A. Jay Adler
Los Angeles Southwest College
A. Jay Adler, a New Yorker always, is Professor of English at Los Angeles Southwest College. He earned his B.A., with concentrations in English literature and philosophy, at the City University of New York, and his M.A. and M.Phil. degrees in English literature from Columbia University. Before his teaching life, Adler was an executive in the air courier business, directing client shipments and himself to points around the globe. Along with writing, literature, film, jazz, photography, thinking, and general adventure, travel – by air, sea, locomotive, cable, four wheels, two wheels (motorized and muscle-driven) and by foot – remains a passion.
Adler writes in all genres. A 1989 nominee for a junior fellowship in the Harvard Society of Fellows, his poetry, for which he was awarded a 2002 residency grant from the Vermont Studio Center, has appeared in such publications as Blood Lotus, Tipton Poetry Journal, Pebble Lake Review, and Adagio Verse Quarterly, among others. Journalism has included essays on the history of Route 66 and westward travel for DoubleTake and an account of the now settled Individual Indian Money Trust Fund lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, in Tikkun. “Aboriginal Sin” was included in the 2009 anthology Global Viewpoints: Indigenous Peoples, from Greenhaven Press. Essays on film appear in Bright Lights Film Journal. Among several screenplays, What We Were Thinking Of , since adapted for the stage, has won several awards, including second prize at the 1998 Maui Writers Conference Screenwriting Competition. During his 2008-09 sabbatical year, Adler traveled the country with photographer Julia Dean of The Julia Dean Photo Workshops working on a book documenting current Native American life. Also in progress is a composition textbook and Adler’s memoir of his father’s life, The Twentieth Century Passes. Adler blogs daily on politics, culture, and ideas at the the sad red earth.
Diction and Democracy
In November last year, Harvard’s Helen Vendler, widely regarded as the leading scholarly voice in American poetry, published in The New York Review of Books an incendiary review of former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, titled “Are These the Poems to Remember?” Wrote Vendler,
Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom.
Dove, herself a professor of English at the University of Virginia, returned in reply as good as she got, enumerating her objections while quoting from Vendler:
6. “Perhaps Dove’s canvas—exhibiting mostly short poems of rather restricted vocabulary—is what needs to be displayed now to a general audience.”
This statement is breathtaking on several levels: its condescension, lack of veracity, and the barely veiled racism lurking behind the expression “restricted vocabulary.”
The amount of vitriol in Helen Vendler’s review betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics. As a result, she not only loses her grasp on the facts, but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again. 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.
The casual reader might be surprised to learn of such passion about and behind poetry, but then it was the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky who, during his Soviet show trial in St. Petersburg in 1964, charged, with no other career but poet, as being a “parasite," defended himself by stating, “I’m no parasite. I’m a poet, who will bring honor and glory to his country.”
The flames spread across the literary world and Internet, with many who had believed such argument long resolved expressing their outrage at Vendler’s attack and others defending her. Toni Morrison, in the midst of the early culture wars, however, had identified the stakes in these disputes, in her 1988 lecture “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” when she said, “Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense.”
What I want to do here, rather than weigh in on the cultural and political elements of the dispute, is to consider an aesthetic one, what Vendler and Dove focused on as the issue of “restricted vocabulary.” Vendler further identified her target as “accessibility” and vocal flatness.
“Most of the new poets at the end of the book are writing in [Dove’s] preferred demotic style,” Vendler wrote. “Perhaps Dove is envisaging an audience who would be put off by a complex text.
The “demotic,” the daily language of ordinary people – that is, for Vendler, the primary aesthetic issue, along with the decline in formal challenge in so much poetry. That is her concern. Developing – or devolving, as one’s perspective may hold – from William Carlos Williams and others, the mainstream of contemporary American poetry is fed by the demotic. But as race and class are frequently not easily disambiguated in political matters, here, too, in Vendler’s resistance to the demotic we find class, represented in the matter of diction, mixing with race. I want to consider a little the class issue.
In her review, Vendler repeatedly resorts to the poets of high modernism, and a few somewhat later poets, for her model of what too much contemporary poetry, in her view, lacks. For Vendler, in the matter of diction, verbal compression and syntactical intricacy reign as ideals. Yet it has always been among the ironies of the literary modernism that as aesthetically revolutionary as were the work and manifestos of its exemplars, the culture of the work, and often of the writers, was not infrequently politically conservative. Ironic, too, is that contemporaneous to high modernism was the outburst of more popular forms of modernism – the development of jazz or of, again, William Carlos Williams winning out over Eliot and Pound, even Wallace Stevens, in laying the groundwork within modernism for that reign of everyday speech that Vendler has found so leveling and undistinguished.
Nonetheless, for Vendler to rail so directly against the demotic seems a puzzling choice. Among the histories of poetry is that of its punctuated movements toward a plainer speech of different eras, including from the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads to Williams himself, and even the early Ezra Pound translating Chinese poetry under the influence Ernest Fenollosa. From “The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter”:
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
There is, too, by example,W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” and its opening lines:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid…
Certainly a “flat invitation,” as Vendler would have it, and one of the most powerful poems of the twentieth century.
That a poetry of plain speech can produce, as Vendler believes, much very bad poetry is unarguable: how much easier to believe one can write the stuff if it looks so little different from a causal recitation of the mundane. As Vendler put it, “Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines.” But just as easily can pretentiously and anachronistically elevated diction lead to bad poetry, which perhaps we are more often spared these days because the poetry is more obviously, even to its producers, terrible. However, to limit one’s conception of what may generate a rich complexity in language only to particular syntactical models – the difficult Hart Crane, whom Vendler holds up as model – seems a kind of aesthetic inbreeding. I don’t know – do not really believe – that this was Vendler’s intent. Still, it is how her review reads.
In “What if We Occupied Language?” Samy Alim observes of the “Occupy” movement that
the movement has not only transformed public space, it has transformed the public discourse as well.
It is now nearly impossible to hear the word and not think of the Occupy movement.
Rather than, that is, think of territory that might be held in any military conflict. An ordinary word transformed by its worldly use.
In “Literature as Seed Bank” at Why Study Literature, we read,
One aspect of liberty is to keep our gene pool of ideas splashy by allowing lots of different languages, words and phrases to co-exist. There isn’t a single Book of Knowledge (no, not even Wikipedia), just as every human genome is a little bit different. It’s certainly true that we each restrict our intake of words and language, and that helps form our identity, but the point about liberty is that we keep control. So we can expect that illiberal forces in society will seek to control the language and ideas we’re exposed to, and for this to be effective it’s better off if we don’t know about it.
To stand oneself in opposition to the demotic is to lower nets over the verbal gene pool – to appear to be that establishment Dove invokes in the introduction to the Penguin anthology and that Vendler, while thus appearing herself to be, is at pains to be mystified in considering. It isn’t a matter of forsaking rich complexity in articulated sound and sight for the dull flatness of common observation, but of conceiving both – more so the former – in multiple manners of expression.
You will know that the demotic has descended into the mere commonplace when it spits at something it calls “elitism” and thus – from both the political left and right – in a form of resentiment, identifies elevated execution and heightened achievement with a claim of social privilege. It is a devolution Vendler fears, but her emphasis was off. The demotic feeds the gene pool; the commonplace drains the water. And while the manifestations of the bad are many, the forms of the good are numerous too. It contains multitudes.