Helen Vendler 1933-
（Full name Helen Hennessy Vendler） American literary critic and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Vendler's career through 2000.
Vendler is considered among the most influential contemporary poetry critics in the United States. What makes this remarkable is that Vendler is not a poet herself and her criticism does not embrace a particular ideology. Instead, her work, which she refers to as “aesthetic criticism,” is known for its detailed explanations of specific poems. While Vendler gained prominence with the publication of On Extended Wings （1969）, a study of Wallace Stevens's poetry, her position among the nation's premier poetry critics was solidified when she was chosen to edit The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry （1985）. She has also produced several important collections of criticism, as well as full-length treatments of W. B. Yeats, George Herbert, John Keats, Seamus Heaney, and a comprehensive volume that considers Shakespeare's sonnets.
Vendler was born on April 30, 1933, in Boston, Massachusetts. Both of her parents, George and Helen Hennessy, were teachers. Vendler has credited her father for introducing her to foreign languages and her mother for introducing her to poetry. As an undergraduate, Vendler did not concentrate on English literature. Instead, in 1954 she earned an A.B. degree in chemistry from Emmanuel College, a Roman Catholic school in Boston. After studying at the University of Louvain under a Fulbright fellowship, she entered Harvard, where she earned her Ph.D. in English literature in 1960. Vendler's dissertation, entitled “Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays,” would become her first book three years later. Also in 1960, Vendler received an instructorship at Cornell University and married Zeno Vendler, a Hungarian-born philosophy professor, with whom she has a son; the couple divorced in 1964. She then served as a lecturer in English at Swarthmore and Haverford. While working as an assistant professor of English at Smith College, Vendler was commissioned by the Massachusetts Review to take on their annual consideration of the year in poetry. Her acceptance of this assignment signaled the beginning of her career in poetry criticism. In 1966 Vendler moved to Boston, where she became an associate professor at Boston University. She also took a post as a visiting professor at Harvard, where, in 1985, she was appointed to a tenured faculty position. In addition to her academic positions, Vendler has held such influential posts as that of consultant poetry editor for the New York Times and poetry critic for the New Yorker.
Vendler's critical work is rather unique in the academic realm of English literature. In a field in which academics usually interpret a text from some kind of ideological perspective （Marxist or feminist theory, for example）, Vendler disregards as much as possible the historical, social, or biographical context in which a text was written. In this regard, she is associated with exponents of New Criticism, an Anglo-American school of literary analysis that flourished after World War I, including critics such as I. A. Richards, John Ransome Crowe, and Cleanth Brooks. Instead of demonstrating an interest in the ideologies at work behind a particular piece of poetry, Vendler is concerned with the poem as an aesthetic object. In particular, she is interested in the imaginative process that creates a poem. Vendler thus refers to herself as an “aesthetic critic.” Although her first book, Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays （1963） did not focus on poetry, Vendler quickly changed course following her commission by the Massachusetts Review to consider the year in poetry. Her first book following this appointment, On Extended Wings, presents a chronological examination of fourteen of Wallace Stevens's poems. In this book, Vendler offers a detailed look at the poet's changing language and style and argues that Stevens's central theme in these poems is the worth of the imagination. Part of Nature, Part of Us is a collection of Vendler's reviews and critical essays on forty-five poets, including Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, T. S. Eliot, and Adrienne Rich. By examining the diverse works of a number of contemporary American poets, Vendler seeks to find their shared traits. Vendler notes in the introduction to Part of Nature, Part of Us that her interest lies in discovering how each “idiosyncratic voice” makes up the “common music” of the century's poetry. In The Odes of John Keats, one of Vendler's most accessible works, she reads Keats's six great odes as parts of a larger structure, suggesting that the poems, beginning with “Ode on Indolence” and climaxing with “To Autumn,” form a sequence that increases in mastery from one poem to the next. The Music of What Happens （1988） consists of reviews and essays on various poets, both modern and canonical, in which Vendler draws attention to the rhythms and sounds of poetry, rather than on image and voice. In 1995 Vendler accomplished the rare feat of publishing three books of poetry criticism in one year: The Given and the Made, Soul Says, and The Breaking of Style. The first of this group, The Given and the Made, considers how four poets were shaped by a particular “given”: Robert Lowell by his family; John Berryman by his depression; Rita Dove by her race; and Jorie Graham by her multilingual upbringing. Soul Says, in turn, presents a collection of essays on the works of several poets and discusses Vendler's effort to locate the human soul in the lyric form. The Breaking of Style, traces the changes in the styles and worldviews of three poets: Englishman Gerard Manley Hopkins, Irishman Seamus Heaney, and American Jorie Graham. Vendler subsequently produced The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets （1997）, a project that she worked on for nearly a decade. This book contains all of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, with the 1609 facsimile and corrected modern versions juxtaposed, followed by Vendler's commentary. For the most part, the book eschews the usual attempts by critics to focus on the sonnets' homoeroticism or to guess at the identity of the mysterious Dark Lady. Instead, Vendler does what she has become best known for—providing a close reading of the poems, including several fresh critical insights into this much-studied collection of verse.
