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. Gah! I hate reviews like this. (Except when they deflate pompous a$$es like Nial Ferguson. Then I giggle.)

    I think that the “blood and guts” model of reviewing is really silly. Isn’t the point of a review to assess the book based on the goals and objectives that the author, or in this case editor, set for him or herself? Its not really fair to pan the book because the author/editor did not write the book you would have written, or in this case, the anthology you would have put together.

    I also take to heart what my parents told me growing up – if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer criticism or feedback, but that it should be substantive. A reviewer ought to note the strengths and weaknesses of the book and situate it in the broader literature. Its especially important when the content isn’t your cup of tea. Besides, a dispassionate tone is rhetorically more effective than an outright slam.


  2. Anthologies themselves might go the way of the “long-playing” record in an era of sampling, mixing, and generally stumbling along the buffet line of life, cultural and otherwise. But my poetry-reading days pretty much tapped out after a (literally) sophomoric fascination with the stuff of a California crank named Robinson Jeffers, who didn’t meet my prof’s approval.

    I did want to comment on that colorful graphic. My sister once gave me and my brother-in-law a cheap stocking stuffer of a holiday present very similar to those hostile ‘bots, called “Bumbling Boxers.” A very satiating sort of a diversionary tool for the last week of the year, while eating, drinking, and staging a running contest to see who can guess the total number of fumbles, interceptions, and other “loose balls” in about eighty holiday bowl games. (And this from the pre-cable era–jeezus.) But, back to the poetry experts….


  3. Reviewing anthologies is almost on the level of reviewing a textbook. It’s unusual, so to see one suggests that there’s a real *occasion* for the review. Vendler sure stood up for “the establishment,” even as she denied that it exists.

    Indyanna, my brother had an original, mid-1970s Rock’em Sock’em Robots. As I recall, the toy always seemed much cooler and to work more smoothly than the reality.


  4. (Warning: frivolous comment ahead. I know zilch about poetry and less about criticism, but the vision of the tenured Harvard poetry prof disowning The Establishment reminded me of an iphone parody ad I saw. A big old man in a black suit is in a white very executive suite, with nothing but a gleaming iphone on his polished black glass desk. He picks it up and says, “I got this so I can stick it to The Man.” Upon which his very deferential secretary coughs and murmurs, “But sir, you are The Man.”)


  5. Vendler is a Stevens “scholar?” Blech. I suppose it is possible to be a drunk, racist rich guy and a poet worth reading but I’d really rather read Gwendolyn Brooks.


  6. I thought Vendler’s response was quite thoughtful and really showed great consideration: “I have written the review and I stand by it.”

    Also, Dove’s measured but passionate response made me really understand how much of an asshole Niall Ferguson is for writing http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n22/letters.

    A choice quote from Mr. Ferguson, “It is not my habit to reply to hostile book reviews, but a personal attack that amounts to libel is another matter. Pankaj Mishra purports to discuss my book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, but in reality his review is a crude attempt at character assassination, which not only mendaciously misrepresents my work but also strongly implies that I am a racist.”


  7. When I came to this country, I wanted to read its literature, fiction and poetry. I never got deep or thorough, but I did read Brooks and Stevens and others. I liked Brooks and Dove.

    I am not surprised about the dispute over racial poets or anthologies. Being from Harvard means that a small group at Harvard likes you; does it imply anything positive? No. In this case the racial animosity seems quite deep. Is it surprising? No.

    By the way, the world is full of great poets who write in many languages. Joseph Brodsky lived in the US at the end of his short life. Czeslaw Milosz lived here a long life. The French have many world famous poets as well as Germany, Russia, Spain and every other country.

    Our Harvard prof is a racist and very narrow minded.


  8. Knowing both Vendler and Dove, and being a literary scholar and poet myself, I’ll try to illuminate. Transparency disclaimer: I went to Harvard. (And therefore am trying not to be offended by all the Harvard smack down rhetoric).

