"The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry" ruffles feathers. Duh.

By Harriet Staff

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, which was edited and introduced by Rita Dove. Vendler takes issue with Dove's selections, specifically the way she's shifted the balance of the collection from established poets to a multicultural blend of writers. Vendler argues that Dove favors poets' themes and backgrounds over their rigor, style, and enduring appeal:

Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: 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? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?

Of course, this question of wheat vs. chaff -- of poet vs. sociological specimen -- is never a neutral one. Jeremy Bass, weighing in on the Anthology for The Nation, opens with a quote from Toni Morrison's 1988 lecture "Unspeakable Things Unspoken": "Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense." Bass commends Dove for her "wholly subjective" and "inarguably necessary" selections that bust open the canon to needed newcomers:

Dove’s anthology begins with selections from Edgar Lee Masters’s iconic Spoon River Anthology (1915) and concludes with recent work by two young, widely acclaimed poets, Kevin Young and Terrance Hayes. In its bookends alone the anthology illustrates a remarkable sweep from dispossession to reclamation, from dramatic monologues about a moribund Midwestern town at the turn of the century to poems by two African-American poets that predate, by little more than a decade, the election of the country’s first African-American president.

But, of course, Bass has his overlooked favorites too. What about James Schuyler? he asks. Lorine Niedecker? Thom Gunn? For every poet included, there are at least three languishing elsewhere, lonely and unanthologized.

All of this canon talk is sure to stir controversy in coming days, and we'll do our best to keep you abreast! After all, the great fun of anthologies is the trouble they cause. Julia Keller, a cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, writes:

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.

Originally Published: November 8th, 2011