how this analogy maps onto a poetry anthology. Superheroes are fictional characters. If you're writing them, you can make them any race you like. You don't have the same luxury with poets, who are/were real human beings.
posted by duvatney at 3:01 PM on December 6, 2011


I'd be interested to hear a defense of Baraka's poem, because Vendler's critique of it seemed pretty fair to me.

I don't take issue with the critique. That's for Rita Dove to do. But Vendler is anything but fair here. She doesn't take issue with "Black Art"'s inclusion in the anthology, she challenges its status as an act of poetry, which is criticism of a different order of magnitude. Embedded as it is in the NYRB review, she is only talking about Baraka obliquely; her attack here is on Dove's capability to recognize poetry when she sees it. She crosses the line from criticism of Dove's work as an anthologist into challenging her competency as a reader. It's a subtle sort of ad hominem, but really only barely so.

Hence: shitty & not illuminating.
posted by R. Schlock at 3:13 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Vendler sometimes seems to make a point of her obliviousness, as if she were acting out the stereotype of the reactionary aesthete; but then just on the strength of what she quotes it's also clear that Rita Dove's anthology is a shambolic, self-congratulatory, cliche-ridden mess of derivative thinking and too-easy poems.

So why not stick to the securely canonical writers: a plague on both their houses.
posted by RogerB at 3:14 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


: shitty & not illuminating.
posted by R. Schlock


hmmmm
posted by Wolof at 3:15 PM on December 6, 2011


If Vendler had been reviewing an anthology of 20th century US poetry that had included no black writers she would have pointed this out as a serious fault in the editor's selection, and we'd have all nodded along in agreement.

1. There are plenty of white poets in the anthology. Are you saying Dove should have included more?

2. Believe it or not, races and genders in the US do not have symmetrical equal relationships.
posted by kmz at 3:25 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


? I don't see how this analogy maps onto a poetry anthology. Superheroes are fictional characters. If you're writing them, you can make them any race you like.

Whiteness forms an unmarked category not commonly visible to the powerful, as they often fall within this category. The unmarked category becomes the norm, with the other categories relegated to deviant status.

All white anthologies are never marked at as "having an agenda". See Why White Men Should Refuse to be on Panels of All White Men.
posted by yeloson at 3:26 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Auden is an American poet?

Hmmmmm

No Allen Ginsberg?

BALASFAMEE!

(I'm sure it is a fine collection of poems. Rita Dove is one of the few "American poet laureates" I almost completely admire.)
posted by bukvich at 3:35 PM on December 6, 2011


Auden is an American poet?

He was an American citizen.
posted by Justinian at 3:37 PM on December 6, 2011


Nope! That's a slippery slope that ends with us losing TS Eliot and Henry James to the British. No thanks. USA! USA!
posted by villanelles at dawn at 3:42 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


yeloson, that seems like a pretty obtuse and (faux-)naive response to me. The point is a good one: you can't wish historical figures into existence the way you can create fictional ones. Antiracism 101 is useful stuff sometimes, but it won't help you decide who writes good poetry.

Anyhow, there has assuredly been no such thing as an "all-white anthology" of 20th-century American poetry in a very, very long time (the latest examples I can think of are from the 1930s and '40s); that's a straw-man position to argue against. And critiquing this kind of easy antiracist triumphalism is among Vendler's best points, actually: if everyone is an outsider to the "poetry establishment" because that "establishment" is a caricature of racist exclusion, then all the "outsiders" are laudable, and lauded, no matter the merit of their work. But what if a large fraction of the actual "establishment," these days, is made up of self-styled outsiders repeatedly congratulating themselves for overcoming nonexistent or imagined adversity?

(NB I think Vendler is full of shit on many points and should be ashamed of her attack on Baraka: this is not an endorsement of her position.)
posted by RogerB at 3:46 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think you might have misunderstood me, yeloson. I'm saying that creating a superhero team that is comprised solely of white people is suspicious and worthy of critique, because you could have easily included representatives from different cultural/racial backgrounds if you'd wanted to. All you'd have to do is write them. But when you're selecting poems for an anthology, you have to choose from an existent body of work. You're not making up a fictional poetry dream-team from scratch.

I like your point about whiteness and I think it is important (I think we've agreed in a past discussion on the blue on a similar topic). I just don't see how it applies here.

