Paul Kane reviews 'The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry' edited by Rita Dove

The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry

edited by Rita Dove

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.

Part of what makes this contretemps so heated is the admixture of two volatile elements to the already unstable one of literary judgement: race and multiculturalism. Dove is a black poet who is keen to represent the full spectrum of racial and ethnic diversity in American poetry, and to counteract what she sees as historical repressions by the ‘cultural élite’, including the exclusion of women ‘by the male power structure’. The book, however, is not presented as an ‘affirmative action’ anthology; rather, she argues that many fine poets in the past were insufficiently recognised because of extra-literary reasons, and that many of the best poets writing today are people of colour. This stance is what Penguin’s Elda Rotor likely had in mind when she commissioned Dove to take on the project: something different.

What she got was something difficult. Vendler, who published her own Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry in 1985 (which includes Dove), takes issue with the new anthology on a number of grounds. First, she holds that 175 poets (actually 176) are far too many, that ‘No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading’. Dove eschews selectivity in favor of multicultural inclusivity, leaving us with ‘many poets of little or no lasting value’. Second, Dove’s aesthetic is primarily limited to poems that are ‘accessible’, as if ‘poetry should be written in “plain American that cats and dogs can read”’ (quoting Marianne Moore). Third, Dove’s Introduction avoids ‘the hard questions of choice’ and comes off as ‘breezy’, ‘potted’, ‘peculiar’, and ‘cartoonish’. So egregious is Dove’s prose, in fact, that Vendler concludes ‘The simplest thing to say about Dove’s introduction is that she is writing in a genre not her own.’ Nonetheless, Vendler goes on to dissect the Introduction, which clearly annoys her, exclaiming at one point:

How is it that Dove, a Presidential Scholar in high school, a summa graduate from college, holder of a Fulbright, and herself long rewarded by recognition of all sorts, can write of American society in such rudimentary terms?

When she gets to the matter of African-American poets, Vendler laments that ‘Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole’ and argues that ‘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.’ Finally, Vendler takes aim at the multicultural bias of the book: ‘Of the twenty poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian-American), and five are white (two men, three women).’ Dove, she claims, simply tips the balance in obeying the ‘populist aesthetic voiced in the introduction’. These, and other complaints along the way, add up to a clear judgement: the book is a travesty.

In the Letters section of the New York Review of Books, Dove strikes back in a lengthy blast. Although she numbers her points one to six, it isn’t really a logical refutation so much as a series of furious ripostes. While Dove does defend herself against some of the charges levelled, the tone and thrust of the letter is clearly ad hominem: Vendler is described as engaged in ‘falsehoods and innuendo’, condescension, bias, anti-Semitic smearing, blunders, a ‘lack of veracity’, a ‘barely veiled racism’, ‘transparent insinuation’, and a ‘vitriol’ that ‘betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics’, in which she finally loses ‘her grasp on the facts’ and on her language, which ‘snarls and grouses, sidles and roars’, leaving Dove to wonder if it is all ‘propelled by academic outrage or the wild sorrow of someone who feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew’. ‘How sad,’ writes Dove, to witness a ‘formidable intelligence ravished in such a clumsy performance.’

To which Vendler, in turn, rather coolly replies: ‘I have written the review and I stand by it.’

Reactions for and against Vendler and Dove are already rife on the Internet and in the press, and some of them are ugly. We are suddenly back to the Culture Wars. Moreover, as James Fenton, writing in the London Evening Standard, says, both Dove and Vendler are ‘horribly exposed’ as targeted public figures – though he believes Vendler ‘gets much the better of the argument’. And yet, there is more than argument at work here. From a distance, it is difficult, I think, to gauge the ground tone of race in American culture, even in this age of Barack Obama. Vendler herself has elsewhere written sensitively and appreciatively of Dove’s poetry, noting that ‘no black artist can avoid, as subject matter, the question of skin color, and what it entails’. Indeed, Dove was one of the beatified in Vendler’s pantheon, which must have made it doubly galling for her to be roundly chastised in print. In a recent interview on The Best American Poetry blog, Dove has this to say of Vendler and others:

I don’t know if this line of attack is a sign of despair or fury on part of some critics who define themselves as white – whatever that means in our mongrel society. Are they trying to make a last stand against the hordes of up-and-coming poets of different skin complexions and different eye slants?

For those who experience it in America, racism is a given. We are not, Dove goes on to say, in a ‘post-racial society’, since ‘even so-called “intelligent,” “sensitive,” “liberal” people who call themselves “humanists” are often warped by their preconceived notions of class, race, and privilege’. Once the debate is framed in terms of race, you cannot get beyond it. It runs too deep, creating an asymmetrical understanding of the issues involved.