    Vendler is a down-to-earth person. She says what she thinks to anyone and everyone. This hurts and offends a number of people. If you are thick-skinned, and realize that this is Vendler’s way of engaging you, then you can benefit from it. If not, she’s not for you. Her understanding of her mission is that she is to say what she thinks about what poets and critics put out there about poetry in order to advise those who don’t have time or inclination to read everything about what is valuable aesthetically in poetry. She doesn’t buy that the inclusion of women, black writers, or any other historically underrepresented group changes the way that we judge aesthetics. This is a debatable point that she will be glad to debate with you. I don’t think that she minds being called an elitist, because that means that she exercises her aesthetic judgment, not her emotional judgment. Her scholarship is as follows: dissertation on W.B. Yeats, books on Yeats, Keats, Stevens, George Herbert. Many essays and reviews of the contemporary poetry scene. Stevens is decidedly not her main focus. Oh, and Vendler is not a racist, any more than any white person in the world is a racist. She was an early champion of Dove’s work, before many other critics touched it.

    Dove is trained and works in the same kinds of aesthetics of poetry that Vendler valorizes. This is what Vendler was trying to say as she referenced her credentials. I find it strange that this seems racist. But whatever, dudes. Unlike Adrienne Rich, who was trained to write like a man, but figured out another way of writing and practiced it (See “When We Dead Awaken”), Dove has not written any sort of conversion ars poetica. Therefore I am inferring that Vendler is having issues with Dove’s promoting an aesthetic that she deliberately does not herself endorse by her practice. I’m guessing that Vendler’s may be at its heart a “do as I say, but not as I do, hey Rita?” critique.

    Vendler’s principle for judging poetry is how it engages with poetry of the past. Dove’s work does that. (Read Thomas and Beulah, a gorgeous story of a family rising out of the Southern Migration, told in elegant and referential poetic language). Some of Dove’s anthologized poets do not. Whether or not you agree with that criteria, Vendler is consistent with it. If you want to write about poetry from a cultural point of view, then that criteria is important in a different way. Vendler is not a cultural critic. She comes from a line of poetry criticism that goes back to I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism.

    I apologize for the compressed nature of much of this, but I thought I’d try to help. Please watch the ad hominem critiques of Harvard persons. It’s the lowest form of argument, and doesn’t distinguish your opinions.


  9. ca78john, thanks for your informed critique.

    Please note that I made no “ad hominem critiques of Harvard persons,” and please don’t tell me to “watch it” on my own damn blog. I merely noted that it rang false for a professor at Harvard to mock the notion of an “establishment.” Your misunderstanding of that part of my post makes me want to say something snarky about your arguments and point out that it doesn’t distinguish *your* opinions, but I don’t play that way.


  10. Having just read Vendler’s review, I’ll add that Vendler’s main complaint with Dove seems to be with her poorly written and conceived introduction to the anthology. Reading the passages she quotes, I’d have to agree.

    And Historianne, you omit this very telling sentence from the first paragraph you quote from Vendler: ” The excellent contemporary poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa and Carl Phillips needs no special defense.” Gwendolyn Brooks, I would add, is an amazing poet. Read “Kitchenette Building” if you have any doubts. But she isn’t Shakespeare, etc. And neither is she Komunyakaa. That’s the crux of the point that you omit. (“Facing It” by Komunyakaa is a great place to begin).


  11. Dear Historianne,

    Apologies for the general nature of my ad hominem comments. I was referring to your commenters, not to you. And I do not see myself saying “watch it” to you. If I felt you should “watch it,” I wouldn’t take the time to read or comment. [But isn’t that another manifestation of that Harvard thing all over, that we’re all really assholes deep (or not so deep) inside? Perhaps my skin thinneth].


  12. Thanks, ca78john. I didn’t mean to distort the meaning of Vendler’s full sentence by excluding the comments about. I just found it passing strange that (in my view) she harps on the African American writers.

    I agree that Brooks is an amazing poet. But, I don’t think we can really know if she’s Shakespeare yet. After all, Shakespeare wasn’t really *Shakespeare* in his own time, was he? He was an actor, a player, and theater was considered a low art form in the sixteenth century.

    (I hope this does not make me a player hater.)


