In my Poetic License column for the fall issue of West, I return to last year’s New York Review of Books contretemps between Helen Vendler and Rita Dove over the latter’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. When I first wrote about the dispute, I considered the the politics in poetry. In “Diction and Democracy,” I delve more deeply into the politics of language, and how it reforms itself further into the language of politics.
The casual reader might be surprised to learn of such passion about and behind poetry, but then it was the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky who, during his Soviet show trial in St. Petersburg in 1964, charged, with no other career but poet, as being a “parasite,” defended himself by stating, “I’m no parasite. I’m a poet, who will bring honor and glory to his country.”
The flames spread across the literary world and Internet, with many who had believed such argument long resolved expressing their outrage at Vendler’s attack and others defending her. Toni Morrison, in the midst of the early culture wars, however, had identified the stakes in these disputes, in her 1988 lecture “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” when she said, “Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense.”
What I want to do here, rather than weigh in on the cultural and political elements of the dispute, is to consider an aesthetic one, what Vendler and Dove focused on as the issue of “restricted vocabulary.” Vendler further identified her target as “accessibility” and vocal flatness.
“Most of the new poets at the end of the book are writing in [Dove’s] preferred demotic style,” Vendler wrote. “Perhaps Dove is envisaging an audience who would be put off by a complex text.
The “demotic,” the daily language of ordinary people – that is, for Vendler, the primary aesthetic issue, along with the decline in formal challenge in so much poetry. That is her concern. Developing – or devolving, as one’s perspective may hold – from William Carlos Williams and others, the mainstream of contemporary American poetry is fed by the demotic. 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.
In her review, Vendler repeatedly resorts to the poets of high modernism, and a few somewhat later poets, for her model of what too much contemporary poetry, in her view, lacks. For Vendler, in the matter of diction, verbal compression and syntactical intricacy reign as ideals. Yet it has always been among the ironies of the literary modernism 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 more popular forms of modernism – the development of jazz or of, again, William Carlos Williams winning out over Eliot and Pound, even Wallace Stevens, in laying the groundwork within modernism for that reign of everyday speech that Vendler has found so leveling and undistinguished.
Nonetheless, for Vendler to rail so directly 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.
How does this kind of argument, this class positioning in relation to language, reformulate itself in actual politics? In the notion of elitism. For strains of the far left – most notably Stalinist, Maoist, and Khmer-Rouge representations of Marxism – not only capital, but intellectual elites are castigated, criticized, demonized for far more than excess: rather for what amounts to a root illegitimacy. Though there is a continuing, restricted expression of this in the left’s Occupy attack on the economic 1%, the greater attack on eliteness as a defensible, never mind legitimate state comes, in the United States, from the right. Of course, in the strains on the right best exemplified in recent years by Tea Party rejections of the presiding culture, the elitism is not concerned with economic privilege, but with social election based on traditions of intellectual excellence and professional accomplishment. Completing a circle, we have now, back on the left, Chris Hayes writing Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.
The danger in these reactions either against a merit concept – a process-selected higher order, whatever its criteria – or against, always, seemingly unrefined popular currents, remains both the revolutionary and the counter, reactionary and too-sweeping rejection of what is valuable with what is not.
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 claim 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.
- Books and Bodies: On Organs and Literary Estates (theparisreview.org)
- Poets and Money (nybooks.com)
- Eating Poetry (XXXVIII) – To the One Who is Reading Me (sadredearth.com)
- Higgs Boson, or What’s the Meta in Metaphor for? (sadredearth.com)
- Eating Poetry (XXXVII) – The New Physics (sadredearth.com)
- Eating Poetry (XXXX) – As from a Quiver of Arrows (sadredearth.com)
- Eating Poetry (XXXIX) – “From back when it was Nam time I tell you what” (sadredearth.com)
3 thoughts on “The Poetry of Democracy”
I think that for many people, “verbal compression and syntactical intricacy” reign not only as ideals or even as aesthetic goals in poetry, but as fundamental taxonomic delineations that define poetry as a form of expression. The tension is not simply between the demotic and the arcane within the field of poetry, but rather between a far deeper conservatism that seeks to preserve the structural boundaries of poetry as a speech mode and the progressive, inclusive urge to allow poetry to expand in terms of definition as well as ideology.
Michael, I agree with you. Indeed, I’ll extend your thought even a further step, to where the tension between the demotic and the arcane, as you put it, and that between conservative and exapansive conceptions of poetry as a speech mode merge. The dispute between Vendler and Dove played out largely as a cultural one, but embeded within that dispute – what I think Vendler would actually claim to be the real dispute – is just her concern that the boundaries of poetry have been pushed so far that much of what is offered as poetry simply is not. I share the concern, but think she is too restrictive.