Friday, November 4, 2011

A Prelude to Rita Dove's Anthology?

I've been reading some of the reviews of The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry edited by Rita Dove. Some reviewers, such as Jeremy Bass, have been critical of Dove's approach. In a review in The Nation, Bass notes that "Dove is so scrupulous about including traditional canonical figures as well as the outlying and dispossessed that, by the end of her journey through the century, her omissions become increasingly worrisome."

Bass compliments the early sections and selections of the anthology but notes that "The work Dove has chosen by poets born within the past fifty years seems at times more a cross section of cultural diversity than of literary achievement."

I'm still working my way through the reviews and will likely have more to say once I have gathered more. However, as I read Bass's review and a few others, I wondered if Dove's decision to concentrate on "diversity" was foretold back in the June 2004 issue of Poetry magazine. In that issue, the magazine published her "letter to the editor," where she critiqued the selections and omissions of an editor and the reviewers of his book.  

Dove's letter opens "I am disappointed in both reviews of Garrison Keillor's anthology Good Poems (April 2004)—nearly as much as in the anthology itself. Keillor dedicates his compilation to 'all the English Teachers (especially the great ones),' and yet he neglects one of the cardinal guidelines for today's English curricula—to select material that reflects the multi-faceted fabric of our society."

Dove takes the anthologist to task for including such a small number of people of color. "For those readers who might have missed it (as both of Poetry's esteemed gentleman reviewers, Dana Gioia and August Kleinzahler, did)," writes Dove, "let me point out that in Keillor's entire book, all two hundred and ninety-four poems of it, I could find only three Black poets—all of them dead, no less, and the one woman actually a blues singer." She further notes that there is no "Hispanic or Asian-American or Native American presence to speak of" in Keillor's anthology.

Toward the end of the letter, Dove writes that "I resent the complacent, singleminded arrogance of myopic 'men of letters,' whose curious brand of good will perpetuates racist selectivity. I resent their transparent, self-serving attacks on concepts such as multiculturalism and feminism that have propelled our society towards a truer democracy."

There's a chance that some of the problems that Dove expressed with Keillor's anthology and the reviews by Gioia and Kleinzahler were part of her thinking as she approached the editorial work involved with The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry.


Fred Viebahn said...

Rita Dove’s response to Helen Vendler's recent review in The New York Review of Books, here:

Also, I recommend reading her interview about the anthology in the current (Dec. 2011) AWP “Writer’s Chronicle”.

Claire said...

"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."

To Helen by Daniel Bosch