Helen Vendler
Stanford Humanities Center

Excerpts from Helen Vendler...


...on Criticism
...on a Shakespeare Sonnet
...on Wallace Stevens
...on Allen Ginsberg

...on Criticism

The origin of criticism is twofold, and both origins bear on the social function of criticism. The first, ignoble, origin is the pleasure of refutation: criticism is the revenge of the student who once, perforce, sat silent while things that seemed untrue were said unrebuked, and poets who loomed large in the mind were ignored in the classroom. In this sense, every generation of young critics refurbishes lapsed reputations and corrects the misperceptions of the generation that taught them. The social function of the aggressive component in criticism is to restore the neglected and discover the new. But the second origin of criticism is the truer one. The pleasure here lies in discovering the laws of being of a work of literature. This pleasure of poetics is not different from the pleasure of the scientist who advances, at first timidly and then with increasing confidence, a hypothesis that makes order out of the rubble of data. The rubble seems to arise and arrange itself into a form as soon as it is looked at from the right angle. That is one way of putting it. Sometimes in literature it is not so much that the rubble of diction arranges itself into a form; rather, what was previously heard as cacophony is now heard as song. It is hard to explain how this happens; it resembles listening to an alien music until its sequences and its intervals begin to seem natural. The music does not so much assume a form as teach itself to us as an intelligible new language, until, like Siegfried, we can understand the speech of birds. The enlargement in being able to hear a new voice, or see a new law of being, seemed to Keats like discovering a planet or an ocean, a revelation comparable to the ecstatic moments known by astronomers or explorers. If discovering Neptune or the Pacific Ocean has a social function, so does discovering (to the public gaze) the poetry of a new poet; or new aspects to the poetry of an old poet. Texts are part of reality, and are as available to exploration as any other terrain.

Wallace Stevens called all the efforts to describe mental objects “description without place.” They are, he said, “integrations of the past,” and he thought that such efforts to map mental configurations were as important as our maps of the geographical reality surrounding us:

It matters, because everything we say
Of the past is description without place, a cast
Of the imagination, made in sound.

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.

The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, p. 20-21

...on a Shakespeare Sonnet


*     *     *

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
     So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

*     *     *

To come, as a commentator, on this — the most familiar of the poems and the most indisputably Shakespearean, Elizabethan, and sonnetlike — is both a balm and a test: what remains to be said? In its proffering of love and fame, it stands with sonnet 12, free of that fear of the beloved’s corruption which enters the sequence at least as early as 24 (Mine eye hath played the painter). There are many things to praise here, but I will use this poem as an instance of one of Shakespeare’s greatest compositional powers — his capacity to confer greater and greater mental scope on any whim of the imagination, enacting that widening gradually, so that the experience of reading a poem becomes the experience of pushing back the horizons of thought.

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are constructed, like this one, on a very common cultural contrast (here, the temporality of physical existence and the eternity of verse). But where another poet might begin by showing his hand in a topic sentence, saying, “Things mortal pass away, but rhymes remain,” such is not Shakespeare’s way. He begins with a trifle — a youth and a day and an apparent whim of the inventive mind:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

It is gentle, light, innocuous, dulcet; and its expansion seems at first dulcet, too: lovely, temperate — these are self-reflexive adjectives for a wooing song. Even the rough winds leave the darling buds on the branches, merely shake[n], a danger evaded; and it is only with the short date on summer’s lease (Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date; sonnet 14) that a somber quality enters, and we realize that from the lovely day we have come far, to the end of a season. A quick graph of lines 1-12 will show their inexorable widening of scope and deepening of gravity:

thee and a day (1-2)
a month (May) (3)
end of a season (summer) (4)
the eye of heaven
(sun, ordainer of seasons) (5)
the weather itself (hot or dimmed) (6)
the decline of every beauty (7)
the operations of chance (8)
the changing course of nature (8)
an eternal summer (9)
an unfading fair[ness] (9-10)
the foiling of Death (11)
art (12)

It is a long way from an apparently fanciful natural simile to eternal art, and yet Shakespeare traverses it in twelve lines. Only in the couplet does he concede that art has human perpetuity rather than transcendent eternity.