Those unacquainted with academic writings about English literature might be surprised to discover that Vendler's close-reading technique is the exception, not the rule. That she considers the style and content of a poem to be of far more importance than its ideological underpinnings has helped to place her in a unique position among contemporary American poetry critics. By offering detailed explanations as to the aesthetics of poems, her work has been largely welcomed by critics as a refreshing change from other academic writings, which tend to be obsessed with abstract and esoteric literary theories. Not surprisingly, her detractors find her approach conservative and blind to the socio-historical rootedness of art. While Vendler's first book received little notice, fellow critics began to pay her attention with the publication of On Extended Wings. Commentators praised Vendler for making, through her detailed analyses of Stevens's longer poems, the notoriously difficult poet's work more accessible. Not all of Vendler's interpretations, however, have been well received by reviewers. The Odes of John Keats, for instance, was roundly criticized for interpreting the poems not individually, but as part of a larger sequence. Vendler's decision to do so was considered arbitrary and misguided by some critics, particularly because it relegated the earlier odes to an inferior status. Vendler's eye for detail and knack for discerning patterns, however, served her well in The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Besides offering her usual close readings, Vendler maintains that the sonnets are constructed and given meaning by what she calls “couplet ties,” words in the body of the sonnet that are repeated in—or deliberately omitted from—the poem's couplet. Vendler was credited in this work with finding a previously unobserved generality about Shakespeare's sonnets—not a minor accomplishment considering that the sonnets have been studied for centuries. Vendler's success as a poetry critic is all the more remarkable given that she has not published any poetry herself. Previously, the most influential poetry critics had been poets themselves; these poet-critics could be acknowledged as having a clear appreciation of the creative processes involved in writing poetry. Vendler, an academic, has thus been criticized by some for lacking an intimate understanding of these processes. Vendler has also been the subject of criticism for what some perceive to be her disproportionately influential position in American poetry. As a popularly appointed “authority” on the subject, she wields great power as the arbiter of status and recognition in the circles of contemporary American poetry. As such, her work as editor of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry received mixed reviews due to what some regarded as an idiosyncratic approach to the concept of “contemporary” and her seemingly inconsistent selection of poets and representative works. While Vendler's critical writings have experienced something of a backlash, her work continues to hold a unique position through its exceptional ability to address the lay reader as well as the academic. Vendler also remains distinct among poetry critics in her ability to provide detailed analysis and genuine appreciation for the aesthetic value of poetry.
Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays （criticism） 1963
On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems （criticism） 1969
I.A. Richards: Essays in His Honor [editor; with Reuben Brower and John Hollander] （criticism） 1973
The Poetry of George Herbert （criticism） 1975
Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets （criticism） 1980
The Odes of John Keats （criticism） 1983
Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire （criticism） 1984
The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry [editor; published in England as The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, 1987] （poetry） 1985
Voices and Visions: The Poet in America [editor] （criticism） 1987
The Music of What Happens （criticism） 1988
The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham （criticism） 1995
The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition （criticism） 1995
Soul Says: On Recent Poetry （criticism） 1995
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets （criticism） 1997
Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology [editor] （poetry and criticism） 1997
(The entire section is 139 words.)
SOURCE: “Seductive Gambits,” in The Nation, March 9, 1970, pp. 282-84.
[In the following review, Giannone discusses Wallace Stevens's poetry and offers a positive assessment of On Extended Wings.]
It is apt that Wallace Stevens should have expressed his attraction to the long poem with a metaphor about love. “I find that this prolonged attention to a single subject has the same result that prolonged attention to a senora has according to the authorities,” he wrote to Harriet Monroe in 1922. “All manner of favors drop from it. Only it requires a skill in the varying of the serenade that occasionally makes one feel like a Guatemalan when one particularly wants to feel like an Italian.” The senora Stevens wooed turned out to be a demanding woman but also a complaisant one whose indulgence brought out in the poet-lover a skill equal to the occasion of her diverse moods. Not since Mozart has the serenade received more variations.
The senora of course is the world. Stevens’ serenade, like Frost’s lovers quarrel, is an attempt to discover the world through the seductive gambits of poetry. Because the world is where we piece ourselves out, such knowledge can lead to self-discovery. Loving becomes inquiring. Serenader becomes philosopher.
The act of self-discovery which so dominates Stevens’ art inspires’ the same pursuit in the criticism about his poetry....
(The entire section is 2049 words.)
SOURCE: A review of On Extended Wings, in American Literature, Vol. 42, No. 2, May, 1970, pp. 260-61.
