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Some Reflections on The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry (2011)

Rita Dove’s new Penguin anthology has made Amazon’s “Best Books of 2011” list; while the “bestness” of the book is dubious to say the least, the Dove anthology is surely part of the “best” or at least most notable literary controversies of 2011.  The controversy began with Helen Vendler’s scathing review of the anthology in the November 24, 2011 issue of  The New York Review of Books; Dove has since responded in a letter to the editor and publications such as the The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Guardian have picked up the story.  The argument has truly been an ugly one and  Vendler winds up looking like a racist curmudgeon,  Dove winds up looking like an irresponsible anthologist (and less than eloquent defender of the poets she loves), and Penguin winds up looking absolutely fraudulent in its packaging of the anthology.

Vendler’s biggest gripe about the anthology is that there is too much inclusion and not enough aesthetic discrimination:  “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?”  Too much Melvin Tolson, says Vendler, and not enough Wallace Stevens.  This seems like another salvo in the culture wars, a knee-jerk reaction against a multiculturalist agenda. Vendler is rather predictably (and erroneously) presenting “multicultural inclusiveness” and “lasting value” as mutually exclusive.  For Vendler, “lasting value” is somewhat tautologically determined by time itself: “there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?”  Shouldn’t Time, as a personification, be color blind?

Vendler’s awkward passive construction “bestowed” betrays the enormity of her ideological obfuscation.  Time does not somehow magically canonize poets. Poets have staying power because they are anthologized, taught, and written about by critics and scholars such as Vendler herself and her recourse to “the passage of time” and the natural metaphor of “wheat” and “chaff” is disingenuous.  As Roland Barthes has taught us, ideology is nothing more than an effort to pass off the constructed as natural.  The process of winnowing–the exposure of grain to the wind (or a current of air) so that the chaff can be blown away–requires a natural process as well as the intervention of the farmer’s hand.  Poets do not “seep back into the archives” like water; poets are neglected and forgotten.

Vendler observes that “[a]nthologies are wonderful for the young”: “Coming as a young person to this anthology, I would have loved finding such poems.  But I would still have been hungry for more than six pages here of Wallace Stevens, more than a single poem by James Merrill.”  Young people, Vendler is suggesting, will be disserviced by an anthology which “in some cases” gives more space to “black poets” than “better-known authors.”  Vendler fails to imagine a situation in which a young person of color might find inspiration in traditions of writing by non-white authors and unfortunately treats black writing with a patronizing unease:

[D]oesn’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? A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one. And the evolution of modern black poetry does not have to be hyped to be of permanent historical and aesthetic interest. Language quails when it overreaches. The excellent contemporary poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa and Carl Phillips needs no special defense.

Dove’s point–perhaps it could have been more elegantly phrased–that a black woman can write just as well as a white man doesn’t particularly strike me as “hype,” and Vendler’s invocation of Shakespeare, Dante, and Wordsworth seems tendentious in a review of twentieth-century poetry.  One also wonders about the curious split in Vendler’s phrase “permanent historical and aesthetic interest.”  How does this line up with her earlier language of a poetry of “lasting [aesthetic?] value” and a poetry that dwells (one presumes permanently) within “the archives of sociology”?

In her written response to Vendler, Dove unfortunately defends her support of Brooks and Tolson in odd and ultimately ineffective ways.  Dove says, “Evidently the 1950 Pulitzer committee thought highly enough of Ms. Brooks to award her the prize in poetry, at a time when there was little talk of diversity in America and the expression ‘multiculturalism’ had yet to enter the public discourse. Analogous praise today, however, amounts in Dame Vendler’s eyes to nothing but ‘hype.'”  By deferring her own judgment to the 1950 Pulitzer committee’s decision, Dove, in a way, plays into Vendler’s criticism that she had not “directly addressed the hard questions of choice.”  If time doesn’t tell, big prize committees will.  The comment also seems unnecessarily self-serving since Dove, herself, won the Pulitzer in 1987.  Had Dove included Brooks’ remarkable poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” she could have more convincingly cited an actual passage of innovative writing:

Salve salvage in the spin.
Endorse the splendor splashes;
stylize the flawed utility;
prop a malign or failing light–
but know the whirlwind is our commonwealth.

