Race and American Poetry: Dove v. Vendler

December 28, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 34 7 min read

coverIf your Twitter or Facebook feed includes anyone who cares about American poetry, you’ve probably seen a link or 11 to Rita Dove’s recent letter to the editor in The New York Review of Books (and Helen Vendler’s painfully terse reply). If not, here’s a quick rundown: The November 24 issue of the NYRB included Vendler’s review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Dove. The anthologist responded with a letter calling Vendler to task, in particular, for explicit and implicit dismissals of poetry by black Americans. Vendler replied, in full, “I have written the review and I stand by it.”

To understand what Dove objected to, you needn’t read any further than the opening paragraphs of Vendler’s review:

Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound). Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.

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? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But 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?

Notably, Vendler’s list of America’s foremost 20th-century poets is entirely white — a fact that becomes especially significant when set up against her subsequent suggestion that this legacy of greatness is being crowded out in part by “introducing more black poets.”

Up to a point, it’s worth going easy on Vendler. Like Dove, she had a job to do — the same job, really: make a case for what was worth reading in 20th-century American poetry. Dove made hers, and the NYRB asked Vendler to evaluate it. And after those two paragraphs Vendler’s argument mostly shifts away from issues of race and into critiques that, accurate or not, have more to do with Vendler’s dislike of what she calls “accessibility;” her defensiveness about what Dove refers to as the “poetry establishment;” and what Vendler describes as Dove’s “breezy chronological introduction, with its uneasy mix of potted history (in a nod to ‘context’) and peculiar judgments.” While any of these could be stand-ins for racial prejudice, I don’t believe they are. Instead, they feel like an uncomfortable mix of, on the one hand, Vendler’s legitimate arguments about selection and interpretation and, on the other, her fear that the poems she loves most won’t matter enough to others.

But those first two paragraphs can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Dove rightly takes her to task for this, effectively unpacking the implications of, for example, dismissing minority writers as being of merely “sociological” interest; suggesting that such writers tend to be valued for their “representative themes,” whereas the major white writers Vendler lists are supposedly notable for their “style;” and asserting that they write poems because they “wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel.” (Vendler might argue that she didn’t mean any of these observations to be specific to minority writers, but she introduces all of them right after complaining that black writers are over-represented, and a critic who’s famous for her attention to detail should know that she’s setting up that reading of her remarks.) Dove also fairly marks the places where the shadow of such remarks can be discerned later on in the review.

Ultimately, I think Vendler’s condescending talk about race and writing is driven by her defensiveness about her own tastes (and more about that in a bit), which of course does nothing to excuse it. But given that Dove and others have already effectively unpacked this most glaring aspect of the review — and given that Vendler’s case seems far from unique — it’s worth stopping to look at the assumptions that underpin most arguments against inclusiveness in art, including this one.

Part of what leads Vendler astray is her belief in a kind of literary value that’s all noun and no verb — that is, one that wants to define value without making room for the fact that many people do in fact value the very writing that, she says, is not, well… valuable. In the process, she, like many other critics (and not just of poetry), creates an oddly unpeopled universe — or, at least, one that’s strangely devoid of living people. Vendler asks us to think of value in terms of a hypothetical and permanent future, one that will have unvarying and therefore conclusive (that is, correct) notions of what was good and bad in our writing. It’s an exasperating argument, since it asks us to defer to the critic’s mystical conjuring of our far off progeny, a population that will, of course, have the same values as the critic herself.

But even if the critic is somehow right about what the academics of the 22nd century will value (and even if the 23rd, 24th and 25th centuries value the same things), it begs the question — why should it matter? Our current canons are based on what a select group of current readers find useful, pleasurable, interesting, meaningful. Were readers in the 17th century wrong for sometimes finding pleasure in other places? Should they have been more concerned with what a Harvard professor might care about today?