On another note, I think Vendler's critique is not that Dove chose to include African-American poets (because any anthology that didn't would be rubbish), but that in order to do so she chose to overlook poems that in her opinion were of greater mastery and influence. Whether you agree with her or not (I don't think I know enough about American poetry to take a stand on either side) is up to you.

And, on preview, RogerB and I have some of the same points.
posted by duvatney at 3:49 PM on December 6, 2011


Superheroes are fictional characters. If you're writing them, you can make them any race you like. You don't have the same luxury with poets, who are/were real human beings.

One of the criticisms of the Black Arts movement, and of minority art in general, is that it concerns itself too much and too directly with the minority experience, at the expense of saying something "universal" or more generally relatable. The argument is that while of course the poet cannot dictate the color of their skin, they can dictate the emphasis of their own art. This is exemplified in the "racism" link above, which contains this quote from Louis Simpson discussing Gwendolyn Brooks:

"Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems contains some lively pictures of Negro life. I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important."


His later clarification, such as it is, was:

"I had said in my review that black writing that concentrated on being black was of limited interest. I did not mean to suggest that black writers should not speak of their blackness—only that they could write about other things as well."

Inasmuch as a black poet writes of blackness, they are speaking provincially and without common referent. The Black Arts movement is composed primarily of writers who eschewed "establishment" values like "words and their imaginative alignment", in favor of a chest-thumping aggression. The inclusion of so many black poets in an anthology, therefore, points to an agenda of selection that prioritizes the appearance of multiculturalism over the curation of merit and talent, and obviously so, as, in Vendler's view, no black poet can yet be "justly" compared to the canonical Shakespeare, Dante, or Wordsworth. Their prominent display must then be read as a political action and not a poetic one.

But it's important to recognize that in this scenario, black poets have made their own bed. They do not have to speak of blackness. That they do is selectively interesting but consigns their work to a genre dustbin. See how Vendler strips the Black Arts movement of any aesthetic integrity whatsoever, in her assessment of their rejection of a care for words. In this view, they created the all-black superhero team of poets, and they did so for no reason other than petulant frustration, abandoning real literary merit for the minimal gratification of demotic anger and identity politics. In this view, black poets marginalized themselves.
posted by Errant at 4:01 PM on December 6, 2011


I'd be interested to hear a defense of Baraka's poem, because Vendler's critique of it seemed pretty fair to me. Jerry Gafio Watts calls the poem "nothing more than mere thuggery superimposed on hurt black feelings" in his book on Baraka--so it's not as if this is some kind of "white woman can't understand where black poet's anger comes from" thing.

I won't defend the content of "Black Art" - particularly the anti-Semitic bit - but I will defend its artistic value - the words have a very compelling rhythm and sound. The next one by Baraka included in the review was much less rhythmically interesting, but "Black Art" was far being just a series of short lines - it was a true poem.

(note: being a philistine and Canadian, I had never heard of Baraka before today, but reading "Black Art" showed me he was a good poet.)
posted by jb at 4:13 PM on December 6, 2011


Dove's response was great. "but what of the poem itself? A cursory sweep over just the section excerpted in my anthology yields a host of extraordinary sounds: what with trains whistling their “wail into distances,” chanting road gangs, papooses crying—even men crunching down on tobacco quid—my gasp of surprise at Vendler’s blunder can barely be heard."
posted by zzazazz at 4:17 PM on December 6, 2011


I have the book in my hand and it has no Jimmy Santiago Baca. WTF?
posted by zzazazz at 4:18 PM on December 6, 2011


But Vendler is anything but fair here. She doesn't take issue with "Black Art"'s inclusion in the anthology, she challenges its status as an act of poetry, which is criticism of a different order of magnitude.

She is saying that she thinks it's a crappy poem and shouldn't have been included for that reason. That seems like a reasonable complaint to make about a selection in a poetry anthology. And, again, it is a complaint that black critics expert in Baraka's poetry have also made. That's not to say that anyone has to agree with that judgment, but it does make it seem rather odd to suggest that it is utterly beyond the pale to offer it.

1. There are plenty of white poets in the anthology. Are you saying Dove should have included more?

No, I'm saying the comparison to the "white superheroes"/"black superheroes" thing is inapt because the exclusion of black authors would have been just as "marked" a situation as the exclusion of white ones.

2. Believe it or not, races and genders in the US do not have symmetrical equal relationships.

Where did I say or imply that they did?
posted by yoink at 4:29 PM on December 6, 2011


She is saying that she thinks it's a crappy poem and shouldn't have been included for that reason.

