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One of the juicier literary feuds in recent memory has erupted within the pages of The New York Review of Books between Harvard Professor Helen Vendler and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rita Dove.

At issue is Vendler's scathing review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry, edited and introduced by Rita Dove. Vendler's review calls to mind the literary canon/criticism battles of the 1980's (think Allen Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind). It's a worthy discussion to have and, frankly, I do agree with Vendler on some of the points that she makes in her NYRB essay.

However, the topic of race seems to occupy the core of Vendler's arguments. More sprecifically, Vendler unleashes entirely too much racial vitriol because of Dove's choice to place poets of color at the center of the anthology's account of the later half of the twentieth century.

Rita Dove...has shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.

[Teabagger-ism as literary criticism (oh, noes, the negroes are taking over!)
is really not a good look.]

Rita Dove's classic response ends with this takedown

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.

I do not want to examine the multiple issues that lie beneath the virtriol of the essay. Instead, I want to focus narrowly on Vendler's ideas of a limited literary canon (which I do agree with in principle).

UPDATE:  Thank you for all of the tips, the recs, the comments and the WRECK LIST (my first time!)

And a special thank you to Kossack Portlaw for suggesting that this was a great topic for a diary.

One of Vendler's primary objections to Dove's project is Dove's inclusion of 175 poets in the anthology. Vendler proclaims that "No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading." But perhaps the reason for that is that literacy, itself, was not widespread (especially for African Americans) until the 20th century.

However, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, illiteracy was very common. In 1870, 20 percent of the entire adult population was illiterate, and 80 percent of the black population was illiterate. By 1900 the situation had improved somewhat, but still 44 percent of blacks remained illiterate. The statistical data show significant improvements for black and other races in the early portion of the 20th century as the former slaves who had no educational opportunities in their youth were replaced by younger individuals who grew up in the post Civil War period and often had some chance to obtain a basic education. The gap in illiteracy between white and black adults continued to narrow through the 20th century, and in 1979 the rates were about the same.

Even in Britain, literacy rates apparently began to rise exponentially only in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even then, the ability to read did not necessarily mean the ability to write or even to have the ability to sign one's name to essential documenation much less to write poetry.

In other words, until the 20th century, reading and writing was largely confined to those with a good measure of economic privilege, education, and a room of their own.

But given the 20th century expansion of literacy, the sheer greater numbers of printed reading materials, the proliferation of public libraries, etc., and...hell, population growth, it seems only natural that more people are reading, more and greater varieties of people are writing, more and greater varieties of people are publishing their work, and more and greater varieties people are doing quality literary work, including in poetry.

A greater democratization of "the canon" is in order.

More poets and greater varieties of styles and cultures actually did come with the expansion of civil rights, media technologies, and literacy for everyone, not simply "elites."

After all, one could argue that the expansion of those rights for women, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities,and sexual minorities is the American story of the 20th century, in large part.

And while I share Vendler's concern over the quality of that canon, given the racist sentiments of her NYRB essay, I can't say that I exactly trust her to be the guardian of those standards.

Originally posted to Chitown Kev on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 04:28 PM PST.

Also republished by White Privilege Working Group, Barriers and Bridges, Readers and Book Lovers, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Applause for Rita Dove (35+ / 0-)

    won't type what I think of Vendler - it would get me a HR.

    "If you're in a coalition and you're comfortable, you know it's not a broad enough coalition" Bernice Johnson Reagon

    by Denise Oliver Velez on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 04:35:42 PM PST

  •  Great discussion; thanks for bringing it here. (26+ / 0-)

    I have an ambivalent attitude toward the canon: in some eras it's a kind of necessary evil that's more effective once you know how to manage its drawbacks, and it sounds like Dove made some judgment calls that are worth debating, but understandable.  In the classroom I tend to teach canonical works with a few non-canonical ones sprinkled in, and make the whole canon issue part of the discussion itself.  For the contemporary area, there's nothing like a greater democratization of the field to capture the kind of society we've become.  

    It's a pity that Vendler hung her hat on the issue of black poets crowding out the white: if the rest of her criticisms are accurate, then Dove did something of a disservice in her poorly researched introduction to the poems.  Instead Vendler comes off looking reactionary and, yeah, more than a little racist.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 04:43:42 PM PST

  •  Helen Vendler is not racist (16+ / 0-)

    I sat in on her classes.  I don't always agree with her (for example, she admires Jorie Graham), but she is our most insightful critic of poetry. Yes, she is a terrible snob, but who could argue against her interpretations of Shakespeare's sonnets or Emily Dickinson's poetry?

    The opposite of "good" is "good intention" - Kurt Tucholsky

    by DowneastDem on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 04:45:37 PM PST

    •  I think that's the key here (22+ / 0-)

      She's an aesthete of the sort that's disinclined to make any allowances for the World.

      But nobody's buying flowers from the flower lady.

      by Rich in PA on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 04:54:11 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's what I've gathered (20+ / 0-)

        and it's little wonder that she can make no sense of Amiri Baraka's poem, Black Art.

        In that poem, Baraka (no mean aesthetician himself!) questions the very utility of aestheticism at a time when black leaders are being killed.

      •  I Think You Are Too Generous (9+ / 0-)

        Imagine if Dove was making an anthology not of American poetry but of American music in the last 100 years.

        Then imagine if the quoted section was written about the musical anthology:

        "Rita Dove . . . has decided . . . to shift the balance, introducing more black [musicians] and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These [musicians] are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations."

        It would be absolutely ludicrous, because African-Americans evidently did have greater influence over American music in the last 50 years as they did in all of American arts, say, theater and motion pictures. I wouldn't be kind enough to call anyone who refuses to acknowledge the African-American influence in modern American music "aesthete of the sort that's disinclined to make any allowances for the World," just as I wouldn't for somoene who does the same about modern American letters. Ignorant is the most charitable word I can conjure.

        •  Music is pretty stratified into high and lowbrow (0+ / 0-)

          Poetry in our society is basically high and higher.  So Vendler has a bit more license to be an aesthete.  All poetry is classical music.

          But nobody's buying flowers from the flower lady.

          by Rich in PA on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 04:05:40 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Ignorant? Please. Picky, maybe . . (0+ / 0-)

          but there simply aren't 175 great poets in the history of the English language, let alone in the 20th century . . .

          I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. ~Thomas Jefferson

          by bobdevo on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 04:13:41 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

            •  Well alright then, as Slingblade might say . . . (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Chitown Kev

              Let's start by identifying poets who are beyond dispute considered to be great:


              more recently

              Dorn (personal choice of mine)

              if you can tell me a majority of literate speakers of English will recognize any of the names in Ms. Dove's collection 400 years from now . . . then maybe they're great . . .

              I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. ~Thomas Jefferson

              by bobdevo on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 06:53:19 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Everyone knows who Langston Hughes is (4+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                esquimaux, HugoDog, grrr, Plox

                and the quality of his poems...I mean seriously.

                And people will know who Langston Hughes is 400 years from from now.

                Everyone knows who Allen Ginsberg (and he's not in Dove's collection) is. And will know who Allen Ginsberg is 400 years from now.

