Practicing Anti-Semitism, in Theory

Just over a week ago, on August 17, the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) published a review of Deconstructing Zionism: a Critique of Political Metaphysics, a collection of essays edited by Gianni Vattimo and Michael Marder. Vattimo is the Italian philosopher who, during the current Israel-Hamas conflict, has made clear once again his sympathy for Hamas and expressed his desire to “shoot those bastard Zionists,” who he considers “worse than Nazis.” His anti-Semitic tendencies are on record (a reevaluation of the claims of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion). The collection brings together the less and the more well-known voices who theorize anti-Zionism and make of the Jew, among all ethnic, racial, and religious groups a generic and cultural category of thought, so that one may speak of them, in contrast to Estonians or Hindus, let’s say, in terms not of what they empirically are or choose to be, but what, symbolically and thematically, some collection of philosophers and professors of literature theorize they should be.

LARB has become, since it’s inception two years ago, a varied and vibrant addition to the American literary scene. Among all of the review’s riches, I had hoped to see in any coverage of Israel-Palestine something different from the standard Israel-centric critique found at the New York Review of Books. This has not turned out be the case, and when LARB assigned its review of Deconstructing Zionism to David Lloyd, a leading member of the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, I felt compelled to comment. What follows below is the full exchange (as of this writing) between me and Jonathan Hahn, LARB’s executive editor, and Tom Lutz, LARB’s editor-in-chief. For a very different kind of review of Deconstructing Zionism, see the review by Gabriel Noah Brahm at fathom journal.


the sad red earth • 5 days ago

How unfortunate that LARB, which conceives itself an alternative point of departure from that of NYRB, follows now the same backslapping intellectual fashion, travels irresponsibly the same facile political current, not of anti-nationalism, but of irredeemably racist anti-Zionism. Faced with the job of reviewing a collection of essays that attack the very legitimacy of Israeli nationalism among all others, LARB’s editors choose for the task not some critic who might challenge the foundations of the book’s agonistic ideology, but one of the few people who might actually find the volume wanting in its efforts to deconstruct Zionism, judging them both – Zionism and deconstruction, as it were – too Jewish, the collection, in the end, insufficiently Palestinian. Who criticizes the book for mimicking the “creative contortions” of “liberal Zionist critiques.” (If Lenin did not actually say, after Dick the butcher, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the liberals,” he surely did it.) Who bemoans the editors’ perceived “anxiety” – despite their “robust anticipation” of them – over charges of anti-Semitism. Who thinks the editors, therefore, too apprehensive before the prospect of truly essentializing Jewish racism, in what is “a singularly Jewish political philosophy and enterprise.” Who finds of the marker “Jews of Conscience” (“good Jews”) only that it is “somewhat polemic.”

Not enough that LARB should consider this production an expression of its mission, but that it should offer it, too, without any acknowledgement of its provenance – that its primary editor champions and wishes militarily to support an expressly, by covenant, anti-Semitic and genocidal organization. That he has wished publically for the deaths of Israelis, and that he has professed to change his mind about the truth of the notoriously fraudulent and anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The reviewer thinks these realities, no doubt, too genuinely praximatic to include informatively amid the theorizing. LARB’S editors find it unnecessary to append.

Instead, we find entertained and performed the usual diffuse, vatic logorrhea by which, through persistent metaphorical fallacy, a body made a bomb is thought to enact freedom and a person sitting at a bus stop is conceived as committing violence. (Imagine here a parenthetical reference to Adorno or Gramsci, a neologism scraped and dusted out of etymology, a new obscure infinitive.)

  • JonathanHahn Mod  the sad red earth • 4 days ago

    Dear Sad Red Earth,

    We appreciate you posting your concerns, and understand that Dr. Lloyd’s views as expressed here are controversial. We are committed to airing the important debates of our time, and they cannot be aired without allowing people on very different sides of the debate to have their say. The views Dr. Lloyd expresses here do not represent our magazine, nor do the views of any of the many writers we have published on the Middle East, whether they be controversial or not. Our mission is to engage our readers in conversation, and this essay is one part of that effort. We are glad you took the time and effort to share your views.

    Jonathan Hahn, Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books

    • the sad red earth  JonathanHahn • 3 days ago

      Dear Mr. Hahn,

      Thank you for your reply. Of course, one should not presume the views of individual writers to represent those of the journal publishing them. However, publications make editorial decisions. These individual decisions are choices among multiple possible alternative decisions, all of which, compiled, may or may not offer evidence of a perspective on the part of the journal, a shaping inclination toward a subject. What does available evidence seem to show about LARB?

