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:
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?”
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.