Friday, December 9, 2011
Dove v. Vendler
Is “restricted vocabulary” in the statement, “Perhaps Dove’s canvas – exhibiting mostly short poems of rather restricted vocabulary – is what needs to be displayed now to a general audience," a proxy for racial discrimination? Rita Dove thinks it is. It’s the basis of her “barely veiled racism” allegation against Helen Vendler, made in a blistering letter published in the current issue of The New York Review of Books ("Defending an Anthology," December 22, 2011). In her letter, Dove says, “This statement [by Vendler] is breathtaking on several levels: its condescension, lack of veracity, and the barely veiled racism lurking behind the expression 'restricted vocabulary.'”
You might ask, what’s this got to do with The New Yorker? Well, I’m a long-time fan of Vendler’s writing. She was the New Yorker poetry critic from 1978 to 2001. She’s written some of the most brilliant reviews ever to appear in the magazine (see my post “Top Ten New Yorker Book Reviews, 1976 – 2011, #1: Helen Vendler’s ‘A Wounded Man Falling Towards Me,’” August 7, 2011). Although she hasn’t, to my knowledge, reviewed Dove’s work in The New Yorker, she has written four appreciative essays on Dove, including “Louise Glück, Stephen Dunn, Brad Leithauser, Rita Dove” (collected in Vendler’s The Music of What Happens, 1988), “A Dissonant Triad: Henri Cole, Rita Dove, and August Kleinzahler” (collected in Vendler’s Soul Says, 1995), “The Black Dove: Rita Dove, Poet Laureate” (also collected in Soul Says), and “Rita Dove: Identity Markers” (chapter 3 of Vendler’s The Given and the Made, 1995).
In “Louise Glück, Stephen Dunn, Brad Leithauser, Rita Dove,” Vendler calls Dove’s Thomas and Beulah “remarkable.” She says of Dove’s poem “The Event,” which is included in Thomas’s side (“Mandolin”) of Thomas and Beulah:
When I first read this poem and some of its companions from “Mandolin,” I experienced the best of all poetic delights – feeling that something was very beautiful and not knowing why. New forms of beauty declare themselves only gradually. It seems to me now that a rapid succession of dramatic “takes” is Dove’s perfected form; she almost always refuses editorializing, musing, and “leading” the reader. Her brilliance lies in her arrangement of content; as the elements of meaning find their one inevitable form, juxtaposition alone takes on the work of explanation.
In her introduction to Soul Says, Vendler says, “Though I’m white, I could not do without the poetry of Langston Hughes and Rita Dove.”
In “A Dissonant Triad: Henri Cole, Rita Dove, and August Kleinzahler,” Vendler describes Dove’s poem “Ozone” as “unforgettable.” She also says, in a sentence that touches the current racial issue, “I admire Dove’s persistent probes into ordinary language, including the language of the black proletariat.” Is “restricted vocabulary” another way of saying “ordinary language”? Yes, I think it is. I’ll come back to this point in a moment.
In “The Black Dove: Rita Dove, Poet Laureate,” Vendler says of Dove’s work, “No matter how painful her stories, no matter how sharp-edged her lines, her poems fall on the ear with solace.”
And in “Rita Dove: Identity Markers,” Vendler refers to “the ingenious process of reflective faceting” in Dove’s poem “Aircraft.”
This brings me to the piece in question, Vendler’s review of Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (“Are These the Poems to Remember?,” The New York Review of Books, November 24, 2011), in which the impugned words “restricted vocabulary” occur. Consideration of these words contextually clearly shows their consistency with several other descriptions used by Vendler to convey the stylistic nature of many of the poems included by Dove in her anthology. For example, Vendler describes Dove’s five Wallace Stevens selections as “plain-voiced.” Later in the piece, she says, “Dove’s tipping of the balance obeys a populist aesthetic.” She also says, “The only canonical poets she [Dove] writes about with real enthusiasm are the ones using what she feels to be popular language.” And she says, “Most of the new poets at the end of the book are writing in her [Dove’s] preferred demotic style.” Poems written in a demotic style are often written in simplified language, i.e, a “restricted vocabulary.” “Plain-voiced,” “populist aesthetic,” “popular language,” “ordinary language,” “demotic style," and yes, “restricted vocabulary” – these are all ways of distinguishing a plain style of poetry from a more intricate one. When Vendler says, in her review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, that perhaps now what’s needed is an anthology consisting of poems “of rather restricted vocabulary,” she is referring to an anthology of plain-style poems. Therefore, while I admire the spiritedness of Dove's letter, I respectfully submit that her racial interpretation of Vendler's phrase "restricted vocabulary" is seriously mistaken.
Credit: The above portrait of Helen Vendler is by David Levine.