Monday, December 12, 2011

A Hockey Fight Over Poetry

Jay Miller of the Boston Bruins: A great fighter.

Rita Dove, poet and scholar, is editor of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. This anthology was reviewed unfavorably by Helen Vendler, Harvard professor and a truly wonderful scholar of poetry.

Here is a snippet from Vendler's review, selected for touching on issues of religious and racial identity:
As “the melting pot was simmering,” the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War rise into Dove’s essay: “The old Euro-American literary standards were rejected, and African culture (or rather, an idealized idea of Africa)…became the rallying cry of the New Black Aesthetic.” Why should the precious and ever-rare concern for words and for their imaginative alignment be abused as “the old Euro-American literary standards”? It would have been useful if Dove had departed from her once-over-lightly historical summaries to explain the “literary standards” of “the New Black Aesthetic” as they appear in one of the poems she reprints, Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art”:
We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. Black poems to
smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
whose brains are red jelly stuck
between ‘lizabeth taylor’s toes. Stinking
Setting fire and death to
whities ass.
There is a lot of this showy violence (“cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth,” etc.); and then Baraka, not finding any other way to close the rant, turns sentimental, in the manner of E.E. Cummings:
Let Black People understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of lovers and warriors and sons
of warriors Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
Dove must realize that the new “literary standards” behind this example of Baraka’s verse don’t immediately declare themselves. Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines. Nor is mere presence in the scene at a given moment enough to pronounce a person a poet. Although Dove mentions oral literature, orality has its own high standards (and we recognize them in action in everything from oral epic to Walt Whitman to black spirituals to Langston Hughes). If one wants evidence of black anger against “whitie” and “jewladies” and “mulatto bitches,” here it is. But a theme is not enough to make a poem.
Dove's reply is magnificent.
It is astounding to me how utterly Vendler misreads my critical assessment of the Black Arts Movement, construing my straightforward account of their defiant manifesto as endorsement of their tactics; she ignores a substantial critical paragraph in which I decry the fallout from the movement (“Against such clamor and thunder, introspective black poets had little chance to assert themselves and were swept under the steamroller,” I write in my introduction) and instead focuses on that handy whipping boy, Amiri Baraka, plucking passages from his historically seminal poem “Black Art” in which he denigrated Jews, thereby slyly, even creepily implying that I might have similar anti-Semitic tendencies. Smear by association…sound familiar? I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defense is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth. (I could argue equal opportunity offensiveness by having printed Hart Crane’s “A liquid theme that floating niggers swell”—but perhaps that makes me racist as well.)

In the same breath, Vendler—no slouch when it comes to lumping poets together by race—makes quick work of dismembering Gwendolyn Brooks, dismissing my description of Brooks’s “richly innovative” early poems as “hyperbole,” perhaps because I dared to compare those poems to “the best male poets of any race.” Evidently the 1950 Pulitzer committee thought highly enough of Ms. Brooks to award her the prize in poetry, at a time when there was little talk of diversity in America and the expression “multiculturalism” had yet to enter the public discourse. Analogous praise today, however, amounts in Dame Vendler’s eyes to nothing but “hype.”
What to make of this disagreement? Honestly, it's about time we had a good hockey fight in literary studies. We have needed some, and we need more. This is a good fight.

Let's argue about which poems to study and why. Let's compare Amiri Baraka to E.E. Cummings to Wallace Stevens to Gwendolyn Brooks. This is a terrific conversation, and we need to have it. And we need to have it publicly. We need to argue about and discuss literature as a model for how we wish the public to argue about and discuss literature.

Literature--poetry especially--is worth a fight.

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