                •  Also... (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  grrr, Samer

                  one of the notable older names absent from your list is Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

                  Coleridge is a great Shakespeare critic as well.

                  •  Oh, you forgot William Blake, too. (2+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    grrr, Samer

                    You forgot Edmund Spenser...and I'm pulling these off of the top of my head...and I haven't even studied that much poetry.

                    •  Absolutely! Throw in Blake, Coleridge, (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:

                      Spenser, Poe, Sandburg, Frost, Roethke, Snyder, Ferlinghetti, Longfellow, Whittier . . . and, again, we're nowhere close to 175

                      I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. ~Thomas Jefferson

                      by bobdevo on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 07:41:18 AM PST

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  Don't forget Hardy, Cummings... (0+ / 0-)

                        ...both of the Brownings, Thomas. Tennyson, Longfellow, Campion, Herbert.  This list can go on for a very long time, and we haven't even touched on the 17th & 18th centuries.

                      •  Only two women in your original list (3+ / 0-)
                        Recommended by:
                        poco, Lisa, mamamedusa

                        (Unless I'm mistaking someone's last name). Joanna Russ wrote a great book-length essay titled "How to Suppress Women's Writing." In it she noted (among other things) that women's representation in anthologies over the past century has remained at a steady 5% (I'm ballparking the number because I don't have the book in front of me, but it was a steady percentage that was around 5-8%.) This was regardless of how many women were writing at the time. The names of the women writers considered great might change, but always it was that same allotment of space in the anthology, the women's corner, that never gets any larger no matter how many women enter the field.

                        Ms. Russ's point applies to minority writers as well (and is explicitly part of her argument). Her larger point is that men (who control ideas and culture) do not want to give any of that control to non-dominant groups, so there are a number of strategies employed to delegitimize non-dominant writers and artists. One of those is keeping the majority of anthology space for "important" male writers and offering token space to others.

                        I bring this up because your idea of the canon is rather unreflecting, arguing from received knowledge of the "greats" without consideration of what biases went into their selection. Ms. Dove has done all of us a great service by forming a more representative anthology; Ms. Vendler responds with the classic argument that doing so means shorting the amount of space available to white men. And why do white men need 95% of the space? How did they come to "own" that much space in the anthology in the first place?

                        Joanna Russ makes the whole case with a great deal more eloquence than I have; I recommend her book How to Suppress Women's Writing. It really changed my thinking.

                •  Great -add them to the list . . . (0+ / 0-)

                  we're still not anywhere close to 175 GREAT poets . . .

                  I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. ~Thomas Jefferson

                  by bobdevo on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 07:39:15 AM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  but again define "great"... (3+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    esquimaux, poco, bobdevo

                    even Helen Vendler MIGHT be inclined to throw Rita Dove onto that list.

                    the only criteria that you suggest are those poets whom "a majority of literate speakers of English" know.

                    Define "literate" in the context of the fact that not all that many people read poetry (or much of anything else, for that matter) nowadays.

                    I remember have this conversation when black novelist E. Lynn Harris passed a few years ago; so many people want to put Harris on the level of James Baldwin.

                    I took a lot of heat by pointing out that Harris was nowhere near the quality of writer that Baldwin was (nor did Harris claim to be anywhere near that level)...

                    Unlike Vendler, I might throw Baraka on that list of 175 GREAT poets of the English language (and the only other black poets that I would throw on that list of 175 GREAT English language poets of ALL TIME would be Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks...and I'm leaving off a lot of really, really good poets with that).

                  •  Pope, Sydney, Marlowe, Berryman, Lowell, Rich, (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:

                    Ashbery, Walcott, . . . I like this game.  Then there are the less consistent, who occasionally write canon-worthy poems: among others, Herbert, Smart, Hopkins, Jarrell, Moore, Brooks, Rexroth, Rukeyser, Wakoski, etc.  And the living poets besides Ashbery who will probably endure if culture endures.  I'm thinking of Lauterbach, Simic, Susan Howe, maybe Franny Howe.  Linton Kwesi Johnson.  We're talking english language, here. I'm leaving plenty out and not even walking over to my library. Hughes was mentioned above.  This is fun!

                    Life is good. Injustice? Not so much.

                    by westyny on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 08:37:49 AM PST

                    [ Parent ]

              •  Every one of those poets' work (5+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                poco, Chitown Kev, badger, grrr, mamamedusa

                has been subject to dispute. That's pretty much the point of poetry -- there is no absolute aesthetic yardstick, no matter how much some academic gatekeepers would like to pretend there is.  You left Blake off your list, for goodness sake.  And I'd take Etheridge Knight over Sylvia Plath any time of the day.  Elliot & Pound leave me cold, but cummings (absent from your list) floats my boat.  And Ed Dorn?  Why him and not Frank O'Hara or Mark Strand?  Personal preference, that's why. I'll take Margaret Atwood over Dorn any day of the week. Why? Because she moves me more.  So does May Sarton & Elizabeth Bishop, but they're not on your list. Why do we have to pretend that hardly any poetry is "worthwhile" when there's a wealth of fantastic writing out there.

                The whole "400 years from now" argument is just goofy.  Nobody knows what we'll be reading 400 years from know, and pretending that you do has no purpose other than to place yourself at the top of some imagined hierarchy.  Will people read 400 years from now?  Were there not 175 other great poets in Homer's time?  Have they vanished because they were not "as good"?

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

                by hepshiba on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 10:18:45 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  I'll throw in a vote for Ogden Nash (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:

                  No, he was not a "great poet" in that he'd ever be nominated for a Nobel Prize, but there are few poets with as deft a touch at comic poetry.

                  We don't want our country back, we want our country FORWARD. --Eclectablog

                  by Samer on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 12:11:07 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                •  Don't forget population growth over time (0+ / 0-)

                  The global population grew from 1 billion in 1804 to 7 billion in 2011. Assuming the same distribution of poetic greatness in the population, 175 great poets now would equate to 25 great poets 200 years ago, and following that geometric growth rate, 4 great poets 400 years ago. And 8,575 in 400 years (by which time we'd better be on more planets).

                  Math is fun!

        •  As long as rap is excluded as not being music I'm (0+ / 0-)

          OK with this analogy.

          Some...spoke with strong and powerful voices, which proclaimed in accents trumpet-tongued,"I am beautiful, and I rule". Others murmured in tones scarcely audible, but exquisetly soft and sweet, "I am little, and I am beloved"." Armandine A.L. Dupin

          by Kvetchnrelease on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 05:09:15 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  There's plenty of decent rap, (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            thorn in your side

            and some good, even.

            "But there's one thing that gives every Marine the willies, and anyone saying otherwise is a liar. Drop pods. That shit is terrifying, son."

            by Shaviv on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 05:37:30 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  As with all music, some is good much is bad (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              This is one of my favorite rappers. He raps in French, which I do not understand, but he has a great control over rhythm and sound. French can swing from fluid to percussive which makes it an interesting language for spoken word. With the help of online translators, I've begun to appreciate the lyrics, too --

              "what did surprise me was their supposition that nobody would notice they were lying"

              by harrije on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 11:33:15 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

          •  not your call (0+ / 0-)

            your personal preference is not a universal standard... and if that means you wont be ok with the analogy... you do you; your disapproval means nothing to anyone else.

