When I first read Helen Vendler’s review of the new Penguin Anthology of 20TH Century American Poetry in the NYRB, I must admit I was fairly taken aback but also kind of excited. While she didn’t go about it in the most tactful way for a broad publication like the NYRB, Vendler does address some points that probably occurred to many readers when going through the anthology…she just took it to the next level and made the decision to adopt what might have been intended to be a challenging tone but came across as disrespectful. (I give her the benefit of the doubt, which is more than most reactions have done unfortunately.) Where Vendler disappoints me, beyond this matter of tonality, is her decision to only obliquely take on the questions which merit a broader discussion and instead her piece devolves into what can be dismissed as an unnecessary takedown.
In brief, Penguin published this anthology edited by former Poet Laureate/Pulitzer Prize winner/UVA professor Rita Dove (by the way, what an awesome book design). Harvard Professor/Fullbright Scholar Helen Vendler reviewed it by writing this.
To pithily synopsize Vendler: Dove took out many of the typically recognized mainstays of 20th Centruy American poetry and gave others short shrift in order instead jammed in a bunch of crappy black poets because she put her personal political prejudices before her critical faculties, both in terms of aesthetics and in what she wanted the anthology to accomplish. As Vendler sarcastically says “multicultural inclusiveness prevails”, although she is much less polite (“why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?”). While Vendler makes some unnecessarily silly statements (“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading”), underneath her point is: your introduction is not serious, you chose easy poems, you tried to include everyone to the exclusion of being selective based on quality, and this goal of making everybody feel good in a facile manner is not the point of an anthology. I agree that in her introduction Dove makes the strange choice to adopt a definitively “breezy” tone as per Vendler’s description, but thought that was perhaps the result of a misguided attempt to make the introduction accessible as well that just turned out terribly wrong. (More on that below). I also agree that Dove left out some pretty big fish. (No Ginsberg? Seriously?)
Rita Dove responded by writing this. Synopsis of her response: You’re racist and condescending and have an agenda.
So…what to make of all this? It is rare to see two pretty public figures in poetry debating in a weekly publication read by a (comparatively) broad and non-poetry-world exclusive audience. Many of the reactions have been predictably emotional, which is not surprising as Vendler did go for the throat. Basically they are thus: Vendler is a racist elitist trying to defend the cannon and indignant that it is being threatened. Rita Dove is a saintly black woman trying to defend those the cannon oppresses, god bless her for being the voice of reason and not subscribing to the nonsense shoved down our throat by the Eurocentric, ethnocentric, and white racist establishment. Canons suck. OR Vendler is arguing for aesthetics, Dove is arguing for relativism. We need aesthetic criteria and can agree that there exists a universal notion of quality, and relativism is a poison to that very notion…otherwise we can all claim any poem to be worthy of anthologizing/canonizing. Canons are necessary.
Both are reactionary, reductive and a slight the subjects which they attempt to describe. Vendler is indeed arguing for aesthetics, not because she is racist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she seems to believe in some notion of universal metrics by which we can agree that some poets are worthy and others are not. She also is calling out Dove for not seeming to have a driving scheme in her selection process, to going too far in her inclusiveness to try to cover every theme even if its representational works are not very good. In direct opposition, Dove is indeed arguing for inclusion and celebration of diversity…but she also wrote a pretty weak introduction and left out some obvious poets (to the Ginsberg slight add: No Plath? Hello?). On some level Dove’s choices start off pretty rationale then we hit the midcentury and suddenly her choices are very personal. (No Louise Glück? Not on the obvious level of plath and Ginsberg but still, wow) Dove even reference that she left some poets out for “buried antipathies”. What the hell does that mean? I mean she obviously had to put in Frost because he is Robert Frost but then she bashes him the tone is…frosty…and she goes on for over a page about it. I get it you don’t like the “phenomenon of Frost”. I think Amiri Baraka is a total and complete dipshit and an ugly anti-Semite (he likes cracking steel knuckles in jewlady’s mouths…charming, tell the kids, wait no I’ll put in my anthology). Tomato potato. But what hidden “antipathies” to you have towards Ginsberg? No “Howl” excerpt? No “Kadisha”? Those are big choices made for reasons never addressed.
An anthology attempts to encapsulate. Whether it be the period, aesthetic, theme, what-have-you, that it addresses, an anthology is an attempt to cull touchstones that will help the reader quickly identify the defining characteristics of the mass from which the collection is drawn. And anthologies published by places like Penguin are then used in middle schools, high schools, and colleges when designing curricula and what to teach. So in some sense Dove’s decisions on what to include in her book becomes what will be included in certain classrooms and define student’s understanding of American poetry. That’s an important point. If Vendler has an agenda, so does Dove. Which is fine, people are allowed to have them. We all bring our agendas to the table, and it is important to recognize how our own are just as potentially obstructive and problematic as the next person’s…even if we see ourselves as being on the side of righteousness.
