Shifting the (Im)balance
Race and the Poetry Canon
Jun 6, 2013
15 Min read time
William Blake, Europe Supported By Africa and America, 1796. Engraving. / Wikimedia
When Helen Vendler’s and Marjorie Perloff’s names appear in the same sentence, they are often being held up as polar opposites: the academy’s two “grandes dames” of poetics scholarship whose geographical locations—Vendler on the East Coast and Perloff on the West—suggest the distance between the aesthetics they have championed over long, estimable careers. Vendler has devoted her considerable skills to interpreting the works of such widely acknowledged masters of lyric poetry as Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens, while Perloff has placed her intellect most definitively at the service of the avant-garde poetics practiced by such twentieth-century innovators as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, John Cage, John Ashbery, and Susan Howe. Of course, the two scholars are not without their common enthusiasms and points of agreement, despite their different aesthetic orientations. But their spotlights align with such relative rarity—and glow with such exceptional intensity—that those objects upon which both are focused shine brightly indeed.
One such object is the Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, published in 2011 and edited by the widely admired Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove. Over the past year and a half, this anthology has been illuminated to the point of burning—not by the simultaneous regard of Perloff and Vendler, but by their mutual disdain. Vendler considered its merits (finding few) for the New York Review of Books, where she regularly publishes reviews. Perloff positioned the volume as an exemplar of the problems she sees in contemporary American poetry, to jump-start an essay making a case for “uncreative writing” (procedural and conceptual poetics that traffic significantly in appropriated language), published in this magazine. Both pieces circulated widely, generating multiple responses and a good deal of impassioned, often thoughtful discussion. This convergence of critical conversation about Dove’s anthology prompts me not to offer a point-by-point rebuttal of their critiques, nor to offer a defense of the anthology Dove produced, nor to unpack the racist implications of the scholars’ claims (separated from the question of intent). Several such responses, well worth reading, already appear in a variety of print and electronic publications. Instead, I want to contend that the commonalities and points of overlap between Perloff’s and Vendler’s takes on the anthology reveal the troubling role of race in U.S. literary culture at this moment. As Toni Morrison does in her incisive book Playing in the Dark, I question what racial discourse makes possible in a literary context, and highlight the way race stands in for matters of class, professional territoriality, and aesthetics at stake in this conversation. Race is not beside the point, but is made, through a trick of mirrors, to shadow all points.
Race is raised quickly and repeatedly in both essays. Vendler’s review opens with a lament that Dove’s anthology damages the glorious, worldwide reputation of twentieth-century American poetry, a reputation founded on the work of such poets as T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore. She writes: “Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, 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.” Perloff makes a similar point, just as early in her discussion of the anthology: “One surmises from the table of contents of this chronological survey that Dove, from her perspective as a woman of color, has included many more minority poets than is usually the case.” This racial quantification of the anthology’s contributors and pages (with its troubling echo of quota systems of previous decades) draws attention to what we might call the economy of the canon. Though the canon itself is intangible, the anthologies in which the canon is made, reiterated, or revised are quite material and have—in their print versions, at least—a limited amount of space. What concerns both scholars primarily, we might say, is the room in the anthology that is available or allotted to the poets and poetics they most appreciate.
Vendler would like to see the anthology focused much more on “works attaining varieties of diction, overlapping intellectual structures, and complex moral reference,” qualities she associates most with the poetry of Stevens and Hart Crane, for example. These poets represent for her the crème de la crème; Dove’s enthusiasm for even such typically canonical poets as Robert Frost, Williams, and E. E. Cummings constitutes, in Vendler’s eyes, an excessive interest in “popular language.” The stream of Perloff’s criticism runs in a different direction. She notes with dismay the abundance of “formulaic” free verse, consisting of memories and epiphanies rendered in “prose syntax” that has been chopped into lines. The key omissions from Perloff’s perspective are the Objectivists (such as Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Lorine Niedecker), who are “simply written out of the canon” by Dove’s anthology, and the later twentieth-century poets whose work Perloff gathers under the umbrella of “Conceptualism,” including Cage and Howe.
