Saturday, December 03, 2011

Dove: Digging Deeper

 



I've been reading further on Rita Dove's decision to exclude Ginsberg and Kerouac from the new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Verse and I've unearthed a couple of interesting details. First this old quote from Dove, which demonstrates she has no particular prejudice towards Ginsberg (I'd never heard of her before I read about the anthology, so what did I know?):

Allen Ginsberg's importance was in its twilight for so many years that it took his death to bring it to the front page. He electrified an entire world! And he continues to do so! There are generations who stumble across HOWL and find it speaks to them. Yet it takes a tragedy to make people notice. http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/dove/dove-interview.html

Dove says in her introduction, apparently, that she couldn't afford to blow her whole budget on hefty permission fees from copyright owners. I don't know if she refers specifically to HarperCollins and Rupert Murdoch (I am so out of the political loop in literary matters I didn't know they were owned by the liberal's own antichrist Rupert Murdoch), but I suppose the inference is there even if the declaration isn't. So, then, she simply couldn't afford Ginsberg.

That's a credible argument. Perhaps, then, Dove's mistake was tactical rather than political, in that she has included in her anthology a whole lot of people who could have been excluded so that the most significant American poet of the 1950s - in cultural as well as literary terms - didn't have to be. And if it was a question of late negotiation with HarperCollins when most of the money had already been spent, the same applies. It's bad housekeeping. Blaming the capitalist monster Murdoch and the devils of the Ginsberg estate might be fun but it's too easy.

And I still wonder what really motivated Dove's selections for the book. While including four of her own poems, Dove excludes Sylvia Plath too, and Plath's poetry is taught in every university from here to the other side of Mars. I don't like it personally but even a pig-headed bastard like me has to admit it's technically brilliant. Is Plath owned by the horned Australian one also? Most of the stuff I've read seems to indicate that Dove just hates her poetry, which is fair enough, but not a good basis for the editing of a poetry anthology.

As for Kerouac...well, some of the reviews of the anthology have been kind about his writing while discussing its absence from the book, but prejudice against him is so deep-rooted in 'respectable' circles an editor who could afford to buy Manhattan probably wouldn't include him. The professor of American Literature at Northampton University described Jack's Essentials of Spontaneous Prose as 'hippie shit' in a lecture only last year. I forced him to admit he was wrong in a private discussion in his office a few days later, but I'm sure his submission was only made to prevent me from breaking the furniture.

9 comments:

Michael Ratcliffe said...

Bruce,

I was just as perplexed as you when reading Dove's introduction and her vague explanation as to why she didn't include anything by Ginsberg. I find the explanation wanting. HOWL was published by City Lights-- are we to believe that Ferlighetti would have charged prohibitive fees? But, if it's the royalty payments to Ginsberg's estate that she couldn't afford, then wouldn't that apply equally to City Lights, which continues to sell its Pocket Poets editions of Ginsberg's work? I don't pretend to understand the publishing industry, but this just doesn't make any sense to me.

Maybe it was entirely a budget issue, but then, as you say, it's a matter of poor housekeeping. She's included others from Ginsberg's generation-- to omit Ginsberg is, well, a travesty. She should have stomped into the publisher's office and demanded the money to include Ginsberg and Plath, and whomever else was omitted. Maybe the book ought to be retitled "Anthology of 20th Century American Verse... Except for the Few Greats For Whom We Didn't Feel Like Paying."

Bruce Hodder said...

I agree Michael. I'm not an expert in the machinations of the publishing world or of literary estates, but something is rotten in the state of Denmark with this anthology. The Plath exclusion proves the subjectivity of the selection process - or the gross mis-handling of the editorial process - even if the Ginsberg exclusion doesn't. Although it does.

Fred Viebahn said...

