by Paul Lauter
From its beginnings, The Heath Anthology has been a source both of comfort and conflict. Comfort to those of us interested in widening our students' understanding of what constitutes American literature, who wrote it, and for what purposes. Conflict to those anxious to defend earlier and narrower conceptions of what comprises literature and its study. Potentially, this is a fruitful difference, since it challenges those of both persuasions to examine, and defend, the theoretical and practical bases of their positions.
If, for example, one claims that maintaining high "aesthetic standards" requires preserving a traditional, limited canon, one must define the aesthetic criteria on the basis of which one's assertions are made and why these are necessarily weightier than other standards of value. This argument has, I think, served to interrogate the claim, often heard in English departments, for the inherent value of difficulty and ambiguity. However one feels about such claims, their discussion--as I shall say in a moment--seems to me important and engaging.
Unfortunately, however, The Heath Anthology has also been a ground for battling out the recent (and now tiresome) culture wars. In this connection it has on occasion been used by people looking to label those differing from them politically or culturally as "politically correct." Like most such labels--red, deviant, alien, oriental--this one hides more than it explains. Or, perhaps, it reveals more about the labeler than the labeled.
Before proceeding, I need to register an apology: these issues are impossible to examine in the abstract, and so in what follows I will focus on a particular instance, Robert Wallace's article about poetry in The Heath Anthology, especially contemporary work, which appeared in a recent issue of the AWP Chronicle. It isn't my intent to single out Professor Wallace for censure--others have taken similar tacks. Rather, by examining Wallace's strategy, we can confront the intellectual ailment his work seems to me to reveal.
Wallace claims that we Heath editors have imposed "a racial or ethnic criterion"; "political correctness," he says, "not literary excellence, is the point."
The problem with beginning from this standpoint is the same problem that afflicted anti-communist ideologues of the late and unlamented Cold War. Their argument began from the assertion that all Communists necessarily and invariably adhered to a "party line" (PL) and thus could never display independence of thought, whether in respect to political, educational, or cultural issues. What followed from this premise became a mirror-image of the most rigidly Stalinist line of thought. That is, all distinctions, complexities, contradictions, or alternative explanations were obliterated from oppositional ideas, for they were always already the product simply of "PL." So in Wallace's and similar attacks: once you have defined a group or an intellectual process as "Politically Correct" (PC), everything is explained and nothing really needs to be thought about.
To illustrate: Professor Wallace asserts that we, as editors, ranked poets "by the number of lines allotted to each." Placing these supposed "rankings" into his PC sausage machine, he extrudes a set of conclusions reaffirming--guess what?--our preferences for PC criteria like "threatening anger or bitterness," "open Anti-Semitism," "identification with Third World themes," "ignoring the white poets," and the like.
How does this play out? Because Charles Olson has 445 lines in the Heath, more than any contemporary, Wallace concludes that he is our "decisively major poet," the "guru of breath-rhythm, and so of the spontaneous and formally arbitrary." But a problem arises, because Wallace has already insisted that the Heath editors show "a preference for easy poems over hard ones, for simple over complex," and, he admits, Olson is "hardly easy." The solution? Simply ignore the small contradiction that a hard and complex poet is the supposed model for folks who prefer the easy and simple. For to focus on that contradiction would be to risk the Manichean construction of our work, which places aesthetic value on one side and PC on the other. (What makes it even odder to select Olson as our "guru" is the fact that he wasn't even included in the first edition of the Heath.)
We, of course, never counted lines--except, perhaps, to figure out how much of T.S. Eliot we could afford to buy from his greedy estate. Rather, we said to contributing editors for contemporary writers: choose four or five poems which, in your view, best represent the work of your poet. We allocated somewhat more space to the earlier modernists. Olson, then, has more lines simply because his central poems--as reasonably seen by his editor, Thomas Whitaker--are long: "The Kingfishers," for example, runs to 190 lines.
Similarly, the fact that Amy Lowell has more lines than Marianne Moore fills Wallace with doubt and suspicion, not to say righteous indignation at what could only be our application of a "non-literary criterion." But again, there's a far simpler, non-ideological reason: the one poem without which a Lowell selection would, in my view and that of her editor, Lillian Faderman, be incomplete is "The Sisters," and it runs to 186 lines (and with the familiar "Patterns" constitutes almost 70% of the Lowell selection). Again, Wallace asserts that we "rank" Pedro Pietri (390 lines) above Lucille Clifton (138 lines). His explanation is that we might prefer Pietri's "threatening anger or bitterness" to Clifton's "eloquent examples of how much can be done in simple language and rhythms." It may also be that Pietri's one essential poem, "Puerto Rican Obituary," takes 312 lines.
