Poetry in commotion: poets and prejudice

August institutions don't come much more staid than the Poetry Society of America. Or so you would imagine... Leonard Doyle reports on a bitter feud that has raised sensitive issues about race, writing and political correctness
Click to follow

The story goes that a distinguished American poet was staying at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington when a black busboy summoned up his courage and placed a few sheets of paper beside the great man's plate. Annoyed at the impudence, Vachel Lindsay picked up a poem entitled "The Weary Blues". His interest piqued, he called for the busboy and asked, "Who wrote this?" "I did," replied Langston Hughes.

Lindsay introduced the young poet to publishers thereby launching the career of the "O Henry of Harlem".

Langston Hughes died in 1967 and the story of his "discovery" was the inspiration for Busboys & Poets one of Washington DC's few crossover meeting places where black and white rub shoulders. The subject of race and poetry has once again bubbled to the surface with a series of resignations from the board of the Poetry Society of America.

The storm in a stanza at the august 97-year-old body finally broke cover in yesterday's New York Times when the polite and cloistered circle of American poets was hurled into the centre of America's most poisonous debate.

At the heart of the poets' debate is the accusation that the Poetry Society of America is somehow behaving like a reactionary bastion of racial prejudice. There has been months of behind-the-scenes turmoil and fierce back-and-forth debate following a vote to hand the society's prestigious Frost Medal for "distinguished lifetime service to American poetry" to the well-known poet John Hollander whose views on race have raised hackles in the past.

Some of the society's members believe that remarks Mr Hollander made about race and culture as far back as 1999 should have disqualified him from receiving the award. An equally poisonous row erupted over elitism and racism at the Academy of American Poets of which Mr Hollander was a chancellor or board member.

The uproar at the academy was started by novelist Fred Viebahn whose " Gods of Poetry" attacked the Academy for persistent racism on its board of chancellors. Married to the black poet Rita Dove he was furious that in its 64-year history, the Academy of American Poets had at the time never elected a non-white chancellor.

"What kind of inane pseudo intellectual Jim Crow arguments were brought forth to keep this bastion of rarefied wordsmiths free from the dark forces?" he wrote.

Mr Hollander's response to the controversy as quoted on America's national public Radio was there isn't much quality work coming from non-white poets today. There were, he said a couple of African-American writers he might nominate to board member of the Academy, but that was it.

"The idea that someone colour or gender would enter into a decision of how good the person's work is, is so obscene a suggestion that I do not begin how to talk about it," he added while speaking on National Public Radio's All Things Considered programme. His words have haunted him ever since.

More recently Mr Hollander, wrote a favourable review in The New York Times Book Review of the collected poems of the African-American poet Jay Wright. But the piece also referred to "cultures without literatures – West African, Mexican and Central American".

When Mr Hollander, a retired English professor at Yale was up for the Frost award three years ago, some board members at the poetry society brought up these and said they should be examined when deciding whether he should be given the annual award. Then at a poorly attended meeting board last year the poets again discussed Mr Hollander and nobody present raised the thorny subject of his previous remarks. However, when an when an email message went around in the spring announcing that the medal was being bestowed on Mr Hollander the distinguished black novelist Walter Mosley replied: "My reaction to this decision is to announce my resignation."

The poet Elizabeth Alexander, who is professor of African-American literature, followed him and American studies at Yale University. Then Rafael Campo, a poet and professor at Harvard Medical School, and Mary Jo Salter, a poet and a professor at Johns Hopkins University quit. Finally at the weekend the poet William Louis-Dreyfus, the president of the board for the past six years, abruptly flounced out.

He was protesting, he said, the "gross reactionary thinking" among the other board members who had resigned earlier. And in so doing he became the fifth person on the society's 19-member board to leave this year.

The Poetry Society of America battened down the hatches on the controversy yesterday, but insiders in this cloistered world were adamant that Mr Hollander's views on race – what ever they were – should not be taken into account in the award of a literary prize.

Louis-Dreyfus, the latest to resign said that even if the comments were accurate, they were irrelevant in judging the Frost Medal.

In the same way that that Ezra Pound's anti-Semitism did not detract from his literary reputation, Mr Hollander's poetry should be judged on its own merits. It's the same issue, an insider at the Poetry Society said as came to the fore in Germany last year when the Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass made a confession that he was a member of the Waffen SS, as a teenager. While many argued that he should return his Nobel Prize for literature, the controversy eventually blew over.

Ruth Kaplan, who became the president of the diminished board at the weekend said that "a central part of the Poetry Society of America's mission is to represent the rich diversity of voices in American poetry", and to give "voice to poets of all backgrounds".

To that end it organised an annual Festival of New American Poets, which has introduced 60 poets from different cultures to national prominence over the last five years. It also sponsors Poetry in Motion, which places poems in public places like the subway and city busses.

But there is no denying that there has been racist undertow among some of America's most distinguished poets.

The most commonly cited is that of the Robert Penn Warren, the pre-eminent Southern poet and novelist of the 1930s. "Nigger, your breed ain't metaphysical," he wrote in his poem "Pondy Woods", which was inspired by the 1926 lynching of Primus Kirby in Todd County, Kentucky. It is often cited as an example of the workings of racist ideology in 20th-century American literature.

The admonition is addressed to a fugitive black man on the run from a posse after apparently assaulting a white woman and is farcically spoken by a buzzard.

The provocative poem has been described as an attempt to describe the dominance and superiority of white, intelligent men over perceived instinct-driven black men. But that did not stop the Poetry Society of America awarding him the 1958 Pulitzer prize for his book Promises: Poems 1954-56.

The arguments about race and representation refuse to go away. Back in 1999 the argument was about the composition of the board of chancellors at the American Academy of Poets. Newly appointed to the board the poet Maxine Cummins said the membership was "almost all East Coast poets and they are mostly white male and they are mostly well along in years, shall we say, long in the tooth. And we just don't feel this represents American poetry."

Then after several attempts to nominate a black woman for a chancellorship, Ms Cumin and another poet Carolyn Kaiser resigned leading to angry responses.

Back at the American Poetry Society it has been pointed out that since 1941, out of 38 winners of the Frost medal, only three have been non-white.

Walter Mosley one of the resigning poets told The New York Times that he had left the Poetry Society because the decision to give the medal to Mr Hollander "represents a conservative trend on the board that I don't think is at all inclusive to all the elements of poetry and all the people of poetry".

Other members of the board stressed that they had left for personal reasons, rather than in protest at the awarding of the Frost medal.

Mr Campo and Ms. Salter would not talk about the dispute but said they had not resigned because of the Frost Medal.

"I resigned because of my displeasure at the way Mr Louis-Dreyfus dealt with people on the board about their conflicting views on this and other matters," Ms Salter said in an email message to a reporter.

In like vein Mr Campo wrote that his resignation "had more to do with how our then-president Mr Louis-Dreyfus handled the concerns of Board members ".

Mr Hollander, whose views down the years have stirred so much passion could not be reached for comment.

But none of the society's poets it seems quit the prestigious organisation for any reason of principle. Pique rather than passion, it seems was everyone's motive.