Rita Dove (left) and Helen Vendler Photograph: Garry Weaser/PR
Poet Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry attacked by renowned critic Helen Vendler for valuing ‘inclusiveness’ over quality.
By Alison Flood
A furious row has broken out in the rarefied confines of American poetry circles, after grande dame of poetry criticism Helen Vendler attacked former poet laureate Rita Dove’s anthology of 20th-century American poetry for its focus on “multicultural inclusiveness” rather than quality.
Dove’s collection, The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, is the Pulitzer prize-winning poet and professor of English’s pick of the best US poetry of the last 100 years. Vendler, a critic and Harvard professor, laid into the book in an excoriating write-up in the New York Review of Books, criticising Dove for deciding “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”.
Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and Sterling Brown are left out of the anthology – although Dove explains in her introduction that this was down to a rights issue: Penguin’s budget was not enough to secure rights to include their poems in the book.
Vendler lambasts Dove for her inclusion of “some 175” poets and for her choice of poems: “mostly short” and “of rather restricted vocabulary”, she says.
“Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” she writes. “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.”
Later, Vendler enumerates that “of the 20 poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, black, Native American, or Asian American), and five are white (two men, three women)”, saying that “Dove’s tipping of the balance obeys a populist aesthetic voiced in the introduction”. And Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets she includes “with hyperbole”, says Vendler.