[In the following review, Berthoff offers a positive assessment of On Extended Wings, but faults Vendler's narrow focus on “descriptive explication” of Stevens's poetry.]
The point of departure for this close-woven essay is the critical judgment that the best of Stevens is in those longer poems—from “Sunday Morning” in 1915 to “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” of 1949–1950—which mark off the main intervals and developments of his beautifully extended career. This judgment has the support of Stevens himself, who wrote that “prolonged attention to a single subject” is what most fully “liberates” imagination and at the same time “naturalizes” it, for the reader as well as the poet. The critical commentary Mrs. Vendler offers [in On Extended Wings] is intelligent and acute. Moreover, it springs from a personal sympathy that does not fail to communicate the rich charm and pathos, and the spells of declamatory grandeur, that Stevens rose to again and again in these brilliant poems. From first to last, Harmonium to The Auroras of Autumn and beyond, “he mutter spiffy” （as John Berryman’s dream song puts it, not spitefully）, and it is a first virtue of this study to keep that poetic spiffiness in full view.
(The entire section is 838 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Poetry of George Herbert, in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 403-04.
[In the following review, Lievsay offers a positive assessment of The Poetry of George Herbert, but notes that Vendler tends to “overvalue” some of Herbert's verse.]
Mrs. Vendler has an advantage over many who write about poetry: she knows what she is talking about. It is a happy circumstance that to her knowledge she adds both a truly poetic sensitivity and a sometimes startling freshness of expression. The reader of her new volume, The Poetry of George Herbert, is sure to be the delighted beneficiary of all three.
The most innovative portion of the book is contained in the second chapter, “Alternatives: the Reinvented Poem,” in which the author advances, and substantiates, her theory that Herbert’s poems constantly underwent revision and changes in viewpoint and effect during the very process of being written. Otherwise, her method throughout is that （not at all new） of the “close” reading. Her opening chapter, “A Reading of Vertue,” is a paradigmatic illustration, at length, of this method. Thereafter, under a variety of rubrics, she gives less extended analyses of a great number of Herbert’s poems, the less successful as well as the best.
In the chapter （Ch. 5） on Herbert’s liturgical and...
(The entire section is 375 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Poetry of George Herbert, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXXV, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 595-96.
[In the following review, King offers a mainly positive assessment of The Poetry of George Herbert, but finds shortcomings in Vendler's failure to distinguish Herbert's “comprehensive vision.”]
If George Herbert’s poetry has not been in fashion during our century, it is not due to a lack of influential and serious admirers. The best poets of our time have praised him, while the critical and scholarly studies of his work have been of high quality and designed to convince others of his achievement. For most readers, however, Herbert remains the author of a few anthology pieces, technically ingenious, but lacking any heightened personality or vision. Too often even our best students limit their praise of Herbert to his creation of new stanzaic forms.
Professor Vendler’s book [The Poetry of George Herbert] is a major attempt, based on close reading, to offer us a new Herbert, dramatic, highly personal, filled with conflict and unresolved tensions. In Vendler’s reading Herbert’s verse is filled with unexpected implied metaphors, odd twists and turns of direction and a richness of meaning. Personal anguish, guilt, and desire are seen struggling with problems of faith and doctrine in Herbert’s daily experience. If such a...
(The entire section is 1023 words.)
SOURCE: “Reviewing the Critics,” in Parnassus, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1980, pp. 329-35.
[In the following excerpt, Beaver comments disapprovingly on contemporary critical discourse and offers a tempered evaluation of Part of Nature, Part of Us. Beaver finds strength in Vendler's willingness to make summary judgments, but notes weakness in her tendency to focus on the poetic process rather than the end result.]
The vocabulary of criticism is in disarray. Terms like “diversity,” “phenomenon,” “style,” “strategy,” “irony,” “intersubjectivity” abound. But how seldom do they probe to any effect. How seldom do they suggest a deeper critical coherence. What is most relevant for a review? Should the reviewer in some way reenact the poem, or the circumstances of its creation, or the biography of its creator? Or should he merely volunteer the role of model reader?
As I step back to review the reviewers, it is the problem of style that seems uppermost. What is the language at the critic’s command? With what metaphors does he attempt to match the poems before him? Is he out to cover the poems with his discoveries or just to supply the frame that best distinguishes his choice for the passing viewer? Take Jerome Mazzaro’s Postmodern American Poetry. His curious distinction is writing a book of some 200 pages which hardly ever quotes a poem. It looks like some...
(The entire section is 1703 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Part of Nature, Part of Us, in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1981, p. 320.
[In the following review, Earnshaw offers praise for Part of Nature, Part of Us.]
