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Re: Vendler on Dove's anthology of 20th C American poetry


From an Jericho Brown's interview with Rita Dove after the anthology came out:

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.
 
Jericho: To be honest, when I finally got a copy of the anthology, I expected the major criticism of it to be the names of usual suspects collected in it. Surprisingly, the largest criticism has been just the opposite. Though all of the poets are well known, richly awarded, and widely read, one critic accused you of merely making a multicultural book. Every one of those minority poets come as no surprise to me as figures that would be anthologized considering how much they are regularly taught and reviewed. I know counting is now taken as a sign of one who clings unnecessarily to a past of oppression, but only about a fourth of these poets are people of color—a relatively small number if you think about the number of people of color who may have written a good poem in a 100-year period in the United States. Given these facts, do you have any response to such odd criticism?
 
Rita: I don't know if this line of attack is a sign of despair or fury on part of some critics who define themselves as white -- whatever that means in our mongrel society. Are they trying to make 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?
 
Toward the end of her review, Helen Vendler reveals much about the skewed thought processes that seem to inform these critics when she writes: "Of the twenty poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian-American), and five are white (two men, three women).” My husband was in Germany tending to his sick mother when the review came out, so I emailed him a scan. Half an hour later, he emailed me back. "I can't believe Vendler topped off her diatribe with bean counting so offensive, she’s put herself in league with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan", he wrote. "Has she lost all historical perspective? In juxtaposing 'white' with 'minority communities', counting among the latter everybody who does not adhere to her imaginary Caucasian purity principles, she incriminates herself. Just like the Nazis tagged every German as Jewish who had a Jewish grandparent, just like the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk ascribed to the 'one drop rule', she lumps together everybody who is not 'rassenrein' [racially pure] white, including all those of the 'fifteen from minority communities' who are of mixed racial heritage."

Jericho: What do you think it signifies in American poetry today when those we think of as staunchly ensconced members of the establishment admit to counting the number of poets from minority communities in your book? Why, for their entire careers, haven’t they ever noticed the number of poets from majority communities in other anthologies? Is it hilarious or infuriating to you when a critic has the nerve to note that most of the poets of any race will never attain the goal of writing great poetry without admitting that everything they’ve read in the past suggests just the opposite?
 
Rita: These are damning questions for which there are no defensible explanations. It signifies 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. And yes, it is infuriating . . . but then I have to laugh because the last laugh, of course, will be on those who believe they have so much to lose. I remember my father telling me, whenever I complained about unfair treatment, that at least I knew what I was able to do, and that was what counted. He also said: “Whatever you do, don’t grow bitter. Becoming bitter means they’ve won.”


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So, according to Dove, if you think that Brooks is an influential, first-rate poet, deserving of awards and being anthologized, but you don't think she is on the same level as Shakespeare, your conclusion is the result of a "deluded mind," of "hate, malice, and selfishness"? And, according to Dove's husband, Vendler's "bean counting" puts her "in league with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan"? Even if one agrees with Rita and Fred that Helen's bean counting is inappropriate, playing the Nazi and KKK card causes this reader to question: Who has lost all historical perspective?

It signifies 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.

No, we are not a post-racial society, and, yes, even so-called “intelligent,” “sensitive,” “liberal” people who call themselves “humanists” are often warped by their preconceived notions of class, race, and privilege, regardless of their class or skin color. The same thing applies to gender. Just because someone is in a minority doesn't mean they, too, aren't warped by preconceived notions, by prejudices of the Other, although it may be comforting and convenient not to think so.

I don't know about you guys. I'm not laughing or bitter; I'm baffled too. Later in the interview, Dove refers to what she calls Vendler's "infuriated tone-deaf cosmos." Whole lot of tone-deafness going on. Or so it seems to me.

In the interview Dove also says: Although there were many heartbreaking decisions -- poems I loved for personal reasons that I had to acknowledge as sentimental, flawed, or simply their author’s one-shot wonder -- nothing shook my belief in the goodness of human beings like trying to secure the rights to reprint these three authors and by extension other poets controlled by the same publishing house.

Troubling as Dove's inability to secure reprint rights might be, I find the fact that all of us are unwittingly warped by preconceived notions and prejudices, that it is our human, all too human tendency to blame, project, demean and vilify, to be the most pro-humanity belief shattering factor, but it doesn't have to be the utlimate reality in part thanks to great art, thanks to great poetry.

Is it possible for poets and critics of good faith to disagree in good faith?

Last edited by Katlin, Jan/27/2012, 11:31 am
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Terreson Profile
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Re: Vendler on Dove's anthology of 20th C American poetry


Lindsay's Congo poem. The poem is a prisoner of its time. I've read the poem and winced. Eliot's poetry was on occassion a prisoner of its time. Same is true of Pound and, I insist, the anti-Semiticism of Baraka. Yeats's point remains. I felt it the first time I read Lindsay. And it has staid with me. The primitive, tribal primitive, in song is what he was at his best after.

I just remembered something. Donald Hall included in one of his editions of Contemporary American Poetry a poem by Ginsberg called To Lindsay.

"To Lindsay"


Vachel, the stars are out
dusk has fallen on the Colorado road
a car crawls slowly across the plain
In the dim light the radio blares its jazz
the heartbroken salesman lights another cigarette
In another city 27 years ago
I see your shadow on the wall
You're sitting in your suspenders on the bed
The shadow hand lifts up a pistol to your head
Your shade falls over on the floor



Not sure I need to say anymore. Except maybe for this. Ginsberg, like Yeats, got Vachel Lindsay.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Jan/28/2012, 8:46 pm
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Re: Vendler on Dove's anthology of 20th C American poetry


I like the Ginsberg poem, Tere.

