Fighting over the poets who express America's story

Here's a furious row that is riveting the attention of the poetry world in America. A well-known poet and university professor, Rita Dove (University of Virginia), has edited the new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. When the New York Review of Books sent this to be reviewed by the doyenne of American poetry critics, Helen Vendler (Harvard), they could have predicted that the result might not be pretty, not because Professor Dove is black and Professor Vendler white - though black and white comes into the dispute - but because Vendler is prickly and possessive and has her own horse in this race. An old horse, yes: The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985). But a horse nevertheless.
Anthologies of this kind are liable to provoke rows, and for understandable reasons. Because of copyright fees, it is very hard to put together a major anthology of modern poetry. Small publishers sometimes achieve it by arm-twisting the contributors, but when a large publisher such as Penguin or Norton produces such a volume it is intended to stay in print for a long time and to become a standard work in schools and colleges. To be included in such a volume could make a big difference to an author's reputation. To be excluded can be, of course, depressing for the poet and aggravating for his or her admirers.

So, feelings can run deep. And, sure enough, Vendler took Dove's anthology apart. The best thing Dove could have done was shut up and let people draw their own conclusions. Vendler is known to "bear, like the Turk, no rival near the throne". Perhaps this was just another example of territoriality.
Excepting that it wasn't. In most, though not in my opinion all, of her criticisms, Vendler put her finger on blatant weaknesses, although she ignored the most obvious weakness of all: nothing by Sylvia Plath, and nothing by Allen Ginsberg. Dove explains in her introduction that her permissions funds did not run to such expensive poets, and she says to the reader: "For these involuntary gaps, I ask you to cut me some slack."
This is just not good enough, and the fault here is largely with Penguin for not seeing the difficulty Dove was in and coming to her aid. A small publisher might plead for the reader's understanding over such omissions. A large one has to decide whether it is prepared to stump up the money to do the job properly.
Vendler provokes a yelp of anguish from Dove simply by quoting Amiri Baraka's Black Art, a poem Dove includes, and asking her to explain the "literary standards" of "the New Black Aesthetic" it is supposed to represent. Baraka, aka LeRoi Jones, was out to shock what he thought of as liberal sympathies:
We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews.

There's more of this obsessive and anti-Semitic rant ("another bad poem cracking/ steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth"), which Vendler calls "showy violence" that then turns sentimental. She's right. What was Rita Dove thinking of when she reprinted this dreck? What was her commissioning editor at Penguin, Elda Rotor, thinking of - or did she even read the text?
Dove replied (in the New York Review dated December 22) in fury at what she affects to see as a sly attempt by Vendler "even creepily implying that I might have similar anti-Semitic tendencies" to Amiri Baraka. "Smear by association ... sound familiar? I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defence is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth."
Once again: this wordy outrage will not do. It is Dove who has come to the conclusion that because Black Art is a "historically seminal poem" it deserves to be drawn to the attention of her readers. She's the one inviting comparison between Baraka and, say, WH Auden, who gets represented by a mere two poems (neither of them written when he was an American citizen). It is Dove who gives us page after page of the pretentious or ludicrous agit-prop from Melvin B Tolson:
The New Negro,
Hard-muscled, Fascist-hating,
Democracy ensouled,
Strides in seven-league boots
Along the Highway of Today
Towards the Promised Land of

No cause is served by the over-promoting of weak or positively bad art - bad black art included. But good art can also suffer from exaggerated praise. There is much to admire in Gwendolyn Brooks, without the reader agreeing that her first book "confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race". Tartly, Vendler inquires: "As richly innovative as Shakespeare, Dante? Wordsworth? A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one."
These quarrels stir up a great many feelings - racial, historical, artistic, social, personal - and have provoked many angry letters in response to Vendler's review. But an anthologist of this kind would do well at the outset to realise that she is, herself, a campaigner, an advocate, a propagandist if you will. And she is in a strong and privileged position, having been offered a commission to put together a collection that exemplifies everything she admires.
It is a strong position, but it is also horribly exposed, since her choices and omissions among the living are bound to cause hurt and offence. The same is true for the reviewer, whose job it is to express a frank judgment. Vendler replied to Dove's anguished tirade: "I have written the review and I stand by it." She gets much the better of the argument, and that's that.

by James Fenton

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