Monday, December 26, 2011

On The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry

First, I have not yet done more than glance at this anthology but, as a major hullabaloo has arisen around it, here are some links, with a little commentary, tell the story.

Rita Dove, a poet I know (a little) and admire greatly, edited The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (New York: Penguin, 2011). For those who may not be aware of her background, Dove is the author of 9 books of poetry, the third of which received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection Thomas and Beulah (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon, 1986) (she was the second African-American, and second black woman to be so honored). She has also published a book of stories, a novel, a play, and a collection of essays. (I should note that I once wrote a short critical précis of her play; I also have taught several of her stories, in addition to her poems, over the years.) She was US Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, which is where I met her (and had the pleasure of working with her on several projects while employed there).

In the November 24, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books, a publication that very infrequently publishes reviews by American critics who are not white or reviews of works by American authors who are not white, Helen Vendler, a major contemporary poetry critic, and the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University, wrote a demonstrably negative review of Dove's anthology, entitled "Are These the Poems to Remember?" For those not aware of Vendler's background, she is the author or editor of 31 works of criticism, including several anthologies, among them The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985) and The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1986). She is known for her non-theoretical, close readings of the poetry and poetics of a select number of Anglo-American Modernists, Romantic poets, and contemporary American poets. (I should note that as a managing editor, I edited an early, literary journal version of her essay on Dove, "The Black Dove: Rita Dove, Poet Laureate," which appears in her 1996 collection of essays, Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).)

Dove responded, as poets--as writers, especially ones as famous as she is--rarely do, with a blistering takedown, in The New York Review of Books. Writing about the "row," as he termed it, the poet James Fenton suggested in the London Evening Standard that Dove should not have answered Vendler, and that she should not have criticized Vendler personally, before he criticized Dove's anthology on some of the same grounds as Vendler.  Yet given Vendler's history of writing about almost no poets who are not white (though, as I note above, she has written about Dove, and I once heard her give a great talk on Langston Hughes, whom she notes in the introduction of Soul Says, is a "black" poet that she, as a "white" woman, does enjoy--these are her words, not mine, and you'll find them on Google Books, I assure you)--which is her right, as a person and critic--and given the rhetoric at the close of the review, a riposte was in order.  Among Dove's many points of rebuttal, she calls out Vendler out for condescension and racism, a step that also doesn't occur very often among poets of Dove's stature. (I will note that Dove's husband, the author Fred Viebahn, famously and publicly critiqued the cliquish, sexist, racist composition of the Academy of American Poets' Chancellors--a board of major poets legitimating the organization's work--back in 1998. His letter buttressed the resignation, in protest, of two of the Academy's rare female Chancellors, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Maxine Kumin and Carolyn Kizer, thus helping to change that organization's structure and approach to the American poetry world.)

One snippet from Dove's 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.
Vendler's response: "I have written the review and I stand by it." That's it.

The Chronicle of Higher Education saw fit to write about the exchange, titling it "Bloodletting Over An Anthology," which seems to focus more on Dove vs. Vendler and the latter's supporters, while deflecting attention from many--most?--of the larger issues Vendler's review, and Dove's response, as well as the responses of many to the critique and rejoinder enjoin, including the larger history of American and European racism and ethnocentricity, which color literary production as much as anything else; the contestations around American literature history and literary studies, and the politics of the literary canon; the struggles between poets and critics around and for critical and aesthetic authority; the ongoing transformation of the American poetry world and its multiple power centers; and the politics of anthologization and literary publishing.  As I need not note, this critical exchange between Dove and Vendler does not occur in a vacuum, and its prehistory is the early history of American literature--and colonialism and its discontents--itself. One need only look at the critical condescension that the first published African American (and second American female) poet, Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) has endured since publishing her only book, and the relationship between this view of writing by authors who are not white (or male), and the long history of excluding or condescension to works by authors who are not white, male, Christian, openly queer, working-class and poor, and so forth, not just from anthologies, but from classroom curricula, print book reviews and online review sites, and so forth, practices that unfortunately still may be occurring today, to grasp that the stakes go beyond these two figures, and point to a much broader problem that persists.  As someone who has had to deal with these issues on many levels, I can attest to their persistence at the institutional level, and in the broader world of literary art and criticism.

I'll end by noting that Dove's anthology has received some other negative reviews, such as this Jeremy Bass's, entitled "Shelf Life"), which appeared in The Nation.  Bass was respectfully critical without descending into nastiness. The Chronicle notes a few others. Yet the anthology has also received positive reviews, including a Starred review (the best) in Publishers Weekly, and strong reviews also in Booklist and The Chicago Tribune, to name two other venues. One of the criticisms that Vendler broached that Dove responds to in another venue, the current issue (December 2011) of the Associate Writing Program's Writers' Chronicle (the article unfortunately is not online), is the exorbitant fees and extortive tactics one publisher engaged in over several authors for whose works it held the rights, Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath among the most famous of them, which prevented Dove and Penguin, an admittedly major and very wealthy and powerful publisher, from running these poets' works.  In the Chronicle article, some commentators suggest that without these authors, both of whom are among the most important 20th century American poets, the anthology is inadequate. Point taken. But then again, no anthology is perfect. How could one be, unless it were something of the sort that might be found in Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel?

Having written all this, I now need to go check out--buy--Dove's anthology!

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