Many of my poet friends have been discussing, courtesy of Emerson alum Sarah Sweeney, Helen Vendler’s vitriolic recent review of the new issue of the Penguin Anthology of Poetry edited by Rita Dove. Rita Dove issued an exasperated response (note Vendler’s dismissive reply at the bottom). It is tempting to use the conversation that emerges between the two for a variety of reasons. It offers a clear example of an attitude to responding to texts that goes against the approach Harris advocates for. Moreover, I had a number of students this semester actually argue during the in-course evaluation that 101 needed more “L”iterature (whatever that means to them. . .I thought all of the texts we used were capital :)), so I think this offers a clear avenue for discussing the kinds of writing that we use in 101 and why. Also, the discussion often exposes the means by which genre is regulated.
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?
But as we know, every generation burrows into its own hard-earned defenses, and it is the prerogative of the young to challenge—yes, and shock—their elders. 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.