Yeah that's actually not what she's saying at all. She's saying "Black Art" isn't a poem at all. That's what all that condescension about line breaks and theme is about. If you can't see that, or recognize why that approach to criticism is problematic both politically and ethically, then I'm not sure I can help you.
posted by R. Schlock at 4:35 PM on December 6, 2011


I have many more thoughts, but this one may be worth sharing:

Vendler's criticism about the number of poets represented in the anthology (there are too many of them) is interesting to me. It seems like a common narrative that great works of art and great artists are often only appreciated long after their time. Conversely, many best-sellers and Great Artists at any given moment in time tend to sink into obscurity as history marches on. I would hesitate to guess how often that is actually the case, and how much time is needed to seperate the one from the other.

I will speculate, however, that there are many anthologies assembled according to criteria more pleasing to Vendler, with more pointed and less broad coverage, and with greater respect to established Big Names. I suspect a certain number of those anthologies, perhaps a large number, miss those poets who actually have staying power and who will go on to be remembered for hundreds of years, rather than dozens.

It seems likely that Dove's anthology has a very good chance of containing at least some work from all or most of the four or five (or however many) poets in that hundred year span from 1900 to 2000 who will still be widely remembered, studied, quoted, and anthologized two or three hundred years from now.
posted by jsturgill at 4:38 PM on December 6, 2011


Where did I say or imply that they did?

You seemed to be making the argument that including no white poets would be equally as bad as including no black poets. (In the case of a general anthology like this, I agree both situations would be bad, but one would be more egregious.) It sounded very much to me like common arguments about Black History Month, gay pride parades, etc.

If that was not your intention, I apologize.
posted by kmz at 4:41 PM on December 6, 2011


TS Eliot and Henry James were painnfully english. Isherwood and Auden were delightfully american. There should be something to be said about respecting adult choices. Also, as a white man, this is thin ice, but I really think that Baraka was a bad poet--in terms of meter, scansion, and the like. He also had tendencies towards anti-semitisim that made me feel uncomfortable. He was vital to the history of American poetry post 1950 though. It's a tough road.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:44 PM on December 6, 2011


Henry James wanted so badly to be English (or European) as only a real American can. If he were alive today there'd be metatalk threads monthly objecting to his verbose and winding AskMe questions about how to move to the EU.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 4:48 PM on December 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


and he managed, in the same way Auden managed to become American.

Also, re: the Dove, why no Plath?
posted by PinkMoose at 4:51 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Based on a post someone else linked, rights issues were involved. (Similar to mid-period Wallace Stevens.)
posted by kmz at 4:54 PM on December 6, 2011


also, Siedel is so white maley that he should count a dozen times. (actually sort of impressed by the list, there were a couple of dozen poets that I have not heard of or have not read deeply)
posted by PinkMoose at 4:56 PM on December 6, 2011


and he managed, in the same way Auden managed to become American.

For that matter Wodehouse was an American. There are just some things I prefer not to think about.

I don't mean that completely seriously if for no other reason than that James's final years in Rye inspired that almost perfect novel by Colm Toibin.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 4:57 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


lastly, she did include one Language poet, which seems about right.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:58 PM on December 6, 2011


You seemed to be making the argument that including no white poets would be equally as bad as including no black poets. (In the case of a general anthology like this, I agree both situations would be bad, but one would be more egregious.) It sounded very much to me like common arguments about Black History Month, gay pride parades, etc.

Wait..which one would be more egregious by your reckoning? I'm genuinely confused. I also can't at all see the relationship to arguments against gay pride parades or Black History months etc. I was salying that we would, quite properly, complain if an anthology of this kind failed to include any black poets. How do you get from there to an analogy to people who bitch and moan about Black History Month?

If you can't see that, or recognize why that approach to criticism is problematic both politically and ethically, then I'm not sure I can help you.


