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 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...
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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...
(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 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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
(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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
(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...
(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...
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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...
(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...
(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...
(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,...
(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...
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