Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Rita Dove Anthology Dust-Up Continues!

Rita Dove's Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry continues to generate controversy.

Here are a couple of articles that mention my own contribution to the contretemps: one from The Chronicle of Higher Education and one from The Guardian.

*Update, Dec. 23:

Michael Leong has some interesting thoughts on the anthology at Big Other.

My original post is here.


  1. I thought ollamh Dove demolished professor Vendler with great aplomb.

    The essential difference being that Vendler's anthological paradigm is an exercise of imposing the historical status quo of a nation founded on Slavery; priviliging (white) American poets into a canon many American readers do not have as their own - whilst Dove, as she states in a conversation with Jericho Brown on the BAP blog, merely chose poems she considers important.

    "...interested less in formulating theories or plopping poets into schools... concentrating on showing how certain poets fit into a certain camp," than trying "to show through their poems how the times in which they lived provoked fitting artistic responses to their individual concerns, their troubles and joys," and "also to the social tragedies and triumphs that defined their and their contemporaries' lives."

    Mainstream American poetry anthologies, by their very definition, are tame affairs causing little in the way of controversy. The usual (white) suspects and a condescending appraisal of work by 'poets of color', whose achievements are automatically (unconsciously perhaps) deemed to be inherently less poetic than their hitherto (white) superiors'.


    As an outsider looking in, I was initially baffled by the absence of engagement with and enthusiasm for a great contemporary American poet, Amiri Baraka, whose work was and is written at the cutting cultural edge where politics and personhood intersect, carrying more of an authentic charge than the well made and polite meaningful words of your East coast (white) elites.

    I remember first coming across Baraka in university in England; the recording of Dope he has on his website, that I thought a tour de force of performance and insight into the American political reality that has evolved to its current point where War is Peace, failure success, fraudulence authenticity, black white and vice versa. Where the entire project of a new American century is cynically founded on a reality of lies, grift, greed and blanket misinformation the corporate military complex is responsible for inculcating and diseminating to a dumbed down and bankrput society whose citizenry is fed on the nonsense of its cultural 'exceptionalism'.

  2. Posterity may well judge Somebody Blew Up America to be one of the most authentically poetic responses to the whole 9/11 saga that ushered in the Orwellian 21C.

    Yet (white) critics like Vendler prefer instead to acquiesce and parrot the polite meanignful verse of a politically and poetically irrelevant class. Looking back, interpratating history through an ivy league prism that enshrines white America as something it is and was not. Ignoring the blatant injustice at the heart of 20C America, content to practice what Scarriet's Tom Graves calls

    "Gate Keeper" criticism... Gate Keeper criticism because it says, 'Text only, please! Don’t waste my time with speculations about the life of the writer, or the times of the writer, or politics! We will focus on the poem, please!' One can see what a powerful weapon this can be for any attempt to create a status quo. In Vendler’s world, no one is allowed go 'above' the text (see Plato) to make a common sense judgement of the poem-in-the-world; one must 'lose oneself in the text' in proper pur-blind, 'English major' fashion in order to find all sorts of things ‘in’ the text which are not really there, so it all becomes a 'treasure hunt' of close-reading mania, whereby any text, if read closely enough, can be canonized and turned into a 'major work.' The "gate keepers" like Vendler and Bloom (notice they are not poets themselves—if we saw their poems it would sully the illusion they seek to create) are "champion" close-readers (without a lick of common sense) and are crazy enough to be perfect for the task. Dove is the enemy, of course, because Dove is daring to make judgements based on more than just the poems. Dove is essentially saying, 'the poems are important, but they are not everything.' Vendler, the New Critic, is naturally going to lash out at this. New Criticism comes right out of TS Eliot and his gang of sexist, racist, Southern Fugitive, right-wing modernists and it’s an effort to control the debate of what is good and bad on a very low and cunning level, since the modernists in general were not very good poets. The opposition to New Criticism is represented by Dove and her black poets, or the Beats or any political faction which makes the poet or the poet’s personality or politics, more important than the poetry."

    Perhaps it's just plain old bardic envy of poets such as Amiri Baraka and (especially) Rita Dove, by those who spent their formative years not writing at the forefront of domestic change in America.

  3. Hi Coirí,

    I'm not sure if any of this is meant as a response to me: it seems more like a response to Vendler, and a general riff on the anthology.

    I do hope you know that Vendler's criticism of the anthology is not at all in accord with what I said in my blog post, which you can see here:



  4. This Is Just To Say
    (if Rita Dove had written it)

    I’ve excluded
    the poets
    that were in
    the Norton

    and which
    you were probably
    to see

    Forgive me
    they were expensive
    and really
    not that good.

  5. Vendler

    The girl stood on the burning deck
    Of merit judged through time
    While Dove and Penguin published dreck
    She judged to be sub-prime.

    Yet beautiful and bright she stood
    As born to rule on form
    And cite the universal good
    Against the local norm.

    The flames rolled on, a sheet of sheer
    Contemporary spew --
    But we, above those flames, could hear:
    "I stand by my review."

    And though the structure sags and reels
    We few will still take heart
    That there she stands, with no appeals
    Except to time and art.

  6. Penguin Blues

    I’ve read the new collection
    There’s lots of folks I’ve missed
    But I think my chief objection
    Is that I’m not on the list!

    I hope you’ll find that you’ll forgive me
    If I don’t enthuse
    Because I’ve got the Penguin blues.

    The gamers out there gaming
    I give them all a pass
    But the flamers out there flaming
    Can kiss my pobiz ass.

    I send my check and manuscript to
    Contests that I lose –
    I guess I’ve got the Penguin blues.

    Then when Penguin phones you,
    That Harper/Collins owns you,
    And Penguin will not pay their jacked-up fees
    The most profuse apology
    You're not in their anthology
    Will sound as if it’s dirty low-down sleaze.

    May editors select you,
    Your reprint fees stay low
    And may your peers elect you
    For prizes that give dough

    Oh Penguin may anthologize the
    Product of your muse
    But me, I’ve got the Penguin blues.
    Those forty-dollar brightly-covered hard-bound
    Penguin blues;
    Oh Penguin may anthologize the
    Poems you peruse
    But Penguin only brought me the blues –
    These brightly-covered forty-dollar hard-bound
    Penguin blues.