            Fear doesn't just breed incomprehension. It also breeds a spiteful, resentful hate of anyone and everyone who is in any way different from you.

            by awesumtenor on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 09:00:55 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  careful your bigot is showing (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Hip-hop (of which Rap is a subset) is a very eccletic genre.

            I'd put Gangster's Paradise up against any peice of music you care to produce when it comes to emotional impact.

            They got the situation, they got me facin'
            I can't live a normal life, I was raised by the strip
            So I gotta be down with the hood team
            Too much television watchin' got me chasin' dreams
            I'm an educated fool with money on my mind
            Got my ten in my hand and a gleam in my eye
            I'm a loc'ed out gangsta, set-trippin banger
            And my homies is down, so don't arouse my anger, fool
            Death ain't nuthin but a heart beat away
            I'm livin life do-or-die-a, what can I say?
            I'm twenty-three now, but will I live to see twenty-fow'?
            The way things are goin' I don't know

            Rap at its best is poetry set to music, just because some of it is mass produced garbage does not change the fact that it's a perfectly valid musical form.

            While like any other musical form rap can be commercialized crap it can and often is thought provocking social commentary, often even what might seem to be mass market crap can disguise real messages often counter to their surface meaning.

            Even something as supposedly trashy and vulgur as Eminem's "My name is" is laced with biting social commentary cutting deep to the heart of of our societal disfunction.

            What is music after all but a way to communicate emotion and tell stories.

            Of course once you leave the mainstream it gets even more provocative, consider.


            Now tell me again how Rap ain't music.

            •  Not liking Rap is bigotry? (0+ / 0-)

              I think not.

              2.1 million Texans voted Democratic in the 2010 midterms. How many people in YOUR state voted D in 2010?

              by Rick Aucoin on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 11:38:38 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Claiming that it's not music (0+ / 0-)

                Suggests such.

                I don't like country, but you won't see me claiming it shouldn't be considered music.

                Also context matters, Considering this is in a thread about the bigotry of one elitist, to then come around and try to discount a genre that is primarily the product of black culture definitely reinforces the suggestion.

                Btw like that this is your only take away from my reply and you provide no justification other than personal taste for why it shouldn't be considered music.

            •  Those are fine examples of Rap, but like poetry (0+ / 0-)

              not everything that is written down in verse--whatever format you wish to ascribe--rises to the level of poetry. I am not alone in thinking rap is not music. I really don't know what it is. Having this opinion is not racist--wasn't Blondie one of the first artists to rap? Rappers, is that a word, are most certainly artists, just not musicians in my mind. But that is only my opinion much like the opinion given by Prof. Vendler in the sense there is no objective criteria as to what constitutes music or poetry.

              Some...spoke with strong and powerful voices, which proclaimed in accents trumpet-tongued,"I am beautiful, and I rule". Others murmured in tones scarcely audible, but exquisetly soft and sweet, "I am little, and I am beloved"." Armandine A.L. Dupin

              by Kvetchnrelease on Thu Dec 15, 2011 at 01:38:41 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

    •  I agree with this (14+ / 0-)

      In fact, in one anthology that she edited, she actually included several Rita Dove poems. Generally, she thinks highly of Dove, the poet.

      In her introduction to the anthology itself, Dove also said
      that her perspective in editing the volume was not that of a "scholar's dissecting eye" but that of a "contemporary poet" from the margins of society.

      Vendler believes (and states in her essay) that people overcome their backgrounds and become elites.

      Pegging poets to their origins doesn’t change the fact that they leave those origins behind and live the “elite” life of the educated, even when, like Whitman, they live in poverty.

      Your origins are never left behind, that statement of Vendler's is dripping in all sorts of privilege.

    •  but several of her comments were n/t (10+ / 0-)

      "If you're in a coalition and you're comfortable, you know it's not a broad enough coalition" Bernice Johnson Reagon

      by Denise Oliver Velez on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 05:00:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I took a course with her in the early 80s (15+ / 0-)

      She sure must have changed, because back then Vendler talked too fast, blatantly played favorites, used terms without defining them, and insisted on reinterpreting Keats' Odes according to her own scheme, which required them to be read out of composition and publication order.   Worst course I ever took, and a major reason I never got my PhD.

    •  I took her class (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Samer, Portlaw, mamamedusa

      and she does do a wonderful job with Shakespeare, but her snobbishness does not excuse narrow mindedness, even if it contributes to it.

      "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them"

      by ItsJessMe on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 08:02:01 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Curious about your evidence. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      thorn in your side, poco, mamamedusa

      Unfortunately, I think it's possible to be all of the good things you mention (insightful critic, skilled interpreter of Shakespeare and Dickinson) and still be racist.  Perhaps there was something in her classes that was evidence of a lack of bigotry?

    •  That's nice (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      but it is not evidence of her not being a racist. How many conversations have you had with her regarding black 20th century poets and their work?

      Fear doesn't just breed incomprehension. It also breeds a spiteful, resentful hate of anyone and everyone who is in any way different from you.

      by awesumtenor on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 08:55:07 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  sweet jesus! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Chitown Kev, mamamedusa

      Her outburst seems a bit petty and childish. Too many poets? How utterly terrible that she can't imagine a world in which there are more than a handful of great artists per medium per century.

      I wonder what, to her, is the appropriate number. Is there a range? Are we to be limited to no more than twenty but no fewer than fifteen great poets? Does she secretly long to name that twenty-first but can't be seen to publicly disagree with those hard and fast poetry laws?

      I, for one, am glad she doesn't turn her powers of critique on the world of photography.  

  •  I know who Helen Vendler is (19+ / 0-)

    because at one time I was reading a lot of Wallace Stevens, and she's written at least one significant critical volume about his poetry. On the other hand, Adrienne Rich takes an entirely different tack with Wallace Stevens, a modern American poet whom she admires. In some ways, her criticism is more interesting than Vendler's, because it takes into account race and class as factors that influenced Stevens' creativity and artistic vision.

    Sound pretty nerdy? :) It is. So's this diary, in a good way.

    Eventually, literary culture percolates downward to inform modern culture.

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 04:45:58 PM PST

    •  I saw her speak (17+ / 0-)

      at my alma mater around 97-98. She had just published her book on Shakespeare's sonnets, and was already becoming the 'it' voice for close reading analysis. I found her readings innovative and refreshing, but only within the parameters of 'the canon.' You won't find in any of her books a poet outside of or on the fringe of the canon. Her book on Plath was published only last year, well after Plath's fringy-ness.

      We've heard this tired argument before from Harold Bloom: poetry is an art, first and foremost; standards are standards for a reason; blah blah blah. We, the academics, have had the either/or argument and have decided both/and. What you say and how you say it and when you say it are all equally relevant, the weight is only determined by the subject at hand.

      Conservatives like Bloom and Vendler like to think of the canon as a club that one must earn the right to join. What they fail to see is that those bestowing the golden key are simply searching for an ideal that is a reflection of their own mind. It is not a mystery to the rest of us why the 'club' is homogenous in gender, race, and artistry. To Bloom and Vendler, any deviation from the standard model of the art of the poem (created, championed, and molded by the Western world) is suspect, and to include these non-vetted hysterics side-by-side with Milton and the like in a canonical anthology is simply heresy.

