Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dead flowers?

More on the Dove-Vendler contretemps over Dove's Penguin anthology of "20th-Century American Poetry (Except Ginsberg and Plath)." (Via St. Crispin.)
Dove (on The Best American Poetry blog), objected: “What does it say about Vendler that out of the 175 poets in the Penguin Anthology she chose Gwendolyn Brooks and Melvin Tolson and Amiri Baraka to try to skewer me?” But in her review Vendler dismissed e.e. cummings as “sentimental” (as sentimental as Amiri Baraka, in fact) and was none too enthusiastic about Ezra Pound, either.

Vendler has certainly proven not to be those poets’ only detractor. James Fenton, in the London Evening Standard, wrote: “In most, though not in my opinion all, of her criticisms, Vendler put her finger on blatant weaknesses.” One: including Amiri Baraka’s “obsessive and anti-Semitic rant (‘another bad poem cracking / steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth’), which Vendler calls ‘showy violence’ that then turns sentimental. She’s right. What was Rita Dove thinking of when she reprinted this dreck?”

“Pretentious or ludicrous agit-prop” does not suffice in poetry, he suggested. Nor, says Alder, does poetry that, like Baraka’s, Dove can defend as “historically seminal.” If that is enough, he writes, where is the pop poet and folk crooner Rod McKuen? “Or,” asked Adler, “does the poetry have to be not just bad, but angry and bad?
Not as much as I'd have liked about omitting poets due to permissions fees:
Among many in-print and online critics of Dove’s selection, most have focused most on poets she omitted. Among those, most significantly, are a trio of diverse biography – variously black, messianic, white, vernacular, gay, suicidal, Jewish, melodramatic: Sterling Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath. Dove has explained that extortionate fee demands from publishers, primarily imprints owned by the HarperCollins behemoth, led to the exclusion of those three and others.

The absences have led some observers to ask whether the depleted selection was worth publishing. Robert Archambeau, a poet and professor of English at Lake Forest College, wrote on his Samizdat blog: “If this were the only way I could represent 20th C. American poetry, it would have been better not to do it. … As a scholar and critic, I find the representation of poetry here … to be deeply flawed. As an academic, I’d find the anthology unusable.”
I must say, if I were asked to do "20th-Century American Poetry" and then couldn't afford to include Plath, I'd tell Penguin they needed to find another editor.

... A commenter, Fred Viebahn, at the Fenton link above provides a useful quote from a Rita Dove interview that doesn't seem available online:
As to the omission of Sylvia Plath and the permissions fee problems, Rita Dove has this to say in an interview in the Dec. 2011 edition of "The Writer's Chronicle", an American magazine for professional writers and creative writing programs:

"... the worst offender by far [demanding outrageous fees] was the publisher of Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg, whose 'couldn’t care less' attitude resulted in none of this house's authors being included ... Negotiations dragged on literally until the day when the anthology went into production; seeking common ground, I offered several solutions, including reducing the overall number of poems ... while meeting their exorbitant line fees ...The answer was nothing less than shocking: All or nothing. In other words, if I didn't pay the same high line fees for all their poets as well as, unbelievably, take all the poems I had initially inquired about, I couldn’t have Ginsberg nor Plath ... Pleas from upper Penguin management and even from one of the affected poets, who declared his willingness to forgo royalties, fell on deaf ears; the day before the anthology went into production, [the publisher of Plath and Ginsberg] withdrew all pending contracts and declared the negotiations closed."

Dove also explains that even if the budget had allowed paying more to this publisher's poets, it would have violated agreements with other publishers that did not permit to "be robbing Peter to pay Paul".
Pretty lame of HarperCollins. Anthologized poems are advertisements.

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