Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Poet as Essayist: Rita Dove's Response to Helen Vendler

Yesterday, The New York Review of Books published Rita Dove's serious and extended response to Helen Vendler's critique of Dove's anthology The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry. Vendler had previously criticized various aspects of the anthology, and Dove responded by offering reasons that Vendler's assessments were flawed.

"Helen Vendler seems to have allowed outrage to get the better of her, leading to a number of illogical assertions and haphazard conclusions," wrote Dove. "I cannot let her get away with building her house of cards on falsehoods and innuendo." She goes on to detail the major ways that Vendler's biases intrude on her ability to offer a balanced and accurate assessment of The Penguin Anthology.

Here's Dove's hard-hitting closing paragraph:
The amount of vitriol in Helen Vendler’s review betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics. As a result, she not only loses her grasp on the facts, but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again. Whether propelled by academic outrage or the wild sorrow of someone who feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew—how sad to witness a formidable intelligence ravished in such a clumsy performance.
Wow. You don't see that kind of response in a high-profile venue every day.

It's also uncommon to see a major poet, much less a major black poet, assuming the role of essayist and taking a major white literary critic to task. Of course, we've seen glimpses of Dove's ability to respond like this before. Back in 2004, she wrote a letter to the editor to Poetry magazine where she critiqued Garrison Keillor's anthology Good Poems and the positive reviews of the anthology given its absences.

 Dove's response in The New York Review of Books drew quite a bit of praise and cheers from folks on facebook and twitter. Folks were rightly pleased to see Dove talk back to and take a stand against the Vendler's problematic review.  

I wondered if the positive response to Dove's rebuttal would inspire her and other major poets to provide more essays in the future. Or, would the value of "talking back" also inspire her and other poets of her stature to take up more "militant" poetry in order to critique the kind of "clumsy performance" offered by folks such as Vendler. 

Related: A Prelude to Rita Dove's Anthology?

1 comment:

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