Dove also defends giving Tolson fourteen pages to Stevens’ six by the mere fact that Tolson is a writer of long poems.  “Should Tolson be denied representation,” she asks, “because he writes long poems?”  It is a weak rhetorical question-as-argument.  The anthology isn’t particularly friendly toward long poems–there are no long poem excerpts, for example, by Duncan, Ammons, or Auden, and there is no excerpt from Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” which I find scandalous. Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” is presented as a small discrete poem (as it is usually presented in anthologies) rather than poem XXII in the larger sequence Spring and All.

It is easy to see why Vendler chose to criticize Dove’s anthology; like Robert Archambeau, I find the anthology to be “unusable.”  And Dove’s introductory essay–which Jericho Brown puzzlingly calls “a useful text for introduction to American poetry courses”–is, by turns, reductive, skewed, and inaccurate. Take, for instance, this important contextualization:

To understand the tremendous importance of modernism as a literary movement in America, we must look back to Victorian England…By the end of the nineteenth century, the Victorians’ stolid moral and religious institutions had begun to show cracks: The revelations of Darwinism and rapidly accelerating industrialization, soon to be exacerbated by the horrors of World War I and expanding struggles for workers’ rights, challenged the old order with its God-given statutes of right and wrong.  Sophisticated readers were now less interested in contemplative entertainment than in words that lent meaning to the confusing changes upon them.  Modernism rose from the ruins: Nothing is stable, reality is not necessarily synonymous with truth, truth can be imaginary.

What is striking is that Dove so spectacularly erases any trace of Victorian poetry in “look[ing] back to Victorian England.”  What about the importance of the dramatic monologue–perhaps the most famous form of the Victorian era–to poets like Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Rukeyser, and Hughes?  What about the famous ending passage from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”?  Surely a triple-decker novel could be deemed “contemplative entertainment” but what about this:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This is a poem that precisely documents the erosion of “stolid moral and religious institutions,” that challenges “God-given statutes of right and wrong.” Dove’s essay is simply a shoddy piece of literary history.  There are too many examples to cite.  She often uses a synecdochic logic which distorts the diversity of poets who are often lumped together. For example, she takes Frank O’Hara to be representative of the so-called New York school as a whole: “The concept of the poet as witness (‘I have seen’) informed the observational stance of the New York school…”

But the larger point, I think, is that Vendler’s supposed target–multiculturalism–is (to borrow a phrase from Barbara Herrnstein Smith) a major “straw herring.” In other words, Vendler shouldn’t blame poor multiculturalism on a bad anthology, an anthology that  poorly represents the diversity and innovations of multicultural American poetry in the twentieth-century.  An anthology that would represent such traditions would surely include Gloria Anzaldúa, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Norman Pritchard.  Numerous figures from Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey’s excellent Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans (2006) are not included in Dove’s anthology.  And what about José Garcia Villa, arguably the most important and innovative Asian American writer of the first half of the twentieth century?  Interestingly, Vendler’s review “Are These the Poems to Remember?” is prefaced by a 1948 photograph.

One presumes that the photograph was an easy way for the NYRB to present an icon of canonicity: after all, we have Auden here, we have Bishop, Moore, Schwartz, Jarrell…all of whom are represented in Dove’s anthology.  But what about Marya Zaturenska?  She won the Pulitzer in 1938.  And near the back, in the middle of the frame is Villa, who was born in Manila but lived in the United States for decades.  Surely this poem of his counts as “richly innovative” in its fusion of Dickinsonian intensity and experimental typography:

Lo: the,Future,perceives,me:


Not,I,if,I,wished: though,I,worked,

And,I—Fire! climbing,it,climbing,it.

But I am now, of course, on my way to compiling my own anthology.  (For a massive list of important poets excluded from Dove’s anthology see John Olson’s reaction.)