      Educators, go forth and educate. Leave these defenders to guard the rear.

      Inquiry that does not achieve coordination of behaviour is not inquiry but simply wordplay - Richard Rorty

      by BuckMulligan on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 10:24:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I have to bring up Dead Poets Society. (10+ / 0-)

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 04:51:09 PM PST

  •  I knew I knew that name! (14+ / 0-)

    Many years ago I subscribed to the NY Review of Books; I stopped because reading my New Yorkers left me with no time for anything else, and also because many of the articles were about things I had no interest poetry.  But I did remember Vendler provoking a firestorm by criticizing feminist poetry in much the same way she's criticizing Dove's anthology now.

    But nobody's buying flowers from the flower lady.

    by Rich in PA on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 04:53:02 PM PST

  •  oh shit lmao are you kidding me? (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chitown Kev, poco, Kitsap River, ER Doc

    jeeeeez I gotta get my dad's take on this one lol WOW.

    This comment is dedicated to my mellow Adept2U and his Uncle Marcus

    by mallyroyal on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 05:09:45 PM PST

  •  My favorite title for that publication (13+ / 0-)

    has always been......

    The New York Review of Each Other's Books.

    These kinds of literary squabbles have long been it's stock and trade.

  •  But... (15+ / 0-)

    given what the 20th century was and which groups of people were coming to have more public voice, as well as the forms of voice called upon by the events and the artists, couldn't one make a pretty good argument that voices of color in 20th century poetry are a sizable representation of the poetry?

    I know most of the poets I both read and recognized, post 1970 were primarily African American.

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 05:16:49 PM PST

  •  Vendler was great on the metaphysicals; (16+ / 0-)

    I loved reading her analysis of Donne and Marvell, and later of course, of Wallace Stevens. But this and other reviews suggest a rigidified mind, one that is unable to move beyond the boundaries she has created for herself.

    Donne and Marvell, and Stevens and Hopkins are brilliant--absolutely, mind-blowingly brilliant, and I thank Vendler for bringing some of that amazingness to our notice.

    The problem arises when you only recognize one way of being brilliant--which is pretty much the problem with a literary canon. If you only recognize one way of being brilliant, that means, that like Vendler, you do not recognize the absolute mind-blowing brilliance of Gwendolyn Brooks, or of Derek Walcott, because their artistic output does not conform to the rigid standards and literary and aesthetic greatness that you have decided are the only measures.

    She sounds these days like Gertrude Himmelfarb and veers occasionally into the territory of Lynn Cheney, and it is very sad to see this.

    It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

    by poco on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 05:59:02 PM PST

  •  SHE EXCLUDES (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Kresnik

    Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg so no Helen Vendler needed to conclude that the collection is witless and clueless.  That's all.

  •  How am I doing (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kimball Cross

    replicating the usual "literary" blah blah with Panache?

    Should "Panache" have been included since he may be French?

  •  God (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cfk, Portlaw, Kimball Cross

    you look around and wonder what price...go through...twice.

    Which brings to mind Christopher Ricks...we need a 20th century anthology from him...and I even say this even remembering that after I read at a reading officiated by him he remarked I had a wee bit too much Frank O'Hara in me.  I was stunned. Me?  Hot damn!

  •  Etymologically 'anthology' means a gathering of (7+ / 0-)


    Vendler didn't like some of Dove's flowers and thought others were missing that ought to have been included.

    Essentially, Vendler argued that some flowers weren't flowers at all, but branches, twigs, or stems. We make bouquets differently, these days:

    Vendler's ideas about canon and quality are beyond dull, and her dismissive comparison of Brooks with Wordsworth is shockingly stupid.

    So Vendler would offer a different anthology? So what.

    "Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible" "Be realistic, demand the impossible." Graffiti from Paris, May 1968

    by absolute beginner on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 09:40:44 PM PST

    •  Vendler did an anthology (4+ / 0-)

      back in the late 80's early 90's.

      She had pages and pages of Wallace Stevens and James Merrill and a few pages of Rita Dove.

      Also, I tend to agree that an anthology of 20th century poetry that doesn't include Sylvia Plath or Allen Ginsburg is not a complete anthology.

      BUt I would also say that any 20th century poetry anthology that does not include Amiri Baraka is not complete (especially Baraka's early stuff).

      Even if you read Black Art, as obnoxious and offensive as that poem admittedly seems at this time, the Beat influence on Baraka screams at you.

      The way Vendler tells it, Black Art was inserted into the anthology willy-nilly; actually Dove includes 3 other poems by Baraka (including Baraka's very famous Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note so context is there to realize that something was going on with Baraka. And I did notice that the poem had been reprinted in other anthologies.

      •  Vendler attacked Dove's anthology for not (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Chitown Kev, poco

        including enough difficult poetry and for not being exclusive enough.

        From whose point of view is the problem of non-exclusion a problem at all? The lapse, if it is one, in policing the borders has to do with cultural authority more than poetic quality, something that Vendler ought to have been more capable of reflecting on in her rather personal and mean-spirited review.

        Does anyone seriously consider any anthology to be capable of being representative of a given century?

        Where's Susan Howe or Charles Bernstein? Where's Michael McClure, Joanne Kyger, Bob Kaufman, or Aram Saroyan? Where's Reznikoff or Zukofsky? Choices are made and important voices are always left out.

        As for the suggestion that Dove's anthology was dumbed down, I have very little patience for that kind of academic cattiness.

        Hopefully, the dust-up will get more people to buy the book since there's no such thing as bad press.

        "Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible" "Be realistic, demand the impossible." Graffiti from Paris, May 1968

        by absolute beginner on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 01:19:36 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Dove AND Vendler are correct because (4+ / 0-)

    The 20th Century in American Poetry began with a bang--Frost, TS Eliot, WC Williams, Stevens, Jeffers etc, evened out and broadened with Lowell, Ginsberg, Dickey, etc, then stagnated with a few notable exceptions such as Marvin Bell and Rita Dove!

    But US Poetry is not the people's poetry, the peole's conscience, it is now the domain of acedemie, so Dove is correct to water down the list because it is populated by Xerox-copies of Academia, [and how do you justify excluding any of the Lilliputans, particularly Jorie Graham?] and Vendler is correct to point out that this sux.

    If only Auden had been born on our shores and not just borne here!

    My best guess was a reflection that did not look back, an image lost in every mirror.

    by Zacapoet on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 10:55:25 PM PST

  •  I would add one more requisite to reading and (10+ / 0-)


    In other words, until the 20th century, reading and writing was largely confined to those with a good measure of economic privilege, education, and a room of their own.

    Time.  If all your time is spent trying to keep a room of your own, gaining an education and keeping yourself a few inches about the poverty line ... you have no time to read and write

    even this mother, with 4 small children at one time, even in middle class, had no time or energy to read or write

    Bumper sticker seen on I-95; "Stop Socialism" my response: "Don't like socialism? GET OFF the Interstate highway!"

    by Clytemnestra on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 11:00:30 PM PST

  •  Dove and Vendler (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kimball Cross, Zacapoet

    I'm more impressed by the clever rhetorical barbs of Dove's response than I am by her anthology selections.