In the midst of this, of course, there is still the book. It is simply a collection of poems, after all, many of them among the best ever written by Americans. Dove has done us the service of bringing together a rich collection of verse, much of it familiar because of previous anthologies, but much also likely to be new, especially the more contemporary work. Any reader will find poems to enjoy. At that level, the book is a success. But, of course, we can’t leave it there. Unlike most books, poetry anthologies are more often criticised for what’s not in them than for what is. And here a large problem arises.

While anthologies are frequently faulted by readers for disregarding favourite poets and favourite poems, The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry distinguishes itself in leaving out major figures: in particular Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath. This was not, however, Dove’s intention. In an epilogue to her Introduction, Dove explains that she was forced to omit Ginsberg and Plath (and Sterling Brown) because of the unreasonable recalcitrance of HarperCollins in demanding exorbitant permissions fees. In an interview with Writer’s Chronicle, Dove goes into detail about her efforts to secure permissions, and about the mercenary and uncooperative attitude she encountered that made it impossible. ‘Just imagine,’ she says, noting that HarperCollins is owned by News Corp, ‘Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath are the property of Rupert Murdoch!’ Howl indeed! One can sympathise with Dove in this, as such fees are becoming increasingly problematic, but it’s difficult not to think that somehow Penguin – the Mighty Penguin – could have resolved the issue, if they were truly committed to the project. W.W. Norton and Oxford have managed it in recent years. Can a major anthology of American poetry be taken seriously when such poets are absent? Whatever the circumstances, in the end it was a bungled job.

As for other poets excluded, there has been quite a stir: no Robert Penn Warren, Kenneth Rexroth, John Crowe Ransom, James Schuyler, Louise Glück (a Poet Laureate, like Dove), no Susan Howe, Barbara Guest, August Kleinzahler, Rae Armantrout, Lorine Niedecker, Eleanor Ross Taylor, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Wendell Berry, Charles Bernstein, Donald Justice, John Hollander, Richard Howard, Amy Clampitt, Thylias Moss – the list goes on and on, as it would for any anthology. I have counted over 130 absences mentioned more than once by disgruntled bloggers.

What many find distressing, though, is that certain types of poems and poets have been excluded for what look like ideological reasons. Even if it is only a matter of aesthetic judgement, Dove’s preferences – especially once she moves beyond the high modernists – seem to reflect her own practice as a poet. To some extent, that should be expected: the anthologist chooses the poems she thinks are best. Dove is forthright about this; indeed, she adopts no false modesty about the value of her own work. Among the sixty-seven poets of her generation, only one gets as many poems as she does (with four). Twenty-nine get only one poem. Other numbers are revealing: of the poets born in the sixty years between 1860 and 1920, the anthology includes forty-nine; of those born in the fifty years from 1920 to 1971, there are 127, with the largest number by far from the 1940s and 1950s. Dove accounts for this, in part, through the expansion of the poetry world to include more women and minorities and to the proliferation of creative writing workshops (of which she is a beneficiary). I suspect it has more to do with her wish to shift the centre of gravity in the twentieth century away from the modernists and postwar poets to the more inclusive contemporary scene. Up until mid-century in the book, Dove’s only real revisionist move is to promote Melvin Tolson as a major poet – or at least to a prominence he is not usually accorded. From then on – as we’ve seen – much more space is allotted to a multiplicity of poets, to the point that one wonders if it wouldn’t have been better for Dove to edit an anthology of contemporary American poetry. In that role she shines, giving us a sense of the range of recent activity. Moreover, it would have freed her from the burden of historical ‘canon formation’: by definition, what’s ‘contemporary’ is what’s of interest now to the editor. In that guise, you get more slack and less flak.

Finally, there is the matter of the Introduction. For those interested in Dove’s poetry, it will be instructive to see how she views the movements of the twentieth century. But I cannot recommend it as literary history. In her attempt to make the Introduction lively, she has made it sound jejune. To sum up poetry in the twentieth century is admittedly a daunting task. Perhaps Auden might have done it well, along the model of his Portable Poets of the English Language series, but Dove’s attempt is not satisfactory, either conceptually or at the level of style. You cannot dismiss T.S. Eliot as a ‘sour-puss’ or call Marianne Moore ‘nearly impregnable’ and win the confidence of the reader. To characterise modernism as ‘Nothing is stable, reality is not necessarily synonymous with truth, truth can be imaginary’ is too vague and glib to be useful. Although some sections come off well, the whole of the Introduction is not a creditable performance; it detracts from, rather than adds to, the book.

Rita Dove has many strengths as a poet and is a crucial presence in contemporary American poetry. I do not think, however, that The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry will be numbered among her finest accomplishments.

Published in March 2012, no. 339
Paul Kane

Paul Kane

Paul Kane is poetry editor of Antipodes and artistic director of the Mildura Writers’ Festival. His most recent book is The Scholar's Rock (2011), a Selected Poems in Chinese translation (Otherland Publishing). He divides his time between New York and rural Victoria.

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