  13. I don’t think that she minds being called an elitist, because that means that she exercises her aesthetic judgment, not her emotional judgment.

    This definition of elitist is novel to me.


  14. One wants different anthologies to be differenty; it’s interesting. So Dove made one unlike what Vendler would do. Odd Vendler seems to be so upset by it.


  15. It seems to me that if – as ca78john suggests – both Dove & Vendler are deeply enmeshed in the dialogue between current poetry and the past, Vendler’s aesthetic is entirely internal and formal, while Dove’s aesthetic judgment sees poems created in time and space. (I’m not sure these are the right terms, but I think the point is clear. To put it another way, Dove’s aesthetic judgment and her poetry are different.

    Of course I may be biased, but Vendler wrote one of the two most jaw-droopingly arrogant letters of rec I’ve ever read. (it claimed that the candidate, who had not yet completed her Ph.D was the foremost reader of Great Poet in her generation: srlsly, what do you know about the current generation outside of Harvard?)


  16. Susan–that’s a great way to describe the differences between Vendler & Dove.

    I haven’t purchased a Penguin anthology since August of 1986, for my British Lit survey freshman year of college, but I almost want to go out and buy Dove’s anthology just to see what it’s all about. I was really turned onto poetry in a high school anthology–I used to read it quite a bit. (I still enjoy it–but I guess I don’t give it much time any more.) So, although no one likes getting a bad review, this one may well serve Dove and Penguin quite well by piquing interest in American poetry.


  17. Most people in the world of contemporary poetry do not take Vendler very seriously. She’s a bit of a relic at this point. As critics, Perloff, Ramey, Bernstein are all far more relevant and interesting.


  18. While I’m not a poetry scholar, I am a scholar in literature of the 20th century. It strikes me that what plays out in this interchange between Dove and Vendler, broadly, is the debate of people who specialize in my period – how are we going to characterize the literature of the 20th century? What does it mean to conceive the 20th century as one period – when up until even 10 years ago we were still conceiving of it as two different ones (modern and postmodern, or modern and contemporary)? And it strikes me in that regard that this is a disciplinary debate playing out in a public forum, which is affecting the way that it’s being read. Coming to the interchange between the two as a scholar of literature, the whole thing seems pretty non-controversial, frankly. I think what controversy there is stems from the fact that this interchange is playing out in the NYRB and not in, say the PMLA. This is how literary critics talk back and forth to one another.

    And that’s also an issue with Susan’s comment about Vendler’s letter: that’s a pretty typical hyperbolic statement to see in a letter of recommendation in literary studies. I’ve seen letters like that from people far less esteemed than Vendler. I don’t think that Vendler’s comments, whether in that letter or in her review of Dove’s anthology, reveal her to be anything other than a literature professor.


  19. Dear Historianne, just a comment on your Shakespeare idea, that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare during his day. Take a look at the poems on Shakespeare by his contemporaries and near contemporaries such as Ben Jonson and John Milton. Those argue that he was indeed recognized for his abilities with the language during his lifetime. As for his reputation now, take a look (if this is at all of interest) at the work of Dollimore and Sinfield, Political Shakespeare, to see a lively discussion of how he became representative of empire in England, which has solidified his renown. This has more to do with cultural imperatives than linguistic artfulness. As such, Shakespeare is a touchstone of “great” poetry these days, but for reasons having nothing to do with his art. Sometimes, however, an artist can be both great and good.

    As for Vendler being a bit of a relic, the critics cited by Paul have in the past had dust ups with Vendler of varying degrees of seriousness. These critics are not as prominent in the popular press such as The New Yorker, New York Review, The New Republic, etc., as Vendler, so are not known to the public who have a need–rather than an academic professional obligation–to read poetry. Perloff, et. al, may be more interesting to poetry insiders–though I’m not sure what interesting means in this context–but my guess is that their discussions would read more like “Inside Baseball” to the readers to whom Vendler is speaking. The “world of contemporary poetry” is relying upon the current generation of new critics to put itself back on the radar of readers outside of its club. This is not to “diss” these critics, who are all smart readers, and, the ones I’ve met, genuine human beings, but to say that they are not writing in venues that Vendler is writing in, and therefore are not reaching out to the same audience.

