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Defending an Anthology

In response to:

Are These the Poems to Remember? from the November 24, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

In her review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry [“Are These the Poems to Remember?,” NYR, November 24], which I had the pleasure of editing, Helen Vendler seems to have allowed outrage to get the better of her, leading to a number of illogical assertions and haphazard conclusions. I have no desire to engage a critic in a debate on aesthetic preferences and consequent selection—to each her own—but I cannot let her get away with building her house of cards on falsehoods and innuendo.

Let’s take a closer look at the most glaring of Helen Vendler’s broad assumptions:

1. Ms. Vendler maintains, in all seriousness: “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading.” Whoa! I suppose Vendler would rather I declare a Top Ten, or perhaps just five, as she herself did in her recent scholarly study Last Looks, Last Books. Indeed, one of her own forays onto the anthology turf, The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985), prompted a disgruntled reader to retort on Amazon.com: “The American Tree Becomes a Toothpick.” Conversely, when one considers the number of American poets (124) in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry—which includes other Anglophone poets as well—or the number of poets who have received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book or the National Book Critics’ Circle awards, 175 doesn’t seem an unreasonable number for a century’s worth of poetry—that is, if you are a mere mortal not satiated by a steady diet of ambrosia.

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Assuredly, many acclaimed poets are no match to Shakespeare—probably not a one, not even Walt Whitman. 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.

But as we know, every generation burrows into its own hard-earned defenses, and it is the prerogative of the young to challenge—yes, and shock—their elders. 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.

2. Vendler has established herself as an authority on Wallace Stevens, and it is in that role that she asks her unsuspecting readers, with exasperation: “Did Dove feel that only these poems [five early poems by Stevens] would be graspable by the audience she wishes to reach? Or is it that she admires Stevens less that she admires Melvin Tolson, who receives fourteen pages to Stevens’s six?” Ah, here we go, totting up pages of poetry rather than the poems themselves. Tolson is represented by two poems (actually, one poem and one section of a book-length poem); Stevens by six. Should Tolson be denied representation because he writes long poems? As far as the selection of early Stevens goes, my original choices included several middle-period poems, but rights problems prohibited their final inclusion. I can’t expect Vendler to know this, and though it is a sad comment on the deplorable state of the American reprint permissions process, I accept responsibility for the resulting omission. However, in juxtaposing a great Anglo-American poet with a great African-American one, Vendler immediately draws unsubstantiated conclusions that fit her bias.

3. “When Dove is not sympathetic to a given poet, her remarks on the poetry itself can be misleading. Her portrait of Stevens gives us a tepid and boring writer.” How curious: Vendler has wrapped her mind around the notion that I dislike Stevens, when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, several commentators have prefaced interview questions by citing my admiration for him—one even described it as “your obvious enthusiasm for Wallace Stevens.” Clearly something is wrong in Vendler’s picture: Could it be that this scholar, who has written so extensively and passionately on the aforementioned, cast a withering glance over my table of contents and when Wallace Stevens came up short in her page-per-poet tally, concluded that I must detest his work?

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.”

4. “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.

5. “The automatic—and not apt—association of an urban scene with noise has generated Dove’s ‘cacophony,’” proclaims Vendler upon reaching Hart Crane, and then she proceeds to leave accuracy in the dust. Poor Crane: since Vendler has decreed that he is on my list of grievances, she rushes triumphantly to his defense, countering my description of “the cacophony of urban life on Hart Crane’s bridge” with examples of silence in “Proem,” which serves as the overture to the main work. Agreed, the hushed splendor of this preface is undeniable…but what of the poem itself? A cursory sweep over just the section excerpted in my anthology yields a host of extraordinary sounds: what with trains whistling their “wail into distances,” chanting road gangs, papooses crying—even men crunching down on tobacco quid—my gasp of surprise at Vendler’s blunder can barely be heard.

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

This statement is breathtaking on several levels: its condescension, lack of veracity, and the barely veiled racism lurking behind the expression “restricted vocabulary.” But rather than slogging it out in a battle of innuendos, let’s stick to facts. Long poems abound in The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry: twelve are five pages in length or more; leading the field at thirteen pages is John Ashbery, followed by T.S. Eliot and Frank Bidart at eleven pages each, and Robert Pinsky and Ezra Pound with eight-pagers. Poems of at least four pages in length occupy a whopping 106 pages—one sixth of the book—and I haven’t even tried to tally the two- and three-page selections, which certainly cannot be construed as “short.” And as far as Vendler’s claim of “restricted” vocabulary is concerned, I won’t grace such transparent insinuation with a further response.

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. Whether propelled by academic outrage or the wild sorrow of someone who feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew—how sad to witness a formidable intelligence ravished in such a clumsy performance.

Rita Dove
Commonwealth Professor of English
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia

Helen Vendler replies:

I have written the review and I stand by it.

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