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Poetry and Race in the United States

Rita Dove

Race and ethnicity have been topics of concern in the United States since the first explorers landed on its shores. Even in this day and age, these issues lurk beneath the surface and in some cases, figure prominently in matters of everyday life. Recently, it was made clear that even the world of poetry is not immune.

Pulitzer Prize winner and former US poet laureate Rita Dove saw the release of her collection, The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry , in October 2011. Included among the usual suspects of well-known, predominantly white poets are lesser known and/or not usually-anthologized black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American poets in a bid for multicultural inclusiveness.

Such an editorial choice was met with a strongly-worded critique from venerated poetry critic Helen Vendler in an article titled Are These the Poems to Remember? for the New York Review of Books. In essence, Vendler asserts that Dove sacrifices quality for diversity.

In turn, Dove responded to the scathing review in a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books. "I cannot let her get away with building her house of cards on falsehoods and innuendo," Dove writes. "The amount of vitriol in Helen Vendler's review betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics.”

Various poets on either side of the debate have publicly voiced their opinions on the subject.

In my humble view, this skirmish is both a travesty and a triumph, as well as a bit ironic. The irony is that Dove, a black woman, is someone who I imagine to be very much part of the “establishment” in the world of poetry. The triumph is that she would use her consider influence to champion the voices of poets who have been in increasingly shut out of mainstream poetry circles, and thus from an audience.

The travesty is multifold, starting with the heated tone of the argument, continuing with resistance of the old guard to the changing use of language and themes in poetry over time, and culminating with the fact that the divide, once again, seems to be across racial and ethnic lines. I, for one, wonder when the US will truly cease to see beyond race--or better yet, embrace the differences between people, celebrate them, and learn from them.
This is a guest post by Adriene (A.D.) Joyce, she is a US based poet and editor who lives in New Jersey. Her latest creative pursuit is the Third Sunday Blog Carnival for poetry, fiction, and essays on writing.

4 comments so far..What are your thoughts?

  1. Such issues are must read for everyone. Thanks for posting and sharing this important piece of knowledge.


  2. going to say hello and wish
    Have a happy weekend.
    a hug.

  3. "I, for one, wonder when the US will truly cease to see beyond race--or better yet, embrace the differences between people, celebrate them, and learn from them." <~~~~~~~~~~ AMEN!!
    I completely agree with you on that one!! Great article.

  4. Thanks all for reading and commenting. Thanks, Aabhisek, for the opportunity to post here.


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