But however different Perloff’s and Vendler’s ideal conceptions of the anthology might be in their details, in rhetorical terms the two critics are on the same page. Both find fault with how “easy,” how “populist,” Dove’s anthology is, from its “breezy,” “folksy” introduction to its failure to “at least make the effort to forge an aesthetic” or offer a “principle of selection.” One would never imagine, reading these critics, that Dove, as her introduction explains, traveled a thorny and angst-ridden path and ended her work on this colossal editorial project with “a clear vision . . . [of] the whole trajectory of the twentieth century and how it played out poetically for America.” Her vision differs from either of theirs so substantially, it would seem, that it is invisible to them. They can see race, however—Dove’s, anyway, and that of some of the poets she includes—and upon this convenient hook they hang much of their aesthetic and intellectual discontent. What makes race not simply visible here, but convenient, handy, useful?
The bogeyman of race obscures the fact that the American poetry canon has become much more aesthetically inclusive in recent years.
Inclusiveness and democracy have long been linked in the American imaginary, as Whitman’s poetry evidences. His “multitudes” encompassed the “red girl,” the “hounded slave,” the “spinning-girl,” the “farmer,” and the “newly-come immigrants.” The ideal of democratic inclusion that is celebrated in our national rhetoric (if not as much practiced as one would like) receives a less hearty endorsement, however, when it comes to institutions that openly prized (or were prized for) their exclusivity until recently. The academy and the literary canon are two such formerly closed clubs. It is no coincidence that the same period that saw our universities for the first time matriculating significant numbers of students from a wide spectrum of racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds (including white working-class students) also met with the Black Arts Movement’s challenge to the “white aesthetic,” as Addison Gayle described the literary standards upon which the canon of English literature had been established. As African Americans and others gained somewhat greater access to the professoriate, they were better positioned to mount a persuasive argument for evaluative criteria that would engender a more racially diverse canon. Starting from the Movement theorists’ position that aesthetics are not universal, but culturally specific, the past forty years of scholarship on African American literature has functioned centrally in efforts to articulate literary value in terms that did not privilege white or Eurocentric cultures under the cloak of “objective standards.” A poem like Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art” could be assessed and appreciated (or criticized) on its own terms, rather than being measured against the very yardstick it was written to crack in two. (Cue slippery slope argument employing the word “floodgates.”)
Because the (re)visionary project of African American literary criticism and theory was initially announced by the Black Arts Movement’s audacious young writers and thinkers, the argument for a more inclusive canon continues to be colored, if you will, by the reception of the poetry that characterized the Movement. That poetry—unapologetically critical of white supremacy and reveling in a self-declared freedom to take black culture, history, and politics as its reference points—shocked and offended the standard-bearers of American middlebrow and highbrow culture (as what artistic avant-garde does not?). Thus, notwithstanding the great diversity of aesthetics (by which I refer to both “form” and “content”) one finds across the poetries of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and others whose work was historically prohibited, discouraged, ignored, and disparaged by those in power in the U.S. (and its academic and literary institutions), even now these poetries may be treated as if sounding only one note and that a jangling one. Relatedly, the Black Arts Movement’s precept calling for art “by, for, and about” black people emphasized “accessibility” in ways that unfortunately strengthened the tendency for us to conflate “blackness” with working-class culture. These legacies of the Movement—the empowering and the limiting alike—are a part of what makes it convenient to point to race when the subjects on the table are the easiness and uniformity that purportedly plague the American poetry canon today.