    Each offers a different flavor of conservative, narrow-minded taste. I don't get the impression that either Dove or Vendler has her fingers on the pulse of what's exciting about contemporary poetry today.

    Dinosaur A meet Dinosaur B.

    "Microscopes are prudent in an emergency." -- Emily Dickinson

    by godotnut on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 12:18:52 AM PST

  •  If there's one thing I'm supremely unfit (3+ / 0-)

    to comment on, it's poetry, contemporary or classic, let alone on commentary on poetry. So I won't. If there's such a thing as color blindness for poetry, I have it. I envy people who don't. It's like computers to people who don't like technology, to me. Also, I never quite understood the vicious sorts of squables that academic literary critics tend to have. Given all the actual suffering in the world, aren't there things actually worth getting furious over?

    And I STILL don't understand literary deconstructionism. Derrida? Pfeh!

    "Liberty without virtue would be no blessing to us" - Benjamin Rush, 1777

    by kovie on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 01:46:26 AM PST

    •  Even Derrida admitted he received many com- (0+ / 0-)

      plaints that it was impossible to tell what he was talking about. From what I know of Derrida, I agree.

      Lea: "You're not going to fly into an asteroid field, are you?" Han Solo: "They'd be crazy to follow us, wouldn't they?"

      by Kimball Cross on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 09:52:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Rita Dove, out of love (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ellid, Portlaw, poco, Kimball Cross, badger, johanus

    Composed her list
    To break silence, imposed
    By power

    Vendler’s list, contrasting Shindler’s
    Showed no mercy
    for voices beaten quiet

    America needs a UNION NEWS channel. We (unions) have the money, we have the talent. Don't buy 30 second time slots on corporate media, union leaders; fund your own cable news channel and tell the real story 24/7/365

    by monkeybrainpolitics on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 02:45:37 AM PST

  •  Surprised at Dove's use of (6+ / 0-)

    "ravished" instead of "ravaged" when describing Prof V's "formidable intellect."

    Hmm. I read Vendler's review. At the very least, V certainly expressed herself very poorly wrt to who is included. It is one thing to convey generally legitimate concern over the staying power of any work (poetic or otherwise), but it is quite another thing to imply that an entire group of poets' work is suspect in that regard — in this case, lesser-known or previously unknown minority poets. Yikes.

    Just because it's made up doesn't mean it isn't true.—Plan 10 from Outer Space

    by mofembot on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 03:05:11 AM PST

  •  Speaking as an elitist (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite, Kimball Cross, orestes1963

    And by that, I mean "as someone who subscribes to the NYRB," and who works with words for a living, I'd say Vendler's review was fair.

    If you are a student of English and want an anthology that gets you up to speed with the greatest poets of the 20th century, Vendler is alerting you to the fact that Dove's book is probably best avoided.

    It's the easiest thing in the world to sift through smaller publications and journals, picking out hitherto unknown poets and stuffing them into a collection where they are then elevated by association with the luminaries of the canon. Any fool can do that.

    A much harder task is to sift through the truly great works and pare them down into a collection that becomes meaningful in and of itself, much as a well-curated exhibit in a museum is far more than a mere assemblage of artifacts.

    In any event, I disagree with the diarist and found no evidence of "teabagger-ism" in Vendler's review.

    Every day's another chance to stick it to the man. - dls

    by The Raven on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 04:27:06 AM PST

    •  I'm not unsympathetic to Vendler's POV (4+ / 0-)

      quite the contrary, I'm a bit of a literary snob myself.

      But Vendler's review didn't say, for example, that only the works of the first half of the 20th century have truly survived the test of time therefore more of those works should be included in the anthology as opposed to all but the most exceptional poetry of the later 20th century (and even with that standard, Baraka gets in).

      And I agreed with Vendler that Dove's introduction was not up to snuff but Vendler felt the need o insult her saying that she's not that good of an essayist.

      Vendler refused to acknowledge that as an actual practicing poet as well as a critic, that Dove might have had different criteria for what needed to be included.

      And both Vendler and Dove were being rather coy on the whole "what is her agenda" question; Vendler didn't think that she had any sort of criteria and Dove agreed with her. I disagreed with both; I was able to discern some of the method by which Dove made her selections.

  •  Now I studied classics so... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Portlaw, thorn in your side

    My problem (and a problem of my classics teachers) is a canon that's far too small.

    In Athenian tragedy, for example, I have 3 tragic poets and a comic poet to choose from. That and tantalizing oh so tantalizing fragments from some of the other tragic authors that compted with Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes.

    Sophocles is reputed to have written the definitive version of the Oedipus/Antigone myth. But many people who haven't studied classics don't know that Aeschylus also wrote a trilogy based on the Oedipus...and a true Atheninan tragic trilogy at that (as opposed to Sophocles 3 plays that spanned 40 years in their respective productions).

    I wish that we did have more Athenian playwrights to choose from. I wish that we had plays from other areas in Greece that held tragic competitions...because then we would have a truer picture of what tragedy and theater was all about.

    I could wonder the same thing about philosophy.

  •  Nonsensical on it's face: (4+ / 0-)

    Rita Dove...has shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors.

    This implies that better-known equals more significant.  Well, Madonna is better know than, say Stockhausen, but I doubt that merits inclusion in any showcase of 20th-century composers

    These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.

    Got to wonder if anger can't be expressed artistically.  Perhaps people of color has more incentive to write about anger than their counterparts for much of the 20th century

    Politics is the entertainment branch of industry. -Frank Zappa

    by TheGrandWazoo on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 06:06:55 AM PST

  •  reminds me of the French Academy (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ferg, blueoldlady, Kimball Cross

    and its task of deleting foreign words from the language to preserve the purity and sanctity of the French language.  It is silly as languages change, mutate and grow,  The same for poetry but then I am reminded that there are those who produce art and those who criticize the production,  Those who produce would seem to occupy the higher ground in the argument  

  •  Attended Vendler's class, not surprised (8+ / 0-)

    I attended Vendler's class in the late 80's and although she is an excellent lecturer, her comments were like poetry appreciation, not poetry criticism. And it clearly had no concern for class, race, gender, historical context, etc. Nor did it have the analytic rigor of the New Critics of the 50s, where you look at individual words and phrases and how they relate to each other and their relationship to the words of other poets. It was like, "isn't this language beautiful?"

    I have not read either Dove's introduction nor Vendler's critique, but everything that has been said about Vendler in this post goes along with my experience in that class. Any poet exhibiting negative emotions or class / race / gender consciousness was given little or no attention (Rimbaud, Plath, etc.) and readers who also brought that kind of rigor or reaction didn't "fit." And I ended up being a Literature major.

    In Vendler's world, if you are Keats, Dickinson, Tennyson, you're golden. As one recent poster cited Baraka, I'll cite him too -- "Baraka, watch out. Your emotions are too much for Helen Vendler." This viewpoint is true whether or not Vendler is liberal or a Democrat politically.

    •  I wanted to discuss schools of literary criticism (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueoldlady, poco, Portlaw

      is  but in some ways, it would be way too narrow and too geeky of a topic of a topic.