Helen Vendler is, by general consensus, one of the finest poetry critics today. A professor at Boston University, she has written superb full-length studies of Yeats, Stevens and George Herbert, and she contributes regularly to The New York Times Book Review. More than forty modern poets are discussed in this generous collection [Part of Nature, Part of Us] of her reviews from the seventies. Some, like Stevens and Lowell, have three or four essays, the majority have one or two, and four concluding essays group smaller pieces and more recent poets. Omissions are “by chance and by design”: Snyder, Ashbery and Levertov are among the missing. But whether she is writing four lines or four essays on a poet, Vendler provides a rich banquet. Her style is the best of all worlds: a close reader, she will find the truth of the text even when she has to search far for answers. Yet she never forgets the humanity of the poet in the poem; a voice is characterized according to its harmony or dissent from the life experience of the poet. Her language and cast of thought do justice to the poets. She draws on the wisdom of other poets, often Yeats, and increases our understanding of poem and life. She does...
(The entire section is 550 words.)
SOURCE: “The Way to Autumn,” in The New Republic, December 5, 1983, pp. 34-7.
[In the following review of The Odes of John Keats, Bromwich finds shortcomings in what he considers Vendler's artificial treatment of Keats's odes as a sequence of progressive excellence culminating in “To Autumn.”]
This intense study [The Odes of John Keats] makes one great demand of its readers: they must have in mind, for any given stretch of exposition, a good many details from all of the six major odes; a text for each poem appears at the start of the corresponding chapter, and helps to lighten the task considerably. A fair review needs to make the same demand without offering any comparable assistance: those who have not read the poems lately are advised to read them now and come back when they are finished. Most such experiments in reacquaintance will leave three impressions of the poems as a group. First, Keats’s invention, in “Ode to Psyche,” of the mind itself as the “main region” of his song, is the single gesture that creates the inward psychological subject of all the odes. Second, the “Ode to a Nightingale” seems to carry the most simply appealing melody, with the most directly emotional rhythms of rise and fall. And third, the ode “To Autumn” is the most delicate in its tone of feeling, the fullest in its tacit identification of landscape with consciousness. By comparison,...
(The entire section is 2406 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire, in American Literature, Vol. 57, No. 3, October, 1985, pp. 522-24.
[In the following review of Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire, Leonard argues that shortcomings of the work include Vendler's conflation of Stevens's poetry and biography and the critic's personal bias in support of her subject.]
Helen Vendler finds in Wallace Stevens’ poetry the tracings of the personal drama of his life. Her earlier book On Extended Wings mapped this drama in his longer poems; Words Chosen Out of Desire continues in the same vein with a selection of shorter poems. Her readings depend on the view that each step of Stevens’ poetic development manifests in its particular way an attempt to overcome the loneliness and isolation he is said to have endured in the course of his marriage to Elsie Kachel. According to Vendler, “The first phase … resorted to certain concealments of tension, on the one hand, and to violent dislocations of sensibility, on the other. Both were attempts at accommodation, and brought Stevens to the state of misery in which he met the traditionally invulnerable Berserk, his traps, and his blocking steel.” Such analysis reveals the greatest strength but also the weakness of Vendler’s book: a fine technical description of the poetic surface—“concealments of tension … dislocations of...
(The entire section is 754 words.)
SOURCE: “Professor Vendler's Garden of Verses,” in Commentary, Vol. 81, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 50-5.
[In the following review of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Gardner faults Vendler's selection of poets, many of whom he contends are neither contemporary nor convincingly preeminent.]
It is a commonplace that the putting-together of a literary anthology is in itself a creative act. One might even be justified in invoking Harold Bloom’s already too-famous phrase and say that an “anxiety of influence” pursues anthologists no less than poets, for anthologists are interested not only in promoting those poets they most admire, but also in assailing earlier anthologists upon whose compilations they may themselves have been bred. Thus it is that dead poets who have found no place in earlier collections are duly dug up, poets included in previous anthologies are either cut down to a more manageable size or dismissed without a word of explanation, and upstarts of the newest generation suddenly find themselves rubbing elbows with venerable elders.
By its very title, one might think that the new Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by the well-known critic Helen Vendler, would concentrate precisely on the last-named of these groups, and that any controversy aroused by this anthology would touch upon her choice of younger poets. Yet in...
(The entire section is 5479 words.)
SOURCE: “Are We Her First Person Plural?,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 12, 1988, p. 8.
[In the following review, Breslin offers a mostly positive assessment of The Music of What Happens, but finds Vendler's criticism limited by her preference for a traditional style of “inwardly reflective lyric.”]
In the 1960s Andy Warhol predicted that soon “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” In the literary academic world of the 1980s—a realm of proliferating theoretical perspectives （Freudianism, Marxism, structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, Marxist deconstruction, Marxist feminist deconstruction）—it now seems that everyone will believe something for 15 minutes.
To such state-of-the-art critics, someone like Helen Vendler, who actually cares about poetry, who has thoughtfully absorbed a great deal of it, who can write eloquently about her pleasures in reading and who is willing to assess the successes and failures of new poetry—someone like Vendler must be patronized as a remnant of what is now deemed the Stone Age of literary criticism—the 1950s.
