In late 2011, a furiously articulate argument raged across the pages of The New York Review of Books. Helen Vendler, Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor in the Department of English at Harvard University, and widely regarded as the leading critic of poetry in America, decried former American Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry for what she described as a politically motivated focus on ‘multicultural inclusiveness’ at the expense of coverage of canonical (that is, oft-anthologized and oft-taught) poets and poems – ‘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).’1 Dove’s anthology, Vendler suggests, aims ‘to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors’. ‘These writers are’, she wrote, ‘included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style.’ Dove mounted a defence of her anthology in a later issue of the magazine, accusing Vendler of ‘hubris’, ‘barely veiled racism’, and ‘an agenda beyond aesthetics’.2 It was her intention, she asserted, only to ‘choose significant poems of literary merit’.
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- ‘I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear’: Introduction
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