Saturday, November 19, 2011

So, back to Helen Vendler's review of Rita Dove's Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry--

One thing I haven't talked about is how much V dislikes D's introduction, "with its uneasy mix of potted history . . . and peculiar judgments." But she doesn't limit her dislike to subject matter: she also complains about D's metaphors ("cartoonish") and descriptive vagaries ("Can Dove think that a poet of Merrill's depth can be confined to the putative space of a vague 'poetry establishment,' or that placing poets on one side of another of such an assumed 'establishment' says anything about their abilities?")

Basically, Vendler has no patience with either Dove's prose style or her historical summaries:

The simplest thing to say about Dove's introduction is that she is writing in a genre not her own; she is a poet, not an essayist, and, uncomfortable in the essayist's role, she strains for effects (alliteration the favorite) on the one hand and, on the other, falls into mere boilerplate. . . . Dove offers stereotypes and cliches as she lifts the curtain.

V then proceeds to prove her point in six dense columns of excoriating detail. The review is quite remarkably unforgiving; and if this were my book under study, I would crawl into bed and weep.

Yet as far as I can tell, D's prose really is alarming. Even if I set aside the personal judgments (Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" is "blunt and somewhat smug"?), the examples V quotes remind me of the stuff I read in Paul's middle school social studies textbook: history as brisk, colorful pap. This particular pap is flavored with hip twentieth-century poets rather than unhip eighteenth-century generals, but the summarizing grinder has nonetheless reduced them to a familiar, digestible mush, as in D's portrait of 1950s America:

It's hard to imagine what a jolt Ginsberg's Howl gave to the self-satisfied fifties, with broadcast series like Father Knows Best crooning peace and prosperity while GIs died in Korea and McCarthyism mocked the forefathers' democratic ideals.

Of course, the middle school textbook questions for such a sentence could be fun to invent--perhaps "Pretend you are a GI in Korea. Write a letter home to a friend or family member. It should contain a description of the Korean landscape and three questions about Howl." But seriously, if an anthology's primary use is instructional and the book has been designed specifically as a historical survey, what are the editor's obligations to that history? If we value open-ended ambiguity in poems, why can't we help students understand that poetry's relationship to political and social history has a parallel ambiguity, that political and social histories are themselves Argus-eyed and ambiguous?

I suppose, in the end, this is what worries me: not that an anthology might include poems I don't admire or find challenging or personally vital but that it would choose to tuck all this pain and joy and struggle and error into tidy boxes. Why cheerfully announce that the poets of the Harlem Renaissance "felt empowered to explore all aspects of their humanity"?--as if anyone, at any time, has ever been able to do such a thing.

1 comment:

jen revved said...

Thank goodness Vendler isn't Jesus. Great post, Dawn. xxxj