According to Amit Majmudar“Dove’s anthology is personal and at times polemical; if either she or her publisher, or ideally both, had packaged the contents accordingly, much of this brouhaha might have been avoided.”  I agree.  Majmudar argues that Dove’s anthology invites the expectation “of a scholarly anthology.”  Yet in Dove’s own introduction she admits that her “panorama of twentieth-century poetry” was “viewed not with a scholar’s dissecting eye but from the perspective of a contemporary poet.”  Dove’s anthology is very much eccentric and personal and to judge it as a responsible, thoroughly-researched scholarly anthology would be to miss the point.  To be fair, I was delighted to find a few surprises: Robert Francis’ “Silent Poem.”  Or Angelina Weld Grimké’s “Fragment.”  Yet the way in which Penguin presented the anthology is completely misleading.  On the back cover, there is a list of nine names in capital letters followed by the phrase “…AND MANY OTHERS.”  The names are:










When one now thinks about the exclusion of Stevens’ great mid-length and long poems–from “The Auroras of Autumn” to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” to “Esthetique du Mal“–one wonders why he is the first one on the list.  One also begins to sense why Vendler, a Stevens scholar, was so outraged by the anthology.  For her, there were too many “others” and not enough well-respected poets which the list was meant to evoke.  This is Penguin’s “summary” of the book that can be found on the publisher’s website:

Penguin proudly presents an unparalleled survey of the best poems of the past century.

Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former U .S. Poet Laureate, introduces readers to the most significant and compelling poems of the past hundred years. Selecting from the canon of American poetry throughout the twentieth century, Dove has created an anthology that represents the full spectrum of aesthetic sensibilities-from styles and voices to themes and cultures-while balancing important poems with significant periods of each poet. Featuring poems both classic and contemporary, this collection reflects both a dynamic and cohesive portrait of modern American poetry and outlines its trajectory over the past century.

Phrases like “unparalleled,” “best,” and “full spectrum” surely invite criticism and scrutiny.  They also suggest an anthology that goes beyond a personal selection.  Yet the subtitle of Dove’s introduction is “My Twentieth Century of American Poetry.”

This mislabelling reminds me of Eliot Weinberger’s American Poetry since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (1993).  In another notorious anthology controversy, John Yau took Weinberger to task for including only two black poets out of a total of thirty-five slots.  In a 1994 American Poetry Review piece called “Neither Us nor Them,” Yau wonders where is, among others, Sterling Brown, Henry Dumas, Robert Hayden, Stephen Jonas, Bob Kaufman, Etheridge Knight, Larry Neal, Lorenzo Thomas, Melvin Tolson, and Jay Wright.  In a way, with a subtitle like “Innovators and Outsiders” Weinberger and his publisher were asking for it. In an interview with Kent Johnson, Weinberger had stated that unlike J.D. McClatchy’s Vintage anthology he made no claims that his choices were “simply the best poets.”  Yet Weinberger later substitutes “best” for “enduring interest” under the sign of “truth”: “I’m sorry but it’s true — among those kinds of poets in that particular historical period, most of the ones of enduring interest happened to be white guys.”

All in all, I think Vendler should have directed her critique at the way in which Dove’s anthology was packaged rather than targeting some imaginary multiculturalist agenda that insidiously wants to dethrone the great white authors.  Dove and Penguin had already provided readers enough reasons to raise their eyebrows and shake their heads.  Vendler didn’t need to give us more reasons to do so.  In the words of Marguerite María Rivas, “Is this the Helen Vendler to remember?”

16 thoughts on “Some Reflections on The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry (2011)

  1. Good one Michael. I have followed this a little bit. There is the “rights” issue for which Rita Dove’s husband went so far as to defend in response to someone’s blog post – I forget which. Apparently the rights to some of the better known poet’s poems were too expensive for Penguin. But that’s another topic – and probably not an interesting one as who wants to argue about money these days?

    For me, it seems to boil down to the excerpting part, which you touch on. This is why I really don’t like anthologies. If I see “from” before a poem, I know I’m missing something- and something which the poet worked just as hard at and which the excerpt “depends” on. It’s a situation that cheats everyone. I can see why Vendler,- arguably the foremost Stevens critic – would be peeved.

    Do bits and trinkets from here and there really add up to a wonderful aesthetic experience? Do people enjoy museums that have a Cezanne here, a Rothko there over shows of one person’s work? What is the purpose of an anthology?

    1. Thanks, Greg. Well, anthologies are useful in the classroom but Dove’s anthology simply isn’t a teaching anthology. Majmudar says that it presents itself as a scholarly anthology but if we compare it to Cary Nelson’s single volume Oxford anthology from 2000, Dove’s anthology is just blown out of the water in terms of thoughtfulness and originality of selection, comprehensiveness, and apparatus. Dove’s book is really an anthology for the general reader–and, as Vendler suggests, for a young reader. Perhaps it might be OK for a middle school or high school English class–not, as Jericho Brown, suggests “for introduction to American poetry courses.” College students simply need a smarter and more sophisticated framing than what Dove provides.