      An unscientific but not, algorithmically, random survey by Google search of “Los Angeles Review of Books” and “Israel” turns up the following among the first three pages of results. Foremost, we find the March forum entitled “Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott,” in which eight participants, four pro and four con, offered their views on an academic boycott of Israel. As your introduction attested, “We facilitated this forum at the urging of David Palumbo-Liu, a supporter of the BDS movement, in the hopes that it would engender a more informed understanding on these and many related questions.” Why did Palumbo-Liu urge such a forum? What was the “more informed understanding” he sought? Only he knows his mind and motivation, but as a leading academic activist against the State of Israel, and in support of an academic boycott, he could hardly have hoped that such a forum would lower the profile of his cause. In a nation overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, in its origins and struggles, any broader publication of anti-Zionist argument, even against opposing voices, could only, rather, raise the profile of the boycott cause. LARB provided that opportunity. As it turned out, too, only one of the eight participants availed himself of a rebuttal, a last word – Palumbo-Liu.

      Of the nine additional results clearly identifiable as political in nature, three – unflattering depictions of Israel all – are among a series of essays by professed anti-Zionist Ben Ehrenreich. One is by Alex Kane, an assistant editor of the rabidly anti-Zionist and profoundly anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss. One is a review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land : The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, written by Omri Boehm, who has charged the IDF, among the world’s militaries, with immorality and who attacks Israel on the basis of reinterpreting the seminal Jewish myth of Abraham’s binding of Isaac for sacrifice. One is a Marginalia Channel essay opposing the Presbyterian Church USA’s divestment vote against Israel for no better reason than the author’s Jewish identification with Israel – and while nonetheless expressing sympathy for the Church’s complaints against the country. A second Marginalia Channel essay offers that it was Israel’s founding – and not, say, to choose two relatively modern examples, the genocidal anti-Semitism of Haj Amin al-Husseini or Sayyid Qutb – that “increasingly turned the concepts ‘Arab’ and ‘Jew’ into fundamental and irreconcilable opposites.” Then, to close, the one objective piece on Israel related matters, serving only to report, without favor to Israeli or Arab, is an account of – the MLA debate on an anti-Israel measure.

      Needless to point out that among these entries one will find no evidence of “very different sides of the debate” or of a “conversation.” What is normatively controversial and what is prejudicially beyond the pale of respectable debate – such as, one might wish, the singling out of one only among the world’s peoples, in their existing nation-state, as undeserving of self-determination – is a status to be mediated by innumerable human decisions and indecisions, such as the invisibility of any writing presenting an alternative view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And then there was the choice of David Lloyd to review a collection of essays on deconstructing Zionism.

      A. Jay Adler
      Adjunct Professor of English; California State University, Dominguez Hills
      Lecturer in English, El Camino College
      Professor of English, Emeritus; Los Angeles Southwest College.

      • JonathanHahn Mod  the sad red earth • 3 days ago

        Dear Prof. Adler,

        We have published over 75 pieces, or an average of one every two weeks since founding LARB three years ago, related to Israel. The simplified algorithmic research you’ve relied on here of course does not reflect the scope of what we have published, but the pieces we’ve published that have caused the most talk — those that were pushed up in the Google ratings by the amount of readership, comment, reposting, citation, etc. It is entirely unsurprising that those pieces are the most hot-button ones, the ones that extreme partisans either champion or decry.

        We are always looking for subtle and nuanced analyses, and these are the kind of pieces that don’t tend to shoot up in the Google rankings: pieces that approach these issues in less direct ways — as in reviews of novels, for instance, or interviews with poets — that again, we feel are important, and yet you will not find these in the first three pages of Google results for your search. In fact, the first three pages that result from that search only include 4 pieces from LARB — the rest are posts (from The Jerusalem Post, for example, or sites called holylandprinciples, worldpoliticsreview, etc) where people are reacting to a small selection of our pieces. Using Google the way you do doesn’t prove our bias, it shows the bias of internet chatter.