      Vendler is very much of the school of the New Criticism (i.e. like I.A. Richards) where art and writing is to be valued for its' own sake and value and timeliness. Historical context, class, sex, and race are considered to be unimportant.

      Which would favor, of course, the finest writers that are of the "norm", that is, white, male, privileged, and already canonical. Under that criticism, a Langston Hughes would still be considered to be a "great" poet (given Hughes' similarities to Whitman) but still, given his Harlem background, a bit "exotic".

      Dove seems to gone down the road of New Historical criticism pioneered by Vendler's Harvard collegue Stephen Greenblatt; which takes historical context as well as race, sex, and class into account when doing literary criticism.

      Personally, I like evaluating literature using a melange of schools of criticism....and already, I talking too much "inside baseball."

    •  Glad you had a better experience than I did (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Portlaw, mamamedusa

      I took a course with her in 1983 and it was so bad I ended up leaving graduate school and gave up on getting a Ph.D. in English.  It was a small seminar and she pretty obviously played favorites...and since my major interest was in medieval and Renaissance poetry, well, I wasn't one of her favorites.

  •  The first part of a poem by Marianne Moore (6+ / 0-)


    I, too, dislike it:  there are things that are important
               beyond all this fiddle.
       Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,
                one discovers that there is in
        it after all, a place for the genuine.
            Hands that can grasp, eyes
             that can dilate, hair that can rise
                  If it must, these things are important not be-
                           cause a

    high sounding interpretation can be put upon them
                   but because they are
      useful; when they become so derivative as to
                 become unintelligible, the
       same thing may be said for all of us -- that we
          do not admire what
           we cannot understand.   .......

    Somewhat useful in the debate, huh?

    Just waitin' around for the new Amy Winehouse album

    by jarbyus on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 08:22:47 AM PST

  •  Yawn (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I'm supposed to be concerned about a flame war between two academics who publish articles in the "New York Review of Each Other's Books?"

  •  All I can say is that in my MFA program (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kimball Cross, poco

    probably a third to half of the poets we've read in various classes have been people of color.  We are reading much more contemporary work, though - mostly the last 30 years - and that may change the balance a bit. I don't believe this mix is particularly deliberate, either.

    I did a short stint in a very traditional MA lit program years ago in Canada, and there 100% of the poets we read were white (and most dead and male).  The only minority authors I ran into there at all - of any genre - were in the post colonial lit class. That would be the only class that didn't put me to sleep.

    It's very easy to assume that the "canon" includes certain characters, but the canon is already fractured enough that even in my pretty average mfa program the reading list has shifted dramatically.  That penguin edition may be more useful to current students than a more old-fashioned list for that reason.

  •  I'm puzzled. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kimball Cross

    I don't understand how someone could object to the inclusion of certain poets in a book. I could see not liking the poetry, but how can you object to the inclusiveness? Maybe Vendler should put together her own anthology.

  •  I come at this from a different perspective (16+ / 0-)

    because I spent a dozen years running a small press that published poetry, and I number several prominent small press poetry publishers among my friends.

    The bottom line:  there's a lot more good poetry written in this  country than will ever see print.  Most of the small poetry presses are so backed up at this point that even poets of good reputation in small press circles have to wait years for a book to  make it to press.  And the big publishers?  They handle almost no poetry at all.  So American poetry is a small press and journal affair.

    My little press (Burning Cities) published 9 volumes in its most prolific year, and I could have published 50 more each year and still upheld the highest standard of quality.  Every other small press publisher I know says the same thing.  So those 175 poets are the tip of the iceberg. To say 175 is "too much" is simply dopey beyond belief.  You can only say that if you have no idea what's out there.

    Of course there's a ton more bad poetry than good. (Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap.)  But almost none of the poetry being published as "good poetry" today is bad poetry (or even inadequate poetry).  It's purely a matter of taste which poets I might choose to publish (working class, political poets) and which poets any given colleague of mine might choose to publish (language poets, narrative poets, nuyorican poets -- whatever niche you choose, there's more good work than any publisher can handle).  

    What you say is good poetry today doesn't matter a whole helluvalot in 50 years.  Poets continue to be read when people continue to get something out of reading them.  We don't have to play "quality gatekeeper" today to prevent the readers of tomorrow from being fooled into thinking that bad poetry is good.  Look at the iterations that even the puffed up, self-important Norton Anthology has been through -- even the opinions of the most rarified gatekeepers change over time.  

    There's room for a thousand "anthologies of 20th century poetry" to bloom.  Rita Dove edited this one.  She made her choices and they were different from Joseph Parisi's, and Arnold Adoff & Gwen Brooks', and Duane Niatem's, and Michael Hulse and Simon Ray's, and Fluer Adcock's.  They certainly weren't the same choices that Robert Hass, John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer & Nate Mackey made.  Or Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair.  Or Ishamel Reed in his 20th C multicultural anthology.  Big deal.  So why is Vendler making her stand here?  It doesn't have to do so much with Rita Dove, as with Vendler's own agenda.  

    And I have to say, it's always about something else when the Culture Wars flare up over poetry.  Nobody gives a damn about poetry except poets and us strange and rare folks who read what poets write.  There's no money for poetry in this country, no funding for poetry centers, no living to be made off poetry books (which is why so much of it is written by people with teaching jobs).  Poetry, in short, doesn't "matter" in the flag-waving sense that people like Vendler want to say it does. The truth is that the best America poetry has always been written by marginal folks who wrote poetry because they couldn't bear to not write poetry.  All of the claims about "greatness" in poets tend to be upheld long after they're dead.

    Good for Rita Dove!  I don't love her poetry, and our taste in poets overlaps only about 40%, but at least she's out there in the trenches making sure that poetry continues to be a living art.  Good for every poet willing to put his or her faith in the power of words.  We're made richer by the publication of every one of them, and not made poorer by putting a single one in print.  I can name 50 poets I think everyone should read, and I'd wager the best-read on this blog won't have heard of one of them.  To rephrase that problematic poet Laura Riding, let everything be published and perhaps some day we'll have a revelation.

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

    by hepshiba on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 09:56:54 AM PST

    •  Fantastic comment! (5+ / 0-)

      wish that I could rec 200 times

      •  Thanks.... (5+ / 0-)

        it's something I'm a little passionate about... :)

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

        by hepshiba on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 10:31:28 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Personally (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I think that Vendler has herself to blame for even making race an issue (and in a very obnoxious way), in this instance.

          There were plenty of legitmate criticisms for Vendler to make.

          I think that one of the real divisions that might have erupted in this case would be the critic vs. practicing artist division.

          As a working poet, I would expect Dove to have some different standards of selection based on that alone.

          •  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

            [ Parent ]

            •  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

                [ Parent ]

                •  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

                    [ Parent ]

              •  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-)
                Recommended by:

                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

                  [ Parent ]

    •  I second, and particularly your words (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      hepshiba, monkeybrainpolitics, poco

      "And I have to say, it's always about something else when the Culture Wars flare up over poetry. "

      I would add, not just poetry, but any Culture Wars topic. It's usually about power by the elites over the masses, God I hate sounding like a Marxist but it's true!

