Race and American Poetry: Dove v. Vendler

If 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.) Vendler'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?