        Your moniker in your first post — “the sad red earth” — references the blood spilled on that ground, and it is the history of violence and the ongoing violence that compels our attention, of course. As we all know too well, the loudest voices speak past each other, and we have attempted in various ways — as in our special series in which Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian poets spoke to each other, and in the forum on the academic boycott — to engage as many sides as possible in dialogue. In most cases these attempts fail, but we continue to try.

        You ask why David Palumbo-Liu urged a forum on the boycott. He is an activist, and obviously he wanted to argue for his position to our audience. But he did not choose the other participants or exercise any editorial control. And there is not a single publication that has brought together four such powerful voices against the boycott as we did. We also had four voices in favor. It is a shame, we think, too, that only Palumbo-Liu availed himself of our invitation to all participants (and to others) to respond to the other participants. But as a movement that has made large strides in institutional validation in a short time, we thought it was worthy of sustained attention.

        One of the reasons, of course, that people don’t always respond to arguments like those made in the forum — that is, one of the reasons the other participants didn’t respond further — is because the very language different sides use seems to make discussion impossible. For instance, to call Mondoweiss a “profoundly anti-Semitic” website as you do here — how can one respond to this? Founded by Jews, edited from “a progressive Jewish perspective,” with an emphasis on “Jewish American identity” — whatever one thinks of its politics, to call it profoundly anti-Semitic is simply to use the kind of rhetorical overkill that makes true conversation impossible. Does saying that imply agreement with Mondoweiss’s politics? No. Anti-Zionism, too, takes many different forms, in some cases based on a desire to eliminate Israel, yes. But for none of the writers you mention in your note is this the case: for Ben Ehrenreich, Alex Kane, Omri Boehm, and many other writers in our pages, it is based on a desire to stop the killing, or a desire to find a lasting resolution — a desire, in other words, for peace. Your charge that there is “an invisibility of any writing presenting an alternative view of the Arab-Israeli conflict” is, in fact, true only in that the majority of voices we have published on Israel are, in fact, Israeli and Jewish, and we have not published any piece by representatives of neo-Nazi parties, of Golden Dawn, of the Muslim Brotherhood, or other such parties that are anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and dedicated to the destruction of Israel. This is true of absolutely none of our writers.

        To that end the argument you are making here is a real disservice to the 75 writers we have published whose work revolves in some way around Israel, and who are not interested in hitting hot buttons, not trying to forward a particular political agenda, but instead are offering pieces of considered scholarship on the Middle East and its ancillary issues, pieces of engaged literary criticism, and personal, essayistic reflections. Your calculus of our bias takes a huge rolling pin and drags it over these writers, all of whom have worked with their full hearts and minds to produce the best work they can. While flattening out that work into a simplistic pro- or anti-Israel rubric may be exciting to some, it is not of interest to us: it does not represent our writers, nor our magazine, with any accuracy, nor is it informative to any reader who wants a true picture of the kind of magazine we’ve been, still are, and will continue to be.

        We say this knowing full well — we can read the argument in your comments here and in many pieces we have published in our pages — that for certain people to critique the idea of Zionism (or to critique Israel’s defense forces or government, or to support the right of the people of Gaza to self-determination) is akin to arguing for the destruction of Israel. We have pieces critiquing ideas of American exceptionalism, American foreign policy, American war policy, and American racism and yet we do not, by doing so, suggest the destruction of America. We treat none of this lightly; we enter this fray with our eyes open, and know very well, as we edit political debates, that we are editing the words of people who have buried their own parents and children, killed at the hands of others. We never forget this as we let writers have their say, and make their arguments. And perhaps we are naïve, holding to the belief that writing can have some force in human affairs, that the conversation, as we too easily call it, can make a difference — but we do.


        Tom Lutz, Editor in Chief, Los Angeles Review of Books
        Jonathan Hahn, Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books

        • the sad red earth  JonathanHahn • a day ago


          I am content to leave your properly fuller presentation of LARB’s engagement with the subject of Israel to answer my own, and to have the two provide together the picture that others might regard. Except.