With some notable exceptions, taste is not a moral category. Yes, it makes a difference if we eat meat; and it matters, too, if our diets are full of sugar or salt. In different ways, it matters if we embrace art that enforces our prejudices, degrades others, or results from exploitation. The same is true if we choose to read in ways that inspire pettiness or abet us in living timid, unfulfilling, unimaginative lives. But more often than not, none of that is really at stake in these arguments. Just as some people will like poetry and some will like fiction, some sculpture, some movies, some wine — some many things, some few — there are countless ways to get to meaning through poems and just as many different experiences of meaning to arrive at. And almost all of them are worthwhile. In fact, we can enlarge ourselves by being more imaginative about value; it’s a way of learning about others that resembles the experience of art itself, an act or curiosity and creativity and engagement.

Many critics seem to move in the opposite direction, letting in a sense that the appreciation of writing outside of their preferences somehow threatens the value of the poetry they want to champion. If page-counting is a necessary part of reviewing an anthology — of unpacking its claims — the treatment of artistic appreciation as a kind of zero-sum equation is not. There’s a strange logic here, one that feels a little like the idea that gay marriages would threaten the sanctity of straight marriages (which is not to accuse any critics of homophobia — just to note the ways in which a lack of imagination about other people’s pleasures can turn into an unwarranted prejudice and a strangely militant attitude about the things others do and love.)

coverVendler’s hardly alone in this. Harold Bloom has made a name for himself by defending the great tradition, as he imagines it, from the encroachment of all kinds of writing. In a nice bit of synchronicity, Bloom actually moved to the vanguard of the cultural wars by releasing his own anthology of sorts — The Western Canon — which made headlines for selecting 26 essential authors and defending their pre-eminence against an army of straw-men and -women: feminists, cultural theorists, etc., a group he likes to refer to as “The School of Resentment.” He, too, has passed judgment of Dove’s anthologizing, in his case when he made the selections for a Best of the Best American Poetry that largely discarded the choices of the series’ first 10 editors, including Rita Dove, and instead came up with his own roster of works that “will endure, if only we can maintain a continuity of aesthetic appreciation and cognitive understanding that more or less prevailed from Emerson until the later 1960s, but that survives only in isolated pockets.”

It’s likely that some of the defensiveness that critics like Bloom feel comes from their awareness that their own selections may be subject to attack, their awareness that championing an all or mostly white or male roster of artists is going to leave them subject to charges of racism and sexism. But there’s a simple way around that: admit that the kind of writing you value is just one kind of potentially valuable writing. Keep in mind that, in trying to maintain the prerogatives and preferences of the establishment (quotation marks deliberately omitted), you’re trying to sustain a series of cultural traditions and institutions that have been hostile to women, blacks, and other minorities on grounds that have nothing to do with merit. Take seriously the ways in which others experience and uncover meaning at the same time you ask others to preserve space for the things you value most. And (hey, why not?) take a little bit of time to consider the possibility that female and non-white writers are already doing important work in that same vein — and that maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you at first glance in part because you haven’t yet immersed yourself in a slightly different set of cultural experiences and associations. (On that last note, Vendler does eventually get around to praising both Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa, but it comes so late in her review that it doesn’t provide much counterweight, and her assertion that the “excellent contemporary poetry” of these two writers “needs no special defense” revives her claim that many other black writers are valuable only under the terms of some separate and lower standard.)

The importance of this extends beyond racial inclusiveness. One of the most useful things a critic can do — and one that Vendler herself has done at various points in her career — is to open us up to new sources of pleasure and insight. In denying the value of so much that clearly does provide value for others (including, for me, the brilliant Gwendolyn Brooks, whom Vendler faintly praises for a “pioneering role” before expressing wild outrage at Dove’s claim that Brooks’ first book “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”), a critic works against our capacity for imagination. We can, should, and will continue to argue about artistic quality, but we should do so while remembering that poetry can only live in the minds of living readers, and that its value comes out of their encounters with individual poems, which are, thank god, incredibly various (both the poems and the encounters.) Too much criticism suggests that we must serve art — a supposedly timeless art removed from the particulars of people immersed in culture and history. And yet the most enduring value of Shakespeare — the favorite cudgel of literary culture warriors — is his ongoing service to individual readers, his ability to bring them joy and inspiration, bring them a more vibrant connection to the language we all speak in our own ways, rich grief, and insight into people living very different lives. Why worry so much about any other writing that provides the same?

is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of At Length.