I really like your observation: "The poem is a prisoner of its time." Agree it applies as much to the Baraka poem Dove anthologized as it does to Lindsay's Congo poem. Both are wince/cringe/shudder worthy in certain aspects.

Perhaps it's true that certain anthologies, or portions of them, are prisoners of their times and/or their editors' preferences (a more neutral, judicious term than prejudices). Dove's anthology is as much a prisoner of our times and her preferences as those older anthologies, which she is trying to correct and compensate for, were prisoners to the zeitgeists of times past and the tastes of previous editors.
Jan/27/2012, 11:28 am Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
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Re: Vendler on Dove's anthology of 20th C American poetry


Could have sworn I posted a message after the Lindsay post and link.

Yeats was right, of course. How to return the primitive to poetry? one of my favorite books is called "Primitive Song." A field collection of primitive, tribal songs and chants. Spars, simple, beat driven, must have been hypnotic in performance and participatory ritual, especially when given over in recitative. This is precisely what Lindsay was after. What Yeats would have picked up on. And no one needs Yeats's guidance here. The untrained ear responds to it, which is precisely the point. Lindsay could beat out the rhythm on his chest. I don't think he involved himself in Jazz poetry performances, but he certainly ran parallel to them. His greatest poem must be General William Booth Enters Into Heaven. Does this singular contribution to the 20th C not mean something, something rather large?

I don't know. I am not understanding R. Dove's rationale for her selections. Of course I wince a little at Lindsay's Congo thing. As the writer points out unintentionally racist but there. I more than wince at Eliot's anti-Semiticism and Pound's, both intentional. And at Baraka's politically motivated anti-Semiticism. All I can say is this, again repeating what Ms. P taught me. What does the poem say to motive? Just remembered. E.E. Cummings used the N word at least once.

I am trying to remember a confessional comment Dove made about her selection process. Need to find it and come back.

Tere

Forgot about page 2. Thought my posts were getting lost in cyber space.

So here is the phrase Dove uses with comments made by the Writer Kat has linked us to.

"Secondly, it would be useful to know which poets were excluded (or limited) due to “buried antipathies.” I don’t even want to know what those antipathies are; that an editor employs them in her selection is probably TMI, but now that we have this shadowy category, might as well name the names."

Buried antipathies. That is a scary thought to me, scarrier coming from an educator and poetry scholar. A rather elegant way of saying something equally as ugly. So does it bring something to bear on Dove's exclusion of Lindsay? Does it, as above writer also points out, bring something to bear on several Southern poets, at least two of whom have been considered essential to the canon by other anthologists? Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom. Maybe she objected to the manifesto of social conservatisim called I Take My Stand that they and many other Southern writers penned their name to. It explicitly calls for a return to the rural, agri-centric South. As explicitly it calls for a rejection of an urbanized, industrial South, what was taking hold in such cities as Birmingham, Jacksonville, and Durham soon following WW1. Not a racist stance as such, but one that could be used to keep economic opportunity from Blacks. This with out question. Keeping them in the cotton and rice fields.

I make no accusations. Asking questions and exploring possible links and associations to explain these buried antipathies of hers. Maybe also she didn't care for the school known as the New Critics with whom Ransom and, to a lesser extent, Robert Penn Warren were attached. I noticed she left out Yvor Winters, one of the school's staunchest proponents. I can't know.

Said before and will get said again. I do not recognize this particular 20th C of American poetry.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Jan/28/2012, 8:42 pm
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Re: Vendler on Dove's anthology of 20th C American poetry


Immediate point above taken, Kat. Just as much a prisoner or captive to one's times becomes the anthology. Something the Victoreans proved repeatedly.

Tere
Jan/28/2012, 8:44 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: Vendler on Dove's anthology of 20th C American poetry


Dove's arguments are simply all over the tennis court. No cogency, no focus, little direction. I could point out at least one inconsistency in her exception taken to the so-called establishment. But I choose not to go there. Still, her husband's ad hominem attack of Vendler is absolutely unworthy of the discussion, of any poetry discussion.

That said, on a slightly sardonic note, name me a poet who says she never counts beans and I will call her a liar.

So, Terreson. You say you wrote your first poem, age 16. Age now 60. How many have you kept out of your morgue file? How many you reckon will outlive you?

Well, the first number almost makes for a movable feast, except that it always cycles back a little eclipsed each lunar year. As of this night I'll count 344 poems. 344 over 44 = [sign in to see URL] poems a year. Generously I'll allow that 100 poems could survive me. [sign in to see URL] poems a year.

That doesn't seem very cost effective.

Pretty sorry, yes. No calculating the time investment.

Don't tell me poets don't count beans. Especially 3 hard decades later.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Jan/28/2012, 9:21 pm
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Re: Vendler on Dove's anthology of 20th C American poetry


Jonas Mekas Reviews The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry

Renowned avant-gardist writer, curator and filmmaker Jonas Mekas gives the most honest review yet of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry in this video diary. “John Wieners is not included!” “Helen Adam is not included!” Mekas stacks book by book of those excluded from the anthology, including Paul Blackburn, Kenneth Patchen, Frank Keunstler, Diane di Prima, Kenward Elmslie, Ed Dorn, and on and on (“So many poets that the stack collapses,” said our friend Ted Dodson). Watch to the end: “Allen Ginsberg is not included. Sylvia Plath is not included. How do they dare to call this the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry? Penguins! They did this tribute to the penguins in the North Pole. That’s my fair opinion, friends.”


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Or to go straight to the 8 minute video, go here:

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If you can, watch it until the end, which is very funny.
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