          Except you endeavor to fill out the picture I paint with reference to “pieces that approach these issues in less direct ways — as in reviews of novels, for instance, or interviews with poets.” Herein lies a distinction I sought to make in culling from my search only those articles I thought clearly political, or what turned out to be, as you described them, hot button in nature. It is the heat that concerns us here – Zionism’s deconstructors and the BDS advocates, and those, like me, who seek to fight the fire they fan. For a life well lived, or at least examined, you and I fully agree on the value of reviews of novels and interviews with poets, and discussions about and among them. However, what these approaches represent on such a subject as Israel – political and hot button in itself to those roiled by the very fact of its existence, and because of how it has had to exist thus far – is, to appropriate a term from Foucault, a kind of soft humanism. The humanizing transformations of literature, when they come, are long in realization; the political coup, in contrast, may be swift and brutal, as would be, for instance, the advent of Hamas, on Israelis and all Jews, upon its being released from its containment. Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden told us in praise of Yeats, with some measure of irony, thought not enough irony to stop an Iranian missile smuggled through the Rafah crossing from being fired. One may bemoan in soulful outreach with one’s nominal enemy, in that soft human way, as writers and other artists may do, our common afflicted humanity and still, politically, seek “solutions” that entail the end of a nation-state for Jews. Soft humanism often accommodates that disjunction from politics in practice. Or if not, the prisons and the unmarked graves of history have been filled aplenty with literary folk who conceived it enough to raise themselves up alone above the strife of peoples and nations.

          There is a different frame for soft humanism, one probably closer to what Foucault had in mind in identifying exemplars in Stalinism and Christian democratic hegemony. One may find it here in Lloyd’s review and the tendency it represents. On the one hand, this tendency critiques through a postcolonial analysis that is focused on the operations of power and the conditions of oppressed marginality. On the other hand, it draws, in its appeals and sanctions, from the same Judeo-Christian originated humanistic well of moral righteousness as do many other ideas of human organization. So near the end, we have Lloyd citing favorably Judith Butler about “undoing sovereignty” and invoking, in Lloyd’s words, “the parameters of living with and in difference that Butler describes as cohabitation.” This represents the culmination of a strenuously theorized evangelical mush that spoons up a stupefying banality – that in seeking to rise above “the post-Westphalian formation of territorial states and sanctioned violence” we all need (who’d a thunk it) to love one another and treat each other as we would wish to be treated. And not to put too fine a point on it, but in that risky leap of faerie faith, Jews go first.

          Yet what more pernicious operation in its own right underlies this prophetic injunction to dwell all together in cohabitation? The sacrifice of the Jews. The sacrifice of the Jews in which “the effect of Zionism’s destruction of Judaism is to make of the Palestinians the Jews of the present, dispossessed, forced into exile… subjects of a continuing diaspora…. The singularity of the Jew transfers to the Palestinians…[.] in the ‘privileged’ critical position, that is, once occupied by the European Jew.” Whereas the more common contemporary anti-Semitic gesture is to shame Jews with the Holocaust by likening Israel and Zionism to Nazi Germany, applying the language of ghettos and concentration camps and genocidal holocaust and racialist supremacy to Israel and Jews – so that some presumed moral authority gained by suffering the ultimate historical victimization is bluntly used as a cudgel with which to beat – the anti-Zionist BDSing deconstructors will rather refine through theory so much special recognition of historical identity away, and deliver it over, even, to the Palestinians. What is left for the Jews? Butler will give them the supreme honor of enacting the moral high ground of eternal exile, as, in Zizek’s words, “the immediate embodiment of universality,” so as to symbolize the undoing of sovereignty.

          And it is all so highfalutin that one can persuade oneself of a disjunction between it and all the singling out that went historically before it for the Jews.

          In this light, the “engaged literary criticism, and personal, essayistic reflections” LARB publishes, of deep human value, are not a counterweight to the political warfare, disguised as intellectual critique, currently underway to undo a nation-state and a people’s self-determination. You believe you read in my comments here perspectives that do not, in fact, apply to me. I will not belabor this further comment by addressing that issue. This is not about me, but about what the true range of widely held and still compelling perspectives is on these issues. You do use the phrase to “critique the idea of Zionism,” which is vague enough in its application and import, and which does raise the question of special treatment of Jewish nationalism only. You appear to believe that anti-Zionism may be understood as not to entail the elimination of Israel – a phrase that in itself should strike the conscience terribly. That is a peculiar understanding. You aver that such a desire does not inhabit those writers I referenced last time. But at least as long ago as 2009 Ehrenreich published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Zionism is the problem.” In it Ehrenreich quotes supportively Lessing J. Rosenwald, when the latter declared Zionism “the concept of a racial state — the Hitlerian concept.” The society Ehrenreich conjures in the piece is clearly not a Jewish state – not Israel. And as recently as March 20 of this year, Philip Weiss, founder of Mondoweiss, declared in a post at that site, “Israel is a blot on civilization.”

