The bashing of Helen Vendler


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.

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21 Responses to “The bashing of Helen Vendler”

  1. Blog #30: Some poetry matters to some people some of the time | Andre's Blog Says:

    […] #30: Some poetry matters to some people some of the time TweetToday’s blog is about a skirmish between Rita Dove and Helen Vendler. The fight started with Vendler writing a review critical of Dove’s recently published Penguin […]

  2. andre gerard Says:

    A very enjoyable blog. My interest in this piece is rather personal, as I recently published Fathers: A Literary Anthology. Most of the writers in my anthology are major names (Sylvia Plath and Rita Dove are among them), and I know all too well how expensive permissions can be. While some rights holders are very generous, most major multinational publishers do charge exorbitant fees. Too few of the pieces I included were in the public domain, and for a potential print run of 25,000 copies I had to pay over $45,000.00. Electronic rights, which I did not get, would have added another $25,000.00 to that number.

    The debate as to what anthologies should do also resonates. In preparing Fathers: A Literary Anthology, I was constantly questioning my filters. I wanted all the pieces to be of a high aesthetic quality, but I also had a cultural agenda. Often, as with Alison Bechdel, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, or Derek Walcott, I could find pieces which fit all my major filters. Other times, as when choosing Adrienne Rich over Joyce Carol Oates, I had to make difficult decisions. Such decisions often led me to question my assumptions about literature and about how literary cannons are established.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for writing, Andre. I’ve done the permissions war, too – but not on the scale you’re talking about. Writing for non-profit academic presses offers some protection against these kinds of extortionate arrangements. I don’t think this is what copyright was designed for.

  4. Russ Says:

    “All in one boat, we take our strokes
    As one, and make good time, reversed.
    “Mur-” is our word, and so is “rum.”
    Helen knows who used them first.”

  5. Meat and Marginalia for the week (11-17 December 2011) | Interlineal Says:

    […] —Jame Fenton, giving his take on Helen Vendler’s critique of Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American … […]

  6. Chris Roberts Says:

    The suicide issue raised by Dove and Vendler is no issue. It flows in the veins of all poets and is not exclusive to the confessionals. To wit, Hart Crane, his end of times:

    The Water Looks Lovely Indeed

    Self-murder burns its own special incandescence. Suicide is a light affair because it is entered into lightly. The one-thousand questions asked by those left behind are without weight because it matters nothing to Death. Grieving embarrasses the suicide itself, especially so in poet Hart Crane’s case, by the very act of memorializing it in writing and twice-fold in the reading of it out loud at a service. The point of self-murder is too leave everyone and thing behind, not be followed after with airy prayers and ornate praise.

    The author mentioned above is mere an example of self-inflicted mayhem perpetrated by poets over the years. Suicide manifests itself through a natural extension of self and there really is no mystery, no self-recriminations. A life lived is light too in contrast to the epochal march. What came before, the now and what is future days converge to present the opportunity for self-murder. It is only a question of method, not if, and the suicide’s fatalistic joining with absolutism. Death, a singular death, is a trifle. Suicide as method is inconsequential in its repetitiveness and endlessly leads to the next man waiting in self-murderous solitude. And yes, living poetry will more than likely drive one’s thoughts to the noose.

    Chris Roberts

  7. RC Says:

    Dove does not go too far. Someohow it seems in America, and on this blog specifically, that the obvious can never be stated, especially when it gets to the point of the matter and establishes the core of a perspective that would disguise itself in intellect and reputation. Dove probaly did not go far enoough and should do critically dissect past instances of this very nature. Vendler wrote out of the kind of anger that shatters racist camouflage and allows her true self to show.

  8. Richar McDonough Says:

    Helen Vendler’s sainthood has taken its toll. Do not try to beard the anthologist in her den, I say. As for the anthologist, it’s your taste, good anthologist, and you have a right to that, needless to say. Combativeness was not the right pose for the Vendler response. Saints are not to be fussed with.

  9. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Not sure what you’re trying to say. As a 17-year-old cub reporter at an urban newspaper, I was trained how to respond when I was attacked in a letter to the editor: be courteous, respond politely to factual errors the correspondent has made, and then bow out. Don’t get into argument or counterattacks. It will only make you look worse.

    It’s still good advice.

  10. Epistolary Warfare in the Letters Section « Samir Chopra Says:

    […] which was described as ‘cheeky’ by Alexander Abad-Santos of the Atlantic Wire and as ‘professional’ by Cynthia Haven of the Book Haven is a one-liner: ”I have written my review and I stand by it.” I think it’s […]

  11. Wózki widłowe Says:

    I like american poetry cause american culture developed from many others cultures. This mix of people and lifestyle give very intersting view of live and way of thinking. Sadly I am not so good in english so i sometimes must use translator to understand the poem. Results of translation are offen unacceptable.

