Elitism & Rebellion
Toi Derricotte | May 1989
What strikes me immediately about Mr. Epstein's list of all-time greats is not surprising. It is 100% white and 99% male. I love, as Mr. Epstein does, those great voices of our past; however, aesthetics cannot be separated from the values of the prevailing culture, and I do not lament the passing of standards which perpetuated elitism-racism, classism, and sexism in our literature.
Mr. Epstein castigates contemporary poetry by saying it flourishes in a vacuum. What about the vacuum surrounding poems which embody the views of a very small socially, culturally, sexually, racially, and often geographically restricted elite? If one is a member of a minority group, as far as Mr. Epstein is concerned, one's poetry is worse than dead, it is non-existent.
One of the most important changes in poetry, as far as I am concerned, is the inclusion of women and minorities. If poetry is, as Stanley Kunitz says, the history of our emotional life, then a poetry which does not include women and minorities is incoherent. Poetry is always an act of rebellion. It is even more so for those who were not supposed to write, who were supposed to be silenced by tradition and aesthetics. But living poetry is made up of those taking the risk, not those making judgements about whether or not poetry is alive.
Toi Derricotte's third book of poems, Captivity, is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press. She teaches at Old Dominion University.