Collecting Vendler’s essays of the past several years, The Music of What Happens contains a few mildly theoretical essays and some pieces dealing with canonical figures （Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Stevens）; but most of the essays review a range of contemporary poets...
(The entire section is 871 words.)
SOURCE: “Helen Vendler, Poetry Critic,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 613-34.
[In the following negative review of The Music of What Happens, Bawer derides Vendler's critical skills and condemns what he considers her unmerited and disproportionate influence as America's leading poetry critic.]
Helen Vendler is the colossus of contemporary American poetry criticism. In an age when the audience for poetry has dwindled down to a precious few, and when only a handful of general magazines even bother to publish poetry criticism at all, Vendler looms hugely over the ever-shrinking landscape. No one in America today has more power to create or to damage a poetic reputation. Even T. S. Eliot, in his time, did not exercise so considerable an influence upon American poetry as Vendler does at present. Simply to list her credits is to describe a degree of visibility, in relation to her peers, that no other critic of poetry has ever enjoyed in America. She is, first of all, the poetry critic—not simply a poetry critic, but the poetry critic—for the two most prominent journals in this country that feature poetry criticism, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. （She has also reviewed poetry frequently for the New York Times Book Review.） She is the William R. Kenan Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard...
(The entire section is 8696 words.)
SOURCE: “Reviewing Contemporary Poetry: Helen Vendler and the Aesthetic Method,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 240-50.
[In the following essay, Burris discusses the role of literary critics and the perspective and methodology of Vendler's “aesthetic” criticism.]
Seasoned reviewers of contemporary poetry are durable reviewers. Seduced by their passion for new poems, yet driven by their devotion to establishing context and tradition, they speak to their audience, when they speak most forcefully, with the inspired tones of advocacy, and as advocates, they quickly learn that those who differ with them often desert the genteel grounds of tacit disagreement to become articulate opponents. They are not the only practitioners of the literary arts who suffer disfavor, but they belong to the scrappy gang of critics who must contend with the peculiar difficulties of assessing the work of a living author: the evidence for their opinions borrows little authority from an existing critical corpus, nor can it gain such authority by correcting a dominant interpretive scheme. Part of their job, and part of their attraction to the job, involves the intoxicating task of establishing these traditions. Contemporary poets have contemporary friends, too, and although reviewers ideally elevate their judgments above the vagaries of the coterie, they continually confront the noisy...
(The entire section is 4501 words.)
SOURCE: “Kind Words for Contemporary Poets,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 17, 1995, pp. 2, 13.
[In the following review of Soul Says, Gwynn finds fault in what he terms Vendler's equivocal criticism and “celebrity worship.”]
Helen Vendler’s credentials precede her by a length and a half. She is Porter University professor at Harvard, a former president of the Modern Language Assn., editor of the Harvard Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, consultant to the MacArthur Foundation and a member of the Pulitzer Prize board.
That a non-poet （and an academic to boot） should wield such influence over American poetry is remarkable. Surely Vendler’s ascendancy would have seemed inconceivable to poet-critics of mid-century like Randall Jarrell and Louise Bogan, who jealously guarded the turf bequeathed them by their elders. Yet the inconceivable has happened; as the commercial goes, when Vendler talks, poets listen.
The 21 essays in Soul Says originally appeared as reviews in the New Yorker and other periodicals and, in two cases, as introductions or chapters in books. The poets Vendler discusses, with the exception of Robinson Jeffers, are living （or were when the essays appeared）, and are, again with a single exception, fairly well known.
Vendler declares in her introduction that she has striven to...
(The entire section is 1134 words.)
SOURCE: “Poetry without Politics,” in The Nation, December 25, 1995, pp. 841-42.
[In the following review of The Breaking of Style and The Given and the Made,Scott commends Vendler's moderate conservatism, but finds shortcomings in her effort to “quarantine” the form and aesthetics of poetry from the cultural realities of sexuality, politics, and history.]
In a recent survey of the current poetry scene, The New York Times Magazine called Helen Vendler a critical “gatekeeper of the poetic establishment,” defending the American Parnassus from the Spoken Word barbarians of MTV and the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe. Aside from the irony of the Times taking the name of the Establishment in vain, the article was principally interesting as evidence of a persistent tendency to view the literary landscape as an ideological battleground. The supposed stand-off between the pierced and tattooed champions of the Poetry Slam and the sherry-sipping members of the Academy of American Poets can’t help but call to mind recent skirmishes in the academy between the forces of novelty （in the shape of feminism, multiculturalism, queer theory, cultural studies and so on） and the forces of tradition （the variously stolid and rabid defenders of the canon）. Tempting as such Manichean allegories may be, they inevitably oversimplify what happens in the rag and bone shop of culture where...
(The entire section is 1735 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Soul Says, The Given and the Made, and The Breaking of Style, in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 84-5.
