Have you all followed the Helen Vendler-Rita Dove smackdown lately in the New York Review of Books? Long story short: Helen Vendler reviewed Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry and slammed it for being too inclusive, too multicultural, and too “peppy.” Dove responded with a lengthy defense of her work, explaining her methods and goals.
What struck me about this melee is the nakedly racial ressentiment of Vendler’s critique. (Vendler is a white Harvard professor of poetry, Dove is a black poet and scholar at the University of Virginia.) Although Vendler doesn’t say so, she is a Wallace Stevens scholar, and she’s apparently outraged that Dove’s choices meant that Stevens must share space in this volume with unworthy “multicultural” poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and others of the Black Arts movement. Here’s Vendler:
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.
What is this, a flashback to 1988 and the Western Front of the Culture Wars: Battle of the Poetry Canon? Continue Reading »