The Politics in Poetry: Vendler vs. Dove

by A. Jay Adler on December 13, 2011
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Poetry is relevant!

I kid poetry. Poetry is always relevant. What do you think The Iliad was doing if it wasn’t writing the history of the victors? The inept and cowardly Paris stole Helen from Menelaus – sure. I wonder how the Trojans might have told that story. It has also long been facile to mock Shelley’s dictum that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But Shelley wasn’t talking corn subsidies or welfare to work, and if you think that’s the only kind of legislation that matters, that’s a political stance about poetry too.

Helen Vendler’s controversial New York Review of Books attack on the Rita Dove edited  The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry unexpectedly draws out much of the latent politics in what Dove in her response calls “poetry politics,” and Marguerite María Rivas at AROHO Speaks is shocked that we are still having this discussion.

Stunned, deeply disappointed, and almost embarrassed for Vendler were my emotional reactions to reading just the first two paragraphs of the review. Vendler’s “Are These the Poems to Remember?” disappoints and fails as legitimate critique. It is more diatribe than review, riddled with thinly veiled ad-hominem attacks and elitist meanderings of the most repugnant sort. Vendler’s piece does not even give the reader a sense of the anthology, for it is difficult to discern any reasoned analysis beneath the vitriol. “Out of touch,” “inaccurate” and “racist” were my initial thoughts. This was not the Helen Vendler I was expecting; this was not the review worthy of her vast talent. It was nothing short of astonishing to read Vendler’s caustic spew and relentless excoriation of Dove’s anthologizing and essay writing.

How is this review to be taken seriously? How could Vendler get it so wrong and be so out of touch with the ethos of contemporary American poetry?

It is probably so that most poets and much of literary academe have thought this battle over, the dissenting voices within considered outliers only and those without politicized philistines. Yet as Jeremy Bass reminds us at The Nation, in her 1988 lecture “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” Toni Morrison declared,

Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense


All of the interests are vested.

Part of any objection to Dove’s work is inevitable. Bass himself is critical of many omissions, none noted by more people than that of Allen Ginsburg, the excuse for which by Dove – the cost of rights – is simply unacceptable.

Writes Jan Gardner at The Boston Globe,

Any book with as big a mission as The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is bound to attract complaints.

Julia Keller at the Chicago Tribune is more vivid.

A good anthology is like a dartboard in a crowded bar on a Saturday night. Everybody lines up to take their best shot. Everybody wants the chance to squint, aim and let fly.

The more august and monumental and definitive-seeming the anthology — the fancier its packaging, the more famous and revered its editor — the more it invites criticism, arguments, carping and nitpicking. That’s the fun of an anthology. Indeed, the robustness of such a collection is measured not by a solemn, reverential hush descending upon its publication, but by noisy, lively, vehement disagreement.

The appearance of an anthology, then, is a good excuse to get rowdy. Contrarianism is a sign of life and health and relevance.

And to return us to Vendler, we have the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog:

Does anyone have a phone number for the producers of the World’s Toughest Job? Because we’d like to petition that they add “poetry anthologist” to their roster of underwater welders, rodeo clowns, ultimate fighters, and pyrotechnicians. Okay, it’s true that you won’t lose any limbs compiling the “best” verse of the last 100 years, but the occupational hazards are nevertheless intense.

To wit: Helen Vendler’s recent review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry….

I have met and admire Vendler. Many years ago, before she was quite the doyen of the poetry world she now is, she chaired the committee that interviewed me for a three-year junior fellowship at the Harvard Society of Fellows. I was not among that year’s six honored recipients. In the years since I have taught my introduction to poetry classes using Vendler’s textbook Poems, Poets, Poetry. I am steeped in modernism as is she and our aesthetic preferences are sympathetic, so I should be sympathetic to her position in this dispute. I am not, and why I am not is, I think, instructive.

Despite a shrill, offensive argument and tone, Vendler offers some persuasive criticisms of Dove. Among them – as intellectual foundation for the greater critique of Dove’s criteria for selection – is a dismissal of Dove’s introduction, with its “potted” historical overview, as “breezy,” facile “boilerplate.” Vendler presents several trenchant illustrations, none more devastating than this segue from the Beats to the Confessionals. Writes Dove,

Every soup gets cold, however, and by the time the Beat poets were losing verbal steam, their take-no-prisoners approach had cleared a trail for the Confessionals…. The cost of [the Confessionals’] personal exposure was high. Both Sexton and Plath killed themselves…. In the end [John Berryman], too, could no longer resist the Grim Reaper.

Responds Vendler,

Well, any number of people have committed suicide without being poets of “personal exposure”; and in the poets named by Dove the causes of suicide other than poetry-writing are numerous (childhood trauma, alcoholism, manic-depressive illness, marital breakdown). Dove’s brisk post hoc, propter hoc diagnosis of these heartbreaking events and their accompanying poems seems oddly imperceptive in a poet.

Truly, the suggestion that these poets killed themselves because they were confessional poets, and not, to some degree, confessional poets because of personalities and psychological characteristics that led them to write confessionally, is a little embarrassing.

Vendler’s greater criticism – for which attacking Dove’s intellectual chops is foundational – is the absence of any coherent “principle of selection.” The Nation’s Bass sees it a little differently.

