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View Diary: Has Harvard Professor Helen Vendler Lost Her Damn Mind? (162 comments)

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  •  I think that Vendler put the comment (8+ / 0-)

    about black poets front and center in her critique because she's genuinely offended at the blackinizing of American poetry.  Vendler says it straight out -- all those black boots in the parlor, muddying the floor, really horrify her.  Can we really "need" so many of them?  My personal feeling about broad ranging anthologies is that they're always already inadequate -- when we need to cover so much ground, we're bound to wind up with hopelessly inadequate and banal generalizations about those we include. Sniping at that is sort of like shooting at sitting ducks -- there's not an anthology on record that doesn't suffer from the same problem.

    And an anthology is a tricky thing to assemble.  My guess is that Dove picked the poems she likes, from the writers that have moved her, with perhaps a nod to some poets she thought she "should" publish (the Eliot, maybe).  Given the same anthology to edit, would you do much different? (Different poets & poems, of course, but would you publish a lot of poets you didn't care for because they were "important"?)  I know that I'd find myself in the position of knowing what poems I wanted to include, and then having to work backwards to explain and justify them.  Maybe I'd be more elegant about it, but then I'm a critic and publisher and not a poet, so I'm better at the packaging than Dove might be. Still, in the end, my anthology would be a portrait of my own development as an artist or a critic, just like Dove's is a portrait of hers.  (Have you read the vitriol spewed at Ellman & O'Clair's 1973 Northon Anthology introductions?  And I love that anthology.)  The reason that Dove features so many black poets is that those black poets were essential to Dove's development as an artist & a thinker.  And I think that's what pisses Vendler off.

    Vendler, I think, is deeply outraged that a poet of Dove's stature and renown could make it without the apparent influence of and reverence towards the poets Vendler thinks are important, that, in a sense, those "great" poets are already lost to a poet of Dove's background and Dove's generation.  Vendler is seeing the world change out from under her, and she's not happy about it.  She's frightened and furious that maybe "we" really don't "need" Merrill or Stevens as much as "we" used to.  (Personally, I couldn't live without Stevens, but that's me. I'd have 25 pages of his work in there.  But Merrill? I hardly notice Merrill exists.)  And that is, I think, what gets to her.  The "we" has shifted to include Rita Dove, who does not give the same grace to the poets that a pre-Dove "we" used to revere.  A black poet or two, Vendler can bear, but a preponderance is an admission that there might be a completely different world of relevance for Rita Dove than there is for Helen Vendler.  Oh noes!

    I think the world can handle as many black poets as can be thrown at it, and I think that black or white poets can spring from communities of black poets just as easily as from the traditionally acclaimed poets of white communities.  I'm not worried about being replaced because I think that the communities we emerge from are always provisional, and always context-dependent. Helen Vendler doesn't believe that, though -- she can't get it through her head that black poets are poets and not symbols of creeping devaluation of poetry.

    The practicing poet/critic division is an interesting idea, but I don't think it's a definitive split.  Actually, I think the split between the MFA program poets and the outsider poets is a lot more meaningful.  That said, I still would have chosen quite a different group of poets than Dove did, but then, that's kind of the whole point of picking editors, isn't it?

    "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

    by hepshiba on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 11:51:09 AM PST

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    •  Hmmm.... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Portlaw, mamamedusa

      Vendler seems to have a genuine affection for the Harlem Renaissance period, though, and a real loathing of the Black Arts movement is what I gathered.

      After all, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer weren't exactly in your face about their negritude whereas Amiri Baraka...he was trying to throw all of the standards that Vendler holds so dearly out...I have to finsih this thought later.

      •  Also the Harlem Renaissance poets (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Chitown Kev, poco, Portlaw, mamamedusa

        aren't exactly threatening in terms of displacing the white elite poets.  They were always a different wing within the critical universe and so fit into the "separate but equal" racist paradigm.  The Black Arts movement poets (male & female) were not happy to occupy the margins and acted like they had full right to be treated like proper royalty in the poetry community.  Their readings attracted a lot of people and they were, by most measures, more "famous" than their white peers, of whom they were often openly contemptuous.  They had a revolutionary cachet in an era in which that was admired, while the white establishment poets were as neglected as poets generally are.  In that light, it was easy for the white poetry elite to denigrate the New Black Poetry as "not art."  But the current black poetry elite grew up on the Black Arts movement and gives it proper pride of place.