So is Jerry Gafio Watts's very similar dismissal of the poem also "politically and ethically" problematic? And, frankly, no--I can't at all see why saying "this poem is so crappy I wouldn't even honor it with the name 'poem'" is ethically or politically problematic. It's perhaps semantically or lexically unwise because the "is this really a poem" debate goes nowhere--but I can't see that it has any ethical or political dimensions at all. All it is saying is that you regard the term "poem" to be one that only works which meet some minimum literary standards deserve to bear and that in this case she considers the piece in question to be one that fails to meet those minimum standards. Unless your suggestion is that Vendler would never make a similar criticism of a white person's poem--which I can assure you is incorrect.
posted by yoink at 5:19 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I looked over the list of poets included and realized I had seen many of them read at the Dodge Poetry Festival, a wonderful event that used to take place every other year at Waterloo Village in NJ, a historic restoration of a 19th century village. It has since closed for lack of funding, same with the Festival, which was a full three days of poetry and music that attracted thousands of people at its height. It was an amazing event with wonderful presenters. Poetry was alive there, from the big names to the high school kids who came and participated with enthusiasm.

I think Ms. Dove made a decent choice of poets, although I like some of Ginsberg a lot. I would like to see "Kaddish" included.

I heard Amiri Baraka perform a poem about slaves being brought to this country, the "middle passage" that had the huge audience engrossed. Some poetry has to be heard, not read. I was not there when he read his infamous piece about the Jews being behind 9/11, and certainly do not agree with some of his beliefs, his anti-semitism and politics, but as a white girl growing up in Jersey I certainly heard the most vicious, unvarnished prejudice directed at the black population of Newark, especially after the riots by all manner of white folk, so I can see where Baraka is coming from. It is sadly human nature to meet hate with hate. Baraka is not a great poet or great man, but he is part of the history. Ezra Pound was a vile anti-semite and Nazi sympathizer, but his work still is included all over. Ditto e.e.Cummings and Eliot. Fine and famous writers are not always the best human beings.

I like all kinds of poetry, and write some, but I am neither an academic nor a sentimental dunce. I thought the whole tone of Vendler's review was elitist and, to use a very un-academic term, snotty. As someone else noted, there are plenty of anthologies that feature the Big Names, no need to be so upset by this one, or so superior.
posted by mermayd at 5:40 PM on December 6, 2011


The most important thing I took from the review was that Dove included The Waste Land but stripped the footnotes. STRIPPED THE FOOTNOTES!

You can't strip the damn footnotes, they're part of the poem! They're a huge element of it in fact. I...I...I just can't. How could you Rita? How could you!
posted by Chipmazing at 8:34 PM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


mermayd, I think that Vendler was hoping that Dove, one of the Big Names, would have a stronger sense of proportion as an anthologist. I remember Bloom was much much harder on Adrienne Rich's turn when he introduced his best of the Best of Poetry anthologies anthology; he couldn't even bear to write her name, and included none of the poets she anthologized when she edited Best, not that any of them bore inclusion. I too passed her turn by, thinking Lehman should have reined her in.

What's the point of appreciating poetry if you can't be elitist and snotty, or at least defensive and proprietary, about the poetry you like?

By the way, the Dodge Poetry Fest still goes on, in Newark, rather than bucolic Waterloo Village. When last I went, the black woman next to me was goggling at me for earlier praising Mark Strand's books to the skies, when his performance and his selection of new poems were subpar, and especially disappointing as the grand finale of the festival, after stronger performances by Billy Collins and Rita Dove. This anecdote has something to add to this conversation, but what that point could be I do not quite know how to put into words, a marked failure in one who aspires to poetry.
posted by gentilknight at 8:42 PM on December 6, 2011


So here's an anecdote -- I met Helen Vendler in graduate school for a PhD I never finished. Amazing woman, full disclosure -- I'm a huge fan and think she's one of the few bulwarks against the "MFA-zation" or "Billy Collins-izing" of American poetry that's left. In fact, I'd organized a graduate student conference that featured her as the keynote speaker.

Anyhow, I told her I was working on a dissertation involving John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Elizabeth Bishop, and Melvin Tolson. (I was trying to do something with American poets and their relationship to American popular culture, alas and alack.)

When I said "Tolson" she asked, "Why, because he's black?"

Ouch.

So yeah, maybe race is her blind-spot, but frankly Rita Dove is a mediocre poet and I can't imagine wading through a selection of her favorite pieces.

Then again, she has every right to her taste and let's face it -- (as Vendler always points out) -- all anthologies are political acts. Taste is political.

Great post.
posted by bardic at 8:48 PM on December 6, 2011


Oh wow, massive mistake just made -- I confused Vendler with Marjorie Perloff.

Damn. I'm an idjit.

And now, I'm kind of shocked -- Helen Vendler always struck me as kind of a softie for inclusion for its own sake.