          About Mondoweiss, here we may well focus our disagreement best of all. You charge of my labeling it “profoundly anti-Semitic” that the label is “the kind of rhetorical overkill that makes true conversation impossible.” I think you read some overkill just above. I have been observing Mondoweiss for five years. I have written about it at my blog, the sad red earth (also my Twitter handle). I and other active defenders of Israel against the campaign of vilification against it know it well. You appear to think that because it is operated by, now, three Jews, and that it labels itself “progressive,” this is defense against declaring it what it manifestly is. Its closely moderated comments section, with which the principals engage, is profuse with demonization of Israel – of Zio-Nazi’s and Zio-supremacists – and of Judaism. Many of its published comments are indistinguishable from what may be found at Veteran’s Today or Stormfront. Its editorial direction is not ill represented by the words of Weiss above. Further, particularly in its early days, its founder was prone to revelatory posts evincing psychodramas of maternal, familial, and ethno-cultural discomfort and rejection. He is almost as interested in what he deems excesses of Jewish power in the United States as he is the blot on civilization.

          That Mondoweiss has been mainstreamed in some so-called progressive circles is as indicative of the problem that drew my initial comments as was the choice to assign David Lloyd to review Deconstructing Zionism. In an era in which every other kind of racism is being analyzed at degrees of depth and in ranges of complexity far beyond a simple slur or stereotype, institutionally and intersectionally, it is the very problem itself that only anti-Semitism is regularly reduced in the same quarters to nothing more than the time-honored tropes and preposterous libels, in a concerted refusal to recognize its modern and sophisticated mutations. One of the great embarrassments of the modern civilized world was the 1975 U.N. resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism – a resolution promoted by totalitarians states and supported by a slew of the world’s common dictatorships and overtly anti-Semitic Arab governments. So embarrassing was this stinking rose in the garden of human rights that in 1991, the U.N. was compelled to remove it. Now, in academic and progressive circles throughout the Western World, it is the height of intellectual fashion to make the same claim in theoretically abstruse prose or in cant political terminology and to dismiss charges of anti-Semitism with the same disdain for reaction to their racism as once emitted by bulbous sheriffs on torn Mississippi streets. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan delivered his grand and justly famous denunciation of U.N. resolution 3379, he scorned the “obscenity” of the U.N. declaration in part by the reductio ad absurdum of tracing the U.N.’s own faulty attempts to define racism, including as a form of Nazism, thereby providing grounds to call Zionism a form of Nazism. This is a claim that would fail to trouble many of Israel’s hyperbolic critics today, and it filters through the interstices of meaning from all the fancy critiques of Zionism that denounce it as racialist. See Ben Ehrenreich quoting Lessing J. Rosenwald.

          Quite simply, it should have been obvious that there was a whole world of true conversational challenge – different sides of the debate – that might have been brought to bear in a review of Deconstructing Zionism other than assigning the book to a shades of gray treatment over the genuineness of its deconstructive mode.

          Finally, a last word about the sad red earth. You extended the blog title and Twitter handle’s reference metaphorically in a direction I certainly find fitting. I found it so as well during my travels in Indian Country when people thought the name called our attention to that sad ground we walk upon. In fact, the phrase is from Kerouac’s On the Road. Sal Paradise walks the streets of Denver one dusk after a futile effort by Dean Moriarity to find his father. Says Paradise of his walk, “I felt like a speck on the surface of the sad red earth.” As are we all. That is the focus I try always to maintain in my own humanism and in the tension between it and the often monstrously grinding wheels of history and ideology.


          A. Jay Adler

Culture Clash

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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Culture Clash

The Politics in Poetry: Vendler vs. Dove


Poetry is relevant!

I kid poetry. Poetry is always relevant. What do you think The Iliad was doing if it wasn’t writing the history of the victors? The inept and cowardly Paris stole Helen from Menelaus – sure. I wonder how the Trojans might have told that story. It has also long been facile to mock Shelley’s dictum that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But Shelley wasn’t talking corn subsidies or welfare to work, and if you think that’s the only kind of legislation that matters, that’s a political stance about poetry too.

Helen Vendler’s controversial New York Review of Books attack on the Rita Dove edited  The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry unexpectedly draws out much of the latent politics in what Dove in her response calls “poetry politics,” and Marguerite María Rivas at AROHO Speaks is shocked that we are still having this discussion.