What I'm getting at is obvious enough: assumptions which begin from the charge of "political correctness" as fatally distort cultural and educational work as the Cold War assertion that "proletarian literature" was a contradiction in terms, or the 1950s canard that all 1850s novels by women were sentimental tear-jerkers.
Reasonable questions can certainly be asked about why we included or omitted many writers, contemporary or otherwise. In the electronic world to come, a teacher will be able to construct his or her own selection from virtually the totality of prose and poetry written in a language. But here and now, we're limited, which means that it's necessary to "represent" "different cultural voices," as I wrote in the Anthology's "Preface." I there also pointed to the impossibility of one writer justly "representing" any other, of the potential for injustice, but also to our desire to broaden the scope of what had been considered "American literature."
One part of our effort in the contemporary selections was, indeed, to widen the attention paid to writers from previously marginalized groups. (If you find people who don't think writers of color and white women were being widely ignored, ask them to check out general American literature or poetry anthologies before the 1980s.) One could describe that as a "political" enterprise, opposed to the "aesthetic" standards more appropriate to a literature anthology. But that move--which is precisely the one taken by those who fling about the charge of PC--returns us directly to the binary world of Cold War culture: "two legs bad, four legs good." Things are more complicated, as these last two decades of debates over literary canons and their formation have amply illustrated.
No anthology--no museum, no syllabus, no course of study, no "book of virtues"--is constructed on the basis of any single measuring rod. One tries to balance matters of aesthetics and politics and historical interest and personal preference and pedagogical usefulness and student attention--and all kinds of practicalities from money to space. One succeeds pretty well in some places and maybe less well in others. I would not claim for a minute that our selections of contemporary poets are perfect; I would instead do what I often did after the first edition of the Heath was published, that is, invite teachers to tell us what to add and--because that's the name of the space game--what to take out.
I'd also like to invite a more systematic debate over the issue of the values of complexity and difficulty and other aesthetic standards in literature. Wallace, for example, contends that the Heath editors display "a preference for easy poems over hard ones, for simple over complex, for spontaneous over formal, for arbitrary over disciplined." I'm not sure I know what an "arbitrary" poem is--Paradise Lost?--nor how any writing can avoid being "formal." But the drift of this critique is clear enough.
Even if this complaint about The Heath Anthology can be sustained--which I doubt--I would respond "so what"? T.S. Eliot contended in "The Metaphysical Poets" that poets in "our civilization," as he calls it, must be "complex," if not positively obscure. Others, arguing from a very different political position, have claimed that "it's in poetry's difficulty that its possibilities lie" for resisting cooptation and commodification by consumer capitalism. On the other hand, perhaps the erection of the hard, the complex, the abstract into a critical golden calf constitutes part of what became, in the 1940s and 1950s, a highly politicized campaign against more accessible and often socially implicated art forms. And I, at least, have to be persuaded that literary complexity in and of itself constitutes part of a line of resistance to commodification and other of the cultural ills produced by consumerism.
My problem, then, is twofold: I just don't see that "hard" poetry is necessarily better poetry; "better" by what standard? And second, it is a dishonest political move to assert, as some conservative critics have done, that "your preference for the easy is rooted in politically correct politics, whereas my preference for the hard is based upon purely aesthetic values." While I certainly believe that we need a discussion about the functions and virtues of difficulty (and straightforwardness) in literature and in criticism, I also think that discussion cannot fruitfully begin from such a premise. That's as phony a binary as was ever produced by Cold-War thinking, and it is one which will keep us from honestly addressing the differing aesthetic priorities that are at contest. In fact, it may well be that the easy/hard binary largely obscures more interesting aesthetic properties. To what extent, for example, does indirection function as a significant aesthetic feature of literary writing?
In short, I'd like to dispense with the feverish charges of PC. I think it would be better, in the pages of this Newsletter and on the listserve T-AMLIT, to develop a reasoned discus- sion of what we really mean by "aesthetic standards," how, when, and why these are produced, how people develop the social and cultural positions from which they can lay claim to making the "best readings," and how all these factors in literary study take concrete form in our writing and most of all in our classrooms.