The problem with Dove’s anthology is not that she shirks responsibility. She has assumed it fully, but for the wrong reasons. Her omissions present themselves more as conscious efforts to shape the appearance of modern poetry, or as a kind of willful laziness at best. If we are truly to be inclusive, we must include work beyond the comforting confines of our political and aesthetic assumptions, preserving and uplifting American poetry’s difficult and various whole. [Emphasis added]

What has rankled Vendler – in a contention Rivas thought was settled – is what she perceives, apparently along with Bass, as Dove’s alternative canon building, her “[m]ulticultural inclusiveness.” In a move that offended Rivas, Vendler actually did some counting.

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).

What strikes Rivas is the counting itself, but one cannot overlook the tally. Surely, it is nothing but political, a self-conscious corrective that may have many comfortable rationales, but that, in its counter numerical-imbalance certainly does not count aesthetic quality among them. Dove in her reply to Vendler even performs a sleight of phrase in justifying her inclusion of the execrable Amiri Baraka’s execrable, anti-Semitic “Black Art”: first she minimizes his offensiveness by defensively categorizing him as a “handy whipping boy.” Then she defends her own choice on the ground of the selection’s being a “historically seminal poem.” Historically seminal? Is that what an anthology of a century’s poetry is designed to review – historical moment? Where then is the Rod McKuen? Or does the poetry have to be not just bad, but angry and bad?

However, Vendler’s dated rush to the battlements against multiculturalism is really a lower order presentation of her defense of another tower – of the high one against the low and encroaching plains. Throughout, in a regular resort to the testimony of credential, we read of the degrees and institutional affiliations of the poets whose quality she defends, and Dove’s greatest offense, the aesthetic one, is this:

Most of the new poets at the end of the book are writing in her preferred demotic style….

The “demotic style” – it is this that has Vendler so upset.

[Dove] also decides (except in certain obligatory moments) for the more “accessible” portions of modern lyric….

Perhaps Dove is envisaging an audience who would be put off by a complex text.

Vendler later adds:

Perhaps Dove’s canvas—exhibiting mostly short poems of rather restricted vocabulary—is what needs to be displayed now to a general audience.

It irks Vendler that so much of contemporary poetry is so, well, prosaic.

Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines.

Vendler is right about this. Too much of contemporary poetry bespeaks itself in a lamely demotic, prosaic style – and nothing to speak of as prose either – that is merely broken into short lines. People even with reputations write this way. It makes
you wonder what they think
they’re doing; it makes you
want to scream

But in identifying a long-developing devolution – for which, thank you, William Carlos Williams, and let a thousand crabgrass grow – Vendler has over identified it with the demotic, for which there is ancient, ever renewing and reinvigorating impetus in poetic expression. Rather than clarify and instruct, when necessary, how the complex, the apparently difficult, may be a form of heightened poetry – not mask for, but the very manner of poetry’s meaning and being – Vendler chooses instead to identify poetry with difficulty, with inaccessibility. She cheats, too, in doing so. She offers the opening lines of several of Dove’s contemporary choices, of variable quality and nature, and blames them for not being Hart Crane, an emblematic difficult poet and among the most dense in verbal riches, as if Crane himself had been not a poet, but is poetry itself, invariable in language and sensibility. But here, truncated at its opening lines, as Vendler similarly offers,  in not quite successfully attempting to distort its diction, Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “To My Brother,” are the opening lines of a poem, if not American, at least well written in America by W.H. Auden: “September 1, 1939.”

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid…

A “flat invitation,” as Vendler would have it – compared to Crane – in ordinary speech, and great and momentous (and ever relevant too, by the way) poetry.

However, long before Vendler trips herself up in a too concerted and strident defense of the difficult, she already has fallen rather flat herself in the review’s own very opening.

Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound).

Most curious about this short list, offered in 2011 to begin a consideration of all of twentieth century American poetry, is that even the youngest, the last three, were not born later than that century’s second decade and are not dead fewer than nearly four decades. Is even, along with Harold Bloom, the most renowned of our academic arbiters of literary greatness too timid to stake a declaration on anyone just a little more contemporary? Or is Vendler really dismissing the whole second half of the twentieth century?

Well, in her second paragraph Vendler declares that

some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? [Emphasis added]

For many poets and regular readers of poetry, who might read some significant portion of that number of poets in a single year, this is a startling declaration. Never mind greatness or inclusion in a century’s anthology of the notable, but not “worth reading”? (A small point to add, in the matter of sheer numbers and the chances of the outstanding, that the twentieth century undoubtedly produced more poetry than any century before it.)

Here, I think, is the clarifying issue. Vendler inveighs against Dove’s repeated introductory references to a “so-called ‘establishment’” in the poetry world. In such debates, one may always look around in search of the edifices and institutions and innocently wonder “Where? Oh, where?” Still, we may pause to consider what an “establishment” serves, often, to do. It sets rules and standards; it conserves resources and traditions and expends precious capital in the mission of extending the reach of those; it governs admittance, sharing thereby the power of membership; it defends itself against attack, the more aggressively the more it perceives itself under threat.

There was basis upon which to criticize Dove’s work. But the manner and tone of Vendler’s attack, and the terms on which she mounted a defense of the poetry she values and thinks to be threatened, suggest that if Vendler truly cares to know the location of the establishment to which Dove refers – recalling, as we should, Toni Morrison’s observations on “canon building” – she might begin by looking to herself.


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