      •  Yes, elites over the masses, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        but it's also always about maintaining racist & patriarchal power structures.  (Which is why I'm an antiracist Marxist feminist. :)

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

        by hepshiba on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 12:11:39 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Poetry takes it power because it connects (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          to you, or because it contrasts so strongly with what you believe to be true.  In either case, it confirms your worldview or radically challenges it.  If a poem or poet does neither, they are not "good" poets to you.  (Leaving aside technical skills.)  Vendler is clearly deeply disconcerted by Dove's collection, because it obviously challenges her worldview.  We live in a time when people are almost completely able to ensconce themselves in cocoons of ideological and economic complacency, if they wish, and in which every chosen media reinforces their views.  Choosing Dove to compile the anthology, then seeing what she chose challenged Vendler on what she considered her home ground--and she doesn't recognize the house (the US) she grew up in. This can be terrifying, as anyone who has observed Alzheimer's sufferers can attest.  I think Vendler's reaction actually confirms the power of the poets Dove chose--the power to challenge one worldview by expressing another.  I shall never forget as a teenager being challenged by another teenager-an African American, over the interpretation of the Confederate battle flag.  His was a powerful expression of the symbol as organized suppression and intimidation, not some putative defense of state's rights and freedom from excessive federalism.  I do not, to this day, see that flag the same way I did as a teenager growing up at the edge of the deep South.

          America needs a UNION NEWS channel. We (unions) have the money, we have the talent. Don't buy 30 second time slots on corporate media, union leaders; fund your own cable news channel and tell the real story 24/7/365

          by monkeybrainpolitics on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 01:46:29 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Excellent points- maybe Vendler never has been (0+ / 0-)

            really challenged in her life! I've had experiences similar to what you describe; my reactions went through denial, to defensiveness, to rethinking my assumptions, to deciding that one of the most important things I could do was to keep rethinking my assumptions.
            If your worldview never gets really challenged, or you continually duck the challenges, it can be really a shock when it finally happens and you can't duck any more.

  •  Literary Anthologies have always been, (6+ / 0-)

    and always will be, tremendously subjective and reflective of the individual editors' tastes as well as what's popular in the academy at the time of publication.  Thus it seems particularly absurd for Vendler to go on a rant about Dove's choices.  There are lots of anthologies of poetry out there; there will be new ones published in the future.  This one will be an interesting reflection of a particularly cultural moment and choice of editor from a new generation.  When you look at what was included in American literature anthologies at the beginning of the 20th century, for example, the list looks totally different than what one might think of as canonical today.  This is a good thing and should be celebrated accordingly.  Dove will not be the last word on who is worthy to anthologize, and neither will Vendler. But bravo to Dove for introducing some fresh and powerful voices into the conversation!

    Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves. --Jane Austen

    by feeny on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 10:07:02 AM PST

    •  Note: Jane Tompkins wrote a good chapter (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueoldlady, Portlaw

      on the subject of literary anthologies and their changing definitions of the "canon" of American literature in her book Sensational Designs:  The Cultural Work of American Fiction. (Oxford, 1985)  The chapter is titled "But is it Any Good?  The Institutionalization of Literary Value," and its account of what was considered canonical according to literary anthologies of different time periods is delightfully eye-opening.

      Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves. --Jane Austen

      by feeny on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 10:16:31 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I haven't looked at this anthology (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Chitown Kev, orestes1963

      but I find myself with mixed feelings.

      I feel as though I side with Dove in terms of editorial control, but Vendler seems to imply that Dove created a ghetto of black poets at the center of the book, rather than disbursed them throughout.

      There are a lot of problems in literary studies dealing with this issue from both angles. The attempt to include more "world" voices, as one commenter here put it, ironically ends up creating categories that marginalizes these anglophone writers from around the world.

      So, there's criticism of canonical rigidity, and then a counter-criticism of the new categories which inevitably place an emphasis on race in the content.

      There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

      by upstate NY on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 10:35:13 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I did look at the anthology (4+ / 0-)

        and Dove didn't do that at all, even in her introduction.

        Instead, Dove distributed the authors in the anthology according to chronology...which is my favored way of doing it.

        I actually am somewhat in agreement with Vendler about Dove's inadequate coverage of the literary movements of the 20th century that informed the poetry in the anthology; I didn't check to see if Dove included a comprehensive bibliography (which would be a great help!)  

        But if the later half of the 20th century has a number of poets of color so much that it can be sharply juxtaposed with the first half of the 20th century, then that does make simply doesn't make the statement that Vendler says it does.

        Now I have seen anthologies that do that; in fact, one of my pet peeves used to be going to the book store and having to look in, say, the African American section to find a James Baldwin or Toni Morrison novel...I rarely see that anymore but that was fairly common 10 years ago (especially at Borders)

        •  yes, that is precisely what I am talking about (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Chitown Kev, monkeybrainpolitics

          Also peeved when a novel written by an African-American  is criticized for avoiding the hard topics of being black in America, as though that's all there is to be discussed.

          There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

          by upstate NY on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 11:15:49 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  Kind of like the French Academy's (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      feeny, esquimaux

      rejection of Impressionism - "tremendously subjective and reflective of what's the time...."

      Fortunately for all of us, the academy, in any of its manifestations, never gets the last word.

  •  A nice (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chitown Kev

    example of economic base influencing superstructure.  Growing population and increased human capital raising the amount of poetty

    Reporting from Tea Bagger occupied America

    by DrJohnB on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 10:29:32 AM PST

  •  This is an age-old argument, marred by a lot (0+ / 0-)

    of  ugly ad hominem, or perhaps ad feminam, attacks by both writers.  Vendler thinks there's a lot more bad poetry out there than good, and that Dove included way too much of the former and not enough of the latter.  Dove thinks Vendler is too much the aesthete to appreciate the value of what is new and different.  You can hear variations on this discussion in the coffee shops adjacent to any English Department in the country (God knows I heard enough of it in the Nonesuch at the Univ. of Chicago).

    I'm not even much fussed by the old argument about the literary "establishment" and how it always tries to keep out the young and the brash.  (Interesting, though, that Dove puts Vendler into this establishment--not too many decades ago, that particular boys club had a "No girls allowed" sign on the door.  On the other hand, Dove might say, once you're in, you get mighty picky about who follows you....)

    It distresses me, however, that accusations of racism have reared their ugly heads.  Vendler, I suppose, invited it, since she seems to think that Dove included a lot of mediocre poems just because they were written by Blacks.  Dove's response, though, is essentially that Vendler thinks the poems are mediocre because they are by Blacks.  Vendler may be unconsciously racist, but no one survives in an English Dept. at an elite institution who is consciously or overtly racist--and more important, I've never seen any evidence of racism in her writing.

    So could we please take this argument back to where it belongs--the Nonesuch?  We get it;  Vendler is an old fogey and Dove has no taste.

    •  The evidence of racism in her writing (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Chitown Kev, poco, Portlaw

      is pretty glaring on the pages of the NY review.  Too many black poets?  Really? You can actually  make a bid to explain that claim away as not racist and think it'll be credible?

      Racism is ugly.  Calling critics out on their (possibly unconscious) racism isn't "ugly." It's reality-based.