The goal of a more racially inclusive canon is not to blame for the phenomena Vendler and Perloff identify as problems, though it has for many years been a ready scapegoat and one that could help consolidate a range of otherwise incompatible positions, as in this case of strange bedfellows. What the bogeyman of race obscures is the fact that the American poetry canon has become much more aesthetically inclusive in recent years—or at least potentially so. Perloff rightly notes that, as far as the second half of the twentieth century is concerned, the canon is still very much a work-in-progress and a site of contestation. But while it may be too soon to say with certainty what the later-twentieth-century canon will contain in the long run, we should recognize that the clear contenders come from aesthetically diverse locations on the poetics map: Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, Mark Doty, Marilyn Chin, Ron Silliman, Li-Young Lee, Kay Ryan, Marilyn Nelson, James Tate, Sherman Alexie, Alice Fulton, Paul Muldoon, C. D. Wright, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Jorie Graham, Carl Phillips, Nick Flynn, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes. A lot of the “cheerful pluralism” Perloff hoped for is represented by this list of poets, all to be found in the anthology: language poets, formalists, prose poets, free verse poets of Whitmanesque expansiveness and of minimalist brevity, to speak of form alone. Further, their modes range from the philosophical to the conversational to the polyvocal, and their subjects cover the gamut: the meaning of life, the functions of discourse, the body, the family, the nation, history, nature, politics, love. Do some poets and poetics that I value go underrepresented or missing in these pages? Indeed. But this is not my anthology; it is Dove’s.
And it is important that the Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is Dove’s. Although poetry anthologies are more prevalent now than perhaps ever before, not all of them hold the same weight in terms of canon-shaping. The size of the press and the print run matters; the scope of the anthology also determines its influence. The probable audiences for anthologies of, say, villanelles, Asian American poets, Southern poets, and anti-war poetry, respectively, are by no means mutually exclusive, in theory or in practice; on the whole, however, these volumes appeal to different and relatively small groups of readers. But the huge anthologies that set out to define national canons in accordance with conventional historical periods, published by equally huge academic and trade presses, are the weightiest sort, as they command relatively large audiences. I am hard pressed to think of such an anthology besides this one that is edited by a person of color. The one exception would be the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani. The other way that Dove stands out in this company is that, while she is a full professor in the English department at the University of Virginia, her terminal degree is the MFA rather than the PhD (which Ramazani holds). Editors of this weighty, influential sort of anthology have been drawn from outside the ranks of scholars, certainly—but those editors, as a rule, have not been people of color. In other words, Dove’s selection by Penguin for this editing task was itself unprecedented, so we shouldn’t be entirely surprised that the anthology she produced is also something of a departure.
The poets who have the most to teach are not always the poets who exemplify a literary-historical watershed.
My guess is that Penguin was not surprised. The publisher likely tapped Dove precisely because she represented the possibility of a different approach. Though condescending appraisals of Dove’s introduction (written “in a genre not her own”) suggest she was not sufficiently scholarly, it may be instead that she was just scholarly enough. The raft of new challenges confronting the publishing industry‘s profitability (indeed, sustainability) give houses like Penguin strong incentives to register and respond to changes in the book-buying market, where course adoptions are perhaps more important than ever. Penguin may have shrewdly identified the emergence of a nationwide demand for poetry anthologies designed with classrooms of budding creative writers (and non-English majors, broadly) in mind.
I won’t try here to tease out and articulate succinctly the differences between critics and teachers trained in PhD programs and those trained in MFA. programs, in terms of their approaches to poetry and poetics. But differences exist, in methodology, discourse, and pedagogical goals, among other things. And they matter, as evidenced by the famously sharp divides between scholars and creative writers within English departments around the country—the sharpest of which have driven the creation of separate creative writing departments. Distinct interests and priorities lead creative writers to embrace a poetic canon that at times prominently celebrates figures that scholars would deem “minor” (Stanley Kunitz, for instance) while giving respect but little attention to poets whose work commands “major” bodies of scholarship (say, Pound). Syllabi shape canons, too, and the poets who have the most to teach the writer seeking to hone her craft or locate her work within a tradition are not always the poets whose work most usefully exemplifies a literary-historical watershed or most elegantly illustrates important socio-cultural developments. Additionally, MFA’s (or practicing poets, more broadly) have a less skeptical relationship to contemporary poetry; a dismissive time-will-tell approach is impractical for critics of poetry who seek (for themselves and their students) an understanding of the field in which their own creative work will presently circulate.