Stunned, deeply disappointed, and almost embarrassed for Vendler were my emotional reactions to reading just the first two paragraphs of the review. Vendler’s “Are These the Poems to Remember?” disappoints and fails as legitimate critique. It is more diatribe than review, riddled with thinly veiled ad-hominem attacks and elitist meanderings of the most repugnant sort. Vendler’s piece does not even give the reader a sense of the anthology, for it is difficult to discern any reasoned analysis beneath the vitriol. “Out of touch,” “inaccurate” and “racist” were my initial thoughts. This was not the Helen Vendler I was expecting; this was not the review worthy of her vast talent. It was nothing short of astonishing to read Vendler’s caustic spew and relentless excoriation of Dove’s anthologizing and essay writing.

How is this review to be taken seriously? How could Vendler get it so wrong and be so out of touch with the ethos of contemporary American poetry?

It is probably so that most poets and much of literary academe have thought this battle over, the dissenting voices within considered outliers only and those without politicized philistines. Yet as Jeremy Bass reminds us at The Nation, in her 1988 lecture “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” Toni Morrison declared,

Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense


All of the interests are vested.

Part of any objection to Dove’s work is inevitable. Bass himself is critical of many omissions, none noted by more people than that of Allen Ginsburg, the excuse for which by Dove – the cost of rights – is simply unacceptable.

Writes Jan Gardner at The Boston Globe,

Any book with as big a mission as The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is bound to attract complaints.

Julia Keller at the Chicago Tribune is more vivid.

A good anthology is like a dartboard in a crowded bar on a Saturday night. Everybody lines up to take their best shot. Everybody wants the chance to squint, aim and let fly.

The more august and monumental and definitive-seeming the anthology — the fancier its packaging, the more famous and revered its editor — the more it invites criticism, arguments, carping and nitpicking. That’s the fun of an anthology. Indeed, the robustness of such a collection is measured not by a solemn, reverential hush descending upon its publication, but by noisy, lively, vehement disagreement.

The appearance of an anthology, then, is a good excuse to get rowdy. Contrarianism is a sign of life and health and relevance.

And to return us to Vendler, we have the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog:

Does anyone have a phone number for the producers of the World’s Toughest Job? Because we’d like to petition that they add “poetry anthologist” to their roster of underwater welders, rodeo clowns, ultimate fighters, and pyrotechnicians. Okay, it’s true that you won’t lose any limbs compiling the “best” verse of the last 100 years, but the occupational hazards are nevertheless intense.

To wit: Helen Vendler’s recent review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry….

I have met and admire Vendler. Many years ago, before she was quite the doyen of the poetry world she now is, she chaired the committee that interviewed me for a three-year junior fellowship at the Harvard Society of Fellows. I was not among that year’s six honored recipients. In the years since I have taught my introduction to poetry classes using Vendler’s textbook Poems, Poets, Poetry. I am steeped in modernism as is she and our aesthetic preferences are sympathetic, so I should be sympathetic to her position in this dispute. I am not, and why I am not is, I think, instructive.

Despite a shrill, offensive argument and tone, Vendler offers some persuasive criticisms of Dove. Among them – as intellectual foundation for the greater critique of Dove’s criteria for selection – is a dismissal of Dove’s introduction, with its “potted” historical overview, as “breezy,” facile “boilerplate.” Vendler presents several trenchant illustrations, none more devastating than this segue from the Beats to the Confessionals. Writes Dove,

Every soup gets cold, however, and by the time the Beat poets were losing verbal steam, their take-no-prisoners approach had cleared a trail for the Confessionals…. The cost of [the Confessionals’] personal exposure was high. Both Sexton and Plath killed themselves…. In the end [John Berryman], too, could no longer resist the Grim Reaper.

Responds Vendler,

Well, any number of people have committed suicide without being poets of “personal exposure”; and in the poets named by Dove the causes of suicide other than poetry-writing are numerous (childhood trauma, alcoholism, manic-depressive illness, marital breakdown). Dove’s brisk post hoc, propter hoc diagnosis of these heartbreaking events and their accompanying poems seems oddly imperceptive in a poet.

Truly, the suggestion that these poets killed themselves because they were confessional poets, and not, to some degree, confessional poets because of personalities and psychological characteristics that led them to write confessionally, is a little embarrassing.