      And by the way, I got my Ph.D. at Yale, where the English Department was famous, in the 1990s, for never having granted a Ph.D. to a black scholar.  Racism was so woven into the fabric of the department that professors didn't even blush at discussing "Darkest Africa."

      The authority of your claim that Vendler's not racist because you haven't seen any evidence of racism in her writing is undermined by your peculiar insistence that Vendler's specific condemnation of Dove's anthology because of it's inclusion of too many black poets could not possibly be viewed as racism.

      This has been, in my opinion, a fascinating discussion, and yet there you are, insisting we folks talking about race & writing take the discussion back where it "belongs."  Maybe we aren't where you think the discussion belongs, but I think it's just fine right where it is.

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

      by hepshiba on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 02:25:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  This attribution of the worst motive is exactly (0+ / 0-)

        what I was decrying.  I'm sure that Vendler would say she was not criticizing some of the Black poets that Dove included because they were Black.  Vendler would say that they should not have been included because their poems weren't as good as others which were excluded.  Surely you don't think that poetry by Blacks should not be judged by the same standards as poetry written by poets of other races?  That would be a racist double standard, wouldn't it?

        But I definitely blame Vendler for attributing racist motives to Dove--I said in my original post that she "invited" the accusations of racism by doing so.  Vendler might have simply said Dove made some bad choices--that's legitimate criticism, and we can agree or disagree with her assessment.  She doesn't know what motivated Dove's choices.  It might have been racial preference, or it might simply have been poor taste or poor judgment.  

        Unfortunately, Dove then doubled down by saying that Vendler opposed her choices because Vendler herself is a racist.  Dove doesn't know what motivated Vendler's criticism, and she is perfectly capable of defending her choices without accusing Vendler of racism.

        Finally, hepshiba, you say that I was wrong to

        "claim that Vendler's not racist because you haven't seen any evidence of racism in her writing is undermined by your peculiar insistence that Vendler's specific condemnation of Dove's anthology because of it's [sic] inclusion of too many black poets could not possibly be viewed as racism."

        That's not exactly what I said, or meant, and if I was unclear, I'm sorry.  Again, I understood Vendler to say that Dove included some poems of lesser quality because they were written by Blacks.  Vendler didn't say that they were of lesser quality BECAUSE they were written by Blacks.  Vendler accused Dove of being improperly influenced by race.  This was wrong on her part, but does this automatically mean that Vendler is a racist?  I don't know, and neither do you or Dove.  And this is exactly why I want people to be very careful about accusing each other of racist motives, without better evidence.

        I should also note that when I refer to the lack of evidence of racism in Vendler's writings, I was referring to the whole of her body of work.  I'm not aware that she has shown evidence of racism or been accused of racism, other than in the context of the current discussion.  If she has, I'd appreciate it if you'd point it out.  That might change my opinion.

        •  Simply because Vendler has shown (0+ / 0-)

          no evidence of racism in her previous writings doesn't mean that she is not racist or has not had subliminal racist attitudes all along that Dove's anthology brought to the surface.

          Vendler flat out said that there were too many black poets .(I'm not even going to post one of the quotes coming from Dove's husband about her meticulous counting of the number of minority poets in the volume in the anthology. )

          Vendler didn't mention even the absence of any poetry by Sylvia Plath or Allen Ginsberg.

          I meantioned several flaws that I found in the volume myself (and I'm no Helen Vendler when it comes to literary criticism).

          Additionally, Vendler had the opportunity to specifically state that she had no intention of criticizing the poets of color that are in Dove's anthology solely on the basis of their race/ethnicity. She could have clarified that in her response to Dove. Vendler chose not to.

    •  In the coffee shops near the English depts (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      that I frequent, I see very nice people from these departments, very pc, very careful to be seen as egalitarian to other people of color, especially their colleagues. But when these people of color start talking about diversifying the curriculum, adding more women, African American and other brown people, and subtracting some of the voices from the curriculum (after all every addition has to be met with a subtraction, there are after all, only so many credits we can load onto the poor students), then we hear sputters about "barbarians at the gate!" and "the future of Western Civilization is at stake!"

      Perhaps we need to rethink what constitutes racism and how it manifests itself.  

      It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

      by poco on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 03:29:54 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Good work here, Kev. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chitown Kev, Portlaw

    My forthcoming book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity will be published in Summer 2012 by Potomac Books.

    by Ian Reifowitz on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 02:51:56 PM PST

  •  as far as literacy goes, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chitown Kev, poco

    I have heard of Rita Dove. Have even read some of her work.

    Helen Vendler? Never hear of her. If she's written anything other than this rather nasty bit, I won't go out of my way to read it after this.

    The trouble with quotes on the internet is that it is difficult to determine whether or not they are genuine. -- Abraham Lincoln

    by Mnemosyne on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 02:56:21 PM PST

    •  While I share your contempt of Vendler, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      she has been a very influential critic for lo these many years.

      And for a while, she wasn't bad--did some pretty good analyses on some famous poets--made the readers see what might have been missed.

      But yeah, lately, she has become a racist gatekeeper of Western Civilization and may now safely be ignored, or better yet reviled and mocked.

      It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

      by poco on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 05:39:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Like I said above, I took a class with her (0+ / 0-)

        Wasn't impressed at all.  She had this breathy way of talking that was really hard to take, and the way she played favorites made it clear that if you weren't her pet, you weren't going to do well.

  •  overkill (0+ / 0-)

    Come on now.  Vendler says that Rita Dove uses representation rather than aesthetics as her criterion and that makes her a racist?

    •  Did you know (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Portlaw, poco

      that among the black poets that Dove included were two Pulitzer Prize winners and a Nobel Prize winner (who would be one of those many post-1950 black folks that Dove put into the anthology)?

      And not included among those three prize winners would be Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, or Amiri Baraka (arguably, the most influential poet of the last half of the 20th century)

  •  This is a fascinating diary. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Portlaw, poco, Chitown Kev

    Really great reading, Chitown Kev. I'm glad I clicked on it!

    The feeling of entitlement in this country isn't coming from the poor. The rich think that having almost everything isn't enough. They want it all. -luckylizard

    by Plox on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 05:26:03 PM PST

  •  The literary world is MUCH bigger than before (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chitown Kev

    While the increase in literacy is important (let's call it a doubling of the literacy rate), I'd argue that other factors dwarf that. Specifically, the increase in global population (1 billion in 1804 to 7 billion in 2011) lead to a 7x increase in the size of the literary world. Another huge factor (IMO) would be the increase in the global scope of which cultures were considered to have literature. In the 1800's "literature" was almost entirely European, and they didn't know much about the rest of the planet, while now "literature" is global, so I'd guess that went from 20% of the people on the planet counting to 100%, another 5x expansion. You could throw in another factor to account for sexism, since women were pretty much excluded from being published (except under pseudonyms), so you could call that a 2x expansion of the literary world.

    Multiplying that all out, the 'literary world' grew by (2x7x5x2=140) a factor of 140, which would explain why it would feel a lot less cozy to the original white, rich, European men.

    Add in the internet dramatically reducing the filtering power of publishers, and things must be quite scary indeed to the old school literary world. Heck, anybody can post on Daily Kos and get read by thousands of people, or make a viral video on YouTube and get millions of views, without anyone's permission! Dangerous! :-)

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