  1. It’s nice of the essayist to explain the role of the critic to Helen Vendler (and to open her eyes to the fact that females are doing important work in her field). But one thing that surely a critic does not do is engage in the kind of bait and switch that appears throughout this essay. On one hand, criticism is all about asserting personal taste–what’s valuable is what pleases you; but on the other hand, Vendler’s candidates for what are most valuable in 20th century poetry mark her as an defensive old bigot.

    Readers must really read Vendler’s piece, which is badly mischaracterized here. The most important thing in her piece, and the thing utterly absent in this essay, is poetry itself. When Vendler claims that a poet is ill-chosen–“included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style,” in the line the essayist misreads–she then gives us excerpts of the poem and explains what’s wrong with it, why it’s bad poetry, why it’s undeserving of the posterity Dove bestows on it, and why she surmises (based on Dove’s introduction) it has been included in the anthology. It’s the cheapest tactic imaginable to airily characterize her as some bloated academic gatekeeper who wants to keep women and minorities out of the canon (cheap and miles from the truth, given how esoteric much of the poetry Vendler champions can seem). If the poems she condemns have any worth, then make that argument–the fact that no one ever does is fairly telling.

  2. I read Vendler’s piece when it appeared in the NYRB and Dove’s response in the next issue (and Vendler’s reply that she had written her review and stood by it). Sam makes excellent points in his comment, with which I agree. I would simply say that if one is familiar with Vendler’s work generally,one realizes that she is among our very best poetry critics; that doesn’t mean she cannot be mistaken, but it does mean that she deserves better than this essay.

  3. In Vendler’s “Poems, Poets, Poetry,” she has high praise for Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” and reads it as an homage to the Spartan “300” who died at Thermopylae. “Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,/ That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” I’ll have to say, Vendler’s interpretation helped me appreciate Brooks’ poem more. But I wonder how much of that is Vendler’s powerful, sympathetic imagination, and not the poem itself . . .

  4. As a poet and an editor of twelve anthologies, including seven that focus on U.S. Latino writers, I can speak from experience that the American literary scene is racist and insists on the marginalization of many writers, in order to justify its threatened traditions. This is nothing new and is one of the oldest stories in American literature. Vendler has no choice but to circle the wagons. Dove has done an okay job as an editor, though the missing Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath are glaring (Penguin dropped the ball on permissions, a nightmare for any editor). Plus, there are only six Latino poets in the book and they are names that are often anthologized, the few that break through. Is anyone barking about that? It seems like a quota to me. My response is to keep doing anthologies because they are a highly politicized tool in the fragmented, divided, and segregated world of contemporary U.S. literature. And, who set the political rules? Helen Vendler.

    Ray Gonzalez

  5. I defer to your experience, Ray, but at least since the dawn of this new millennium “the American literary scene” is a highly imaginative construct, so nebulously individuated as to avoid any coherent characterization. If anything, the pendulum has swung closer to the other side of your description.

    I’m not familiar with Vendler’s 1985 anthology that many have cited in reference to the recent spat, but in her “Poems, Poets, Poetry” (a primer and slender anthology covering poetry in English from 1500-2000) Robert Hayden, Michael S. Harper, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Julia Alvarez are among the twenty-five poets she first employs to introduce one to the art of poetry.

  6. There was an interview w/Rita Dove in AWP Chronicle that was quite interesting. In it, she spoke quite a bit about the role of permissions in the selection process for the anthology. Might that not have a lot to do with some of the more obscure choices? She couldn’t get Pound and Eliot, for example, because those houses were too expensive. And they were all-or-nothing–they wouldn’t allow any of their authors to be included. So she said she had to rely on the fact that readers could access those more famous authors from other sources fairly easily and use the anthology as a means of exposing them to writers they might not otherwise find. It was just an economic reality, she said.

