Last week on his blog Outside the Lines, poet Christopher Hennessy posted about “encountering the Poulin anthology as a sophomore in college” and how it changed his life forever. Ditto– though it was my junior year, and I can’t guarantee it was the same edition.
Contemporary American Poetry (Sixth Edition, edited by A. Poulin, Jr.) was the book that confirmed for me that my interest in poetry wasn’t just because it seemed a good sensitive alternative to math or science– though that probably was the case for me in High School.
I purchased it from the University of Richmond bookstore for God knows how much money, took it back to my apartment, streched out on the floor, and began to read through it in preparation for the first day of Angela Ball’s workshop. Hours passed. I was lost– in the best possible way.
Over the next few years I kept returning to it; that book became my Bible.
But if truth be told, the recent fracas between Helen Vendler and Rita Dove (and the many poets who are tentatively choosing sides) over Dove’s editing of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry has got me a little worried about my own aesthetic prejudices.
If I were forced at gunpoint to pencil-in the little bubbles on a census, I’d probably say I was a straight, white, upper middle class, American male. And while there should be no shame in admitting as much, I also recognize that those aspects of my identity are so frequently validated or refuted in the world around me that I rarely need to travel far in order to discover a poem, a film, a show, a band, a store, a food, a style that helps me better consider who I am or who I’d like to be.
Basically– my needs as a media-consumer are easily met. Or, more likely, I’m getting the things I THINK I need.
It’s no secret (and probably no exaggeration to say) that ubiquitous assumptions about straight/white/male-ness have powered, to the point of domination, our assumptions about the creation and consumption of art. At the surface level, I can easily find my own reflection in “global culture” (as if it were monolithic) because, most often, I’m the de facto target audience.
Most people on this planet are not so privileged.
Poetry’s Affirmative Action?
In editing The Penguin Anthology, Rita Dove included under-heard poets who may possess voices strong as any, but who simply didn’t have as big a megaphone because, perhaps, their poetic instincts don’t run parallel to those of Eliot or Stevens or Bishop or Lowell.
A noble aim on the editor’s part, but one that Helen Vendler takes strong issue with in her critique of the anthology for The New York Review of Books, which begins:
Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound). Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, 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.
To be fair to Vendler (who, in light of her recent review, has been accused of veiled racism), it should be said that she has championed many minority voices, including Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Dove herself– so long as they met her standards for “artistically ambitious meditations” or “style”– but, of course, she’d hold ANY writer to those standards, which is her role and right as a critic. So perhaps race is not the issue here. But she continues:
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 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 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?
My gut reaction? Yes! I agree. “Content” or “political motivation” or “angry outburst” should always work in concert with style and language, not overpower it. In other words, poetry is HOW a thing is said, not the thing itself; Style is either equal to or greater than the Sentiment. There’s nothing new there!
But isn’t it my privilege that allows me to privilege technique over content? I’ve never been starved for “theme” because, again, the mirrors (convex or otherwise) of my identity are everywhere. And anyway, Rita Dove has always been a poet who deftly balanced technique and theme herself; I can’t imagine she went off the deep-end and included a bunch of crappy poems just because she liked the message.
She wouldn’t do that to us, would she? Hmmm. Maybe she saw technical merit in the exact moments where Vendler missed it.
I recently had a little bout of confronting my own aesthetic prejudices when reading a review of the anthology Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry, edited by poet Julie R. Enszer.
When I realized the book focused on contemporary poets only (no Adrienne Rich or Gertrude Stein, for instance), I experienced a kind of knee-jerk skepticism that I found unsettling. Essentially, my inner voice was saying, “There’s no way such a small demographic could write enough worthwhile stuff to fill an anthology!”
Don’t worry, don’t worry; I called bullshit on myself pretty quickly. After all, Adrienne Rich alone could write enough good stuff to fill those pages, so surely expanding the scope of the book to a whole community is going to increase its odds of greatness. But what a strange assumption in the first place… I mean, I don’t have the slightest idea how large or small the Jewish Lesbian community even IS!
Yes- a dangerous assumption, to think that probability was against them; and if you substitute “Black” or “Mormon” or “Baseball-lovers” for “Jewish Lesbian” you’ll have further examples of why I felt troubled by that strange, skeptical voice…
… because– it’d mean I’d be agreeing with Vendler in her assessment that “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading” —– “WORTH”, naturally, being determined by what it takes to get a straight, middle class white-boy like me off.
Whether the “content” of a Jewish Lesbian anthology alone meets those needs for me, I think, is up-in-the-air without, of course, actually reading the poems (and also, that sounds quite crass considering how I’d ended the previous sentence). But certainly there must be many successful technical moments in that anthology which would bring me closer to the content, and perhaps allow me to see myself, or my present identity, in light of that other.
So what’s this poem ABOUT, anyway?
But what if we left style and technique (in terms of how they’re defined by a white establishment critic, or me, for that matter) out of the debate altogether? I’m sure there are countless young people who will better see themselves (precisely BECAUSE of “representative themes”) in one of the anthologized Penguin poems Vendler disparages than in any work by T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, or even Ginsberg or Plath (who were both left out of the Penguin Anthology). And one of the intentions of many anthologies is, after all, to lure students and neophytes into the world of poetry.
For those readers, “worth” isn’t determined on Wall Street, K Street, or some salon in Paris. The value of a poem is equal to its ability to make them feel, and there are all different kinds of feelings, just like there are all different kinds of people. Some folks need angry outburst; some folks need content that validates the way they’d like to shape their identity; some folks need language poetry.
To each their own?
Sometimes I catch the snob in me pretending to like the band Animal Collective more than I actually do; but guess who got buzzed last friday night and tore through some karaoke renditions of Katy Perry and Britney Spears? Yep– Me.
[Oh no! I just realized that sounded like I'm comparing the "inclusive" poems in the Penguin Anthology to K$sha! Ah, this topic is so damn delicate. That ain't what I'm trying to say...]
I suppose what I’m struggling with here are very basic questions about the existence of a canon, about gatekeepers, and about “standards.” If we impose our existing standards for technique and style on every work of art, we’re likely blind to what’s working well in poems that call upon alternative criteria, perhaps equally compelling, though towards slightly different aims.
I know at first I’m often unreceptive to poems that don’t immediately taste the way I think they should, my impressions of what comprises “real” poetry having been shaped (but hopefully not calcified) by my experience at age 20 with the Poulin Anthology, which features half-a-dozen white male poets (most of them straight) for every Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper, Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, or L-Young Lee.
If, in this debate sparked by the Vendler Vs. Dove Grudge Match of 2011, the term “representative” is used as a pejorative– let us not forget that the United States Senate exists, in part, because some old white men thought it was important that the little States have a voice too; and that the States with the most people, the most wealth, the most clout, not be able to stuff their agenda down the whole nation’s throat without a healthy, built-in gag reflex.
Full disclosure: While I’ve read Helen Vendler’s initial critique of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Rita Dove’s feisty defense, and many of the blog posts from other poets and critics weighing in, I’ve not actually read through the entire anthology itself. I flipped through it at Powell’s one, but my allegiance was to Poulin– so I purchased the eight edition.