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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Thursday
Dec152011

Poetry smackdown! Dove defeats Vendler. Vendler chickens out.

Never are the pleasures of mortal academic combat higher than when one doesn't know the competitors; it's like the pleasures I imagine I might take in Ultimate Fighting Championship, which for me is, even more than boxing, two anonymous dudes pummelling each other. (Watching dog fighting, however, is barbaric and sinful.) Anyway, having not read Rita Dove's new Penguin anthology, and probably having read fewer than half the poets selected for it, I can take immense satisfaction in the spat between her and reviewer Helend Vendler in—the greatest UFC arena of all—the New York Review. I think it's best to start with Dove's letter post Vendler, then go back and read the Vendler review. Just for a taste of the Dove riposte, it ends with

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.

Now I knew when I got to the end of Dove's letter—I just knew—that Vendler would respond in one sentence. I know because I have read enough Vendler to know that when she is attacked at length, she rises to imperial heights and finds a way to condescend to the less educated critic. In response to a multi-thousand word attack, what better pose than to find time for only several words of reply? And so she does:

I have written the review and I stand by it.

Now, say what you will about the substance of Vendler's critique of Dove—and I am in no position to judge—it seems to me positively unseemly to refuse to engage Dove as Vendler does. Vendler's original review was capital-H Harsh, and Dove wrote back in self-defense and—I believe—made some valid points, in good faith. Vendler owed her a reply, I believe. And it strikes me as just immature that, having found the time to launch the initial grenade, she then flees the return fire. It's like that line, "Don't be so modest—you're not that great." Only someone with a very high opinion of herself walks away from a battle so coolly, and condescendingly. The humble, human thing to do is hash it out.