Rita Dove's Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry; or, Opening up the canon

Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate … is the clash of cultures.” – Toni Morrison in her lecture ‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature’, delivered at The University of Michigan, October 7, 1988

Keen-eyed Rita Dove (1952-), former Poet Laureate of the United States and a major American poet of the 20th century in her own right, with The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011) has edited the first serious attempt at a multicultural anthology of American poetry, including some 35 African American poets* (out of a total of 175), more women poets, and more ‘minority’ poets other than African American than has previously been seen.

Helen Vendler (1933-), a scholar and critic of some repute, is not pleased. Under the headline Are These the Poems to Remember? (The New York Review of Books, 24 November 2011), she writes: “Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound).”

“Rita Dove … has decided … to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Rita Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.”

By asking Rita Dove, rather that say Helen Vendler, to be the editor, we must assume that Elda Rotor, her editor at Penguin Books, wanted and expected Rita Dove to open up the canon beyond ‘the usual suspects’. She did. Even as Helen Vendler’s ‘most significant names’, all ten of them, are all included (if perhaps not always by the texts Vendler would have chosen).

 It is fascinating to follow the editorial process, the decisions you have to make as an editor, and its consequences. American poets here means all poets who live(d) or were born in the United States of America, whose poems were written in English (we are talking about American poetry in English only) and printed in a book no earlier than 1900 and no later than 2000.

So goodbye, for instance, to Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask – but not to Dunbar. (You will notice here that I write from the perspective of a reader of African American poetry).

The other book-end, 2000, offers a different and more serious kind of problem. The youngest poet included, Terrance Hayes (1971-) was not yet thirty at the turn of the century. He, like other young poets, have had to prove themselves worthy of inclusion early on (it is not impossible, Langston Hughes was nineteen when he wrote his signature poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers).

Still, we must assume with Rita Dove that most of these young poets have much of their best work ahead of them (Derek Walcott was sixty when he published his masterpiece Omeros (1990), as Rita Dove notices in her introduction).

Dove has chosen to present the poets chronologically, arguing that in any attempt at organizing according to period or movements, like The Harlem Renaissance, the grid will fail to hold (Sterling A. Brown, for one, would object). Many poets just won’t fit in. In her foreword, though, she has given some hints of context, trends or patterns the poets may be seen as a part of.

Are 175 poets too many? Helen Vendler writes: “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? … which (ones) will seep back into the archives of sociology?”

If a reader of African American literature, do these kinds of arguments, as well as her list of ‘most significant names’ – not everybody’s canon – , sound familiar to you?

A more relevant question might be, if only one or two poems can represent a poet adequately, fewer poets presumably making room for more poems from those included. And if the balance between a poet’s well-known poems that you would expect to find and poems less familiar is the right one. And where is Bob Kaufman and ...  and ... ? Maybe 599 pages of poetry is just simply not enough!

Finally, there is the question of copyrights and permission fees that, much to the editor’s regret, have left poets like Sterling A. Brown – a major figure in African American poetry of the 20th century – , Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath (all three at HarperCollins) out of the picture, permission fees having to be negotiated poet by poet, and sometimes even poem by poem.

In asking Are These the Poems to Remember? Helen Vendler may have been asking the wrong question. As a reader you might rather want to ask yourself, whether these are poems that you want to read now (in 2011, when the anthology was published – or as you read this).

Who can foresee with any kind of certainty which of these 175 poets will be remembered and read in the future? Were even Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson a sure bet in their own time?

As an editor of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry it may please Rita Dove to know (even Helen Vendler might be pleased) that after half a century of reading almost exclusively African American literature – there is so much! – I find myself (re)reading also those  ‘significant’ poets and texts that I read so many years ago, as well as the wealth of new poems by poets across the multicultural spectrum I had not read (even if I knew of them) – until now!

UFI // 13 July 2019

*African American poets included are: James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimke, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Melvin B. Tolson, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Robert Hayden, Dudley Randall, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Michael S. Harper, Toi Derricotte, Haki R. Madhubuti, Marilyn Nelson, Ai, Yusef Komunyakaa, Nathaniel Mackey, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Rita Dove, Harryette Mullen, Cornelius Eady, Carl Phillips, Elizabeth Alexander, Nathasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Terrance Hayes – and Derek Walcott, the Caribbean Saint Lucia poet and 1992 Nobel Prize winner, whose work is often included in anthologies of (African) American poetry.