I'm not a fan of the New York Review of Books, why would I be? Today, though, I found myself pointed there after hearing that the poetry world has joined a battle prompted by a negative review of a new anthology. Negative, it turns out, is a euphemism. The review, by the venerable Helen Vendler in the NYRB's November 24 issue, heaps scorn on The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry and reviles its editor, Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove—and does so in a breathtakingly blatant racist spew, the latest in the endless chorus of yowls and yelps that issue like clockwork from the we-love-dead-white-men literary establishment whenever and wherever other voices, especially those of people of color, are brought to the fore.
In this, the latest such case, Vendler excoriates Dove for, among others, the crimes of (1) deeming such voices worthy of inclusion in a century's collection; (2) asserting that Black women, in one passage that has Vendler sputtering with oppressor-lackey outrage, "can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race"; (3) noting the social-historical context of the poems; (4) celebrating the Harlem Renaissance. And (5)—this criticism deserves special attention because of its brazen white-supremacist sensibility—Vendler accuses Dove of "tipping the balance" toward poets of color because they, according to Vendler, make up 15 of the 20 born between 1954 and 1971 whose work closes the anthology. "Tipping the balance" against whites, that is. That is, Dove is here indicted for the crime of daring to flip the standard equation. For when have any of these characters ever been outraged by an anthology or section of an anthology in which most of the poets were white? Yeah, right.
Of course there are occasional feeble efforts to couch the crux. To no effect. The thrust is so clear. The cheek of these people, you can almost hear Grande Dame Vendler sniff … why, in my day those people knew their place …
I haven't linked to her scuzz because it's so offensive but you can get to it easily enough. Here is Rita Dove's reply, published as a letter to the editor in the latest, December 22, issue of the NYRB. And here, in an interview with Dove and poet Jericho Brown on the Best American Poetry blog, Dove says in part:
I don't know if this line of attack is a sign of despair or fury on part of some critics who define themselves as white -- whatever that means in our mongrel society. Are they trying to make a last stand against the hordes of up-and-coming poets of different skin complexions and different eye slants? Were we -- African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans -- only acceptable as long as these critics could stand guard by the door to examine our credentials and let us in one by one?
Toward the end of her review, Helen Vendler reveals much about the skewed thought processes that seem to inform these critics when she writes: "Of the twenty poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian-American), and five are white (two men, three women).” My husband was in Germany tending to his sick mother when the review came out, so I emailed him a scan. Half an hour later, he emailed me back. "I can't believe Vendler topped off her diatribe with bean counting so offensive, she’s put herself in league with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan", he wrote. "Has she lost all historical perspective? In juxtaposing 'white' with 'minority communities', counting among the latter everybody who does not adhere to her imaginary Caucasian purity principles, she incriminates herself. Just like the Nazis tagged every German as Jewish who had a Jewish grandparent, just like the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk ascribed to the 'one drop rule', she lumps together everybody who is not 'rassenrein' [racially pure] white, including all those of the 'fifteen from minority communities' who are of mixed racial heritage."