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Helen Vendler

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Helen Vendler portrait

Helen Vendler.
Photograph by Alex Vendler. Used by permission.

Pleasure has always been central to Helen Hennessy Vendler’s lengthy and illustrious career in poetry criticism.  Through her more than twenty books and hundreds of articles and reviews, Vendler has sought to elucidate for readers the aesthetic pleasures of lyric poetry.  Exploring a range of poets including George Herbert, William Shakespeare, John Keats, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Seamus Heaney, Vendler has written with passion and meticulousness about the delights of poetry.  As one critic put it, “Vendler holds to the old-fashioned fundamentally democratic belief that the job of a critic is to help readers understand and better appreciate poems.  She writes less as a scholar (though her learning is prodigious) than as one impelled by the special pleasure she finds in poems to trace each instance of that pleasure to its source.” [1]  Resolutely apolitical, Vendler explains that her critical practice is less informed by scholarly orthodoxies of “meaning” and “value” than a desire to fully reveal the aesthetic power of the work.  “The aim of aesthetic criticism is to describe the art work in such a way that it cannot be confused with any other art work (not an easy task) and to infer from its elements the aesthetic that might generate this unique configuration.”[2]

Currently the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University, Vendler was born April 30, 1933 in Boston, Massachusetts.  Love of poetry and an awareness of the nuances of language have been with her from childhood.  Vendler’s mother, a schoolteacher who had to give up her career upon marriage, so infused her everyday speech with poetic quotation that it was only as an adult that Vendler realized that a phrase her mother used might have come, for example, from Wordsworth.  Her father was a teacher of Romance languages who was bilingual in English and Spanish and who taught Vendler and her siblings Spanish, French, and Italian.  Additionally, through the Catholic Mass she was exposed to liturgy, hymns, and chants as well as Latin, which she went on to study in high school.  “Language took on under these forms, a strange inexplicable shimmer,” she explains, “and I soon saw the disparate poetic effects possible in different linguistic and prosodic systems.”[3]   Writing her first poem at the age of six, Vendler found that it was the reading and writing of poetry that constituted the most honest and real aspect of her teenage existence. 

Attending Emmanuel College, Vendler initially planned on studying English Literature.  However, repelled by the emphasis placed on “faith and morals” in literary studies, she turned instead to the sciences and majored in chemistry.  This scientific training provided her both with a “new way of looking at the world” and “the useful logic of sequential and evidential exposition, which helped form the way [she] write[s.]” [4]  Eventually, Vendler found her way back to the formal study of literature and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1960.  There her two most influential teachers were I.A. Richards and John Kelleher:

I.A. Richards because he gave full weight to every word in a poem and might track the history of a word back to Plato, taking it back through the various philosophical and literary associations until the whole historical and cultural richness of the word was exposed.  And John Kelleher, because he saw the human situation from which a given poem would arise; since he was an historian he noted the political situation, or the social situation.[5]

In “A Life of Learning” Vendler describes the three most intense episodes of learning that shaped her career.  Her most “decisive one” was the resolution to “write only about poetry, without confining myself to a single century or a single country” as is more typical in the academic profession.  Her “eeriest one” was the “discovery, at twenty-three, of the poetry of Wallace Stevens.  It was as if my own naked spirit spoke to me from the page.” Vendler experienced her most “anguishing” episode as an over-extended and under-funded single mother and young scholar and teacher when she contemplated having to give up her critical writing on poetry in order to accommodate the other claims on her time:  “They can’t make me,’ I said to myself in panic and fear and rage, ‘they can’t make me do that.’ I suppose ‘They’ were the Fates or the Stars; but I knew that to stop writing would be a form of self-murder.”[6]  Though Vendler resolved this dilemma by applying for a Fulbright Professorship in Bordeaux, a position that afforded her more time to write, what this passage reveals is not just the necessary pleasure that she derives from writing about poetry, but how essential it is to her very existence. Vendler describes how poems enter her daily life: “They help me know what I’m feeling.  Out of the depths of my heart will come a quotation completely unbidden. And then I will think, Oh so that’s what I am feeling today.” [7]

In her remarkable and prolific career, Vendler has written books that concentrate on a single author, some that collect essays on a range of poets, and others that examine a grouping of poets under the same thematic rubric.  Each of her books “on a single author,” she writes, “has had a polemical purpose as well as a descriptive one.”

These were, in sequence, to interpret Yeats’s Vision as less a book of occult doctrine than as a thesis on poetics; to rehabilitate Stevens’ longer poems for the view (most vividly expressed by Randall Jarrell) that they were elephantine and ponderous; to show (contra Coleridge and others) that an atheist’s reading of Herbert could reveal the power and fineness of his poetry to those whose didn’t share his religious beliefs; to argue that Keats’s odes exist not only as detached poems but also as a purposive sequence working out reflections on poetics that rebut associationist and sensationalist theories of the arts; to insist, in my second book on Stevens, that he was far from being the cold and solely intellectual writer of his conventional reputation; to consider Shakespeare’s sonnets as individual experiments in lyric language and structure rather than as narrative sites of thematic expression; and finally to represent Seamus Heaney, whose poetry had so often been treated exclusively within political or national frameworks, as a writer who has made original interventions in almost all the lyric genres.[8]

