Thursday, November 10, 2011

I'm by no means an acolyte of poetry critic Helen Vendler; but when I noticed "Are These the Poems to Remember?"--her review in the NY Review of Books of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove--I thought I ought to read it. As you know, I'm in the midst of assembling my own poetry-themed anthology, so I've acquired a certain professional interest in how other editors make and defend their choices and how those choices and attitudes might influence a reader. One of the primary discoveries I've made as an anthologist is that, without purposefully narrowing one's scope to a specific time, place, or subgroup of writers, it's nigh on impossible to avoid creating a book full of canonical white male poets if one is honestly working to include the best, most influential writers. The reasons are clear: thousands of years of illiterate or undereducated women, oral as opposed to written traditions, a dearth of translations and transcriptions, not to mention a lack of leisure. Even if they were literate, slaves and serfs didn't have, to put it mildly, the liberty of unstructured time. Moreover, people haven't always had access to a variety of books. The canonical writers became our cultural foundation partly because their volumes were sitting on our bookshelves. If we wanted to better ourselves, whether we were Charlotte Bronte or Frederick Douglass, we took Shakespeare off the shelf.

According to Vendler, Dove's anthology attempts to "shift the balance." Of course she is working solely within the twentieth century, so she has more material at hand, yet Vendler still has reservations:

Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. 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. People who wouldn't be able to take on the long-term commitment of writing a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every literary critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove's 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?

I think this is a fair question. And I also think that Vendler's later comment about education is worth considering:

One must, after all, face the fact that all poets who wield language powerfully are exquisitely well educated, even if they have had to educate themselves, as Whitman and Dickinson and Crane did. Just because one describes a "hardscrabble Appalachia" doesn't make one a hardscrabble Appalachian. . . .

Pegging poets to their origins doesn't change the fact that they leave those origins behind and live the "elite" life of the educated, even when, like Whitman, they live in poverty.

I have to go feed animals now, or else I'd talk more about Vendler's reactions to Dove's commentary on the history of twentieth-century poetry and what V sees as D's discomfort "in the essayist's role." But if you've read the review, I'd love to hear your comments. I'd also love to hear what you think about this education-elitism conundrum.


Maureen said...

I read the review last weekend. I thought it somewhat harsh and yet the questions Vendler raises are notable. I don't think some of what was included would be my choice, either. But I note my use of the word "choice".

The entire piece reminds me of a recent dust-up in our paper about Op-Ed pages, with some readers taking the Post to task for printing essays with, well, opinions. My response: what do you expect? I look similarly at anthologies, whether of poetry, short stories, essays, you name it. What's selected is the editor's choice, not necessarily what someone else would select but not to be faulted for that. If, however, the anthologist sets out specific objectives (other than personal choice) for the work included, then he or she might well expect people to take issue, especially if the work included can objectively be criticized.

Multicultural inclusiveness is always going to raise hackles. I noted, for example, the lack in the U.S. Poets Laureate anthology of poets who are women and minorities. The anthologist can't be faulted for that, because the choice of USPLs is solely that of the Librarian of Congress. Still, one would hope after 75 years that some change in perception and acceptance would be forthcoming, so that those in the groups who truly have made substantial contributions to poetry would be honored by being appointed to the office. I won't be around for the next 75 years anthology but I can hope my son or his children will see that change has been realized.

As for education-elitism: it's time we got past this. I'm so sick of the MFA and academy argument, which is not just applied to writers but to visual artists as well. It's nonsense. I've read just as much crap from the well-educated as from the lesser-educated. A degree ultimately is not want makes the difference between a writer who can write and one who cannot.

Thomas said...

I have to find a copy of the Vendler piece and read it -- I'm quite intrigued to see what she says in detail. From the excerpt Dawn provided, though, I read Vendler as referring not to MFA programs per se but to the divide between those who choose to devote their lives to writing (and thus a generalized value of "education") and those who do not. Thus a poet like Whitman who was no academic nonetheless hitches himself to the star of literate culture by choosing to read and write as a vocation. So the autodidact is allied as much to "education" in this formulation as the MFA grad simply because both are "those kind of people" who value writing and the aesthetic tradition. I'm reminded of Dawn's LOCUS poem with the plow guy who's smoking a joint; neighbors, but there's a divide between them. Again, that's my impression from the brief Vendler excerpt and I may be mistaken -- I really need to scrounge up a copy of the essay, though.

Dawn Potter said...

You're right, Tom; V's talking about self-education rather than institutional education. But the question still stands: is that a valid assumption to make about great poets? I'm leaning in her direction on this one, but I'm anxious to be reminded of exceptions.

And, yes, Maureen: an anthology is perforce a reflection of editorial choice. Even before I began the article, I wondered how V would come to terms with that. And interestingly, her complaints are not so much about the poets themselves but about Dove's version of 20th-c. literary history. I didn't get the chance to speak about that in today's post; maybe tomorrow.

Carol Willette Bachofner said...

Two points:

1. I get weary over anthologies which massage the elite, the " published over and over because they're famous or well-connected" poets " and long to see any editor of courage do an anthology that actually represents something else.

2. I am SICK of MFA bashing, which seems to be part of the ever-growing national trend of anti-intellectualism. So many of those who look down their noses at MFAs do so from a position of not having one. Having said this, I do applaud the self-taught. We can certainly see someone like Whitman as a shining example of that!

Dawn Potter said...

Vendler would be the last person to bash MFAs, I think. She's very much part of the academic world.