As to the introduction, it opens with an open letter to “T” whoever that is, and basically addresses Dove’s anxieties about the selection process. It’s all too cute and postmodern and should/could have been excluded. Interestingly this preoccupation definitely carries over into the body of her main introduction. She leads off with the epigraph “The King is dead! Long live the king!” then references sentries, and borders, etc. I mean you know the relationship of the editor and the selection process is going to be a problematic right off the bat, she is describing it in militaristic and patriarchal terms. But beyond that rough start it is OK. Not objectionable, just not superb. Yeah, she highlights the Harlem Renaissance and emergence of African American poetry while pointing out that most of the canonical figures before that were Caucasian males…but that very valid point is pretty vanilla by now. So what? She also is using it to introduce the concept of a broadening inclusiveness in 20th century poetry. That suddenly (well not suddenly, it took a whole century) there could be poets addressing feminist/queer/native american/jewish/etc issues. That is indeed one of the most important developments of 20th century poetry. She does get so fixated on the destruction of the central idea of who the poet was, she neglects to mention whatsoever how that interplayed with the destruction of the idea of what a poem was, our relation with received forms as another type of control etc. That is pretty disappointing, but all in all she covers a lot of ground and lays out what she wants to achieve. (I would say that she gets pretty personal when taking down some poets.)
The disappointing and totally unsurprising focus of so much of the responses has been about race. This is obvious and kind of boring in the sense that it just lets the same old arguments get rehashed that you’ve heard a million times. Vendler stepped in way too many bear traps with her clumsy take down for that not to have happened. And ultimately, Dove basically was upfront and stated several times “hey if I tended towards my prejudices sorry”. She admitted what she was doing and explained why. I got no problem with that, even if I may not like the results. But in the end, overall it is still a super boring anthology in its makeup and nto surprising in what it has between its covers (although, again, in what it excludes…wow). I mean even anthologies that basically attempt to be “shocking” tend to fail at that (see: The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry or Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century. I like both but the first is totally ridiculous in its claims of what it is doing and how it is marketed while the second scrambles to find more –isms to apply to each poet or poem to seem something more than “just” a really good collection of exciting poems, which is what it is)
So in her introduction Dove makes modest claims about what her anthology aims for. She indeed cops to aiming for breadth instead of some murkier qualitative depth. She wanted it to be accessible so students would not be turned off by struggling with “what a poem means” like it was some puzzle box. That’s a pretty common reaction from students. I know many people who can point to a particular poem they read in school that was the breaking point. “What the hell does that red wheelbarrow nonsense mean? I’m out.” So in that sense Dove has accomplished what she set out to do, this is a non threatening collection to a new reader. They won’t feel left out in the cold as easily.
Vendler in essence takes issue with that driving goal itself. She sees making accommodations for accessibility to be tantamount to surrendering the rear guard battle against the evils attacking poetry. Of these there are many she hints at, but one of them is relativism. It is indeed a slippery slope, and most lengthy conversations about relativism vs universal aesthetic value come out to the point that there must be a balance: a notion of quality indeed exists but there are many global, historical narratives that must be included which have varying criteria and developmental arcs. We must understand and appreciative of this fact and in doing so we create a richer overall body of work for everyone to appreciate. Fair enough, that is all true.
But inevitably will people get emotional. Some see rejecting relativism at all as a political move to control what is important. And it can indeed be so. It is exciting to think that the concept of a grand narrative has been shattered by the forces of progress, and any attempt to move against that is recidivism fueled by intellectual bigotry and elitism. The middle ground is more an understanding that the grand narrative is problematized by the assumptions it makes, and we must always examine them; that it has not been shattered into hundreds of tiny and distinct narratives, but contains the threads of many smaller themes and traditions woven together into one. That while in its worst conceptions it can be an attempt to prioritize on a pretty ugly/ignorant value scale, in its more benign forms it merely attempts to be representative of the whole while including the best of the various splintered outcroppings and this ultimately all taken together does indeed formulate a somewhat normative shape. Averages trend towards the middle…and anthologies/cannons/whatever are conceptually another realization of that fact. This can be a form of control, but at some point not everyone shares your fixation with Irish/Italian/Spanish/black/lesbian themes. They may just want to read the really good work that comes out of that fixation…to be excited by the ideas and the art and expression of humanity. You in turn may not like whatever their fixation is.
Anyways, perhaps my favorite point in all this is that when Vendler’s review came out if you googled “Helen Vendler Rita Dove” the only thing that came up was a glowing essay Vendler had written about Dove’s work. It seems that she supported Dove before most other critics did. You had to wait a few weeks before that relationship was exploded by the outpouring of reactions I am now adding to. I bring that up to point out that Vendler actually respects Dove’s poetry and I suspect that if she had taken the time to react from a place of respect we might have been able to have a much more constructive conversation. Although actually now that I think about it…we all probably would have been bored and tuned it out.