Vendler’s greater criticism – for which attacking Dove’s intellectual chops is foundational – is the absence of any coherent “principle of selection.” The Nation’s Bass sees it a little differently.

The problem with Dove’s anthology is not that she shirks responsibility. She has assumed it fully, but for the wrong reasons. Her omissions present themselves more as conscious efforts to shape the appearance of modern poetry, or as a kind of willful laziness at best. If we are truly to be inclusive, we must include work beyond the comforting confines of our political and aesthetic assumptions, preserving and uplifting American poetry’s difficult and various whole. [Emphasis added]

What has rankled Vendler – in a contention Rivas thought was settled – is what she perceives, apparently along with Bass, as Dove’s alternative canon building, her “[m]ulticultural inclusiveness.” In a move that offended Rivas, Vendler actually did some counting.

Of the twenty poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian-American), and five are white (two men, three women).

What strikes Rivas is the counting itself, but one cannot overlook the tally. Surely, it is nothing but political, a self-conscious corrective that may have many comfortable rationales, but that, in its counter numerical-imbalance certainly does not count aesthetic quality among them. Dove in her reply to Vendler even performs a sleight of phrase in justifying her inclusion of the execrable Amiri Baraka’s execrable, anti-Semitic “Black Art”: first she minimizes his offensiveness by defensively categorizing him as a “handy whipping boy.” Then she defends her own choice on the ground of the selection’s being a “historically seminal poem.” Historically seminal? Is that what an anthology of a century’s poetry is designed to review – historical moment? Where then is the Rod McKuen? Or does the poetry have to be not just bad, but angry and bad?

However, Vendler’s dated rush to the battlements against multiculturalism is really a lower order presentation of her defense of another tower – of the high one against the low and encroaching plains. Throughout, in a regular resort to the testimony of credential, we read of the degrees and institutional affiliations of the poets whose quality she defends, and Dove’s greatest offense, the aesthetic one, is this:

Most of the new poets at the end of the book are writing in her preferred demotic style….

The “demotic style” – it is this that has Vendler so upset.

[Dove] also decides (except in certain obligatory moments) for the more “accessible” portions of modern lyric….

Perhaps Dove is envisaging an audience who would be put off by a complex text.

Vendler later adds:

Perhaps Dove’s canvas—exhibiting mostly short poems of rather restricted vocabulary—is what needs to be displayed now to a general audience.

It irks Vendler that so much of contemporary poetry is so, well, prosaic.

Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines.

Vendler is right about this. Too much of contemporary poetry bespeaks itself in a lamely demotic, prosaic style – and nothing to speak of as prose either – that is merely broken into short lines. People even with reputations write this way. It makes
you wonder what they think
they’re doing; it makes you
want to scream

But in identifying a long-developing devolution – for which, thank you, William Carlos Williams, and let a thousand crabgrass grow – Vendler has over identified it with the demotic, for which there is ancient, ever renewing and reinvigorating impetus in poetic expression. Rather than clarify and instruct, when necessary, how the complex, the apparently difficult, may be a form of heightened poetry – not mask for, but the very manner of poetry’s meaning and being – Vendler chooses instead to identify poetry with difficulty, with inaccessibility. She cheats, too, in doing so. She offers the opening lines of several of Dove’s contemporary choices, of variable quality and nature, and blames them for not being Hart Crane, an emblematic difficult poet and among the most dense in verbal riches, as if Crane himself had been not a poet, but is poetry itself, invariable in language and sensibility. But here, truncated at its opening lines, as Vendler similarly offers,  in not quite successfully attempting to distort its diction, Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “To My Brother,” are the opening lines of a poem, if not American, at least well written in America by W.H. Auden: “September 1, 1939.”

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid…

A “flat invitation,” as Vendler would have it – compared to Crane – in ordinary speech, and great and momentous (and ever relevant too, by the way) poetry.

However, long before Vendler trips herself up in a too concerted and strident defense of the difficult, she already has fallen rather flat herself in the review’s own very opening.

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).

Most curious about this short list, offered in 2011 to begin a consideration of all of twentieth century American poetry, is that even the youngest, the last three, were not born later than that century’s second decade and are not dead fewer than nearly four decades. Is even, along with Harold Bloom, the most renowned of our academic arbiters of literary greatness too timid to stake a declaration on anyone just a little more contemporary? Or is Vendler really dismissing the whole second half of the twentieth century?

