Blog #31: Some poetry matters to some people some of the time

Today’s blog is about a skirmish between Rita Dove and Helen Vendler. The fight started with Vendler writing a review critical of Dove’s recently published Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. It flared in full when Dove published a lengthy rebuttal. Numerous literary journals and blogs then rushed to join the fray. On one side of the conflict are the New Critics and those arbiters of taste who believe that Art should be aesthetic and high and should soar above the quotidian with Godlike purity. Facing the New Critics and their allies are those who believe that Art is political and it that should be used as an implement or weapon in reshaping society.

When there are battles between the Poetical and the Political, I usually find myself in a no man’s land. On the one hand, I value sacred texts and I think it important to have high aesthetic standards. I am suspicious of the passion and the rawness usually found in political poems. One the other hand, I think that literature matters precisely because it is an instrument of change and, as such, innately political. For that reason, I even put Adrienne Rich—often a stridently political poet—at the center of Fathers.

There is, of course, no reason why poems cant be simultaneously Poetical and Political. “Easter, 1916″ by William Yeats is an outstanding example of such fusion, as is Michael Longley’s “Wreaths,” to name two of my favourites. Dove herself is a poet who achieves such fusion, and one of the ironies of the current Vendler Dove controversy is that in the past Vendler has championed Dove’s aesthetic treatment of political subjects.

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One Comment

  1. MM Brown says:

    Yes! Great response, André! And certainly much gentler than the crossfire between Vendler and Dove…

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