      I actually like anthologies and have a lot of them. Some of them make good references–especially my nineteenth-century ones: The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle (1975), Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets (1998), the Library of America’s two volume Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (1993)…I think the Rothenberg/Joris Poems for the Millenium really sets the bar for anthologies of modern poetry. Anthologies, of course, can be provocations. I’m thinking of Adrienne Rich’s Best American Poetry 1996 which Harold Bloom notoriously ignored in his selections for his The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997. In comparison, Dove’s anthology seems like a weak provocation which is why I find Rich vs. Bloom to be much more interesting.

      But to get back to the text, I see your point about a poem here and a poem there. In the entry for Louis Simpson, for example, the biography is much longer than the six line poem that is his only represented work. And the bio is merely a long list of his book titles and prizes–not really that useful in my opinion. And Jean Toomer is given two pages but the second page only has five lines of poetry at the top and the rest is white space…That blank space could have easily fit “Her Lips are Copper Wire,” perhaps the most beautiful poem from Cane. As well as “Storm Ending.” But I suppose there are those reprint fees…

      Hmmm…Vendler as the “foremost Stevens critic.” I guess I agree with your “arguably.” I prefer to read Charles Alteri. You can find some of his work here:


  2. I think you’re quite right to say that a big part of the problem is Penguin’s packaging of the anthology — in all the mudslinging, that’s a point too often left unsaid.

    Robert Archambeau

    1. Thanks for the comment, Robert. Sure, there are folks at Penguin that should be held accountable as well.

  3. This is an excellent take on both the controversy and the anthology, Michael.

    Yes, inclusivity and excellence aren’t binaries that no self-respecting tastemaker, gatekeeper, or whatever would ever attempt to bring together. Dove’s anthology fails not because of her overreaching but because she simply didn’t cast her nets wide enough.

    I definitely agree with you that “Vendler fails to imagine a situation in which a young person of color might find inspiration in traditions of writing by non-white authors and unfortunately treats black writing with a patronizing unease,” while still myself imagining, in these ever-changing times, that a young person (not to mention an old person, like me) of any ethnicity might find inspiration in those same traditions.

    I think you made a good point about the disparity between Penguin’s packaging of the book, and the expectations it creates, and Dove’s own caveats: that what she designed was a “panorama of twentieth-century poetry,” which was “viewed not with a scholar’s dissecting eye but from the perspective of a contemporary poet.” What’s troubling about Dove’s metaphorizing here is that she identifies the scholar’s scrupulosity with treating the object of study as something dead (a clichéd attack on academicians) while the poet is someone with “perspective,” meanwhile ignoring the idea that one’s perspective is arguably always skewed. I wonder, though, what would you say are the mechanisms for creating a “responsible, thoroughly-researched scholarly anthology”?

    Oh, and thanks for highlighting Dove’s various omissions, especially of José Garcia Villa. It’s a tremendous oversight.

    1. That’s right, John — Dove’s anthology doesn’t work as a traditional canonical anthology and it doesn’t work as a recovery project either. It’s really hard to defend.

      Cary Nelson’s Anthology of Modern American Poetry (2000) is pretty good as far as inclusiveness — much better representation of the Objectivists; women modernists like Mina Loy and Laura Riding; Ginsberg, Plath, and Sterling Brown (all missing from Dove’s anthology); Kaufman, as you say; the important and neglected Japanese American writer Lawson Fusao Inada… I think he’s not quite as good with more recent stuff but I thought his inclusion of Sesshu Foster was a really interesting choice.

