Helen Vendler Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.