One can imagine hundreds of ways of proceeding for a poem beginning Shall I compare thee to X? One evident structure could be to continue by saying Or rather should I compare thee to Y? or Z? with a list of pretty things, a way of proceeding that Shakespeare will satirize in 21 (So is it not with me) and 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun). It is only when we see that such a list is not forthcoming in 18 that we realize that such a listing has already taken place. Shall I compare thee to a rose? Too thorny. To a dawn? Too brief. To a spring day? Too uncertain. What is the most beautiful thing, the summum bonum, in an (English) world? A summer’s day. And then we see that by taking the pinnacle of perfection as his standard of comparison, the poet/lover, convinced that nothing can outstrip or even equal his beloved, must begin to denigrate his perfect metaphor: ah, but a summer’s day could have a wind, could be hot, could be cloudy. Its very inhabitants, the rosebuds and the sun, which reminded him of the beloved in the first place, can be endangered or can play him false; and, once started, the process of impugning the perfect cannot be arrested until it runs the whole gamut of decline. As one uncertainty tumbles into another, and as uncertainty wrecks itself in misfortune, we see Shakespeare’s tendency to concatenation (cf. 129) in full spate, mimicked phonemically by chance or nature’s changing course. Other concatenations: shake, short, shines, complexion, shade; day, darling, dimmed, declines, Death; lovely, lease, lose, lines, long, lives, life.

Although the ostensible (and perhaps actual) structure of the sonnet is one of contrast (the mutable versus the eternal; chance or nature’s changing course versus eternal summer in eternal lines), the principle of expansive claim is as strong, structurally, as the principle of contrast. Such, at least, is the original triumphant tonality of the sestet: But thy eternal summer shall not fade... Nor shall Death brag. But there is an urbanity, and tempered measure, about the subsequent couplet that makes the end of the poem not so far from the beginning as it would have been had it ended on such a note of apparently pure triumph. Even in Q3, the triumph is tempered: the eternity of the beloved is paradoxically expressed in intrinsically limited seasonal terms, as an everlasting brevity (eternal summer) and the eternal lines grow to time (i.e., within duration). The couplet carries the tempering of triumph yet further: the lines last only so long as there exist, among the men who can breathe, eyes that can see this poem. Only so long will the putatively eternal lines live in time. The urbanity of the iambic tune of the couplet

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

is itself temperate, moderated by the evenness of the clock that tells the time, not driven by the wind of prophecy. Even the prophetic tense — shall not fade, shall not brag — gives way to a possibility (can) deceptively expressed in two rhyming present-tense verbs, lives and gives: this lives, this gives life. The temperate has proved the temporal, in Shakespeare’s (correct) etymology, and to be more temperate than natural loveliness one must escape natural chance and the cycle of natural change altogether. It is to Shakespeare’s eternal credit that he invented the eternal season growing to time in eternal lines potentiated only by a (finally finite) succession of human readers, thereby entwining, in perpetual paradox, the brevity of love, temporal truth, and the fragile strength of art before its extinction. It is probably needless to praise him again for what has so often been praised, the noticing of the particular (the wind-shaken buds) in such general yet observant terms that they spring to every reader’s mind every May in the temperate zones. And it is probably just as unnecessary to remark his ability to step through time:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.

From one sun to every fair, from sometimes to often, from dimmed to untrimmed — by one great agency or another, things are undone: it is the pace of Necessity itself.

It should be noticed that in the Quarto spelling, lines and liues differ only by the turning upside-down of one letter, making a quasi-punning Couplet Tie.

Couplet Tie: eye [-s] (5, 13) and, phonemically, I(1)

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, p. 120-122

...on Wallace Stevens

Stevens presumes, then, that his deprivations and his desires are ours. In Local Objects, a poem written in old age, he recalls lines that he had written earlier, in Notes toward a Supreme Fiction:

     From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
     That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
     And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

(“It Must Change,” IV)

That was said elegiacally, in a dying fall. Now, although the counters are the same — loneliness and compensation — the emphasis has shifted to the value of the blazoned days. Stevens assumes that at some verge of life we all realize that we are spirits without a foyer in this world, and yet that some few things tether us to the world and give value to life — those objects for which a natural and fresh desire rises unbidden. This sentiment alone would not be interesting enough to maintain a poem; the poem needs the happening it enacts. In this happening, an estranged and impoverished sadness acquires by desire first a collection of objects, then a collection of names, then a recurrent refreshed motion of the spirit, a motion of wanting (“he wanted to make them, [he wanted] to keep them... / Because he desired”), then a collection of events (“moments of the classic, the beautiful”), then a place worth living for, “that serene he had always been approaching / As towards an absolute foyer beyond romance.” The spirit without a foyer, by a series of happenings during the course of the poem, gains an absolute, if intermittent, foyer in desire and the words chosen out of desire. In following the poem, we are reminded of the possibility of that journey in ourselves, of the recurrence of desire even in the absence of the romantic, even in the absence of a secure place, whether in the past or in the present, in this world. Stevens’ austerity of language perhaps keeps his work from being a poetry for everyone, but it is not poetry for, or about, a world of ghosts. It springs from fact, and the trajectory it traces is one Stevens himself described:

We leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact.