Well, in her second paragraph Vendler declares that

some 175 poets are represented. 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? [Emphasis added]

For many poets and regular readers of poetry, who might read some significant portion of that number of poets in a single year, this is a startling declaration. Never mind greatness or inclusion in a century’s anthology of the notable, but not “worth reading”? (A small point to add, in the matter of sheer numbers and the chances of the outstanding, that the twentieth century undoubtedly produced more poetry than any century before it.)

Here, I think, is the clarifying issue. Vendler inveighs against Dove’s repeated introductory references to a “so-called ‘establishment’” in the poetry world. In such debates, one may always look around in search of the edifices and institutions and innocently wonder “Where? Oh, where?” Still, we may pause to consider what an “establishment” serves, often, to do. It sets rules and standards; it conserves resources and traditions and expends precious capital in the mission of extending the reach of those; it governs admittance, sharing thereby the power of membership; it defends itself against attack, the more aggressively the more it perceives itself under threat.

There was basis upon which to criticize Dove’s work. But the manner and tone of Vendler’s attack, and the terms on which she mounted a defense of the poetry she values and thinks to be threatened, suggest that if Vendler truly cares to know the location of the establishment to which Dove refers – recalling, as we should, Toni Morrison’s observations on “canon building” – she might begin by looking to herself.


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The Political Animal

Ten Questions for Monday

All right, move it along. The weekend is over. Get back to work.

  1. A person is asked whether the many tens of millions of dollars in anonymously donated funds being spent in this election year by third party organizations corrupts the political process. His response is “When people are losing on the issues, they talk about process.” Even if his own counter claim were true, has he responded to the question?
  2. Is there any general level of ignorance and foolishness sufficient for Tea Party candidates for office to be disqualified in a conservative mind as being fit to hold public office even if they do hate liberals, want to balance the budget and overturn national healthcare legislation, and believe that Social Security is a socialist conspiracy? Can you identify that level?
  3. Conservatives will argue that seven or nine years may not yet be enough to complete the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet it took only a year, certainly, now, two, for them to declare President Obama’s economic policy a failure. Do you find any inconsistency in these differing standards of evaluation?
  4. If the spouses of Supreme Court justices believed to be liberal were politically active for liberal causes, how do you think conservatives would react?
  5. An individual makes a dramatically public and highly contentious stand on a nomination for the Supreme Court. If, many years later, the spouse of the nominee contacted that individual and called her a liar, would we not consider that an aggressive attack on the individual? If, on the other hand, the spouse contacts the individual privately and asks her in a spirit of conciliation to apologize, a request that contains within it the suggestion that the individual admits to having done anything wrong, how would you, then, take that phone call and how would you characterize the mind and act of the spouse who called?
  6. Bigot: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” Is a fear an opinion? Is it hatred or intolerance? Is a fear expressed a treatment of others? Is it advocacy of a form of treatment? If a person is to be vilified for acknowledging a feeling, however unreasonable and unattractive some may think it (and others not), on the basis of which he advocated not action, what distance do we have to travel to the thought police, except for the official guns and badges?
  7. When Adam Levick and I got all Philadelphia and New York on each other over the baseball playoffs, which between us thought that neither would make the World Series?
  8. Which news organization, NPR or Fox, do you think has 33 new bureaus and which 17? Which has 17 foreign bureaus and which 11? Which do you think has a bureau in Baghdad, and which not? Which do you think has no bureau in South America or Africa, while the other has? Which has 5 bureaus in Asia, while the other has none? Just asking.
  9. How many people do you think actually have sufficient scientific knowledge and specialized training to hold an opinion worth listening to on the subject of AGW (anthropogenic global warming)? How much knowledge and training would you think appropriate to warrant a challenge to an overwhelming (2-3 percentage points short of unanimous) consensus of the most active and prominent researchers in the field? If you knew that overwhelming numbers of the trained and untrained dissenters on the subject were, politically, philosophically opposed to the kinds of state-directed policies that the reality of AGW would necessitate, or that they had significant financial interests that were counter to an acceptance of the reality of AGW, would that influence your assessment of the character of their opposition?
  10. Do you want to read about how the New York Review of Books has become a leading intellectual force in the delegitimization campaign against Israel and apologetics for Islamofascism?
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