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Melvin B. Tolson Is Better Than Wallace Stevens Says Rita Dove

A recent review of Rita Dove's new anthology of 20th century American Poetry, for Penguin, by Helen Vendler, really takes exception to a multicultural Keith Tuma-style approach to the anthology.  Vendler is clearly on the side of a canon of well-made poems, versus Dove's attention to identity poetry, and poetry of the often marginalised.  Both sides can become entrenched.  I welcome diversity, but Vendler, in this case, seems to have a firmer grasp of history and quality.  Surely it must be wrong in a Kantian sense to include twice as much of Melvin B. Tolson as Wallace Stevens?  Stevens is one of the pillars of American modernist and post-modernist poetics.  Tolson is an important outrider of the Harlem Renaissance, and a key African-American modernist.  If this decision gets more Tolson readers, that's fine.  But such large-scale anthologies do also need to keep some sense of balance.  I look forward to reading it myself.


Anonymous said…
Very patronising comments here, Todd. Perhaps Dove feels that a poet like Tolson - who has been left out of many anthologies for obvious and vile historical reasons - deserves to be known about by more people. Racism is still a serious problem in the reception of modernist American poetry, as it is in American society itself. Think about it.
Todd Swift said…
Let's stop with the knee-jerk rubbish. I have been called "outright racist" by Nat Turner at this blog for using the term "African-American Modernism". Well, it is a serious academic term, used by scholars like Benston, to explore the black arts movement in America.
Frances Kruk said…
To clarify, I don't believe that the accusation (from one of the comments on your other post) was made that you are an "outright racist", Todd. The words I saw were "outright racism". Being a racist and making a racist comment are not *entirely* the same thing. Obviously, racists make racist comments knowingly. However, everyone has a very unfortunate in-built racism that is sometimes completely unconscious. To escape such traps it is essential to *become conscious* of what those comments really mean, how they are perceived by others, and what kind of behaviour they perpetuate. They have to be identified and eliminated. That is everyone's duty. The refusal to sufficiently examine such faults in oneself only breeds further ignorance and helps repeat history. If someone calls you on it, rather than knee-jerking with the easy claim that you are not a racist and Outraged! to be called one, take a moment to consider *why* the call was made. Look closer at historical contexts, and look beyond pop culture (that's only part of what "culture" is, isn't it?). The process of self-reflection and criticism is unpleasant, but that's how one learns and grows. As a Catholic, this last sentence should make perfect sense to you.
Fred Viebahn said…
Check out Rita Dove's response to Vendler in the latest New York Review of Books:
Anonymous said…
Sorry to arrive at the party late, but is Todd then suggesting that there is Black Modernism and then 'normal' Modernism? Is there black poetry and then 'normal' poetry?
Anonymous said…
"African-American modernism" is a serious term but it is not used to explore the Black Arts Movement, first of all because the former predates the latter.

Page counts do not just reflect importance, they also reflect the lengths at which the poet works best -- Tolson wrote longer poems and so it is not really that shocking that he takes up more room.

Stevens is so overrated these days that giving him less room is all to the good, though I would say teh same thing about teh writings of Rita Dove.

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