  7. An interesting read. Essentially, anthologies have always been used to either celebrate the achievements of well-established voices or establish relatively unknown voices. It largely depends on the taste(s) of the editor(s) and/or the object of the publisher. There is no such thing as a universally accepted value for all time, else art and literature would never be alive in any age. The current debate on who is who and who should be who in American poetry is not peculiar to it as such also arise in Nigerian literature for instance. The way forward is to keep engaging the voices, both old and new, established or otherwise.

  8. for those of you agreeing with sam’s not very astute comment, shame on you. book reviews are the lowest form of literary criticism. vendler, if she had any class at all, should have never deigned to write such a glaringly racist review. i mean really, who really cares who shows up in what anthology? anthologies, as all true students of poetry and art know, have next-to-nothing to do with canon-making claims. anthologies are merely snap-shots of an era, and serve only as a very tiny introduction to a poet or a group of poets.

    i am currently reading robert parker’s anthology of american indian poetry. the purpose of this anthology is to introduce the interested reader to the various works of american indian poets that have otherwise been completely neglected by the blooms and vendlers of the world. and while the quality and subject matter of many of these poems is often uneven and disturbing, as a student of history, i find these complex voices and biographies of these all-but-forgotten poets to be very interesting and completely necessary to my life at this very moment.

    as to my qualifications to speak on this topic, i have several undergraduate and advanced degrees. i read poetry on a daily basis, write poetry occasionally, but have never read any books by helen vendler or harold bloom or any other contemporary critic for that matter. surpisingly, i’m surviving quite well with my very own thoughts about what poetry and poets are important to world i inhabit–a world where i’m not constantly having to make a name for myself out of the names of others.

  9. sassjemleon,

    “i mean really, who really cares who shows up in what anthology? ”

    Teachers. Penguin is a cheap/popular scholarly option, and given the economic times and the exorbitant cost of higher ed, I only feel comfortable asking my students to buy one anthology. One might argue that in the digital age, it’s easy to import any content to the classroom (even if it’s not in the anthology), but with more schools no longer offering its student population a free print quota, you would be surprised how costly this really is. Sometimes having a good solid physical text that everyone can follow is more valuable than can be articulated; hence the angst, I think. Penguin doesn’t market itself as a niche anthology meant to elevate underrepresented. Why roll out a new Penguin antho and not secure the rights to Plath, Ginsberg, Eliot, Pound, more Stevens, etc? Though the Parker anthology you describe has a clear value and purpose, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using it in an introductory survey to American poetry that someone has plunked down thousands for (as ironic or “imperialist” as that may be).

    Anthologies based on race/ethnicity engage in the very conservatism and racism that many are ironically accusing Vendler of now. This perpetuates the myth that poetry is primarily the revelation of intrinsically valuable, because unique, subjectivity (it is PARTLY about this, sometimes).

    “and while the quality and subject matter of many of these poems is often uneven and disturbing, as a student of history, i find these complex voices and biographies of these all-but-forgotten poets to be very interesting”

    OK, but I think this is Vendler’s point about the Baraka poem. It’s in lines. It has clear historical and sociological value. But is it poetry? Is it an example of the best poetry? What is it doing via its artistic medium of choice that’s significant.

    This debate centers on one’s own definition of what poetry is, form vs. content, verse vs. prose, the rise of the “prose-poem.” What are poetry’s artistic mechanisms? What differentiates it from prose? I’m not holding my breath for the conversation to veer this way. Vendler is a very good person to read on these issues, and you might check out some of her critical prose on Keats and Stevens (I know, 2 white males, gasp!), and not let this one exposure of yours to this “lowest form of literary criticism” become the basis for such strong lifetime opinions on Vendler.

    I would like to see more anthologies organized not around time or subjective/racial orientation, but around perceived stylistic traits/differences.

