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 decided...to 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.