I had the distinct feeling I had seen the book somewhere before. It was almost like the old cinematographic cliche: close-up of the Treblinka torturer’s face in a dream sequence, a faded photograph shot in sepia tones, men running through the courtyard. The title was respectable enough, The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Faber and Faber, 3 Queen Square, don’t you know? Eliot’s firm. But then I recognized the name: Helen Vendler.
A feverish leafing-through and I was enveloped in familiar drivel:
Poetry is the most speaking of written signs; it is the most designed of spoken utterances; it inhabits, and makes us travellers in, a place where every phrase of the spoken language would be as outlined as an urn.
What urn?! “Professor Vendler,” William Scammell lashed out in The Spectator, “writes in that browfurrowing pomp-speak beloved of certain academics, which ought rightly to be set up in gothic type.” For Vendler, wrote Scammell, seeing is “optic concentration”; line endings are a “perpetual self-hating” in which she finds “the ground” for poetry’s “peculiar attraction” and a “spooling, a form of repetition, the reinscribing of a groove”; to read is to join “the procession of forms that give access to an imagined plane of projected existence.” The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry is nothing but The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry under another name, and the British reader was smelling a rat.
In her introduction to this anthology, Professor Vendler dwells on the contrast between British and American poetry, reminding Britons that her homeland was once “an enormous wilderness only recently settled, educationally and ethnically diverse,” with a poetry that was “bound to be diffuse, heterogeneous.” Is this merely an innocent truism?
I found some U.S. Census figures for the sample year 1900. Twelve million (or roughly 16 percent) of a total population of 76,500,000 were “foreign-born.” One may wonder whether this admixture made that much of a difference in a country whose culture was dominated by a native elite. But let us assume that such a measure of cultural diversity is significant.
Of a total of 23 living poets anthologized by Professor Vendler, 17 (or roughly 74 percent) are professors at American colleges and universities. Outlined as an urn indeed! May not one assume that this measure of cultural uniformity is just as significant? In fact, is it not astonishing that an editor so visibly preoccupied with “diversity” should be so blatant, so cliquish in her choices? Whatever America is or may have been, Professor Vendler’s vision of American poetry is about as “diffuse” as an IQ test and as “heterogeneous” as a KKK picnic.
The history of misidentification of poetic practice with academic routine began in the U.S. with the publication, in 1938, of Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (still in print after four editions), although Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry (now in its seventh edition) had toyed with the enchanting notion as early as 1919. Adopted as standard texts at colleges and universities, these books shaped the American intellectual’s perception of poetry as a subject of academic analysis for generations. When Untermeyer’s anthology first appeared, a bitter Basil Bunting spoke prophetically of the coming of “the age of poetry for commentators.” More recently, the academic canon was updated with Donald Allen’s New American Poetry 1945-1960.
Thus Professor Vendler’s anthology is not a haphazard event but the latest of many steps toward an Ivy League orthodoxy of poetic expression and critical discussion in what Peter Quartermain has called “the history of the politics of poetry” in America. This latest endeavor ought to have been called The Conformist’s Book of Contemporary Academic Verse (from the commercial point of view, however. How to Get Tenure: The New American Poet’s Guide might have been more feasible). Accordingly, Professor Vendler’s introductory article contains every critical platitude an aspiring academic poet needs to butter up his colleagues up and down the hierarchy.
Consider “poets who are women” (“women poets,” one presumes, is a term reserved nowadays for the more rabid kinds of poetess and just isn’t comme il faut at Harvard). In the old days. Professor Vendler laments, their poetry “was limited both in subject (love, God, children, death) and in expression.” But today, she exults, “art, race relations, cultural mythology, metaphysics . . . are now available subjects for any younger woman.”
Quite apart from running a risk of being brought before a university disciplinary committee on charges of age discrimination. Professor Vendler is unashamed in her belief that, as a poet, Rita Dove is more free to discuss anything, including “art,” in 1980 than Emily Dickinson was in 1880. The truly remarkable thing, however, is the editor’s deliberate exclusion of women whose achievement is at least as great as, say, that of Elizabeth Bishop (d. 1979)—say, Djuna Barnes (d. 1982), Babette Deutsch (d. 1982), or Laura Riding (living)—because they are outside the academic poet’s purview.
As for—what shall I call them?— poets who are men, Anthony Hecht (in my opinion, one of the two or three “big names” of contemporary American poetry bound to endure) is missing. And—if “diversity” of every kind is so important—where is Joseph Brodsky? No Richard Eberhart. No Fred Chappell. No X.J. Kennedy.
“The poets included here,” Professor Vendler warns, write “from/sic./a Freudian culture, one in which a vaguely Freudian model of the soul has replaced an older Christianized Hellenic model.” You’d think even a car salesman would be more subtle, but this lady, with the combined cultural power of America’s academic establishment behind her, pitches Freud the old Detroit way: “The model of the soul you can’t afford to miss!” The Bob McNamara of American literary criticism is launching the Edsel of poetry anthologies. The Vietnam War of ideas is just around the bend. Over here, people prefer bicycles.