Poetry, history, beauty, and truth: Vendler vs. Dove smackdown

Have you all followed the Helen Vendler-Rita Dove smackdown lately in the New York Review of Books?  Long story short:  Helen Vendler reviewed Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry and slammed it for being too inclusive, too multicultural, and too “peppy.”  Dove responded with a lengthy defense of her work, explaining her methods and goals.

What struck me about this melee is the nakedly racial ressentiment of Vendler’s critique.  (Vendler is a white Harvard professor of poetry, Dove is a black poet and scholar at the University of Virginia.)  Although Vendler doesn’t say so, she is a Wallace Stevens scholar, and she’s apparently outraged that Dove’s choices meant that Stevens must share space in this volume with unworthy “multicultural” poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and others of the Black Arts movement.  Here’s Vendler:

Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth? 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. Language quails when it overreaches.

What is this, a flashback to 1988 and the Western Front of the Culture Wars:  Battle of the Poetry Canon?

And, it’s just comical when a Harvard University professor wonders where the American poetry “establishment” might be, and mocks the concept of an “establishment” in her comments on Dove’s analysis of the Black Arts movement:

We’re back to that “poetry establishment” again. The members (whoever they are) of this so-called “establishment” “entrench” themselves (as in a war) and, implicitly racist, appear “whitewashed” like the “whited sepulchres” denounced by Jesus. How is it that Dove, a Presidential Scholar in high school, a summa graduate from college, holder of a Fulbright, and herself long rewarded by recognition of all sorts, can write of American society in such rudimentary terms?

We pulled you off the plantation and let you into the “establishment,” Rita Dove!  Apparently, it’s like Fight Club:  The first rule of the “establishment” is you do not talk about the “establishment!”  Rita Dove is a very bad, very unworthy ingrate, isn’t she?  What a disobedient daughter!  What an undeserving recipient of establishment largess!  Dove, in her reply, comments on how racially reductive is Vendler’s analysis:

It is astounding to me how utterly Vendler misreads my critical assessment of the Black Arts Movement, construing my straightforward account of their defiant manifesto as endorsement of their tactics; she ignores a substantial critical paragraph in which I decry the fallout from the movement (“Against such clamor and thunder, introspective black poets had little chance to assert themselves and were swept under the steamroller,” I write in my introduction) and instead focuses on that handy whipping boy, Amiri Baraka, plucking passages from his historically seminal poem “Black Art” in which he denigrated Jews, thereby slyly, even creepily implying that I might have similar anti-Semitic tendencies. Smear by association…sound familiar? I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defense is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth. (I could argue equal opportunity offensiveness by having printed Hart Crane’s “A liquid theme that floating niggers swell”—but perhaps that makes me racist as well.)

In the same breath, Vendler—no slouch when it comes to lumping poets together by race—makes quick work of dismembering Gwendolyn Brooks, dismissing my description of Brooks’s “richly innovative” early poems as “hyperbole,” perhaps because I dared to compare those poems to “the best male poets of any race.” Evidently the 1950 Pulitzer committee thought highly enough of Ms. Brooks to award her the prize in poetry, at a time when there was little talk of diversity in America and the expression “multiculturalism” had yet to enter the public discourse. Analogous praise today, however, amounts in Dame Vendler’s eyes to nothing but “hype.”

(Full disclosure:  I was alerted to this smackdown by a close relation of Dove’s.)

I’m sure that anthologists of twentieth-century poetry in the middle and at the end of the twenty-first century will make different choices than Dove made.  I’m sure that an anthology of nineteenth-century American literature published in, say, 1911, would have been quite different from one published at the end of the twentieth century.  Dove freely admits that she aimed for breadth over depth in her effort to anthologize the twentieth century, but maybe that’s part of the reason for Vendler’s evident pique.  Vendler responds to Dove’s anthology as though Dove is proclaiming once and for all that she has compiled a definitive statement on Literary Truth and Beauty, whereas Dove herself is much more modest about what she can possibly accomplish barely a decade after the close of the twentieth century:

“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. That these poems happen to illuminate the times in which they were crafted should come as no surprise; that the stories they tell of the twentieth century have many intersections and complementary trajectories is fortuitous, a result of having been forged by and reacting to shared sensibilities.

Dove’s goals seem to me more about providing a collection of useful primary sources for literary historians of the future to sift through and analyze.  That doesn’t strike me as a bad way to go about compiling an anthology so soon after the closing date of the twentieth century, but then, I’m a historian and neither a poet nor a literary scholar.  What do the poets and literary scholars among you have to say?

51 thoughts on “Poetry, history, beauty, and truth: Vendler vs. Dove smackdown

  1. Poetry is lost to this world. Rejoice! The frontal lobe no longer processes the genre. If you see a bum, give him change. If you come upon a poet reciting a poem, advise him to take his life. “What? Oh, yes of course, Mr. Dickens, ‘Decrease the surplus (poet) population.’ Indeed!” Tea and crumpets at Four, chip, chip, cheerio!

    Space aliens abducted T.S. Eliot and urinated celestial puss down his throat, hence, The Waste Land. Robert Frost’s left big toe inspired him to write very badly. Anne Sexton smoked used Tampons driving her to confess. The entire collected poems of poets throughout history are absent one verity and mere to take up space. Poetry, you are now of the Charnel House


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