  10. For what it’s worth, I’m going to defend Vendler here, and would agree that JF’s piece is rather shallow. If the anthology were called “My favorite 20th century poems,” then things would be different. But the very title, and Dove’s intro too, makes canonical claims that are betrayed by the poor editorship. I think Vendler’s point is simply that too much extra-literary considerations have gone into the choices, and that’s just dishonest. And I’m writing this as a minority writer myself, and can understand how forbiding the Republic of Letters can be when you don’t look or seem the part. What I want is poetry that reflects the incredible diversity of perspectives and experiences that are available to even the least curious of us, and is still poetry – possesing of admirable intrinsic qualities or elegance, complexity, truth, etc. And sure, Vendler’s review can be characterized as petulant, but for me it’s refreshing to see some fire from one of our better critics! It’s a healthy reminder that our critics still have some life in them. One of the more malicious things about our poetry scene is that it’s just so damn polite all the time – professionals coddling other professionals, literary authorities afraid to sound the ungenerous note. We’re dying of good taste, as it’s been said at various points throughout history.

  11. mike hogan, if, as a teacher, you are not comfortable with the choices in the relatively cheap penguin anthology, i say, quite simply, move on. i don’t think the dove book was meant to be used as teaching tool for undergraduate students anyway. also, fwiw, students know textbooks are not cheap. when i took an undergraduate, introductory course to poetry. we used the norton introduction to poetry. it’s a pretty awesome introduction to poetry. i still own my edition of it. not too expensive either, compared to other textbooks. http://books.wwnorton.com/books/978-0-393-92857-0/

  12. sassjemleon,

    Don’t worry, I will move on. I’m not so much having a hard time settling on an anthology preference as I am trying to understand the mindlessly jubilant atmosphere surrounding the “exposure” of Vendler’s “blindspot.”

    “i don’t think the dove book was meant to be used as teaching tool for undergraduate students anyway.”

    On Amazon’s page for the book under the first Review we find:

    “Former U.S. Poet Laureate Dove takes a fresh look at the canon of 20th century American poetry in this hefty anthology […] This book is sure to become an important resource for those interested in poetry, and especially students, for decades to come.”
    -Publishers Weekly

    “At last, 20th century poetry itself! Rita Dove’s [anthology] is intelligent, generous, surprising, and altogether thrilling to read- literally, a heart-thumping collection. In her editorial hands the 20th century is broad but sharply contoured. Most other poetry anthologies give us schools, corners, clubs, and identities, but this one gives us something beyond representative that gets at the extraordinary accomplishment and range of multi-vocal American poetry in the century. Dove’s selection-and this book-will long stand as the definitive anthology of American poetry.”
    -Elizabeth Alexander

  13. Obviously, many if not most of the commenters here, from “Sam” to “Thisi”, have not read the anthology, probably never even touched it, before expressing their opinions. And many of the misunderstandings and prejudices could be resolved if those commenters would closely read the interview Rita Dove gave to Jericho Brown on the “Best American Poetry” site a couple of weeks ago; it’s found easily via Google.

  14. http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2011/12/until-the-fulcrum-tips-a-conversation-with-rita-dove-and-jericho-brown.html

    From the interview Rita Dove gave to Jericho Brown on the “Best American Poetry” site a couple of weeks ago:

    Jericho: Why is it that poets and critics feel free to publicly and privately attack a master like Gwendolyn Brooks (and subtly attack all black women poets) for no reason other than the fact that Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”?

    Rita: Jericho, your bafflement is as profound as mine. I fear the answer isn’t pretty. Maybe that’s why you and I — who prefer not to dwell too long in the company of hate, malice, and selfishness — are baffled instead. I asked the same of Helen Vendler in my rebuttal to her weird attack in the New York Review of Books recently. Well, this much perhaps: People identify with their heroes, and when they perceive an attack on those heroes, even if it’s only happening in their own deluded minds, they will try to fight back, and in the process sometimes turn into shamelessly unreasonable proxies. They scream and kick and punch into thin air, hoping to land a hit. What does it say about Vendler that out of the 175 poets in the Penguin Anthology she chose Gwendolyn Brooks and Melvin Tolson and Amiri Baraka to try to skewer me? Frankly, I felt a bit embarrassed for her — and perplexed that someone who had once championed my work could expose herself with such a shallow paradigm.

