The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry
Penguin, $40 hb, 570 pp, 9780143106432
‘To choose the best, among many good,’ says Dr Johnson in his ‘Life of Cowley’, ‘is one of the most hazardous attempts of criticism.’ The truth of this maxim is borne out nicely in the controversy surrounding – or perhaps emanating from – Rita Dove’s new selection of twentieth-century American poetry. That The Weekend Australian should have felt moved to comment on the situation (Frank Furedi, ‘Culture War Highlights the Banal Message of Politically Sanctioned Art’, 7–8 January 2012) is a good indicator of just how hot the issue has become. As a result, it is no longer possible simply to review the book; you have to review the controversy as well. The literary world is always set a-twitter by dust-ups between luminaries, and this one is a doozy: it features the former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, defending herself against the redoubtable literary scholar and critic Helen Vendler. Vendler attacked Dove’s anthology (and Dove herself) in the New York Review of Books of 24 November 2011, and Dove returned the favour in the 22 December issue. Thereafter, the controversy spread like algae bloom in the press and blogosphere.