Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rita Dove and the individual voice

The recent publication of poet Rita Dove's The Penguin Book of 20th Century American Poetry (see our last post) has, like all anthologies, brought out the best and worst in the critics. Dove's taste, editorial ethics, aesthetics, and championing of poets was recently (and shockingly) attacked in an article by critic and author Helen Vendler. Vendler's allegations and Dove's responses are highlighted in Dove's The New York Review of Books essay "Defending an Anthology." By all means, click here to read the essay in full.

One of the many (and there are many) conversations to be had in light of this recent attack is the role of the editor vs. the role of the taste-maker. At the heart of Dove vs. Vendler is a simple and important division that has enormous implications for anyone in the editorial world. Dove's editorial lens is that of the individual writer, reader, and admirer; her anthology is assembled through one set of eyes, those of Rita Dove. Vendler's stance is that of the self-appointed protector of the group, which, in this case, is a small handful of American poets Vendler considers the only worthy of exaltation and critical discourse. If poetry is the art of the individual voice and the world that voice represents, then it seems Dove has done excellent work. Vendler's attitude suggests something more sinister and colonial: that poetry is a gated community, a pay-to-play social club where only one opinion and attitude (and, so it seems, race) is favored. Vendler's attitude implies that the anthologist, editor, or critic has a kingly and elevated right and power to define what is worthy and, by omission, to define what is unworthy. Dove's attitude is that an editor is one voice tasked to highlight other individual voices, and that this representation is a leaping-off point into further conversation, not an arriving point of definition or ascension into the canon (whatever that is). Wallace Stevens knew all too well that there are not merely thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, but that the avenues into perception and art are indeed numerous and numinous.