Though Vendler writes in order to explain things to herself, she also imagines her “audience in part as being the poet.”  As she elucidates, “It would not strike the poet, I hope, that there was a discrepancy between my description of the work and the poet’s own conception of the work.”[9] This nuanced sensitivity to the poet’s unique voice is apparent in her longer book-length studies as it is in her more concentrated essays.  Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, which was the unanimous choice in 1980 for the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, collects her essays from 1966 to 1979, and surveys forty-five American poets from T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg to Frank Bidart, Louise Glück, Dave Smith, and Charles Wright.  In each of the essays, Vendler seeks “to find in each the idiosyncratic voice wonderfully different from any other.”[10]  In his laudatory review of this sympathetic approach, Irvin Ehrenpreis wrote:

The usual attitudes of a critic are those of a consumer or a judge.  He sees the poem as a completed object, a substance to be tasted, measured, shredded.  But Vendler starts with the act of creation.  She stands beside the poet and watches him compose.  Reading her essays, one acquires a sense of works of art not laid out in an operating theater but just coming into being.[11]

A subsequent volume of collected essays, The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (1988), continues Vendler’s attentive survey of contemporary poetry, examining an array of poets including Seamus Heaney, Donald Davie, Czesław Miłosz, Silvia Plath, A. R. Ammons, James Merrill, Amy Clampitt, and Jorie Graham.   As James Breslin wrote in his review, “These essays confirm Vendler’s authority as a subtle, shrewd and demanding critic of recent American poetry and as a writer who possesses a confident weighty, ruminative prose style, one that is richly allusive without being pedantic, and elevated without being stuffy.”[12]  In Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (1995), a collection of essays originally published between 1987 and 1995, Vendler brings her attention to each contemporary poet’s most recent work, exploring the drama of the soul as it is expressed in the ideal medium of the lyric form. 

The virtues of the lyric – extreme compression, the appearance of spontaneity, an intense and expressive rhythm, a binding of sense by sound, a structure which enacts the experience represented, an abstraction from the heterogeneity of life, a dynamic play of semiotic and rhythmic “destiny” – are all summoned to give voice to the “soul” – the self when it is alone with itself, when its socially-constructed characteristics (race, class, color, gender, sexuality) are felt to be in abeyance. [13]

In other works, Vendler considers certain critical questions in relation to various poets.  In, for example, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (1995), she examines the “givens” handed by life to Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Rita Dove, and Jorie Graham and how these aspects of their lives were creatively transmuted into the forms and themes of their poetry.  The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham (1995) sees Vendler investigate junctures in each of these poet’s careers where they deliberately change their style.  In Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson (2004) she seeks to “illuminate, if possible, the way thinking goes on in the poet’s mind during the process of creation, and how the evolution of that thinking can be deduced from the surface of the poem.”[14]

In her essay “On Criticism” Vendler writes, “Like all other perennial human activities, criticism exists because it gives pleasure to those who perform it.  And . . . it also seems to give pleasure to people who, though they do not themselves write it, like to read it.”[15]  Criticism enhances our pleasure in that it renders that which was previously opaque, intelligible.  “The pleasure here,” Vendler writes, “lies in discovering the laws of being of a work of literature.”[16] This expansion of understanding necessarily expands our delight in poetry.  As she concludes: “No art work describes itself.  Only by repeated casts of the critical imagination is the world around us, including the world of literature, finally described and thereby made known, familiar, and integral.”[17]

Nowhere is the art of Vendler’s criticism more apparent than with regard to her work on Wallace Stevens.  As she has written of him: “Though there are poets undeniably greater than Stevens, and poets whom I love as well, he is the poet whose poems I would have written had I been the poet he was.  I would not have known it possible to have this peculiar standing with respect to a poet had I never come across Stevens’ work.”[18]  In her Presidential Lecture, entitled “Wallace Stevens as an American Poet,” Helen Vendler will be reassessing Stevens’ role as an American rather than an international poet and accordingly will argue that American literary history needs to broaden its concept of what counts as American in American poetry


NOTES:

[1] Scott, A.O. "Poetry Without Politics." Nation 261.22 (1995): 841-842.

[2] Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1988. 2.

[5] Cole, Henri. “Helen Vendler, The Art of Criticism: III.” Paris Review (1996): 167.

[7] Cole, Henri. “Helen Vendler, The Art of Criticism: III.” Paris Review (1996): 167.

[8] Vendler, Helen. A Life of Learning. Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 2001. The books to which Vendler refers are as follows:

Yeats’s Vision and the Later Plays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.
On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.
The Poetry of George Herbert. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.
The Odes of John Keats. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.
The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997
Seamus Heaney. London: HarperCollins (Modern Masters Series), 1998.

[9] Cole, Henri. “Helen Vendler, The Art of Criticism: III.” Paris Review (1996): 167.

[10] Vendler, Helen. Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. x.

[11] Ehrenpreis, Irvin. “The Power of Sympathy.” The New York Review of Books May 29 1980: 12-14.

[12] Breslin, James. “Are we Her First Person Plural?” Los Angeles Times. Feb 21 1988.

[13] Vendler, Helen. Soul Says: On Recent Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995. 6-7.

[14] Vendler, Helen. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. 6.

[15] Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1988. 9.

[16] Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1988. 20.

[17] Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1988. 21

[18] Vendler, Helen. Wallace Steven: Words Chosen Out of Desire. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984. 3.


Text by Annette Keogh, Curator for American and British Literature.
Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2011
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