  12. Parkscheibe Says:


    […]The bashing of Helen Vendler | The Book Haven[…]…

  13. Deborah Gimelson Says:

    Since I was the Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America in the 1970s, I have been of the opinion that Helen Vendler has a stick up her you know what and has herself championed poets of dubious merit. No humor, no sense of the organic nature of style and taste.

  14. An Anthology and Anniversaries « Abacus - Lines Drawn in Sand Says:

    […] cogent and necessary as Fenton’s cautionary remarks, also Cynthia Haven‘s–which quote him, The Atlantic Wire, and Dove’s husband, Fred […]

  15. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Sorry for the delay on this one, Deborah. It got hung up in a spam folder.

  16. GG Says:

    I know this is old but, why does a racist white woman – a heavily established one at that – even need to be defended against a black woman defending herself? Being color blind in a white supremacist society is not an option and its hilarious that someone on a Stanford blog (one of the country’s top?) thinks the response and the attack can be judged the same way. You even go so far as to say a black woman should sit back and leave it to the world to decide when historically people of color are always told to “be the bigger person” and be “nonviolent” in response to racism. If someone’s coming at you with a sword, you don’t just sit there. You respond even if you only have the societal power of an x-acto knife in comparison. There’s coded racism all throughout the initial review that is obvious to people of color and in fact Dove was being polite in her response too, much more polite than deserved. Even you are guilty of coded language when you cast a black woman’s rational response to a racialized negative response to her work as her “foaming”. Like the recent incident where Mrs. Obama was apparently being “too harsh” with her “big hand” silencing the white LGBT protester when they interrupted her speech, because black women can’t do anything without being “too harsh” or inherently aggressive. Even in their writing apparently! It’s never going too far to call out racism and you as a white woman should be more attuned to the fact that white supremacy isn’t always going to be apparent to you the way it would a person of color and you’re not the one to decide what is or is not racist against or a rational response from a woman of color who are CONSTANTLY thrown under the bus and silenced by this rhetoric.

  17. Ed Flaherty Says:

    I am somehow reminded of Julius Marx who stated that his favorite poem was the one that began “Thirty days hath,” because that at least told you something. Don’t attack me: attack Marx.

  18. James Bowness Says:

    I find it interesting, and perhaps revealing, that the two who attack H.V. as ‘racist’ didn’t care to provide their full names.
    And what evidence do they have? Why not just defend Dove’s position in favor of variety and multiplicity.
    As a (once) poet laureate she has a perfect right to her choices, surely.

  19. Simon Says:

    I had just been reading about Helen Vendler’s close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and was looking for further information – and found this sorry tale. How sad that she transpires to be so regressive as to resent an anthology of poetry (out of many hundreds of anthologies?) sidelining the old, dead white men for one moment and allowing others to be read. Her ‘review’ is dripping with bitter disdain. For example:

    “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. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.”

    How does Vendler know Dove’s intent was to “shift the balance”? Dove explained the difficulties she had in the introduction to the anthology, perhaps Vendler skipped ahead to find something white to read. Whatever the reason, Dove’s voice is, ironically, ignored and she is given a motive of putting black poets into the limelight where Vendler makes it abundantly clear they don’t belong.

    Similarly, how does Vendler know that black poets have been included for “their representative themes”? It sounds like themes that black poets deal with might make Vendler feel uncomfortable or guilty. No white poets are included that couldn’t have been either, only blacks. It’s embarrassing to read. Vendler surely doesn’t critique poetry with this imperious, omniscient tone so it raises alarm bells immediately, an indication that senses have been taken leave of. Still near the beginning of Vendler’s openly racist diatribe we have:

    “People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of 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… Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?”

    Ouch! I’m wincing for Vendler, she’s being supremely snooty and openly racist. Too embarrassing. And everyone took her side. No wonder Trump won with even the poetry critics impelled to share their racist thoughts openly with no apparent lack of shame.

  20. Nicholas Finkelstein Says:

    Y’all miss the best point, that Vendler attacks Dove for being a poet, not a Professor of English and the Princess of the Poetry Establishment: “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.'”

    So, according to Vendler, the people who study the poets are superior to the poets. And, according to Vendler, poets cannot write prose. Both are nonsense.

    P.S. Vendler’s putting down Dove’s choice of Gwendolyn Brooks is blatantly racist, period.

  21. Humble person Says:

    Did somebody let phony status go to their head? (Whats that saying about academics fighting so hard for so little)

    Why do we like poetry? It’s music, feeling how the other feels not just understanding , artful pure simple language, suspense, sharing around the campfire. Little Miss Exclusive forgot. Criminey.