The Players: Helen Vendler, author and one of the nation's leading critics of American Poetry; Rita Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate who's in charge of editing the expansive The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry.
The Opening Serve: Vendler was in charge of reviewing The Penguin Anthology for The New York Review of Books. The title of the review pretty much gives away Vendler's feelings. "Are these poems to remember?" She goes on to ask, "No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom." Her argument being that Dove divided up space by giving some attention to newer, younger poets at the expense of better-known, and time-tested ones. "Perhaps Dove’s two years as poet laureate helped foster the impression that poetry should be written in 'plain American that cats and dogs can read' (Moore, satirizing English views of America). But a poem can communicate while it is still imperfectly understood (said Coleridge), and Dove trusts her readers less than she might," writes Vendler, who goes on to give lengthy, concrete examples (which you're more than welcome to read) and explications in her review.
The Return Volley: Dove takes to the December 22 issue of the New York Review of Books to for her rebuttal. In response to the "175 poets worth reading" Dove writes, "Whoa! I suppose Vendler would rather I declare a Top Ten, or perhaps just five, as she herself did in her recent scholarly study Last Looks, Last Books." And she goes on, "Indeed, one of her own forays onto the anthology turf, The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985), prompted a disgruntled reader to retort on Amazon.com: 'The American Tree Becomes a Toothpick.'" Yes, your eyes aren't deceiving you, a former poet laureate for the United States quoted an Amazon review. Dove continues, "Vendler lets her guard down when she laments, rather condescendingly, that I am a poet, not an essayist, 'writing in a genre not [my] own'—as if that alone disqualifies me from being capable of lucid prose as long as she, the master essayist, owns the genre lock, stock, and barrel." And she closes:
The amount of vitriol in Helen Vendler’s review betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics. As a result, she not only loses her grasp on the facts, but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again. 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.
Dove's response sprawls over 1,700 words, to which Vendler responded with a pithy, 10-word dense. "I have written the review and I stand by it." wrote Vendler
What They Say They're Fighting About: How we should analyze and grade poetry. It's pretty clear Vendler is more selective. Her argument being that letting everyone into the club, the list, or in this case, the anthology, takes away the luster from actually being included. And it's not unlike the same debates in the world of pop culture like the gripes with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or the selections process of an NCAA tournament, or a Michelin list. Dove's point obviously counters the notion that fewer is better, as she points out that Vendler loses out on diversity, and perhaps much more by focusing on her chosen few.
What They're Really Fighting About: Each other's credentials. Vendler pokes fun at Dove's tenure as Poet Laureate, saying more or less that she's dumbed down her expectations of Americans being able to appreciate good poetry and tempered her discerning taste in order to appeal for the masses--hence we shouldn't trust her editing decisions in Penguin's latest anthology. Dove, on the other hand points out that Vendler holds an "essayist versus poet prejudice" here, and believes Vendler's dismissal of her judgment is because of Vendler's myopic view.
Who's Winning Now: A slight edge to Dove, if only for this take down, "[B]ut her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again." That dressing down may be the only example you'll need of why you should never get a poet mad at you. But that's not to say Vendler's cheeky 10-word defense after a mountain of Dove's isn't sharply poetic in its own right. What's going on here is a battle of taste fueled by subjectivity. We may have to wait for years to see if Dove's selections are good enough to withstand Vendler's test of time, and even then it'll be up to someone else's taste to confirm or deny those selections. What both women show here is that they're more than game to analyze, debunk, and critique poetry as well as the art of the biting, waspish response.
Photo © by Fred Viebahn reprinted with permission from Rita Dove's homepage