        Now Rita Dove (and previously Maya Angelou) are actually displacing white peers, occupying the same niches they'd occupy in terms of awards & fellowships, etc., and acknowledging black foremothers and forefathers.  For Vendler, this has to be deeply disconcerting.

        "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

        by hepshiba on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 12:21:03 PM PST

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        •  Oh yes (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          poco, Portlaw, tardis10

          Maybe Vendler needs to talk to some more contemporary and practicing poets (of any race or ethnicity) and she would find out exactly how influental Amiri Baraka is nowadays.

          •  Yeah, it's interesting (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Chitown Kev, Portlaw, tardis10

            what an institution he's become. He had a huge influence on me when I was a young intellectual -- that line about poems being "bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step" has lived inside me since I first read in '76 or 77 and I think it contributed to my decision to be an activist. His later work didn't affect me as powerfully, but he's been so strongly present as a mentor figure & example that he dwarfs pretty much every other living poet I can think of in terms of influence except maybe Allen Ginsburg.  He practically haunts popular culture, from film to the music industry. (Remember his "be a spirit not a ghost" appearance in Bullworth?)  Fascinating, contradictory, brilliant guy...

            "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

            by hepshiba on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 01:47:46 PM PST

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      •  The "Harlem Renaissance" has, of course, been (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Chitown Kev, hepshiba, Portlaw, tardis10

        recognized by so many other critics as being the good stuff, that Vendler can safely do so, especially as the movement for which she makes her exception is long dead in its own terms and its own literal voices, because life has moved on to make more room for more voices, not just the few who battled their way to visibility in the days when what they had to prove as well as their own souls was that they could do it as well as the ....., something I do believe the Renaissancers might cheer, although not loudly, from their cloud. The Talented Tenthers are some of their children as well.

        Vendler is a child of her time, one which was involuntarily widening to include lots of voices whom her class had theretofore been able to ignore, when not sneering at, and the current push to reverse some of that which is so pronounced in current politics and some parts of culture. She seems to resent Dove's making a different effort with some of the same fat credentials from Vendler's own side. She is doing her part to redeem the superiority of her part of culture, and her with it, against Dove's attempt to begin to identify and create by recognition alternative voices not in Vendler's heritage, and encouraging by listing some of them and some of their work, subject to rights clearance issues, and encouraging readers to try a bit of this and of that. . . . because it is ultimately the readers' collective action which will determine what the good stuff is, if readers can find it. And a little pointing helps a lot of readers, if Penguin is the publisher.

      •  I mean, here Vendler reminds me a lot (1+ / 0-)
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        of Charlotte Osgood Mason.

        I mean, Vendler actually wrote this about one of Dove's poems:

        "When I first read this poem and some of its' companions from 'Mandolin,' I experienced the best of all poetic delights- feeling that something was very beautiful and not knowing why"

        Helen Vendler, The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, p. 450

        I mean, has it come to this:

        Perhaps Dove’s two years as poet laureate helped foster the impression that poetry should be written in “plain American that cats and dogs can read” (Moore, satirizing English views of America).

        Now all of a sudden Dove has become the reigning queen of Niggerati Manor and she inviting all of the black folks into the hallowed halls of American literature.

        Even a Nobel Prize winner!

        Lawd ha' mercy!

        the more I look at this issue, the more I regret this comment

        •  Heh. At least Mason paid the bills (5+ / 0-)

          of a lot of good poets.

          But I wouldn't demonize Vendler either -- she's more sad than anything else, as all suddenly peripheral mainstream intellectuals & critics are sad. She can't hurt Rita Dove and her words only point out her superfluous nature.  Even the NY Review can't hurt Rita Dove anymore; Dove has moved beyond them in reach and influence. Vendler & the NY Review can spin in circles with institutional racism on automatic cycle, but they can't reach outside their own sphere, where Dove no longer lives.  And this is a good thing.

          We've seen a fascinating resurgence of popular poetry in the last 50 years, and the literati have almost nothing to do with it.  Do you know that a good cowboy poet can draw an audience of 40,000 people? Look how many folks will watch slams on MTV and YouTube.  Poetry is back outside the academy where it belongs, for the most part.  Even the best "literary" poetry small presses are outside the universities these days. It's no hothouse flower; it's a popular art, and we should celebrate it as such.

          "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

          by hepshiba on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 02:16:09 PM PST

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