Helen Vendler, Rita Dove, and the Changing Canon of Poetry

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The titans are clashing in the world of poetry. Over Thanksgiving, literary critic Helen Vendler published a savage review of a new anthology, "The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry." The book was edited by Rita Dove, a former Poet Laureate. Dove responded to Vendler's scathing review with an equally vitriolic reply. Vendler is white, and Dove is black, which is either tangential to, or central to, the issue — depending on whom you talk to. The incident has many in the poetry world talking about issues of race, aesthetics, and who belongs in the poetry books, and who does not. 

Patrik Henry Bass, editor of books at Essence and a regular contributor to The Takeaway, says that the row brings up a generational shift, and that no matter how much the old guard would like to guard the threshold of poetry, the gates swung open long ago.

Statement from Penguin: "Rita Dove originally planned to include Plath and Ginsburg (along with several other poets) in the anthology, however exorbitant permissions fees prevented their final inclusion.  Ms. Dove addresses this issue on page li and lii of her introduction, as well as in her response to Helen Vendler's review."



Patrik Henry Bass

Produced by:

Posey Gruener

Comments [5]

Russ from London

"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."


Dec. 19 2011 12:04 PM
Fred Viebahn

Whoever is interested in more background material might want to read the interview Rita Dove gave to the "Best American Poetry" website / blog recently, which can be found here:

Dec. 13 2011 05:30 PM
Ann Lemal

I would say that Mr. Bass had trouble getting his point across because the Takeaway commentator kept interrupting him, it was positively painful and I would have turned it off just because of that!

Dec. 13 2011 10:00 AM
Pamerson Ifill from Boston

In my opinion, Rita Dove's point by point response to Helen Vendler's literary criticism of her selections of poems for "The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry," I'd have to say that if it was a boxing match Helen Vendler would have be Ko'd in the first round.

Dove's response demontrated a significantly better mastery of writing and the reasons behind her selection of particular poems, and it made Vendler to look like the angry white individual decrying the inclusion of a qualified group of diverse poets.

Dec. 13 2011 08:41 AM
Brian Mosher from Foxboro, MA

This morning, while listening to your interview with Mr. Bass, I did something that I had not previously done in 2 years of listening to The Takeaway. I changed the station mid-segment. Mr. Bass' whining my have been intended to seem impassioned, but it came off as biased and over-emotional.

Dec. 13 2011 07:44 AM

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