  15. Some comments mention that this article is not about poetry, insinuating that the issue here is with that other word in the title, “Race”. Insinuating also, that there must be something wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with addressing the inequalities in the literary world. The truth is that the article is about what’s on the other side of the colon: Dove v. Vendler.

    Vendler’s review is a hatchet job. Hatchet job is a violent word, and it matches the militaristic trope Vendler nitpicks Dove for using to describe the establishment. The establishment is “entrenched”, and if you approach that dug out position, if you try to attack it, it will fight back. It will try to hurt you. That’s how it established itself in the first place. That’s how it keeps itself there. Vendler’s review has the same violent intention as many of the comments here have had against a finely written and informative article that we should thank Mr. Farmer and the Millions for having the bravery to publish.

  16. mike hogan, again, forget about the reviews: do you currently know of many professors that will be implementing this anthology into their coursework?

  17. actually, mike hogan, thanks, i think i’ve already answered my own question. i agree that there are probably plenty of professors who will use the dove anthology at all levels of teaching. again, regardless of any reviews, it seems you are most correct, mike hogan, when you were talking about the bare economics of the situation. indeed, after a bit more looking, i could not fine another anthology–currently in print–that covers the same era of american poetry as the dove anthology. honestly, i had no idea that was the case. i was badly mistaken. i thought 20th century american poetry anthologies were much more prevalent than they actually are. so, yes, i can certainly see why teachers would care about their availability to their students.

  18. Poetry is lost to this world. Rejoice! The frontal lobe no longer processes the genre. If you see a bum, give him change. If you come upon a poet reciting a poem, advise him to take his life. “What? Oh, yes of course, Mr. Dickens, ‘Decrease the surplus (poet) population.’ Indeed!” Tea and crumpets at Four, chip, chip, cheerio!

    Space aliens abducted T.S. Eliot and urinated celestial puss down his throat, hence, The Waste Land. Robert Frost’s left big toe inspired him to write very badly. Anne Sexton smoked used Tampons driving her to confess. The entire collected poems of poets throughout history are absent one verity and mere to take up space. Poetry, you are now of the Charnel House


    by: William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

    Know, that I would accounted be
    True brother of a company
    That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
    Ballad and story, rann and song;
    Nor be I any less of them,
    Because the red-rose-bordered hem
    Of her, whose history began
    Before God made the angelic clan,
    Trails all about the written page.
    When Time began to rant and rage
    The measure of her flying feet
    Made Ireland’s heart begin to beat;
    And Time bade all his candles flare
    To light a measure here and there;
    And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
    Upon a measured quietude.

    Nor may I less be counted one
    With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,
    Because, to him who ponders well,
    My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
    Of things discovered in the deep,
    Where only body’s laid asleep.
    For the elemental creatures go
    About my table to and fro,
    That hurry from unmeasured mind
    To rant and rage in flood and wind;
    Yet he who treads in measured ways
    May surely barter gaze for gaze.
    Man ever journeys on with them
    After the red-rose-bordered hem.
    Ah, faeries, dancing under the moon,
    A Druid land, a Druid tune!

    While still I may, I write for you
    The love I lived, the dream I knew.
    From our birthday, until we die,
    Is but the winking of an eye;
    And we, our singing and our love,
    What measurer Time has lit above,
    And all benighted things that go
    About my table to and fro,
    Are passing on to where may be,
    In truth’s consuming ecstasy,
    No place for love and dream at all;
    For God goes by with white footfall.
    I cast my heart into my rhymes,
    That you, in the dim coming times,
    May know how my heart went with them
    After the red-rose-bordered hem.

  20. Literature, like Stephen Colbert, does not see race.

    It is just as wrong to value a poem for sociological reasons as it is to exclude it for sociological reasons.