      Nelson is also very articulate in his thinking about anthologies and canon formation…he wrote a smart and incisive review of Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language (2004):

      Another skirmish in the anthology wars…

  4. Thanks for this. I think you’ve covered the issues in relation to the anthology and the controversy. The thing that makes me not care about it is this: why do I have to care what Helen Vendler and Rita Dove think? Because they are on the short list of names allowed to have opinions? “Oh let’s get Helen Vendler to write the review. She’s a name deserving of the pages of the NYRB.” Or “Oh let’s get Rita Dove to edit. She was poet laureate! She’s a name!” How and why did they become names? For that one needs to read Richard Ohmann’s “The Social Definition of Literature.” Literary commentary in this culture, to the extent that it exists at all (and I think the controversy is good evidence that it doesn’t), is a vast tautology. People say what can be said, including Vendler’s smug regard for the canonical and Dove’s trite multiculturalism. Makes you understand Baraka: blow this shit up! Get some air in here. Not for nothing was the Pound/Lewis journal called “Blast!”

    What’s so revealing is how much more perceptive and thorough your brief remarks are than those of the participants in the “war”. We are talking about something going on in official culture, which as far as I’m concerned is little more than a police state enforced by culture cops. Why, it’s so pathetic I almost feel like writing a poem!

  5. I couldn’t find a table of contents on line. Here are some critical questions for her multiculturalism: is Ishmael Reed in? Is Nathaniel Mackey? Is Cecil Giscombe? They are not too obscure. They are too “difficult”.

    1. Thanks, Curtis. What you say is exactly right about the state of literary commentary. Dove’s “mainstream authors” approach versus Vendler’s “great authors” approach is just an effort to replace one institutionalism with another. The way Dove defends her version of poetic pluralism and multiplicity is to say, “well, these people won prizes or they’re already in the Norton.” In her letter to TNYRB, she says:

      “[W]hen one considers the number of American poets (124) in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry—which includes other Anglophone poets as well—or the number of poets who have received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book or the National Book Critics’ Circle awards, 175 doesn’t seem an unreasonable number for a century’s worth of poetry—that is, if you are a mere mortal not satiated by a steady diet of ambrosia.”

      What about the “mere mortals” who haven’t won the big prizes or haven’t been included in the Norton??

      There is (thank god) a segment from Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou” in the anthology–but no Ishmael Reed, no C.S. Giscombe, no Jayne Cortez, no Ed Roberson, no Ted Joans, no Jay Wright… I also think the representation of Asian American writers is pretty dismal. To begin, no John Yau, no Myung Mi Kim, no Kimiko Hahn…

  6. You simply presented your own choices for fine poets, that’s it. Dove was writing a letter not an essay so to suggest that she had space to try to defend Melvin Tolson as a great poet is silly. She has done work on Tolson and perhaps you can read her criticism and then respond to that. Of course Gwendolyn Brooks is an innovator and to reduce Dove’s defense of her originality by the notice of a Pulitzer Prize is disingenuous. The narrow point was that institutional literary history had recognized Brooks. As a poet, Dove could easily illuminate the distinctiveness and originality of Brooks’ language.
    Come on Michael, give us a break. None of the poets you select come with any defense either and you are writing an essay or should I be fair and say review! You quote Dove informing us that this IS HER ECCENTRIC, PERSONAL SELECTION OF HER POEMS FOR THE 20th century and then pretend that it does not stand up as a scholarly, researched volume. Duh!

    1. Russell: If you’re content to accept “institutional literary history” at face value that’s your own prerogative. But it looks like you’re missing–whether willfully or not–all of my points about the politics and poetics of canon formation and the way in which the Penguin anthology was packaged. It’s quite clear that I did much more here than just present my “own choices for fine poets” as you erroneously claim. I brought up Brooks primarily to critique and analyze the Vendler block quote but I also wanted to put pressure on Dove’s usage of the term “innovative.” I was as much interested in the controversy and discourse surrounding the anthology as reviewing the anthology itself so I’m afraid you’re mistaken in characterizing this as a “review.” But the obvious point about the book is that a rhetoric that at once claims that the anthology is eccentric and personal but also contains “an unparalleled survey of the best poems of the past century” (that includes “the full spectrum of aesthetic sensibilities”) is certainly not beyond criticism.

    1. I’m not exactly sure, John, if Allen Ginsberg is the most widely known and read American poet of the 20th C. but–sure–it is a significant omission. It’s been a long time since I thought about this anthology. But the cost of reprint permissions can be significant and can influence the selection process. I also noted that the Dove anthology was not particularly good at excerpting long poems. And Ginsberg’s best poems–“Howl,” “Kaddish,” and “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” for example–are lengthy and would take up precious real estate within an anthology.

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