OK, more coffee less internet for me.
posted by bardic at 8:51 PM on December 6, 2011


This is a great post and has given me a lot to think about. In particular in how I’ve reacted considering my deep admiration for what Vendler has done as a critic and my deep apathy to Rita Dove’s poetry.

When discussing the craft of poetry and the poet’s hope that his/her work will live on, Robert Frost famously said something along the lines of that he hoped to write a few poems “that will be hard to get rid of.”

I’ve always liked this comment as it is a testament to the deep effect poetry can have on our consciousness across generations, or as RP Blackmur more eloquently stated “Poetry expands the available stock of reality.”

I’ve also found Frost’s comment has affected how I think about artists, including musicians. For example, despite my personal loathing for the band U2, I do believe that they have a few songs that will be difficult to get rid of.

I wanted to think that Vendler’s chief objective to Dove’s selections is that too many of the poems are too easy to get rid of, but this is not an Anthology of English Literature, but only of 20th century American poetry.

It’s also worth considering that Vendler has focused much of her research on the very poets that she criticizes Dove for not including enough of (e.g. Wallace Stevens).
But I don’t think the objections here stem from Vendler’s own preferences, or due to the “old boys’ club” of the English canon. What I really think all of this boils down to is that Dove has selected and heavily represented some poets who are considered to be very minor poets not in regards to how their work reflects the events and movements of the 20th century but rather in regards to their place in the literature tradition. All of this is done, of course, at the expense of poets who are considered to be far more influential. Doing so, from the academic’s point of view, warrants more of a justification than “these are my choices.”

Why all of this is important is that these anthologies are often the coursebook for many introductory literature courses, so Dove’s choices determine what poems students are going to be exposed to.

Personally, I agree with the point that poets such as Melvin Tolson should in no way be included at the expense of Wallace Stevens…when we are talking about the literary tradition…

but I would welcome a discussion on why Tolson should be included, without making the whole debate personal—which is, as others have noted, what Vendler has done and is a shitty way to go about it.

(that being said, we are now having a discussion about poetry and any discussion about poetry is a good thing IMO).
posted by FunGus at 10:44 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


The argument that black art which focuses on it's own "blackness" is in someway provincial and lacking in "universal" ideas seems mired in privilege and ignorance. Art produced by the majority (white art, if you will) is not universal either. It is only universal for the majority. It reflects ideas and concepts that are important to the majority, not necessarily what is important to "all people." Black art often focuses on what is seen to be important to black people, how this is less important that what is important to the majority is baffling to me.
posted by anansi at 5:54 AM on December 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


It is frequently baffling. So here is the tension: on the one hand, you have a liberal desire to examine multiple modes of expression found in American poetry. On the other hand, there is "the literary tradition", a canon declared to be universal or nearly so in its merit and aesthetic value.

Yet we know, empirically, that our default traditions are not self-evidently aesthetic to many in American subcultures. We know that, for instance, second-generation Hmong kids have a nightmare of a time navigating the default literary current.

So, then, to what extent is "our literary tradition" ours merely by proximity and repetition? Why is that literary tradition presumed to be the only one, or to be the benchmark against which other traditions are judged?

There is a sense, I think, that part of why some of these poets are considered "minor" in the literature tradition is that they aren't really speaking in that tradition but will nevertheless be judged by it. When Vendler sniffs about how "it's not poetry just because it has short lines", she reminds me of music critics sneering at jazz for the absence of classical musical values. I think, to a large degree, that is the point.

I think Dove, rather than exploring single poets of great merit, is attempting to provide examples of the many burbling movements and countermovements just below the surface of what we overbroadly describe as "the literature tradition". Whether that is successful or produces much aesthetic value is left to the reader, I think. But if that's the case, then highlighting flagship poets of specific movements makes more sense than displaying incredible poets who do not represent much more than themselves.
posted by Errant at 9:19 AM on December 7, 2011


I think Dove, rather than exploring single poets of great merit, is attempting to provide examples of the many burbling movements and countermovements just below the surface of what we overbroadly describe as "the literature tradition".

