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Bloodletting Over an Anthology

Posted: 12/22/11 10:31 AM ET

American poetry circles have seen nothing like this since the teeth-gnashing of the "Foetry" skirmish in 2004.

The uproar now is over a review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, a collection compiled and introduced by Rita Dove -- a former US Poet Laureate, the 1987 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, a professor of English at the University of Virginia who has published several books of poetry, as well as a novel, essays, plays, and libretti.

The reviewer: Helen Vendler, often cast as a sort of "grande dame" of American poetry criticism. In November in The New York Review of Books, Vendler faulted Dove for a dubious and incoherent selection from the country's last century of verse, and for poor interpretation of its history. In college-paper terms, she gave a crushing C-minus to a straight-A pupil.

Dove has called her selection "the entire poetic trajectory of the century" that had "flashed before me." Vendler advised less triumphalism. Blunt and packed with incendiary notes, her NYRB review has provoked poets and critics to contentious exchanges that entangle issues of race and ethnicity with questions of literary accomplishment.

Did Vendler, a professor of English at Harvard University who has written influential studies of several major American poets, offer justified and measured fair comment, or did she indulgently trash the century's non-white, non-"establishment" poets?

For Vendler, Dove's selection expressed a clear preference for "multicultural inclusiveness" that would "shift the balance" away from the centrality of the century's acknowledged titans of English-language poetry -- Eliot, Frost, Stevens... -- by "introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors."

But in flourishes of phrase that she may now regret, Vendler scoffed at Dove's making the claim that so many poets -- 175 in all -- would stand the test of time as poets rather than "seep back into the archives of sociology," as the Harvard scholar put it. Dove, she said, had included writers "in some cases," in fact, in many cases, "for their representative themes rather than their style."

Vendler, herself editor of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985), wrote: "Why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as "elitism," and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom."

Boom.

In the ensuing outcry, defenders of Dove's selection, led by Dove's own long, scathing response in the NYRB, have justified "multicultural inclusivity" as a reflection of the opening up of publication beyond its earlier welcome primarily to white poets. Inherent, but not clearly explicated, has been a claim that Dove's poets have also met the exacting standards Vendler would seem to require for memorable verse -- that it do more than evoke social dimensions of life; that it exhibit expansive, fresh deployment of language: supple, nuanced, evocative, allusive.

Among many in-print and online critics of Dove's selection, most have focused most on poets she omitted. Among those, most significantly, are a trio of diverse biography -- variously black, messianic, white, vernacular, gay, suicidal, Jewish, melodramatic: Sterling Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath. Dove has explained that extortionate fee demands from publishers, primarily imprints owned by the HarperCollins behemoth, led to the exclusion of those three and others.

The absences have led some observers to ask whether the depleted selection was worth publishing. Robert Archambeau, a poet and professor of English at Lake Forest College, wrote on his Samizdat blog: "If this were the only way I could represent 20th C. American poetry, it would have been better not to do it. ... As a scholar and critic, I find the representation of poetry here ... to be deeply flawed. As an academic, I'd find the anthology unusable."

Dove has revealed, however, that the excessive fee demands led to her leaving out fewer than a dozen poets -- a far cry from the whole forms and schools of poets that various critics have found missing. [For a sampling of critics' nominations of poets who should have been included, see this space in days to come.]

She allowed in her introduction that she may have left some poets out due to "buried antipathies." Dove did not say whom, or explain why, leaving commentators to speculate --for example, was she against Sylvia Plath's arguably cavalier use of imagery from the Holocaust to spectacularize her own dramas, which culminated in suicide in 1963?

For Vendler, the anthology's subverting weakness was "no principle of selection emerges." She found Dove's discussion of that issue "brief and unsatisfactory," not cohesive. In her NYRB review, she wrote: "I wish Dove had directly addressed the hard questions of choice in her breezy chronological introduction." Instead, she argued, Dove is guilty of "cartoonish" characterizations of the poets she did choose. No more helpful, Vendler said, were Dove's repeated reference to poets favored by a "poetry establishment," as if "placing poets on one side or another of such an assumed 'establishment' says anything about their abilities," let alone makes sense in the case of figures as revolutionary as Eliot, Stevens, and so many others.

Vendler further argued that Dove hoped to get by with "once-over-lightly" historical distortions. That charge has found plenty of support. On the Sad Red Earth blog, poet and critic A. Jay Adler criticized Vendler for "shrill, offensive argument and tone," but seconded her dismissal of Dove's introduction's "potted," "breezy," "boilerplate" historical overview. "A little embarrassing," he summarized.

One instance of that hit home hard, given that Dove is African-American and a champion of African-American verse. Vendler argued that Dove had even badly misjudged the "painful complexities of the events and personalities (black and white) of the Harlem Renaissance," that those had been "lost in the cheery picture transmitted by Dove." While Dove emphasized the era's black-community fellow feeling, Vendler cited the hostility that had greeted some of its major figures for their homosexuality, Communist sympathies, and frank critiques of their own communities.

Vendler has been far from the only commentator to fault Dove. On the Tillalala Chronicles blog, the poet, novelist, and essayist John Olson found Dove's anthology "utterly perplexing and inexplicable." While he has "sharp aesthetic differences with Vendler," and while "I applaud [Dove's] efforts to give pages to underrepresented voices and groups," still "few of her choices within this parameter can be justified by the quality of writing."