    Race has nothing to do with it. Critical intelligence exists to help us examine whether we’re letting our personal prejudices make us like, or dislike, a poem that should be judged solely on its artistic merit.

  21. Mike Hogan,

    Thanks very much for the link to the Vendler-Dove controversy links.

    The question you posted from Jericho to Dove was such a softball, though, that it might make even Larry King blush.

    I read through all the pro and con posts and am still somewhat confused. I really didn’t see anything racial in Vendler’s critique of the anthology. I don’t agree with Vendler that anthologies should only (or even at least) contain the so-called “masters”. I also think she should have given Dove more slack for not being able to get the works of Plath, etc. included. I have the two volume Library of America anthology of modern poetry. There is no Plath, and no Lowell, either. I’m now less confused as to why that is.

    There are a number of literary works that are caught in limbo either because the rights are in dispute, or the holders of the rights are basically greedy short-sighted bastards. The recent extensions to the lengths of copyright did not help this situation. I once heard a songwriter claim that he needed an extension on his copyrights so that he could afford to put his GRANDCHILDREN through college. Sheesh.

  22. eh… having read the vendler review again, i must be honest: i don’t think it’s a “glaringly racist” review as i mentioned above. and while some of vendler’s criticism is apt, much of it seems ridiculously mean for no good reason–like helen vendler has the best taste in complex, lasting poetry–like she’s never been guilty of any of the hyperbole she accuses dove of. lol, as the kids say. in addition to the palpable personal animosity between poet and critc, another main problem, i guess, is like many others have stated, the marketing behind the book. an anthology cannot be said to contain “the best of anything…” without that being, for the most part, basically untrue. and having encountered the book itself this past weekend in a bookstore, i can say that it’s a very well made book. it smells very bookish, is physically all there, is all that i would in a hardback book. however, because my own personal library already contains most of poets in the anthology, i opted not to purchase the book for 40 dollars, which is expensive in terms of a poetry book in a barnes & noble store. i mean, the only reason i was in the book store was to purchase some 2012 gift calendars for colleagues at highly-discounted, post-holiday/new year’s prices.

  23. Before ever reading Vendler’s review I paged through the anthology and thought “how ordinary.” It’s not a particularly broad sample, and many of the poems are available in other anthologies. It is, at best, a mediocre anthology. Vendler’s critique is highly out of proportion, and I definitely caught a whiff of animus toward racially-driven selection. But I mostly thought she wanted to defend the same poets she’s always defending and writing about. I like some of those poets, too, but not because Vendler told me to (I still, no matter what I do, cannot get her thrill at James Merrill, one of the dullest and most useless poets of the 20th C — or Elizabeth Bishop). Her review was poorly argued and unconvincing — again, Merrill — but the anthology just isn’t very good irrespective of that. It’s a bit unfortunate that now it can be milked for controversy that will undeservedly raise its profile.

  24. A Postcard From The Volcano

    Children picking up our bones
    Will never know that these were once
    As quick as foxes on the hill;

    And that in autumn, when the grapes
    Made sharp air sharper by their smell
    These had a being, breathing frost;

    And least will guess that with our bones
    We left much more, left what still is
    The look of things, left what we felt

    At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
    Above the shuttered mansion-house,
    Beyond our gate and the windy sky

    Cries out a literate despair.
    We knew for long the mansion’s look
    And what we said of it became

    A part of what it is . . . Children,
    Still weaving budded aureoles,
    Will speak our speech and never know,

    Will say of the mansion that it seems
    As if he that lived there left behind
    A spirit storming in blank walls,

    A dirty house in a gutted world,
    A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
    Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

