Diction and Democracy


The Huffington Post/Chronicle of Higher Education offered a well-written and observed overview late last week of the Vendler-Dove conflict regarding Dove’s Penguin anthology of twentieth century poetry. Author Peter Monaghan kindly cited my own “The Politics in Poetry” a couple of times, but he unfortunately covered only the more easily reviewed cultural politics – politics that England’s the Guardian predictably and maximally sensationalized for every last flicker of racial ire (“Poetry anthology sparks race row”). Harder to convey about Vendler’s New York Review of Books attack on Dove’s work, and less sexy to survey, is the actual poetry in the politics of poetry.

I identified the focus of Vendler’s aesthetic complaint as “the demotic,” which Vendler herself associated with “restricted vocabulary,” “accessibility” and vocal flatness. Given that Vendler’s more easily considered criticism of the anthology is for a multicultural inclusiveness seemingly lacking in standards, it is easy to join the two criticisms and find Vendler’s apparently cultural assault even more offensive.

Maybe, maybe not. It is not my intent here to judge that issue.

But as race and class are frequently not easily disambiguated in political matters, here, too, in Vendler’s resistance to the demotic we find class, represented in the matter of diction, mixing with race. I want to consider a little the class issue.

Vendler’s review  repeatedly resorts to the poets of high modernism, and a few somewhat later poets, for her model of what too much contemporary poetry lacks. In Vendler’s consideration of diction, verbal compression and syntactical intricacy reign as ideals. It has always been among the ironies of the modernist era that as aesthetically revolutionary as were the work and manifestos of its exemplars, the culture of the work, and often of the writers, was not infrequently politically conservative. Ironic, too, is that contemporaneous to high modernism was the outburst of  popular forms of modernism – think only, for one instance, of the development of jazz, or of William Carlos Williams laying the groundwork within modernism for the reign of everyday speech in poetry during the century’s second half that Vendler has found so leveling and undistinguished.

Yet for Vendler to rail so nakedly against the demotic seems a puzzling choice. Among the histories of poetry is that of its punctuated movements toward a plainer speech of different eras, including from the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads to Williams himself, and even the early Ezra Pound translating Chinese poetry under the influence Ernest Fenollosa.

From “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”:

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

That a poetry of plain speech can produce, as Vendler believes, much very bad poetry is unarguable: how much easier to believe one can write the stuff if it looks so little different from a causal recitation of the mundane. But so, too, does pretentiously and anachronistically elevated diction, which perhaps we are more often spared these days because it is more obviously, even to its producers, terrible. But to limit one’s conception of what constitutes a rich complexity in language to particular syntactical models seems a kind of aesthetic inbreeding. I don’t know – do not really believe – that this was Vendler’s intent. Still, it is how her review reads.

In “What if We Occupied Language?” Samy Alim observes of the “Occupy” movement that

the movement has not only transformed public space, it has transformed the public discourse as well.


It is now nearly impossible to hear the word and not think of the Occupy movement.

– in contrast to territory that might be the ground of any military conflict.

In “Literature as Seed Bank” at Why Study Literature, we read,

One aspect of liberty is to keep our gene pool of ideas splashy by allowing lots of different languages, words and phrases to co-exist. There isn’t a single Book of Knowledge (no, not even Wikipedia), just as every human genome is a little bit different. It’s certainly true that we each restrict our intake of words and language, and that helps form our identity, but the point about liberty is that we keep control. So we can expect that illiberal forces in society will seek to control the language and ideas we’re exposed to, and for this to be effective it’s better off if we don’t know about it.

To stand oneself in opposition to the demotic is to lower nets over the verbal gene pool – to appear to be that establishment Dove invokes in the introduction to the Penguin anthology and that Vendler, while thus appearing herself to be, is at pains to be mystified in considering. It isn’t a matter of forsaking rich complexity in articulated sound and sight for the dull flatness of common observation, but of conceiving both – more so the former – in multiple manners of expression.

You will know that the demotic has descended into the mere commonplace when it spits at something it calls “elitism” and thus – from both the political left and right – in a form of resentiment, identifies elevated execution and heightened achievement with a clam of social privilege. It is a devolution Vendler fears, but her emphasis was off. The demotic feeds the gene pool; the commonplace drains the water. And while the manifestations of the bad are many, the forms of the good are numerous too. It contains multitudes.


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