By Dan Guenther
Dan Guenther is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of four novels, most recently Glossy Black Cockatoos, the 2010 Colorado Authors’ League award selection for genre fiction. His collection of selected poems, The Crooked Truth, is the 2011 Colorado Authors’ League poetry award winner.
In the past few weeks, the American poetry world has enjoyed a lot of frenzy. Like many on this blog, I have been following the aftershock of Helen Vendler’s review of The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry as well as Rita Dove’s response in the December 24 issue of the New York Times Review of Books.
I should begin by saying I have always been impressed by Rita Dove’s talent. When I came back to Iowa from Australia in the summer of 1976, I had already completed my MFA, but I decided to take Marvin Bell‘s summer poetry workshop. Among the folks in that session were Jorie Graham, Jim Galvin, and Rita Dove.
Accordingly, when I read that Rita was editing this new Penguin anthology, I was excited, having known and respected her work all these years. That said, when I received the anthology I was disappointed by what appeared to be obvious errors of omission. Where was Donald Justice? Where were Alan Ginsberg and SyIvia Plath?
I was baffled. And I was not alone. Several weeks ago while in Iowa City I talked to one of the folks at Prairie Lights Book Store who shared my befuddlement, and we had a discussion about this strange situation. Later that week, when I returned to Denver, I heard from my friend Les Murray, from far away Down Under, who knows both the players, Rita Dove and Helen Vendler. In addition, James Fenton wrote an impressive analysis of the subject that was published in the December 9, 2011 London Evening Standard.
So, I tapped my old network to find out what I could.
I didn’t have to go very far. While visiting the Dey House (Writers’ Workshop headquarters) in Iowa City, I picked up the December issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol 44, Number 3 and read Rita’s interview in which she explains some of the reasons for omission.
From the interview, it seems that the primary cause for the omission of poets like Ginsberg, Plath, and others had to do with the process of securing permissions from the publishers and poets’ estates which held the publishing rights. Given what Rita describes in The Writer’s Chronicle interview, I think it is remarkable what she did achieve.
Our PBS educational TV channel also had an interview with Rita during which she touched on some of the issues encountered in the process of putting together the anthology.
I can’t help but wonder if Helen Vendler saw the PBS program, or if she has seen the The Writer’s Chronicle interview. I also wonder what the long range impact of this situation will be? Many will continue to speculate about these errors of omission, whatever the reasons and/or causes.
Of course, what we have witnessed is a disincentive for anyone who aspires—publisher or academic—to take on the task of preparing the next American anthology.
At the risk of waxing self-righteous, and as we practice our craft in its diverse aspects as writers, critics, and publishers, are we not all members of a collective community, each of us responsible in our own way to further a culture of fairness and integrity, one where the higher good trumps mean-spirited and mercenary self-interest?