Poetry News

Rita Dove Defends Anthology in Wake of Helen Vendler Review

By Harriet Staff

Remember such things as The Chicago Tribune's consoling words regarding The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove? "Contrarianism is a sign if life and health and relevance," they wrote. Helen Vendler, however, had more scathing things to say; as we mentioned recently. And now Rita Dove has written, also for the New York Review of Books, a defense of the anthology. Broken up into six distinct points, her claims are in direct response to Vendler, who maintained that "“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading.” From the start, Dove writes:

But The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry is not meant to be an in-depth scholarly study of pick-your-ism; it is a gathering of poems its editor finds outstanding for a variety of reasons, and by no means all of them in adherence to my own aesthetic taste buds; my intent was to offer many of the best poems bound into books between 1900 and 2000 and to lend a helping hand to those readers wishing to strike out on their own beyond this selection. Part of the problem with the phenomenon one could call poetry politics is the reluctance of many scholars to allow for choice without the selfish urge to denigrate beyond whatever doesn’t fit their own aesthetics; literary history is rife with stories of critics cracking the whip over the heads of ducking artists, critics who in their hubris believe they should be the only ones permitted to render verdicts in the public courts of literature.

It also gets, in this first point, fairly personal:

Vendler lets her guard down when she laments, rather condescendingly, that I am a poet, not an essayist, “writing in a genre not [my] own”—as if that alone disqualifies me from being capable of lucid prose as long as she, the master essayist, owns the genre lock, stock, and barrel.

Vendler also detailed the problems inherent in looking at the Harlem Renaissance as a “ready-made community,” and with similar reference to the Beats and Fifties America, wrote that Dove's animated inclusion of both was "drawn to cliché." She went on to take issue with Dove's handling of the Black Arts Movement, writing:

As for the Black Arts movement (when Dove gets to it), yes, it was a “necessary explosion,” but no, it ended badly: the erstwhile “militants and minstrels” have become “buoyantly brash” (as Dove’s alliteration takes off once again):

These buoyantly brash artists found that their public acceptance was spilling beyond their target group, with white students wearing dashikis and crooning to Marvin Gaye. Such success also encouraged other neglected voices to speak up…. On the other hand, certainly, and sadly, the willful self-segregation of the Black Arts movement contributed to a new entrenchment of a largely whitewashed poetry establishment.

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?

Dove now responds:

Conversely, she seems to think the inclusion of Black Arts poetry an indication of animated endorsement. Shouldn’t a literary theorist of Vendler’s stature be aware that a good anthologist is capable of reading beyond and against mere personal taste? Shouldn’t she have recognized that my giving space to poets as different from my own “style” (whatever that is; hopefully, I’m still evolving) as Ashbery, Koch, Silliman, Mackey, Hijinian, and, yes, Baraka—the list goes on—stands as testimony to my endeavor to be honest to the many facets of poetic expression, whether I “approve” of them or not?

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.”

Dove also illuminates her approach to Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, among other things; and concludes that "the amount of vitriol in Helen Vendler’s review betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics. As a result, she not only loses her grasp on the facts, but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again."

There is a posted reply to this defense from Vendler as well. It reads simply: "I have written the review and I stand by it." Find it all here.

Originally Published: December 2nd, 2011