Archive for December 13th, 2011

The bashing of Helen Vendler

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011
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Has she been "slimed"?

The internet has been warmed this week by the fires between Harvard critic Helen Vendler and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove.  The upshot: Vendler didn’t like Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, and Dove didn’t like that Vendler didn’t like it.  Angry letters have been pouring in against Vendler.

Vendler’s Nov. 24 article in the New York Review of Books, “Are These Poems to Remember?” notes: “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. … Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?” Why only six pages for Wallace Stevens, and no more than the single poem from James Merrill?

Vendler takes particular aim at Dove’s introduction:

“She denigrates Frost’s ‘Design’ and ‘Acquainted with the Night,’ for instance, as ‘blunt and somewhat smug,’ calls Eliot ‘a sourpuss retreating behind the weathered marble of the Church,’ and says that Elizabeth Bishop ‘somehow managed to chisel the universe into pixilated uncertainties.’ Merrill, whose ‘formal verse placed him squarely on the side of the poetry establishment,’ is said to have shed ‘the jeweled carapaces of formalism in favor of the rules of the Ouija board.’ 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 or another of such an assumed ‘establishment’ says anything about their abilities? And as a poet herself, she must know better than to refer metaphorically to formal verses as ‘jeweled carapaces’: carapaces belong, after all, to insects and tortoises. Such cartoonish remarks are not helpful to the understanding of poetry. …

She stands by her review.

These are the kind of passages that makes every writer cringe.  Who among us can throw the first stone?  Haven’t we all written hastily, sloppily sometimes?  On the other hand, that’s exactly what critics are for: to spank us when we do.

Dove responded in a 1700-word letter.  She could have done it more effectively with far fewer words.  She has some good points to make. Taking on Vendler’s comment,  “Did Dove feel that only these poems [five early poems by Stevens] would be graspable by the audience she wishes to reach? Or is it that she admires Stevens less that she admires Melvin Tolson, who receives fourteen pages to Stevens’s six?”

Ah, here we go, totting up pages of poetry rather than the poems themselves. Tolson is represented by two poems (actually, one poem and one section of a book-length poem); Stevens by six. Should Tolson be denied representation because he writes long poems? As far as the selection of early Stevens goes, my original choices included several middle-period poems, but rights problems prohibited their final inclusion. I can’t expect Vendler to know this, and though it is a sad comment on the deplorable state of the American reprint permissions process, I accept responsibility for the resulting omission. However, in juxtaposing a great Anglo-American poet with a great African-American one, Vendler immediately draws unsubstantiated conclusions that fit her bias.”

But then Dove goes too far.  She accuses Vendler of racism, and stoops to attack the critic rather than the criticism. Finally she foams: “I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defense is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth … 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.”

Vendler’s response is short: “I have written the review and I stand by it.”  It’s not a “cheeky” reply, as The Atlantic Wire wrote.  It’s professional.  And The Atlantic is also wrong in asserting that “what they’re really fighting about” is “each other’s credentials.”

Largely, the two women have a different idea of what anthologies should do, and it’s a discussion worth having.  Is Vendler looking for a “Top Ten,” Dove asks?  Truly, there is a lot to be said for favoring a minor, relatively unknown poet who lights a fire in a few souls over some widely accepted canonical poets. How to balance the worrying, risky – and inevitably biased and unfair – process of winnowing against the easy out of letting 175 flowers bloom?

Also, Vendler is reacting to a literary world where poets often have an eye to classroom sales. Bashing off a quick anthology with a breezy introduction is a cash cow for an otherwise poorly remunerated profession.  I’ve seen some shamefully sloppy stuff from some very prominent poets – they get away with it because their names are big.

Fortunately, James Fenton at the London Evening Standard takes a more even-handed p.o.v., and slaps down political correctness and Penguin, too, while he’s at it:

The best thing Dove could have done was shut up and let people draw their own conclusions. Vendler is known to “bear, like the Turk, no rival near the throne”. Perhaps this was just another example of territoriality.

Excepting that it wasn’t. In most, though not in my opinion all, of her criticisms, Vendler put her finger on blatant weaknesses, although she ignored the most obvious weakness of all: nothing by Sylvia Plath, and nothing by Allen Ginsberg. Dove explains in her introduction that her permissions funds did not run to such expensive poets, and she says to the reader: “For these involuntary gaps, I ask you to cut me some slack.”

This is just not good enough, and the fault here is largely with Penguin for not seeing the difficulty Dove was in and coming to her aid. A small publisher might plead for the reader’s understanding over such omissions. A large one has to decide whether it is prepared to stump up the money to do the job properly.

Fred Viebahn offered this tidbit in the comments section of the London article, pointing out Dove’s words in the Dec. 2011 edition of The Writer’s Chronicle: “… the worst offender by far [demanding outrageous fees] was the publisher of Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg, whose ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude resulted in none of this house’s authors being included … Negotiations dragged on literally until the day when the anthology went into production; seeking common ground, I offered several solutions, including reducing the overall number of poems … while meeting their exorbitant line fees … The answer was nothing less than shocking: All or nothing. In other words, if I didn’t pay the same high line fees for all their poets as well as, unbelievably, take all the poems I had initially inquired about, I couldn’t have Ginsberg nor Plath … Pleas from upper Penguin management and even from one of the affected poets, who declared his willingness to forgo royalties, fell on deaf ears; the day before the anthology went into production, [the publisher of Plath and Ginsberg] withdrew all pending contracts and declared the negotiations closed.” He adds that  paying more for some permissions would have violated agreements with other publishers that did not permit to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

He ought to know. He’s Rita Dove’s husband.

Helen Vendler will be speaking on “Wallace Stevens as an American Poet” at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free and open to the public.