    Why is the controversy over an anthology of such interest? Anthologies published by big houses can de facto set the reading agenda in college courses taught as distribution requirements, and as such, may be the only poetry read by generations of students. For those of us who care about this fact, that an art form to which we’ve dedicated all of our lives to thinking about and loving has only a brief window of opportunity to move so many people, we want the single anthology to be as representative and as memorable as possible. I gather that Vendler finds the Dove not to fit the bill, especially in its introduction. For those who detest Vendler, and she does bring out fits of choler in many people in the “po biz,” you would do well to read Dove’s introduction to see if you find it admirable.


  20. ca78john makes a great point about why this debate matters. These kinds of anthologies can and often do establish a kind of canonical framework for a generation of students. And to use my anecdotal teaching experience, it’s always a thrill to be able to introduce students to poets like Frank O’Hara and Robert Creeley, to name just two, and to then (strategically) work backward to Olson, Duncan, Williams, Brooks, Pound etc. The thing is, 99.9% of my students have never heard of O’Hara or Creeley, let alone Hejinian, Spicer, Waldrop, Olson, etc.

    For my money, the two best anthologies of 20th c. poetry out there are the ones by Paul Hoover and Pierre Joris. I’ve used both in classes. Admittedly, both are skewed toward “postmodern” poetry, and the latter is two volumes and a bit overblown at times, but it’s still good, and it gets special mention by me for including Tom Waits!

    Ha! Here’s where being an adjunct is a strangely fortuitous position. None of the muckily mucks are paying any attention to what I’m doing in my classes. As long as student evaluations remain positive, no one bothers to look at my syllabus, which means I can get away with teaching what others either won’t teach or don’t even know.


  21. Shakespeare wasn’t fucken Shakespeare (to borrow a colourful phrasing from the esteemed CPP). I love his work, but it isn’t the hand of God in action: it’s a fabulous melange of early modern creativity that is a testament to the man and his times, but it isn’t perfect divinity. Yes, he was admired during his lifetime and shortly after. But the over-the-top idolization is a problematic part of the modern era’s mythologizing of our early modern past. Witness atrocities such as “Anonymous” that attempt to account for Shakespeare’s ‘special genius’ by making him the (spoiler alert!) not Will Shakespeare but the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley because only a nobleman could be so special. (The classist rhetoric of all of these conspiracy theorists makes my skin crawl.)

    I’m tired of scholars resorting to the shorthand of “OMG, Milton! Donne! Dante! Shakespeare! Your writer can’t be as good as these titans!” as if these writers were some how superheroes to which the rest of history must forever kneel in reverence or tirelessly defend against the barbarian horde. Puh-lease! Can we stop pretending that the classics of western literature are at all in danger by providing other writer with some well-deserved praise? (And, by the way, Gwendolyn Brooks rocks my world, even if I am an early modernist.)

    Of course, what amuses me all the more is Dove’s volume introduction is going to garner so many more readers than it ever could have before, thanks to Vendler’s impassioned attack. Because, let’s be honest, not one of the tens of thousands of students likely to be assigned that anthology over the course of a long press-run will likely do so!


  22. Meanwhile, to underline my basically marginal position in this debate (and discipline), what’s up with the “too peppy” part of the review, as cited in the long-story short version above? Even in the sometimes-leaden world of academic conversation, a little “zig-when-they-zag,” jumpstep, or razzle-dazzle acrobatic is sometimes suitable to keep everyone engaged with the text. Is there a goldilocks-like “just peppy enough” tipping point beyond which an academic expositor should not go?


  23. As a reader of poetry, literature, and sometimes literary criticism who is not a literature professional, I find the suggestion, made repeatedly above, that I need a literature professional to tell me what has aesthetic value to be awfully insulting (and closer to the mark on my understanding of the word elitist). When I read literary criticism, I do so because it helps me think about a particular work or collection in the context of a complete body of work, a time, a community, and about the mechanics of poetry and fiction. I certainly do not read it in order to be instructed on who could totally take down whom in a sanqu cage match (or whatever).


