The Knives Get Bigger as the Steaks Get Smaller

I’ve talked before about the course that nearly drove me from the academy. One of my outstanding memories of that class was a handout we received, arguing that the notion of “quality” was itself merely a tool the power structure used to keep the usual suspects down — an inversion of Bellow’s “Tolstoy of the Zulus” remark.

Twenty years later, the bickering continues. The Guardian reports on a quarrel between former U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer winner and professor Rita Dove and Harvard prof/New York Review of Books critic Helen Vendler. You see, Ms. Dove is the editor of Penguin’s recent Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Ms. Vendler reviewed the anthology, and was not impressed. She argues that Ms. Dove’s selections were insufficiently selective (175 poets are represented in the 599-page anthology), and in some cases driven more by issues of diversity and multiculturalism than by literary quality or memorability. Vendler continues, suggesting that Dove’s efforts to justify some of her choices veer into hyperbole, even in cases that might not require such extreme rhetoric:

Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth? 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. Language quails when it overreaches. The excellent contemporary poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa and Carl Phillips needs no special defense.

Dove’s response was a letter to NYRB and an interview in The Best American Poetry, in which she played the race card repeatedly, contending that Vendler’s objections are those of what others might call a “bitter clinger.” From her letter:

The amount of vitriol in Helen Vendler’s review betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics. […] Whether propelled by academic outrage or the wild sorrow of someone who feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew — how sad to witness a formidable intelligence ravished in such a clumsy performance.

And more directly, from the interview, as reported by The Guardian:

Dove went further, asking if criticism of her inclusion of “minority” poets was “a last stand against the hordes of up-and-coming poets of different skin complexions and different eye slants? Were we – African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans – only acceptable as long as these critics could stand guard by the door to examine our credentials and let us in one by one?”

And the totting up of the number of poets of different races in her anthology signifies, says Dove, “that we are not a post-racial society; that even so-called ‘intelligent’, ‘sensitive’, ‘liberal’ people who call themselves ‘humanists’ are often warped by their preconceived notions of class, race, and privilege”.

Now, we’re told, the poetry world is choosing up sides. In turn, that reminds me of a line from an earlier poet: “At every word a reputation dies” (Rape of the Lock III.16). There are several factors at work here, of course. When putting an anthology together, there are essentially two models from which to choose: The sharp knife that cuts away unhealthy tissue, leaving only the strongest life behind; or the loaf of bread that feeds all. I suspect Vendler is an advocate of the first, Dove of the second. Another factor is that, like many small communities, the poetry world is driven by what a mentor of mine once described metaphorically as  “Who’s f—ing whom.” Hence the alliances and the large-caliber accusations.

Meanwhile, I would suggest that poetry continues to become an academic pursuit, in the “irrelevant, moot” sense of the word. From the period Dove’s anthology covers, my students have heard of Langston Hughes (almost invariably) and Robert Frost (less often). Next? Probably Tupac — and I wish I were kidding. So the steaks keep shrinking, and the knives keep growing.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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3 Responses to The Knives Get Bigger as the Steaks Get Smaller

  1. Robbo says:

    Is it possible that in her letter Dove meant to speak of Vendler’s intelligence being ravaged instead of ravished?

  2. Jeff says:

    I have a hard time criticizing Dove solely based on the poets and poems she selected. (I’ve read elsewhere that she also dealt with budgetary constraints and the unreasonable financial demands of more popular poets and their estates.) In the ’70s, Philip Larkin caught major crap for the very conservative, formalist, traditionalist approach he took in editing “The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.” I prefer Larkin’s poetic taste to Dove’s, and if I had an academic pulpit from which to preach, I’d be downright evangelical about the power and importance of formalism–but given how little impact any poetry anthology is likely to have these days, I can barely begrudge Dove her tastes.

    Where Vendler really leaves a bruise, though, is in her critique of Dove’s shallow historical musings. Take this blurb about the 1950s:

    It’s hard to imagine what a jolt Ginsberg’s Howl gave to the self-satisfied fifties, with broadcast series like Father Knows Best crooning peace and prosperity while GIs died in Korea and McCarthyism mocked the forefathers’ democratic ideals.

    Vendler slams this and many other generalizations in Dove’s introduction, deservedly so. Dove’s take on the 1950s reminds me of the “Simpsons” episode where 1927 is described as “the year Al Capone danced the Charleston on top of a flagpole.” It’s all cliche, conventional wisdom, and wild overgeneralization. Dove leaves no room either for “Howl” to be *of* the 1950s rather than a reaction to it, or for the real diversity of America during that time. (For example, my family of Eastern European laborers, hardly “self-satisfied,” watched cheerful, unrealistic sitcoms for a brief respite from daily squalor and tedious factory work.) Vendler is right to expect someone as credentialed as Dove to discuss American history in something better than VH1-level platitudes; the fact that Dove, in her lengthy reply, doesn’t even respond to Vendler’s criticism of the book’s introduction speaks for itself.

    (Dove’s response to Vendler’s review is also overwritten and betrays an unseemly level of personal insecurity, but perhaps that’s neither here nor there.)

  3. J. Otto Pohl says:

    There may be no Zulu Tolstoy. But, Pushkin was one eighth Ethiopian.

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