Poets, Playwrights and the Critics’ Nod
PublishedApril 3, 2012 CategoryArts Social Action

Poets, Playwrights and the Critics’ Nod

In one of the many obituaries and tributes to the great American poet and feminist Adrienne Rich, who died this week, Mary Rourke reminded us in the Los Angeles Times of how Rich had come of age during the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, and was best known as an advocate of women’s rights, which she explored in both poetry and prose.

“ But she also passionately addressed the anti-war movement and wrote of the marginalised and underprivileged. Her intense critique of contemporary US society combined with her political activism set her apart from other leading women poets of her generation, including Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton … and she urged every writer to address social justice in their art “.

She was also the poet who ( in 1997 ) turned down the National Medal for the Arts from President Clinton, since she deplored – “ the honouring of a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonoured”. She was to become much ‘honoured’ and her credentials as poet were widely endorsed.

“ Adrienne Rich made a very important contribution to poetry. She was able to articulate a modern American conscience . She had the command of language and the imagery to express it, “ wrote Helen Vendler , Harvard Professor and doyenne of American poetry critics, in 2005; though ‘establishment’ approval was totally irrelevant to Rich’s idiosyncratic path.

Professor Vendler was, of course , more recently a little less charitable towards a younger American woman poet – albeit a Pulitzer prize-winner and former poet-laureate – Rita Dove . As editor of the recently published ‘The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry’, Dove found her pick of the best US poetry of the last century under withering attack by the distinguished critic in
the New York Review of Books.

“ A furious row has broken out in the rarified confines of American poetry circles “ wrote Alison Flood in the Guardian ( 22December 2011 ) “ after grande dame of poetry criticism Helen Vendler attacked former poet laureate Rita Dove’s anthology of 20th century American poetry for its focus on ‘multicultural inclusiveness’ rather than ‘quality’ “.

Both, in some hyperbolic exchanges in the New York Review, scaled unprecedented heights of invective for two such distinguished ladies of letters.

“ Multicultural inclusiveness prevails “ alleged Vendler. “ Dove’s tipping of the balance obeys a populist aesthetic voiced in her introduction “.

“ Barely veiled racism”, “ condescension “, “ lack of veracity “, railed Dove.
“ Whether propelled by academic outrage or the wild sorrow of someone who feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew – how sad to witness a formidable intelligence ravished in such a clumsy performance “.

My first reaction was of amusement and rejoicing – that the world of poetry still has the power to quicken the blood, raise the hackles, and provoke the vocabulary we might well regret at tomorrow’s waking. There’s life in the old muse yet!

More reflectively, and as past editor of a much more modest anthology, I believe Dove’s full freedom and integrity of choice to have been implicit in her very selection for the editorial role. And it’s that choice, as it might have been Vendler’s if she had received the mandate, which adds the savour to this seminal event. So what a poor, sickly thing it would have been if it had not stimulated criticism and comment; – but it’s the impugning of motive which is misplaced – though maybe indicative of something more important for the poetry cause.

It is partly a clash of the generations, of course, for which this ‘formal’ event supplies a rare opportunity within the more general incoherence of the ‘poetry’ scene. Who guards the doors into this poetry ‘ profession’? Who signs the ‘graduation’ certificates, issues the licence to practise ? or are such questions still to be seen as exercises in the literary occult?

Oddly, given the essential solitariness of the activity, there seems to be a growingly widespread disposition to huddle together in ‘poetry societies’, cyber-social networks and ‘creative writing’ confederations. Licensed by a shrinking elite of publishers, there is a small, highly recogniseable, inner group of the anointed, on a perpetual cycle of lit.fests, mutual prize-givings, laureateships and ‘creative’ master-classes. In the US, and increasingly elsewhere, the most common denomination is ‘professor’ and habitat ‘ the campus ’. Both Rita Dove (University of Virginia ) and Helen Vendler ( Harvard ) are professorial insiders of this system; but it is the ‘literary-critic’ element of the latter’s poetry role which is key, both to the current ‘spat’ and the future paths of Western poetry.

These are big, important issues which will remain high on forthcoming ‘Poetry Matters’ agendas; but for a medium whose very stuff is metaphor, let me tease you in advance with a brilliant analogy from the theatre.

David Hare is one of the greatest post-war innovators in British Theatre. His recent ‘Mere Fact, Mere Fiction’ accompaniment to his latest play ‘South Downs’ sets out a view of creative innovation and change, and its obstacles, which contrasts greatly with poetry’s current equivalent.

“ If you set to writing plays in the postwar years, it was necessary, or at least expected, to pass through a portal of approval. In prospect, this gave a comfortable, orderly feeling to the idea of being a British dramatist. Kenneth Tynan ….guarded the portal on one side from his position at the Observer. Harold Hobson … guarded the other side from the Sunday Times. A novice playwright had every reason to expect that a life in the theatre would involve attracting and then retaining the interest of at least one of these two men. Hobson’s name was inextricably linked with Beckett’s and with Pinter’s. Tynan’s fortunes rose with his advocacy of the work of Osborne. These were the writers they championed and whose view of the world fired them up. They were interlinked by a profound correspondence of belief.

Today, no such correspondence exists. No living theatrical figure is associated with any particular critic ….. to work seriously in the British theatre it is no longer necessary even to know the name of the Observer’s theatre critic. ….. “

Quis custodiet (poetry’s) custodes …… ?                More soon!  


  RW  10 April  2012

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