  24. As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth?

    Ok so I’m a little out of date here what with having not studied poetry properly since the mid 90s, but even then we found such comparisons uninteresting and not particularly useful.


  25. 1) What Mandor said.
    2) If it’s elitist to say that people who are scholars of literature and who work in the profession of literary studies have specialized disciplinary knowledge and actually are trained in literary aesthetics and so, yes, might have something to teach people without that training about those, then call me an elitist. And I will also call historians who criticize popular histories by David McCullough or as aired on the History channel and the like elitist, because really, who are trained professionals to tell me what “history” is?


  26. Dr. Crazy–I think that truffula was speaking of taste as opposed to merit. (At least that’s how I read her comment. She reserves the right to make her own literary judgments, although she reads some lit crit out of curiosity and her own interest.)

    Even I recognize that David McCullough is more to the people’s taste, and so confine my comments to his merit! (And, I really won’t bother much with him unless he starts b!tching about professional historians again.)


  27. and P.S. to Crazy: thanks for your comments on the context of this brawl in 20th C lit circles.

    Isn’t Dante better in Italian, anyway? I know it makes one seem more learned to toss his name into the mix, but there are some pertty damn turgid translations of The Inferno floating around.


  28. Like ca78john, I know both Vendler and Dove because, like ca78john, I’m both a poet and a lit scholar. ca78john observes that the Penguin Anthology will constitute the complete exposure to poetry for tons of h.s. and college students. Vendler’s main point, as I understand it, isn’t that Dove’s anthology is too racially diverse or not enough in defense of the Grand Old Canon, but that it prioritizes (and admits to this priority in its introduction) easily accessible works, neglecting poems that may present more interpretive difficulty to readers. As a teacher of poetry in both literary and creative courses, I can testify that the greatest challenge to getting students to engage interpretively with poetry is their belief that poetic utterance is an act of the effusive heart, that poetry is in essence a journal with line-breaks. Difficulty in poetry stands as one of the key sites where readers can separate their desire for Heartfelt Poetic Sincerity from the interpretive process, and begin to register a poem as a deliberately constructed artifact. Dove’s intro does nothing to help work against that problem of reception, because it doesn’t articulate the ways that, for example, the Black Arts poets trouble the modernist paradigm and to what ends. Instead, she reinforces the notion that they are joyously self-expressive, a formulation that verges itself on racism with its suggestion that Black Arts poets were not deliberate writers with specific aesthetic arguments to make. Vendler’s frustration with Dove’s anthology is precisely that it doesn’t honor poetry sufficiently for the interpretive experience it offers to readers, not because it includes a diverse slate of poets but because it dumbs down the discourse for discussing those poets and eliminates poems that might complicate the conversation.


  29. Thanks, Renaissance Girl. That’s a really helpful comment. The accessible-yet-challenging balance is so difficult when compiling anthologies or writing textbooks. How much information is too much? When does a critical introduction illuminate, and when does it drain any energy or appetite for actual literature out of the reader?

    Getting students to engage critically is always a challenge, especially when there’s the tendency to assume (as you note) that poetry isn’t so much written or constructed as mystically channeled. This is perhaps analogous to getting students to understand history as argument-driven and constructed, rather than “just the (self-evident) facts.”

    I wonder if this is a peculiarly American understanding of literature and/or history. We like to believe that there are natural geniuses, and that talent isn’t something that requires hard work or practice. Either you can skate/shoot the ball/pitch/write/do math/play piano/play chess, or you can’t. This belief in divine inspiration has the not-so-charming effect of suggesting that practice is pointless, and that hard work is wasted effort. (Channeling my inner Tiger Mother here.)


  30. I’m sorry, Dr. Crazy, that what I wrote came across the wrong way. My reading has benefited significantly from the work of literary professionals and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. None of that help has been in the form of “Zhang Yanghao is more valuable than Ma Zhiyuan” (or whomever). It has instead been in the form of helping me to think about the the two in some meaningful context.

