Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry has received much attention for which poets she included—and which of their poems.
Plenty of reviewers have praised her celebration of the work of a wide demography of American verse. However, many others have been strongly critical, as reported on these virtual pages. Differences over such choices are common, but the reaction in this instance has been particularly harsh.
Since Helen Vendler’s severe review in The New York Review of Books, and then some other skeptical assessments, the blogosphere has lit up with claims for this poet or that. To hear some commentators, Dove left out not just many individual poets, but whole schools, eras, and geographical regions. If Penguin were to ask these critics for recommendations for a second volume of its anthology, it would be a varied collection, and very different from the first.
Here’s what some have already recommended.
Vendler, Harvard University’s doyenne of American poetry critics, said in her review that she would include more Wallace Stevens, and material from the increasingly complex, speculative final 30 years of his career, rather than only from the more accessible output from his first publications, as Dove did. Arguably, Dove distorted the kind of poet Stevens was with her selection.
What, then, would Vendler, as astute a Stevens commentator as any, have included? Via email, she told The Chronicle: “Depending on what an anthologist prizes in a poet, the choice of poems will differ. One editor might prefer to emphasize Stevens’ Americanness, another his harrowing personal lyrics, another his poems of nature, another his most experimental verse. And the same anthologist might put one selection of Stevens in an anthology intended for the general public and a different one for a comprehensive college anthology such as the Nortons. It’s like asking one which Schubert lieder one would program for a concert. It would all depend on which moods one might choose to illustrate, which lieder were better placed for the voice of the soloist, whether one wanted a chronological spread, and so on. This is not meant to be an evasive answer; it is simply (for me) the true one.”
In her review, Vendler let pass Dove’s omission of two poets generally considered linchpins of American verse, Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath. Dove, in her introduction and later interviews, explained their absence as a result of their publishers’ excessive reprint fees. Sterling Brown, a prominent black poet much influenced by African-American musical forms, also lost out to monetary considerations, as did as many as nine more of her choices, according to Dove. She has not specified who those were, nor whom she excluded due to what she calls her own “buried antipathies.”
Many commentators scoffed at the budgetary explanation, arguing that Penguin should have come up with the cash, or abandoned its anthology project. More common have been suggestions about whom to include. On his Samizdat blog, Robert Archambeau, a professor of English at Lake Forest College, wrote: “Allen Ginsberg. And Sylvia Plath. And Susan Howe, and Alice Notley, and James Schuyler. Also Louise Glück. Also Louis Zukofsky, and all of the other Objectivists.” The Objectivists were a largely American group that came after Modernist masters like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and were named for such observations as that poems could, like everyday objects, clearly evoke the everyday world. The eventually influential group’s loose membership included George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Charles Reznikoff. [Almost all the poets mentioned in this article are represented at the Poetry Foundation’s online archive.]
While Vendler and some other critics have faulted Dove for according an ideology of multiculturalism more weight than poetic accomplishment—and for not clarifying how she thought the two might be inseparable—others think Dove failed non-white poets, as well—Gerald Barrax, Jericho Brown, Jayne Cortez, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Michael Harper, Essex Hemphill, Thylias Moss, Tracy K. Smith—as well as those of certain geographic regions. In the Chicago Tribune, Julia Keller found both kinds of shortcoming, even though she said she admired the volume, over all, “I was disappointed by the absence of any poems by Robert Penn Warren, Eavan Boland, Kenneth Fearing, Nikki Giovanni, or Maya Angelou.”
Boland, while long a part-time resident of the United States, was born in Dublin and raised in London before living in Ireland and America, alternately. Arguably, then, she does not qualify for inclusion in the anthology, at all.
Dove was permissive on that subject, which annoyed some observers. Why, R.T. Smith asked on a blog on the web site of Shenandoah, a literary review he edits, would Dove include three “poets whose work I greatly admire” and who can hardly be claimed as American even if they did live at various times in the United States: Paul Muldoon, from Northern Ireland; Derek Walcott, a Nobel Laureate from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, and W. H. Auden, an Englishman turned American in mid-life who became one of the century’s most acclaimed poets.
