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Saturday, November 05, 2011

"Never attained by most"

Photograph of ink courtesy of  Ben Joosen of Brasschaat, Antwerp, Belgium and

Here is Helen Vendler being penetrating and quotable in "Are These the Poems to Remember," a review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited and with an introduction by Rita Dove  in The New York Review of Books.  I imagine that the author found this review a bit uncomfortable, as it faults her for a number of things. Yet it sheds light on what an anthology ought to be.  It illuminates the fact that there is something more important in the world of poetry than poetic schools or racial makeup or gender.


Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines.

Why should the precious and ever-rare concern for words and for their imaginative alignment be abused as “the old Euro-American literary standards”?

We’re back to that “poetry establishment” again. The members (whoever they are) of this so-called “establishment” “entrench” themselves (as in a war) and, implicitly racist, appear “whitewashed” like the “whited sepulchres” denounced by Jesus.

Manifest Destiny as poetic conquest. This narrative of luster lost and echoes fading is simply not true of artistic succession; one might as well say that Shakespeare has faded to an echo and Faulkner has lost his luster.

Just because one describes a “hardscrabble Appalachia” doesn’t make one a hardscrabble Appalachian.

And there is nothing intrinsically poetic about being “West of the Hudson,” any more than it is intrinsically poetic to be East of the Hudson, then or now. Dove’s implication that rough diamonds in the West took over from effete Anglophiles in the East neglects the basic truth that all gifted poets are engaged in the very same task—making words come to the call of their vision.

Yeats, in “The Fisherman,” thought a poem should be “cold/And passionate as the dawn”—that it should embody, along with the rising passion of inception, the cold inquisition of detached self-critique. It is not a goal easily attained, and it is never attained by most of the poets of any century, in any country, of any race.

* * *

In this piece, Vendler has proper distance, proper common sense, and proper disregard for everything (class, race, gender, etc.) except the poem--she reminds me a little of the late Tom Disch in the first quote.


  1. I like this a lot.
    In general, art is art and contemplating one's navel is not art. When one confuses 'writers of short sentences' with poets, one has been contemplating one's navel too long.

    A clear lack in the education system (within the study of Literature) has resulted in this confusion and fanciful (read 'hopeful' for the less talented) blurring of lines.
    I am tired of hearing that everyone can do everything, and everyone can come first.

    Well posted, Marly.

  2. She is a rare bird--a truly articulate and consistent critic of modern poetry who makes that pursuit her profession.

  3. Hi Paul,

    Hero of "Into the Light"! What on earth shall you do now?

    Interesting times we live in, no?


    And hi Robbi--

    I don't always agree with her (well, who agrees with anybody all the time?) but agreed with this--she could have been exasperated (and probably was while reading and seeing wonderful poems missing and so on) but was very cool and clear.

  4. Well who agrees with anyone all the time? But at least she is reading and commenting on poetry!

  5. Hah! I repeated your line, though I didn't mean to. It's true though.

  6. Trala, that is fine. I am in a very good mood. Must go cook for the hungry child...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.