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Poetry knockdown: Harvard prof disses new anthology

Posted by Delia Cabe  December 13, 2011 09:09 AM

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In this corner: Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, former U. S. Poet Laureate, Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

In the opposite corner: Helen Vendler, Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor, Department of English, Harvard University, author of numerous books about poetry, critic.
Thumbnail image for rita dove 2010.jpgVS.Thumbnail image for vendler_2.jpg

Round 1
Dove is editor for The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Over four years, she selects what she deems the best poems of the past century. Penguin publishes the anthology on Oct, 25. Publisher's Weekly, in a starred review, calling it "a fresh look at the canon," writes, "This book is sure to become an important resource for those interested in poetry, and especially students, for decades to come." Because of rights permissions problems, Dove does not include several Wallace Stevens poems as she'd hoped.
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Round 2
In the Nov. 24 edition of New York Review of Books, Vendler has an essay titled, "Are These the Poems to Remember?." Among the things she says about the new Penguin anthology:

When Dove is not sympathetic to a given poet, her remarks on the poetry itself can be misleading
Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth?
One wants the contemporary poets of Dove’s collection to ask more of their language, to embody more planes of existence, to dip and pivot like the seagull. There are such poets living now, but they are either absent or in short supply in this book.

Vendler, a Wallace Stevens scholar, also writes,

But I would still have been hungry for more than the six pages here of Wallace Stevens, more than the single poem by James Merrill.

and,
So she chooses to represent Wallace Stevens by five plain-voiced poems from his first book, Harmonium (1923), and one short posthumously published poem (1957), skipping more than thirty years of Stevens’s powerfully influential writing. Did Dove feel that only these poems would be graspable by the audience she wishes to reach? Or is it that she admires Stevens less than she admires Melvin Tolson, who receives fourteen pages to Stevens’s six? Or is it that she believes that Stevens has had more than enough exposure, and that he doesn’t really need any more?

Round 3
Dove writes a letter to the editors of the New York Review of Books, which appearS in the December 22 issue and is posted on NYRB's website. Among the points in Dove's 1700-plus-word rebuttal makes:

Helen Vendler seems to have allowed outrage to get the better of her, leading to a number of illogical assertions and haphazard conclusions. I have no desire to engage a critic in a debate on aesthetic preferences and consequent selection—to each her own—but I cannot let her get away with building her house of cards on falsehoods and innuendo.
[I]n juxtaposing a great Anglo-American poet with a great African-American one, Vendler immediately draws unsubstantiated conclusions that fit her bias.

Dove ends her letter:

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.

Round 4
Vendler replies in one sentence

I have written the review and I stand by it.

EVD-boxeo-006
On The Takeaway this morning, co-host John Hockenberry spoke to Patrik Henry Bass, books editor for Essence about the kerfuffle. The Takeaway, noting that whether the fact that race is "tangential to, or central to, the issue," wrote on its site, "The incident has many in the poetry world talking about issues of race, aesthetics, and who belongs in the poetry books, and who does not."

Take a listen:

Do you think, as Bass asserts, that this brouhaha is more about a "generational shift" in the world of poetry and collision of the old guard vs. new guard? What American poems do you think are the standouts of the twentieth century?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Delia Cabe's work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Self, Prevention, Scientific American Presents, and other publications. In between posts, you can read Cabe's tweets at http://twitter.com/#!/DeliaCabe, More »

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