Objected Smith: “Moving a kangaroo over here doesn’t make it American. More to the point, every poem, every line, every phrase from the minds of these poets bears the indelible stamp of their upbringing and education.”
What’s more, Smith wrote, if having lived in the U.S. for many years was the measure—“if the argument of ‘location, location, location’ carried great force and indicates transformation, then why is the same not true for Eavan Boland or John Montague, both major poets, wherever you corner them?” He added: Dove “also omits some poets whose work seems to me seminal, not just in my private court of taste, but (if Pulitzers and other acclaim really mean anything) in the court of public opinion”—for example, Marie Howe and Charles Bernstein.
Were he asked to prepare an anthology, he said, he would explain “my quirks, some of which hinge on subject matter, others on prosody, narrative force, cultural position, God-knows-what.” The result, he said, would be that he could include Robert Penn Warren and other poets from the past: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Justice, and Kenneth Rexroth, as well as established contemporaries, many winners of Pulitzers, National Book Awards, and Bollingen Prizes for Poetry: Wendell Berry, Charles Bernstein, Claudia Emerson, Brendan Galvin, Jack Gilbert, Louise Glück, Linda Gregerson, Bob Hicok, John Hollander, Richard Howard, Marie Howe, Linda Hogan, Tim Siebles, Dave Smith, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Eleanor Ross Taylor, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Robert Wrigley.
“And,” said Smith, “there’s one significant demographic of consequence that I’d especially like to see represented in such an anthology, whether through Lynn Powell or Kay Byer, Byron Herbert Reece, Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan—the rising tide of Appalachian writers.”
The Tribune’s Julia Keller detected the same regional blind spot. She wrote that although Dove took “obvious and admirable pains to be inclusive in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity, the book includes few poets from Appalachia. Regional bias, I suppose, is still acceptable. One of the best poets at work today is West Virginia’s Irene McKinney. I’m waiting for the anthology that looks beyond Ivy League endowed chairs and Brooklyn brownstones for its contents.”
Keller also objected: “And light verse—surely worth at least a quarter of a page?—is nowhere to be found. How about a spiffy little ditty by Dorothy Parker? Or a clever bit of frothy rhyme by John Updike?”
On the blog Tillalala Chronicles, the poet, novelist, and essayist John Olson objected that because “accessibility” seems to have been a key measure for Dove’s including work in her anthology, “I can now see why poets such as Zukofsky or [Clayton] Eshleman or [Robin] Blaser were excluded, not that their poetry is excessively difficult, but because their poetry is rigorous in its force and density.”
So many poets are claimed to be among the missing that perhaps Penguin would need to plan on volumes three, four, and five, if it wished to fit all in.
On Tillalala Chronicles, Olson listed many poets whom other observers mentioned, too: “Dove’s exclusions are breathtaking: Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, [Lorine] Niedecker. Basically, nothing at all from the Objectivist movement, except for William Carlos Williams. Dove has stated that she is averse to schools and isms as a guiding principle. But also missing are poets of great originality who do not fit into any niche or school or ism.” He names almost 50 (included on list, below). And then pauses: “Wait a minute. No [Kenneth] Rexroth…??!! Let me go back and check. Nope. No Rexroth. The poet, translator, and essayist who is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and was once dubbed the ‘Father Of The Beats’ by Time Magazine, is not in an anthology of 20th century American poetry.
“The mind boggles.”
It certainly does, if it considers a variety of experimental or otherwise unusual modes of poetry, writes Bob Grumman, who has co-edited two hard-copy anthologies and several Internet visual-poetry collections that reflect that emphasis, as does the press he has long run, Runaway Spoon Press.
“So what if Plath and a few other much-anthologized poets didn’t get into this anthology?” he wrote. “The problem with it is not that a few individual poets were left out of it, but whole schools of poetry were—visual poetry, infraverbal poetry, sound poetry, cyber poetry, mathematical poetry, performance poetry, and, I suspect, others I’ve overlooked or don’t know of. Even conventional writers of haiku, some of them superior to more than half the poets in this anthology failed to make the cut.”
Here is a list of poets who have been nominated by at least one qualified observer, in addition to the ones already mentioned above:
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Diane Di Prima
Jackson Mac Low