    One of my children’s awakening to reading seems to have been a result of some conversations we had about the remarkable thing your brain/intellect is doing to turn the symbols on the page into a story and the way icons are used to convey meaning in graphic narrative. All those bright ideas, I owe to English professors.

    Isn’t Dante better in Italian, anyway?

    Neruda is certainly better in Spanish but I know I misunderstand some things. The original and a translation side by side works pretty well. This probably is a place where the value judgement of an expert is helpful; this translation is better than that translation.


  31. I don’t understand the critique that is emerging from the comments — that is, that Vendler is upset that Dove’s anthology is overly inclusive and this is a problem because her anthology will be an important entry point and perhaps the only source of poetry for a significant number of English students. All of the folks that Vendler considers important ARE included in the anthology, so Vendler-like teachers can assign them to their students. If students want to read more poetry by, say, Wallace Stevens, or if teachers want to assign more, it’s not that hard to add an extra Stevens poem or two to the syllabus. And, the anthology has a bonus where it gives options that Vendler-like teachers and students may not have been aware of. So, there really isn’t a practical problem, and I think that people are missing the point if they frame it as such. This is solely a political problem, where Vendler feels as if a bunch of second-rate poems and poets are elevated by virtue of their selection in this anthology to the level of the sacred cows of Western Literature and she wants to stop it. Pedagogy doesn’t really enter into the picture, or else she might realize that lots of different poems might bring students who might not be interested in poetry to the field and thus produce some more of the lofty poems she sees fit to read.


  32. Truffula, sorry for getting on my high horse – I think it was your choice of the words “aesthetic value” that made me react the way that I did, as those words mean something beyond “individual taste” to me (and, I’d say, to many other scholars of literature, though of course I can’t speak for everybody). But with Historiann’s and your clarifications, I feel like I’m now seeing where you were coming from. Following up on my initial comment, this issue of canonicity plays into the battles about periodicity that are happening in 20th c. lit studies right now. Basically, scholars in my period are trying really, really hard to decide who “counts” and who doesn’t, what is “important” and what isn’t, and, heck, even where our field begins and ends. A lot of this reflects the status of 20th c. lit studies relative to the rest of the literary canon (for the first time we are a period of literature of “the past” whereas we’d gotten used to thinking of ourselves as “the period of the present”) and a lot of this reflects the baggage that we inherit from the new critics and modernist commentators on Lit’rature Capital L. Finally, I do think that this is a left-over of the culture wars – I think Cultural Capital: the Problem of Literary Canon Formation by John Guillory is especially useful for thinking about these issues.

    BBL – But I think the political problem can’t be separated out from the practical problem for a few reasons. 1) It’s not that Vendler is “political” (with all the negative connotations that go along with that) and Dove is somehow apolitical (or virtuous in her inclusiveness?). I’d argue that both viewpoints are political (used in as neutral a way as I know how); they just come down on two different sides. 2) The reality is that most teaching of poetry is not done by experts of poetry, so anthologies have far more influence on pedagogy than your comment indicates. Compounding #2, 3) The adjunctification of higher education (and I won’t even get into the challenges that face p-12 teachers of English), as well as the increased workload on t-t faculty that follows from it, results in a lower possibility, whether we’re talking about adjuncts or about t-t folks, people who “care” a lot about the teaching of poetry or not, of an instructor assigning those few extra poems, radically re-envisioning the organization/structure/or sequencing of a course outside of the organization/structure/or sequencing that an anthology provides, or supplementing what the anthology provides to offer a wider perspective (and, incidentally, this is the problem with more “old school” anthologies as well) 4) Given the burden on students to pay for their education, it is the rare student who will go off and “read more poetry by, say, Wallace Stevens” on their own, as they barely make time to complete the reading that is assigned in their courses (and yes, I’m even talking about my English majors here); this isn’t because they aren’t intellectually curious but because of the practical circumstances and challenges of their everyday lives as students.


  33. This is an extremely interesting discussion, but are we really supposed to believe that someone who doesn’t know that “criteria” is plural and “criterion” is singular is an expert on American poetry and its critics?