(Prose statement on the poetry of war, Palm, 206)

In following Stevens’ excursions from the facts of his life into the projections of desire, and his perpetually original accommodations of desire to fact, I have hoped to show both his poetry of the human condition and his poetry of the English language.

Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire. p. 8-9

...on Allen Ginsberg

“Kaddish” is chiefly an elegy of the body — the physical body and the historically conditioned body of Naomi Ginsberg. Is it the first such elegy of the body (rather than the transcendent self) of another? Leaves of Grass was the first American book to expose at length the physical and historical body, but that body was Whitman’s own; in “Kaddish” it is Naomi’s body that is born, grows, gives birth, is scarred in flesh and brain, rots in a living death, dies, and is buried. The absence of a developed Jewish doctrine of the afterlife may in part explain why this poem — named so defiantly with a title foreign to non-Jews — is a poem of the body. The biblical history internalized as the history of the Jewish people may explain why it is also so much a poem of history. Finally, besides being a poem of the body and a poem of history, it is a poem of balked prayer. The prayer of the Kaddish, quoted in the second part of the poem, forms, as Ginsberg has said, “the rhythmic substrate” of the poem: “Yisborach, v’yistabach, v’yispoar, v’yisroman, v’yisnaseh, v’yishador, v’yishalleh, v’yishallol….” Ginsberg, in California when his mother died, missed her funeral, where (as Ginsberg’s brother wrote him) there were not enough people present to form a minyan, so Kaddish could not be said for her. Several years later, Ginsberg wrote his own “Kaddish” to repair the lack. The rhythm of the Hebrew Kaddish shows itself chiefly at the end of the first part of the poem, the elegy proper: “Magnificent, mourned no more, marred of heart, mind behind, married dreamed, mortal changed… / almed in Earth, balmed in Lone”; and, a moment later, “This is the end, the redemption from Wilderness, way for the Wonderer, House sought for All… Death, stay thy phantoms!”

A poem of the body, then; and a poem of history; and a balked rhythmic prayer or hymn. “Kaddish” has five numbered parts, and one extra-numeric “Hymmnn” between Parts II and III. Part I is a lyrical overture addressed to Naomi, sounding the themes that will follow. Part II is a history — a recapitulation of Naomi’s life intertwined with that of her son; in it, Naomi is alternately addressed in the second person and described in the third person, so that this part of the poem is both a colloquy with her and a history of her life. This is the part that is savagely comic — stucco’d (as Whitman might say) with birds and quadrupeds all over. In the “Hymmnn” of chanted blessings (imitating the recital of blessings in the Kaddish) that follows Part II, Naomi is both a living “you” and a dead “Thee.” Part III is a prayer against forgetting — “Only not to have forgotten” — followed by a summary historical list of the insults to Naomi’s body. Part IV is a litany with the refrain “Farewell.” And Part V is a fugue in which the idealizing voice of prayer is repeatedly mocked with the crow’s voice of mortal dissolution — “Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw.”

In the Part I overture, the poet calls himself hymnless and Heavenless. How then does he arrive, many pages later, at his heavenly “Hymmnn” of blessings? It is Part II that lies between, the unbearably graphic, scandalous, farcical, and horrifying narrative of events in Naomi’s life. “How can he write such things about his mother?” I was asked by one shaken student. […]

The tenderness of “Kaddish,” which creates in some of its moments a “death full of Flowers,” is not allowed finally to govern the poem. And of those two manifestos bracketing the Kaddish volume with which I began, the one on the back cover summing up the “broken consciousness of mid twentieth century suffering anguish of separation from my own body” is the one that relates most truly to the title poem. The irritable front-cover manifesto recalling the literary wars of the fifties between the university quarterlies and the Beat poets tends to fade in memory, while the back-cover testimony lasts. Though the topical quarrel is true, and lively, and worth remembering in literary history, the poem recalls itself to us now chiefly as memorable rhythmic speech. The monumental quality of “Kaddish” makes it one of those poems that, as Wallace Stevens said, take the place of a mountain. The eventual power of poetry always exists on an “exquisite plane,” as Stevens said, beside which reality — even a reality as transfixing as the life of Naomi Ginsberg — is only, as Stevens concluded, “the base.” “Reality is only the base,” he wrote. “But,” he added, “it is the base.” In terms of literary history, we might say the same about the conventional elegy as we knew it in the past — with its Muse, its singer, its flowers, its eulogy, its dirge, its apotheosis. It is only the base of “Kaddish,” but it is the base. And on that classical base Ginsberg created the most nonclassical poem in the American elegiac canon, the immigrant elegy that seemed waiting in the air to be written, as we found to our astonishment when we first read it thirty years ago.

Soul Says: On Recent Poetry. p. 10-11, 15

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


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