[In the following review, Morris presents a positive assessment of Soul Says, The Given and the Made, and The Breaking of Style.]
When Helen Vendler describes the act of reading poetry, she makes it seem as straightforward as understanding the newspaper or humming a favorite tune: “The senses and the imagination together furnish rhymes for the poet. The rhythms of the poet translate themselves back, in the mind of the reader, into the senses and the imagination.”
But nowadays the space between poet and reader is often too clouded for such clear passage. The contemporary reader at ease with Whitman but at sea with his successors may, in distress, look to the contemporary critic for a compass. Alas, most criticism written today in the academy, by critics whose proprietary interest in literature has yielded to a proprietary interest in self, will cause readers to jump ship and take their chances with the sharks.
Vendler’s criticism is a saving exception. A university professor at Harvard, she responds generously to the workings of the poetic imagination, in our time and across centuries: “The purpose of lyric, as a genre, is to represent an inner life in such a manner that it is assumable by others.”...
(The entire section is 665 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 76, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 285-86.
[In the following review, Zitner offers praise for The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets.]
The academic consensus, which on this issue at least includes some very tough-minded types, is that Helen Vendler is our best reader of poetry. This encounter between Best Reader and Best Writer does not disappoint, though it will irritate some and bemuse others: irritate because it offers apt objections to some recent commentary on the sonnets, and validates those objections by wickedly relevant citation, and because of the line in the sand it draws: “I do not regard as literary criticism any set of remarks about a poem which would be equally true of its paraphrasable propositional content.” It will bemuse some because of its density, the difficulty of its ideas, and the changing modes of attack necessary to avoid redundancy in the discussion of all 154 sonnets, but it will bemuse especially because of what Vendler acknowledges as an off-putting use of diagrams in an effort to be succinct. （Characteristically, Vendler suggests that those put off by diagrams simply ignore them.）
For all this The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets will disappoint very few. First, it is three books in one: a reprint of the 1609 Quarto; Vendler’s own new edition, a diplomatic text of the...
(The entire section is 937 words.)
SOURCE: “Millions of Strange Shadows,” in The New Republic, November 17, 1997, pp. 27-32.
[In the following review, Kermode offers an extended analysis of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Though he praises Vendler's work, Kermode concludes that it is best suited for more advanced scholars.]
In 1978, when Stephen Booth published an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets—his dual purpose was to help the lay reader and to satisfy the expert—he made certain observations on the nature of his task. The common reader, he argued, simply isn’t bothered by passages that stretch the understanding of the expert. Sometimes “a reader will see the speaker’s point without understanding （or knowing that he has not understood and cannot in any usual sense understand） the sentence that makes the point.” Booth is an expert with a passion for syntactical and semantic ambiguities and overlaps. The value of the sonnets, for him, is less what they seem to be plainly saying than what they can be found out to be surreptitiously adding to it. Sometimes they do this in ways that set up contradictions between the plain sense of what the poet is saying and the covert senses deriving from his virtuoso manipulations of language.
Although this situation is held to be generally true of all the sonnets, there are some that are especially challenging to the editor or the commentator. Booth’s word...
(The entire section is 4094 words.)
SOURCE: “The Naked Truth,” in The New York Review of Books, December 18, 1997, pp. 60-4.
[In the following review, Bayley offers a positive evaluation of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets and an extended analysis of sexuality and wordplay in Shakespeare's verse.]
A man urges a younger man, of much higher social status, to consider his duty to have children for his own good and that of his family:
This were to be new made when thou art old, And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
（Sonnet No. 2）
Persuasion along this line is kept up by means of ingenious arguments and parallels: and as it continues the poet-pleader finds his relation to the other man insensibly altering. A new note of involuntary intimacy creeps into the urgent respect of his demeanor.
O that you were your self! but, love, you are No longer yours than you yourself here live.
Without ceasing to be respectful the poet becomes first familiar, then passionate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee Is but the seemly raiment of my heart. Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me: …
He feels he has the other’s heart, even if he has just lost his own, and he has it “not to give back again.” Nothing can be done about it, but the...
(The entire section is 5141 words.)
SOURCE: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 27, 1997, pp. 3-4.
[In the following review, Simpson praises Vendler's critical analysis and commentary in The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets.]
Though I never attended Harvard College, I consider Helen Vendler to be one of my teachers. I came across one of her books in the stacks of the UCLA research library when I was in high school and just learning to read. At that time, she helped me contend with Wallace Stevens. Later, I depended on her foundations for my own readings of Keats. I’m particularly grateful for her patient delvings into Seamus Heaney’s lexicon and for her introduction to A. R. Ammons, whom I first encountered in an anthology of hers. That was a case in point of her almost invisible brilliance. She chose “Easter Sunday,” arguably Ammons’ most haunting poem, and cut it to a perfectly resonant page.