Maybe, but it would be nice if she could articulate that in her preface, or even in her later defense of the anthology. What she says in her response to Vendler is breathtaking in its arbitrariness:
Actually, I am proud that no principle of selection emerges. My criterion was simple: choose significant poems of literary merit.
Several people in this thread have lauded this statement and seem to think that it is refreshingly honest or something--but it betrays a real misunderstanding as to what the purpose of a book like this anthology is. If she had been asked to produce an anthology that was titled "Rita Dove chooses her favorite poems" or some such, the above statement would be fine (and the selection would be entirely critic proof). But the notion embraced by some in this thread that it is simply impossible to criticize the selections made by the editor of an anthology of this kind is absurd.

If you are asked to produce an anthology of C17th verse and you omit Donne and Marvell because you don't happen to like them and you include reams and reams of obscure late C17th Roman Catholic devotional verse because it speaks deeply to you then you've failed to do your job--not because the Roman Catholic devotional verse is bad or doesn't deserve reading, but because you're giving a distorted picture of the verse of that century and because you're not equipping students or teachers to enter the wider universe of scholarly discussions on that material.

This is not to say that you all anthologies need to endlessly reproduce the same usual suspects. But when they do change (as, for example, all standard anthologies have done--radically--over the course of the century) you need to be able to provide some serious, scholarly account of the principles on which you are making those changes. Thus, for example, you might want to bring out an anthology that offers a far wider survey of writers than has typically been included because you are trying to show readers something like a survey of the total field of literary production rather than simply the elite writers who earned academic praise. That would be fine (and you see something like it, for example, in Jerome McGann's Oxford Romantic Poetry anthology). But if you do that you need to be able to explain to readers that this is what you are doing. You need to equip them to understand why your anthology looks so different from other anthologies the student is likely to come across. You need to give them the tools, in other words, to be critical readers of your own anthology.

Dove's preface--as Vendler pretty amply demonstrates--does none of these things, and Dove's defense of her work shows that she is entirely unaware of how she has failed future readers of her anthology.
posted by yoink at 10:31 AM on December 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


"By the way, the Dodge Poetry Fest still goes on, in Newark"

That is news to me, and I live about 15 miles from Newark, and was on their mailing list for years and always got notices of the Waterloo Village events. It was also covered in the local news. I have not heard a peep about it continuing on in Newark. Strange. Sorry you had a bad experience there, I always enjoyed the ones at Waterloo.
posted by mermayd at 2:48 PM on December 7, 2011


What no one is talking about here--though it's being alluded to--is this notion of canon itself, which is exceedingly problematic and generally a glaring issue in academic literary studies today. The fact is, Dove is in no way "making" a new canon, so Vendler's concern over her anthology (which sounds mediocre at best) and its potential effect is a bit exaggerated. Dove might contribute to the eventual inclusion of lesser-known authors in university syllabi, or inspire a press to reprint some old works. Gradually this may have an effect on the "canon" as we know it (though referring to it in the singular, as if there is only one at any given time, is misleading), but it's pretty difficult to know until it happens.

I just finished my Master's thesis on a now-obscure post-classical French writer who was, in her day, enormously famous, prolific, and reprinted for over a century after her death in both England and France. Part of my thesis looked at canon, as an attempt to find explanations for her exclusion. I highly recommend Joan DeJean and Nancy K. Miller as scholars who interrogate this through a feminist framework--their work is really interesting. What I learned, very generally, is that a canon is necessarily political and it is absolutely in no way representative of some kind of 'universal' concept of literature. Literature as such is a fairly modern invention (see: Timothy Reiss), and to claim that the works we read today are only read because of their obvious inherent aesthetic value is some New Criticism bull.

That said, I enjoyed Vendler's review because I found it sharp and convincing--she may have been harsh on Dove, but she ripped apart Dove's essay and made excellent points about her "cartoonish" representation of 20th century American history. I also think she made some valid points about the anthology itself, and why Dove picked what she did. There was some thinly-veiled racism, to be sure, and Vendler should absolutely be called out for it. I don't think, however, that detracts from her points about Dove.

Dove's reply was terrible. I'm surprised by the number of people who thought it was otherwise. To me, Dove looked pathetic: rather than focus on the substance of Vendler's critique, she chose to make it all about her when in fact Vendler seemed angriest about the poetic inclusions and omissions (as opposed to being angry that Dove had a hand in the anthology at all) and the poorly-written, cheesy introduction. I was embarrassed to read her respond so personally to Vendler's review, when she should have taken it at face value and, if anything, torn apart her arguments. She did to some degree with regard to the urban-scene poem--that's the strategy she should have gone with throughout.
posted by nonmerci at 3:52 PM on December 7, 2011


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