With this in mind, Dove’s vision for her anthology becomes more clearly legible and coherent. For one thing, the difference between the casual, inviting tone of her introduction and the crisp elegance of, say, her earlier analytical essays on Melvin Tolson and Derek Walcott can be understood as an astute awareness of audience. The imagined readership for the anthology is evidently not the community of scholars, but the classrooms of undergraduates who may well find the introduction’s welcome—and the immediacy and variety of the collected work—the crucial antidote to whatever factors have led too many of them to regard to poetry with fear and loathing.
But just as importantly, Dove appears to have determined who and what to include in part through a dialectical process of tracing relationships between the poets of the earlier and later parts of the century (rather than a model of largely uni-directional lineage). Ideally, her introduction explains, the pages of the anthology would allow the “quirky sycamores tagged William Carlos Williams” to reveal branches “bear[ing] the names Robert Creeley (with a sprouting Kay Ryan) and Robert Hayden (with shoots labeled Alexander, Dunn, Bidart),” while elsewhere we would find “Sharon Olds perched atop the Sexton/O’Hara thicket [and] Terrance Hayes latched onto the thick coiled tubers of Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Lowell.” Though some of these metaphors foreground the traditional thrust of literary genealogies—identifying the important offspring of writers whose influence is well established—we can also see the opposite impulse at work. That is, the importance of certain contemporary poets requires the anthology’s attention to poets who influenced them, prompting and enabling a reassessment of those earlier writers’ significance.
In other words, Dove’s anthology implicitly argues that, in representing the canon of twentieth-century American poetry, we must account for how the early and middle parts of the century produced the poets and poetry that have been important in its final decades. And thanks to the aesthetically and politically radical forces that erupted in the U.S. over the course of that lively century (especially from the 1960s into the 1980s), the later years have seen work coming from more different places and speaking to more kinds of people than anyone besides Langston Hughes might have dreamed of. Thus, the anthology permits readers to consider how Harryette Mullen’s bitingly ironic “Black Nikes” constitutes an engagement with the politics, wordplay, and humor of Baraka’s “Black Art,” Tolson’s Harlem Gallery, and Stein’s Tender Buttons. Similarly, it facilitates a reading of the direct impress upon Marilyn Chin’s work of the later Adrienne Rich’s emphasis on the activist potential of poetry. And in its pages we can see how Chin’s outspoken interest in identity connects her to a generation of women, African American, Native American, Latina/o, and, of course, Asian American poets whose work announced that claiming the lyric-I for “feminine” and “multicultural” subjects was as radical as exploding the myth of unitary (white) subjectivity. Both sets of poetic networks can be traced in the pages of the anthology, as Dove—I believe—intended.
If Dove’s editing does in fact “shift the balance” (or imbalance) of attention between the usual suspects and other poets who have till now been relegated to the canon’s shadows, it is not the fiat Vendler implies it is. Rather, it is a seasoned critic’s effort not to replicate past occlusions in the name of tradition, when she could instead offer a view of the twentieth century’s poetry from the perspective of the twenty-first. If certain “better-known authors” receive less space than they have in the past, it is so that today’s students can better know other authors whose importance has been obscured by factors quite apart from their aesthetic abilities or achievements. One of the gifts of twentieth-century U.S. poetics has been the series of debates about what we are to value in and about poetry, and one of the tasks of the student of poetry is to develop her own criteria for excellence, taking her cues from the values of her own cultures—inherited, encountered, or taught, as the case may be. However Dove’s criteria may differ from either Vendler’s or Perloff’s, they cannot be boiled down to a singular goal of racial inclusivity. Whatever the aesthetic question—the importance of “difficulty” to strong poetry or the relationship of lyric subjectivity to “easy” poetry—relying upon racialist rhetoric will not help us answer it.
June 06, 2013
15 Min read time