I don’t always agree with her judgments of contemporary poets, and I’m sure she’d drive me crazy if I were a poet. （Along with Marjorie Perloff, she’s considered a bit of a St. Peter, deciding who gets in.） While she can open a poem and organize it, take apart the strands and lay it out neatly in stacks like a good mother helping her child with homework, I find some omissions in her taste. She lacks appetite for the stark, the Shaker...
(The entire section is 2865 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Soul Says, The Breaking of Style, and The Given and the Made, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 97, No. 3, July, 1998, pp. 458-66.
[In the following review, Burt discusses Vendler's critical perspective and summarizes her analysis of various poets in Soul Says, The Breaking of Style, and The Given and the Made.]
These three books, a remarkable harvest for one year, are in a way occasional works. Soul Says is mostly a collection of reviews, and the other two books are published versions of two series of lectures given in 1993 and 1994. To call these works occasional, however, is in no way to criticize them, for they show the spontaneity and shrewdness of insight that is characteristic of Vendler’s work. Vendler is here, as always, particularly adept at seeing the poetry of a poem from within, at registering the poem in a disciplined and self-critical way upon a responsive sensibility. Somehow in the last few years, however, what Vendler does has come to need defending.
How did it happen that liking poetry and thinking it has something to say became bad things? The promotional material sent with these books by Harvard University Press describes them, somewhat defensively, as issuing from a “conservative aesthetic.” But it is hard to see how anything in this book should count as “conservative” in any meaningful...
(The entire section is 5506 words.)
SOURCE: “A Poet Illuminated,” in Commonweal, November 6, 1998, pp. 18-19.
[In the following review, Donnelly offers a positive evaluation of Seamus Heaney, despite finding Vendler's treatment of Heaney's Catholicism lacking.]
Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, and America’s best-known poetry critic, has been an ardent admirer of Seamus Heaney since she first heard him read at the Yeats School in Sligo in 1975. It must have been a stunning moment of the soul leaping up in recognition: her appetite and love for poetry, apprenticeship in Yeats, commitment to writing for both a professional and general audience, and generous temperament are all met in the poet. It will be for literary historians to tell the story of their friendship, and the role her work （seminars, essays, practical advocacy that brought him for five years to Harvard） played in his development. This new volume, Seamus Heaney, will stand at the center of that story’s latter half. Felicitously timed as a companion to Heaney’s new Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–96, Vendler’s book is a clear, concise, and comprehensive study of Heaney’s poetic oeuvre offered in the aftermath of his international fame.
Vendler sets herself three tasks: “to show by what imaginative, structural, and stylistic means Heaney raises his subjects to a plane that...
(The entire section is 1007 words.)
SOURCE: “Reading Poems before Our Very Eyes,” in College English, Vol. 61, No. 3, January, 1999, pp. 347-52.
[In the following excerpt, Addison offers praise for The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, but notes potentially problematic aspects of Vendler's “authorial presence” in her explication.]
Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a tour de force. Comprising nearly seven hundred pages, it represents nine years’ work and includes a detailed analysis of every one of the 154 poems in the sequence. Each sonnet is reproduced both as a reprint of the 1609 Quarto edition and in Vendler’s own slightly modernized edition. The book is accompanied by a recording on CD of Vendler herself reading a selection of the sonnets—a reading about which she is uncharacteristically self-deprecatory, believing that “for both textual and acoustic reasons the ideal reading … would be done by a male voice.” Precise and fluent as her reading is, it is detached and undramatic almost to a fault.
This book’s raison d’être is to defend the Sonnets against certain recent “jaundice[d]” commentaries and to correct what Vendler sees as a tendency to take too social and psychological an approach to them （1–3）. Vendler accepts, without much discussion, the received order of the Sonnets, believing that it may be an authorial...
(The entire section is 1115 words.)
SOURCE: “Vendler Reads the Sonnets,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 121-122, Winter-Spring, 1999, pp. 256-66.
[In the following review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Rogoff commends Vendler's perceptive, critical analysis, and explication of Shakespeare's verse.]
An odd thing about the Shakespearean sonnet is how few great poets—and how few great poems—have exploited it since Shakespeare. Surrey most likely invented the form to make the job easier in rhyme-scarce English （Wyatt also experimented in this direction but never quite nailed it down）, and since it allows the greater flexibility of seven different rhymes, as opposed to the Italian form’s four or five, you would think that most poets writing in English would jump on the bandwagon. But ask any poet, any reader, any critic to identify great sonneteers and sonnets in English after 1600, and the poets named will have overwhelmingly chosen the Italian over the English form. A highly informal poll I took yielded the following, listed here in order of decreasing frequency: Wordsworth, Donne, Keats, Milton, Millay, Hopkins, Frost, Yeats, Berryman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Lowell, Cummings, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. With the exceptions of Keats, Frost, and Cummings, who all worked elegantly in both forms and introduced some signal innovations of their own, this is quite a Petrarchan group （Lowell, of course, working mostly in...
