Fighting over the Poets Who Express America's Story

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Byline: James Fenton VIEW FROM AMERICA

[bar] ERE'S a furious row that is riveting the attention of the poetry world in America.

A well-known poet and university professor, Rita Dove (University of Virginia), has edited the new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. When the New York Review of Books sent this to be reviewed by the doyenne of American poetry critics, Helen Vendler (Harvard), they could have predicted that the result might not be pretty, not because Professor Dove is black and Professor Vendler white -- though black and white comes into the dispute -- but because Vendler is prickly and possessive and has her own horse in this race. An old horse, yes: The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985). But a horse nevertheless.

Anthologies of this kind are liable to provoke rows, and for understandable reasons. Because of copyright fees, it is very hard to put together a major anthology of modern poetry. Small publishers sometimes achieve it by arm-twisting the contributors, but when a large publisher such as Penguin or Norton produces such a volume it is intended to stay in print for a long time and to become a standard work in schools and colleges. To be included in such a volume could make a big difference to an author's reputation. To be excluded can be, of course, depressing for the poet and aggravating for his or her admirers.

So, feelings can run deep. And, sure enough, Vendler took Dove's anthology apart. 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.

Vendler provokes a yelp of anguish from Dove simply by quoting Amiri Baraka's Black Art, a poem Dove includes, and asking her to explain the "literary standards" of "the New Black Aesthetic" it is supposed to represent. Baraka, aka LeRoi Jones, was out to shock what he thought of as liberal sympathies: We want poems like fists beating niggers out of Jocks or dagger poems in the slimy bellies of the owner-jews.

There's more of this obsessive and anti-Semitic rant ("another bad poem cracking/ steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth"), which Vendler calls "showy violence" that then turns sentimental. …

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