I urge you to read Rita Dove's interview in the current (Dec. 2011) issue of "The Writer's Chronicle" (available on the web only to AWP members, but you should be able to find it in better bookstores, your local or next university library...) But quickly:
1) Both Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath are wholly owned by HarperCollins; their previous rights holders - in Ginsberg's case, City Lights - sold the rights to the NewsCorp's subsidiary.
2) There was no "housekeeping" problem. The anthology contained a number of poems by both Ginsberg and Plath. As Dove makes clear in detail in the interview, HarperCollins abruptly withdrew the rights to Plath and Ginsberg, plus to all other poems represented by them, the day before the book went into production, although Penguin was willing to pay the fees for Ginsberg and Plath H-C had asked for. The reason for this insane withdrawal of rights was that Penguin could not pay the same high reprint fees for living poets because that would have violated agreements with other commercial publishers who had only granted rights to their living poets under the condition that no other living poet would receive higher fees. The withdrawal by HarperCollins at that point necessitated the hasty last minute removal of Ginsberg (incl. his entire "Howl") and Plath. Because of the running production schedule, the editor (Rita Dove) had no power to halt production; also, HarperCollins had made it clear -- for whatever reasons: you speculate -- that negotiations were closed, and no HarperCollins authors were allowed to appear in the anthology.
3) As for Kerouac -- I don't think he is known primarily as a poet, is he?

Bruce Hodder said...

You are obviously well informed on the issue Fred, and keen to portray HarperCollins and Rupert Murdoch as the transgressors and correct any imputation that Dove or Penguin were in any way at fault - since you've now followed me across three different sites to correct suggestions I have made to the contrary - so I thank you for the information you have shared. I WOULD like to hear the HarperCollins side of the story, however, now that Dove and Penguin have been so ably represented. It's a little easy to make it ONLY a question of the harrassed editor versus the great capitalist oligarch. And what's your interest incidentally Fred? Everybody knows I'm an unaffiliated, poorly-informed outsider in every game including the literary and that I just happen to be a Ginsberg fan. But what about you? Are you just a dispassionate observer in this? I could have sworn reading your last message that you work in the office at Penguin.

Bruce Hodder said...

By the way, Kerouac might not be "primarily known" as a poet, but there are several poets in there who aren't known at all other than by insiders in the literary game. Kerouac's poetry has had an extraordinary impact on the stuff being written outside the universities and the literary magazines - read what's posted here - and it had a powerful influence on Ginsberg and Bob Dylan too. The best of it is fabulous and much better than his novels, although trying to convince anybody of that if they don't get it is as pointless as throwing a rope around a cloud.

Bruce Hodder said...

I feel I should inform anybody as unaware as I was a few moments ago that Mr Viebahn, who has been so keen to rubbish any of my arguments against Rita Dove and Penguin Books in the matter of the Ginsberg-less anthology, is - according to the bio that comes up when you click his name in the comments field - the husband of Rita Dove. That doesn't NECESSARILY make his rabid pursuit of me across every blog he could find or his contradiction of every claim made against Ms Dove and Penguin unjustified, but he is certainly not a disinterested observer, now is he?

Michael Ratcliffe said...

Mr. Viebahn,

Thank you for your comments and clarifications. Having re-read the introduction in light of your comments, I stand corrected, and now have a different view of the collection of poems. And, I must say, I have enjoyed reading the poems in the book.

Bruce-- yes, Mr. Viebahn is Ms. Dove's husband, which gives him perhaps a less than dispassionate point of view. But, it also meant he was privy to the difficult decisions that she would have had to make as editor, as well as the frustrations that she would have felt working with the publishing house. I've written enough in my professional work to know that one does not always get to include what one wants, and that even as a lead writer or editor, other individuals' opinions and other issues may hold sway in the end.

Fred Viebahn said...

Thank you, Mr. Ratcliffe, for your clear and understsnding words!

Mr. Hodder, I'm definitely not in any kind of "rabid pursuit" of you. Thanks to the marvelous services of Google Alert, I receive notifications in my Inbox whenever my or my wife's name is mentioned in a blog. When I click on those links and discover substantial factual errors, misunderstandings or misrepresentations that I think should be corrected, I do so. I try to push back against false rumors by providing relevant evidence; I do not take issue with differences in opinion, and I'm certainly not in rabid pursuit of anybody. I'm sorry that you feel that way.

Michael Ratcliffe said...

Bruce,

I see an opportunity for you here. As a result of our expression of opinion, Mr. Viebahn has found his way to your blog. He has corrected our errors an misunderstandings in a convincing manner, as far as I am concerned. I suggest acknowledging The factual corrections, dropping the line of commentary, and inviting Mr. Viebahn and his wife to read the work of the poets you've posted on your site. How often does a blog of this nature come to the attention of the husband of a well-known poet and former Poet Laureate?