The Acid Tongue
A Review to Remember
Selected By Cyril Wong
This response by Helen Vendler to The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove, is a personal favourite. Vendler is a much-admired literary critic whose unshakeable assumptions about an idealised vision of poetry come passionately to the fore here, in direct contrast to the non-elitist, hyper-inclusive Dove who is systematically attacked in her review published in the New York Review of Books in November 2011; each of them provides the yin to the other's yang, a tennis-match dialectic that continues to play out in a paradoxically banal yet necessary way throughout much of literary criticism these days.
Vendler believes that the most significant names in twentieth-century American poetry should include the likes of Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Moore to Bishop, while Rita Dove has decided "to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors….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? ...[T]here 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?"
The passage of time as bestowing an objective eye — a point of view that is a notorious classic, or a classical fallacy that Vendler falls prey to, surprisingly, despite her notable experience as an academic. Just because something stands, or is lucky enough to withstand, the test of time, does it mean that we must all agree to love and honour it? Seriously? Vendler clearly thinks we should all revere the likes of Moore and Merrill a lot more than many of us already do; or more than Dove demonstrates through her selection: "Coming as a young person to this anthology, I would have loved finding such poems. But I would still have been hungry for more than the six pages here of Wallace Stevens, more than the single poem by James Merrill."
For Vendler, Dove only prefers the poems that are less complex, and more plainspoken. Yet this is in contradiction to the insertion of Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror"; and Vendler has a point when she writes that "no principle of selection emerges" from Dove's erratic selection, or that Dove's comments about the poets Vendler prefers can be less than satisfying:
Vendler sums up Dove's general inaptitude as an editor:
From her "sketchy" or "idealistic" visions of the Harlem Renaissance and Fifties America to the Black Arts movement, Vendler also finds much to quarrel with Dove's sense of historicity: "An implacable myth of progress animates Dove's historical observations: 'Toward the middle of the twentieth century, especially after World War II, the view shifted: Pound's antiquities had lost their luster, Eliot's England grown stale, the call of Crane's Brooklyn Bridge faded to an echo…Manifest Destiny as poetic conquest. This narrative of luster lost and echoes fading is simply not true of artistic succession; one might as well say that Shakespeare has faded to an echo and Faulkner has lost his luster."
There is also Dove's problematic implication that poets are themselves a representative part of the things they write about:
The formidable critic concludes with not just Dove's failure as a curator of "significant" American verse, but also with a high-sounding and subjective note about what the best poetry should achieve, as a general rule:
QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012