  25. I do not despise you priests, all time, the world over,
    My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,
    Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern,
    Believing I shall come again upon the earth after five thousand years,
    Waiting responses from oracles, honoring the gods, saluting the sun,
    Making a fetich of the first rock or stump, powowing with sticks in
    the circle of obis,
    Helping the llama or brahmin as he trims the lamps of the idols,
    Dancing yet through the streets in a phallic procession, rapt and
    austere in the woods a gymnosophist,
    Drinking mead from the skull-cap, to Shastas and Vedas admirant,
    minding the Koran,
    Walking the teokallis, spotted with gore from the stone and knife,
    beating the serpent-skin drum,
    Accepting the Gospels, accepting him that was crucified, knowing
    assuredly that he is divine,
    To the mass kneeling or the puritan’s prayer rising, or sitting
    patiently in a pew,
    Ranting and frothing in my insane crisis, or waiting dead-like till
    my spirit arouses me,
    Looking forth on pavement and land, or outside of pavement and land,
    Belonging to the winders of the circuit of circuits.

    One of that centripetal and centrifugal gang I turn and talk like
    man leaving charges before a journey.

    Down-hearted doubters dull and excluded,
    Frivolous, sullen, moping, angry, affected, dishearten’d, atheistical,
    I know every one of you, I know the sea of torment, doubt, despair
    and unbelief.

    How the flukes splash!
    How they contort rapid as lightning, with spasms and spouts of blood!

    Be at peace bloody flukes of doubters and sullen mopers,
    I take my place among you as much as among any,
    The past is the push of you, me, all, precisely the same,
    And what is yet untried and afterward is for you, me, all, precisely
    the same.

    I do not know what is untried and afterward,
    But I know it will in its turn prove sufficient, and cannot fail.

    Each who passes is consider’d, each who stops is consider’d, not
    single one can it fall.

    It cannot fail the young man who died and was buried,
    Nor the young woman who died and was put by his side,
    Nor the little child that peep’d in at the door, and then drew back
    and was never seen again,
    Nor the old man who has lived without purpose, and feels it with
    bitterness worse than gall,
    Nor him in the poor house tubercled by rum and the bad disorder,
    Nor the numberless slaughter’d and wreck’d, nor the brutish koboo
    call’d the ordure of humanity,
    Nor the sacs merely floating with open mouths for food to slip in,
    Nor any thing in the earth, or down in the oldest graves of the earth,
    Nor any thing in the myriads of spheres, nor the myriads of myriads
    that inhabit them,
    Nor the present, nor the least wisp that is known.

  26. Helen Vendler is an excellent scholar and I really don’t think she’s racist, but she IS fairly old-school, and this gaffe highlights the insensitivity and general obliviousness of old-school literary criticism and Ivy League academia in general. How could such an astute reader as Vendler have failed to catch the racist undercurrent in her conspicuously all-white list followed by her dismissive remarks presumably aimed at “minority” writers? I haven’t read the whole review, but it would have been SO easy to avoid this entire fiasco by just including a few simple names in that list, such as Gwendolyn Brooks or Derek Walcott, both of whom are legitimate members of the canon in their own right, and really ARE among the great 20th century poets! What in the world was she thinking? My goodness. She really needs to be more aware of her words.

  27. Also, just to add, didn’t weren’t we supposed to have put this whole issue to bed in the mid-nineties? Aren’t we supposed to be in some kind of a “post” era now? Post-race, post-canon, post-criticism… post-anthology, I don’t know. Let’s just put all the poems online and do it a la carte style.

  28. The point about the timeliness of these pieces is an important one, and goes to the heart of the dispute. Vendler, of course, would like the anthology to be a time capsule collection of poetry which rises above the sociology and politics of the time to be read as examples of great writing. Dove includes writers steeped in their sometimes messy times.

    So what is poetry for? Both Dove and Vendler have different ideas about that and the dispute runs rapidly from that point into diva-like barbs as only good writers can do.

    The fact that many writers of color are using poetry to tell their story and experience (which, at times, are very racial, and cultural) seems to vex Vendler, as though those poets cheapen the art. I’m curious as to whether that quality of writing is simply something she can’t see, or just won’t see.

    It is nice to find people who claim to be colorblind. But kinda sad that they are unable to even see red or green things as a result.

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