(The entire section is 4207 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Seamus Heaney, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 3, Summer, 1999, p. 537.
[In the following review of Seamus Heaney, Pratt finds shortcomings in Vendler's qualitative assessment of Heaney's poetry.]
Helen Vendler has built her reputation on taking great poets seriously, and so her readings of Shakespeare and Keats, Yeats and Stevens have been widely admired. She is thought by some to be the contemporary equivalent of a New Critic, a close reader who makes sense of difficult poems, just as Ransom and Tate, Brooks and Warren once did. Seamus Heaney is considered by many to be the nearest equivalent to a great poet alive today, fit to be compared with Yeats and Stevens, or Pound and Eliot, perhaps even with Shakespeare and Keats, whose reputations have endured longer. Therefore, Vendler’s full-length study of Heaney [Seamus Heaney] seems like the marriage of true minds and a literary event in itself.
But literary judgments must stand the test of time, and it is still an open question whether Helen Vendler is truly a New Critic or Seamus Heaney is truly a great poet. This volume brings them together in a significant way, and is published by the Harvard University Press, but it only begs the question of their relative merits, assuming as proven what is still in doubt. To treat all of Heaney’s poetry as uniformly great, on the ground that it...
(The entire section is 578 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 3, Autumn, 1999, pp. 918-19.
[In the following review, Lyons offers a favorable assessment of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Though citing minor shortcomings, Lyons concludes that Vendler's study is “a very valuable book.”]
Helen Vendler’s commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets [The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets] follows several important studies of individual poets by this noted scholar, including ones on Keats, Wallace Stevens, and, in the Renaissance period, George Herbert. Vendler is known as a brilliant and helpful practitioner of close reading, a critical approach still particularly appropriate to lyric poetry. Thus she is attentive to verbal patterns and rhetorical strategies, and mainly unconcerned with Shakespeare’s biography or psychology, or with issues of gender that have always intrigued critics of these poems, the majority of which seem to be addressed to a male hearer.
While Professor Vendler obviously relishes the intricate verbal artistry of these sonnets, she considers clarity and rationality major virtues for a critic, and her lucidity should be welcome to a wide range of readers, whatever the extent of their literary training. For some poems she supplies diagrams as well as verbal descriptions of important themes and their rhetorical...
(The entire section is 801 words.)
SOURCE: “Second Thoughts,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XLX, No.1, January, 2000, pp. 88-96.
[In the following review of Seamus Heaney, O'Donoghue commends Vendler's incisive analysis. O'Donoghue, though, finds inherent limitations in Vendler's strictly formal, as opposed to thematic, approach. O'Donoghue concludes that Vendler's is not the most authoritative study of Heaney, but it is “the most enjoyable.”]
From the time in 1975 when Helen Vendler heard Seamus Heaney in Sligo reading poems from his forthcoming volume North, she has remained one of his most constant apologists and attentive readers. Over the intervening years she has written several essays on Heaney, but this concise and elegant offering [Seamus Heaney] is her first book on him. It comes at a significant moment in his career: around his sixtieth birthday, three years since the Nobel Prize, and not long after the appearance of Opened Ground, his ample selected poems which is really a first collected, drawing on poems from thirty years, 1966–1996. Vendler clearly sees this as the moment to take stock of what has been a hugely illustrious but by no means unchallenged progress. As she works through the volumes sequentially, from Death of a Naturalist to The Spirit Level, she accordingly appends to each chapter a brief section called ‘Second Thoughts’, to see how the later poems of...
(The entire section is 2980 words.)
Desmond, John F. “Measures of a Poet.” America （31 July 1999）: 24.
A joint review of Vendler's Seamus Heaney and Heaney's Opened Ground. Desmond concludes that Vendler's study is “the best analysis of Heaney” yet published.
Flesch, William. Review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, by Helen Vendler. America （28 March 1998）: 23-4.
Flesch offers high praise for Vendler's analysis of Shakespeare's sonnets.
Kennedy, John. Review of Seamus Heaney, by Helen Vendler. Antioch Review 57, No. 2 （Spring 1999）: 246.
Positive assessment of Seamus Heaney.
O'Grady, Thomas. Review of Seamus Heaney, by Helen Vendler. Dalhousie Review 78, No. 3 （Autumn 1999）: 488-90.
Provides a summary evaluation of Seamus Heaney.
Parini, Jay. “The Bog Poet.” The Nation （4 January 1999）: 25-8.
A joint review of Vendler's Seamus Heaney and Heaney's Opened Ground.
Seaman, Donna. Review of Seamus Heaney, by Helen Vendler. Booklist （15 October 1998）: 388.
Seaman praises Vendler's analysis of Heaney's poetry.
Weiss, Theodore. “Reviewing the Reviewer.” American Poetry...
(The entire section is 238 words.)