He and many others have agreed with Vendler that Dove's selection criteria appear obscure and incoherent. Vendler wrote: "Perhaps Dove's canvas -- exhibiting mostly short poems of rather restricted vocabulary -- is what needs to be displayed now to a general audience," even if "printing something in short lines doesn't make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines."

Finally, Vendler exasperatedly suggested Dove simply fails as an essayist, and that that reflects her limitations as a judge of what the century's best poetry might be.
In his review in The Nation, the poet and musician Jeremy Bass half-agreed. While Dove's selections from the first half of the century strike him as "scrupulous" and "painstakingly coherent," her choices of poets from the second half appear "haphazard," "almost whimsical," and "at times more a cross section of cultural diversity than of literary achievement."

Dove has had most to say in response to Vendler. In her long NYRB response, she dismissed Vendler's claims to be making literary judgments. Rather, she wrote, Vendler epitomized the "hubris" inherent in "the reluctance of many scholars to allow for choice without the selfish urge to denigrate beyond whatever doesn't fit their own aesthetic."
Elsewhere, she has similarly wondered whether "this line of attack is a sign of despair or fury on part of some critics who define themselves as white -- whatever that means in our mongrel society. Are they trying to make a last stand against the hordes of up-and-coming poets of different skin complexions and different eye slants? Were we -- African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans -- only acceptable as long as these critics could stand guard by the door to examine our credentials and let us in one by one?"

Just as enraged have been many supportive postings -- indeed, the anthology has attracted more celebratory and defensive voices than skeptical ones. Typical is one from poet Marguerite María Rivas, an assistant professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College of The City University of New York. While crediting Vendler's seminal influence as a teacher and critic, she professed to be "stunned, deeply disappointed, and almost embarrassed" by Vendler's review, "more diatribe than review, riddled with thinly veiled ad-hominem attacks and elitist meanderings of the most repugnant sort." Echoing Dove, she accused Vendler in such terms as "out of touch," "racist," and "caustic spew and relentless excoriation" of Dove.

Dove's objections to Vendler's review have not always been clearly stated. That is certainly the case in their disagreement about Gwendolyn Brooks, who was among the first prominent black female poets in the mid-20th century, and whom Dove in her anthology's introduction called "as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race." Vendler suggested that that typified Dove's consistent hyperbole about the black poets she selected.

To which Dove responded: "Evidently the 1950 Pulitzer committee thought highly enough of Ms. Brooks to award her the prize in poetry ... Analogous praise today, however, amounts in Dame Vendler's eyes to nothing but 'hype.'"

The equation does not seem to balance, but Dove drives it home by accusing Vendler of "throwing such cheap dirt" and her own desire to shield her reputation from "slanderous slime."

Presumably foreseeing such reactions, Vendler addressed them in her review: "A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one. And the evolution of modern black poetry does not have to be hyped to be of permanent historical and aesthetic interest." Item: "The excellent contemporary poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa and Carl Phillips needs no special defense." Langston Hughes also would clearly satisfy her, on this measure.

Dove (on The Best American Poetry blog), objected: "What does it say about Vendler that out of the 175 poets in the Penguin Anthology she chose Gwendolyn Brooks and Melvin Tolson and Amiri Baraka to try to skewer me?" But in her review Vendler dismissed e.e. cummings as "sentimental" (as sentimental as Amiri Baraka, in fact) and was none too enthusiastic about Ezra Pound, either.

Vendler has certainly proven not to be those poets' only detractor. James Fenton, in the London Evening Standard, wrote: "In most, though not in my opinion all, of her criticisms, Vendler put her finger on blatant weaknesses." One: including Amiri Baraka's "obsessive and anti-Semitic rant ('another bad poem cracking/steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth'), which Vendler calls 'showy violence' that then turns sentimental. She's right. What was Rita Dove thinking of when she reprinted this dreck?"

"Pretentious or ludicrous agit-prop" does not suffice in poetry, he suggested. Nor, says Alder, does poetry that, like Baraka's, Dove can defend as "historically seminal." If that is enough, he writes, where is the pop poet and folk crooner Rod McKuen? "Or," asked Adler, "does the poetry have to be not just bad, but angry and bad?"

The dispute has had many more dimensions. And it continues. For some, the final consideration is what kind of selection deserves to call itself "the anthology of 20th-century American verse." On The Kenyon Review's blog, Amit Majmudar, one of presumably few award-winning poets who doubles as a diagnostic nuclear radiologist, suggested that because Dove's selections seem so personal, "the volume comes to seem biased to the point of scholarly unreliability." And, he said, its "title itself takes on the air of a strategem." He wrote: "If either she or her publisher, or ideally both, had packaged the contents accordingly, much of this brouhaha might have been avoided."

Dove is teaching this month on a cruise ship, and referred me to her NYRB response and earlier interviews on the dispute. Vendler responding to an interview request from The Chronicle, said: "I've had my say, and Prof. Dove has responded in her way. The basic issues are too complex to discuss adequately in interview-responses." Similarly, she replied to Dove's response: "I have written the review and I stand by it."

-- Peter Monaghan
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