  34. Maybe Vendler has more than one “criteria” in mind for inclusion in an important anthology? It seems like that must be the case, since she would be much more selective than Dove. (Dove uses “criterion” correctly, in my judgment when she writes: “My criterion was simple: choose significant poems of literary merit.”)

    But, this is pretty pedantic, man. Criteria me a river! Or would it be more poetic (or latinate, at least) to say, criteria a river me! Anon.


  35. Whether or not you agree with that criteria, Vendler is consistent with it. If you want to write about poetry from a cultural point of view, then that criteria is important in a different way.

    I was referring to this comment by poetry expert “ca78john”, which is just flat-out illiterate.


  36. @Dr. Crazy: I agree with all you said, so just a small followup to #4 above. I actually find my students to be very willing to read poetry, if only because poems tend to be short. (true, it’s rare that I assign a “long poem”) In fact, as a strategy, I tend to save the poetry section of the course until the end. A novel in the last two to three weeks of the semester is a no go, but a sample of, say, 15 poems by maybe 3 or 4 writers works well.


  37. No, it isn’t. “An historian” is just silly orthographic convention. Writing “that criteria” is identical to writing “that historians”. It’s illiterate.

    (Now is probably the right time for you to say, “You’ve made your point.” Lolz.)


  38. As a literary historian and critic, I have been following this thread with great interest. The idea that an anthology should promote one particular aesthetic obscures the competing definitions of the literary that have marked twentieth century letters. I like anthologies that have a broad range of literary aesthetics, and allow me to discuss how particular writers’ own definition of the literary marks their writing. But then I don’t think my job is to tell my students who they are supposed to value. I want them to understand a wide range of aesthetic choices, in the hopes that they find something that speaks to them.


  39. Blither from the Harvard grad who doesn’t know criteria/criterion—excellent!

    Vendler has embarrassed herself with her ‘not enough Wallace Stevens’ complaint.

    This is all about Wallace Stevens—who went to Harvard, by the way.

    Who dares to ask: OK, how good is Stevens, really?

    He’s not that good.

    I teach my students Plato and Shakespeare and Auden.

    I wouldn’t waste a day on Stevens.


  40. Pingback: 2011: poetry news and online info for poets. « poethead

  41. I agree with Vendler in large part of her critique of the anthology…and I haven’t glimpsed it once yet, but I have a feeling some of those ‘multicultural’ poems were bad ones: strong on message, short on form. I’m always suspicious of poetry that places too much priority on an ‘agenda’: generally that means the craftsmanship is suffering. Or when someone urges me to read a poem because it’s so ‘honest’. Usually thats a ‘triteness alert’ for me. I was introduced to poetry through writers such as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Don L. Lee and the like, as a young black teen struggling to identify and put into perspective his role in the world. I read and wrote a lot of angry poems while the black arts poets stared over my shoulder approvingly, much to the bemusement of a white friend of mine who pointed out that I grew up in the priviledged suburbs and the racial resentment didn’t seem to fit my life or rearing. In truth, I was mimicking what kind of poet I thought I was supposed to be. But I have to admit, when I later ran across the work of Merrill, Stevens, Crane, early Auden, Ashbery and particularly the underrated but wonderful Robert Hayden, I realized what poetry could truly be: complex, rich, musical and deeper than merely the banalities of politics, which after a time, fades away. I also begin to feel that because I am a ‘black poet’ doesn’t mean every poem I write must reflect that (incidental) part of who I am; I begin to feel that I had a right (or perhaps an obligation) to pen a poem about a tree, or an osprey in flight, or my impressions on the Lost Generation, etc, and do it in language that needn’t be overly blunt or vulgar or hamhanded. I no longer felt my ‘blackness’ was the essential part of me. Maybe I’m making several points here. Maybe its muddled. In the end, craft must trump ideology in poetry, and that is where, in Vendler’s view most likely, some of Dove’s selections fell short.


  42. Pingback: 2011: poetry news and online info for poets. « poethead

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.