Richard Giannone (review date 9 March 1970)

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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. Studies of his work have been ample, energetic, useful. But with the exception of Frank Kermode’s scattered comments on Stevens’ poetic forms in The Sense of an Ending, criticism of this poet has gone mostly to display the critics’ finding Stevens for themselves. Discovery criticism defines its obligation to suit the critic’s capacity: it interprets a poet’s success as far as the critic’s sense of revelation is fulfilled Stevens’ poetry is sufficiently rich in material for a critic to make digging seem like a strike. By now the operation has taken on the flurry of a boom. So the best statements about Stevens have come across as manifesto, announcing his theme, locating his place in the history of ideas, presenting his philosophy. (The minor statements stay safely close to explication and introduction.)

Helen Vendler’s On Extended Wings, a recent study of Stevens, works another way. This study of Stevens’ long poems centers around problems defined by the poetry itself: its style and form, its evolving shape. In treating these problems intelligently, Mrs. Vendler deepens the exploration of Wallace Stevens into penetration. For this reason, among others, On Extended Wings is valuable and special.

Her phrase “those residual satisfactions” describes the pleasure of Stevens’ poetry. In the course of assaying those satisfactions her book corrects our natural, reductive inclination to equate the poet with his theme. With Wallace Stevens the correction is urgent. No observation is more harmless or more boring than that which is most often made about his poetry—i.e., that Stevens’ theme is the imagination and reality. What counts is how theme is rendered, how feeling is shaped: these are the major integrations. Theme is an abstract statement of meaning, an arid issue: “residual satisfactions” implies our participation in the shaping of that meaning. Style is theme alive.

In analyzing the fundamentals of Stevens’ style, the blueprint for his edifice, Mrs. Vendler often arranges the poetry by rhetorical blocks to show its visual effect. Far from violating the text, her presentation renders the spatial impulse in visual relation. Here’s how she diagrams the close of “Sunday Morning” which in the Collected Poems comes in four even verses:

     in the isolation of the sky,
       at evening,
         casual flocks of pigeons
           make ambiguous undulations
             as they sink,
               downward to darkness,
                 on extended wings.

“The final clause,” Mrs. Vendler says, “floats in its own equilibrium, knowing its inevitable direction, but not hastening the drift, just as the noting eye sees the undulations but deliberately, phrase by phrase, waits to locate them in, time and space before giving them a name.” Mrs. Vendler’s style bears felicitous witness to her authority on the subject.

Poetic length raises questions of vision and form which call for the kind of basic thinking about the meaning of length that we’re not accustomed to making. Usually, we take length as a physical dimension though it’s obviously more than that. Mrs. Vendler approaches the matter in two complementary ways. She shows how each long poem experiments with length and she relates each trial to Stevens’ total effort.

She cites three overarching moods in the long poems. Each attends a central Stevens interest. An idiom of ecstasy affirms the joy of sheer living on earth. Another is that ardor turned inside out, an idiom of despair. A third mood attempts to reconcile the celebratory with the desolate. But we are not likely to find the first two moods unalloyed for any sustained time. A short poem, “Of Bright & Blue Birds & the Gala Sun,” is a case in point.

Some things, niño, some things
are like this.
That instantly and in themselves they are gay
And you and I are such things, O most miserable …
For a moment they are gay and are a
Of an element, the exactest element for us,
In which we pronounce joy like a word of our
It is there, being imperfect, and with
these things
And erudite in happiness, with nothing learned,
That we are joyously ourselves and we think
Without the labor of thought, in that
And we feel, in a way apart, for a moment, as
There was a bright scienza outside of ourselves,
A gaiety that is being, not merely knowing,
The will to be and to be total in belief,
Provoking a laughter, an agreement, by surprise.

Though the speaker sets out to instruct his niño in “A gaiety that is being,” the lesson is undercut not only by the “as if” syntax but by the avuncular exhaustion in the voice. Style serves as object lesson in living. The moods of ecstasy and despair are, then, critical discriminations that help to define the third, essential manner.

Mrs. Vendler calls this manner “the pensive style” and argues that Stevens’ poetic growth issues from shifts within the tensions of that style. Roughly put, his stylistic evolution runs from an early exuberance in “The Comedian as the Letter C” (1923) and “Sunday Morning” (1915) through dark searches in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” (1918) and, “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” (1935) to the recessional starkness of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” (1949). “The Auroras of Autumn” (1948) is Stevens’ “dazzling performance.” His experimentation culminates with “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (1942). Here Stevens achieves an amplitude in a triadic movement and a precision in a tercet stanza that epitomize the pensive style. “Notes” is an “amassing harmony” of multiple voices and rhetorics. Emotionally, it crystallizes his view of the world. The speaker can rejoice in the assumption that “Perhaps there are times of inherent excellence” while accepting the unspeakable fact “that we live in a place / That is not our own” and go on to make of that alienation an individuality: “I have not but I am and as I am, I am.” Like the phrasal cadence ending “Sunday Morning,” the pensive style fulfills itself in equilibrium.

But the poise is always wrested out of contending oppositions: affirmation and reservation, liberation and discipline, joy and sorrow, hope and nostalgia, life and death, beginning and ending, mind and sky, Sunday morning in a sunny chair and an ordinary evening in New Haven. Antagonistic impulses activate Stevens’ mind. Mrs. Vendler writes of expansion and contraction in his style. A sweeping, sometimes unwieldy syntax, a lush diction, an exhilarated cadence, and volatile metaphors signify those moments when the persona feels at home amid the world’s magnitude. Here’s how Stevens presents the hero of the “Comedian” who sets out to see the world with an eye for the far-out. The style mocks, especially through its pompous prepositionality, but it gently recognizes that even if imaginative primness can’t grasp the commonplace it does reassure.

An eye most apt in gelatines and jupes,
Berries of villages, a barber’s eye,
An eye of land, of simple salad-beds,
Of honest quilts, the eye of Crispin hung
On porpoises, instead of apricots,
And on silentious porpoises, whose snouts
Dibbled in waves that were mustachios,
Inscrutable hair in an inscrutable world.

When the world’s massiveness resists subjective viewing, the eye must begin to see anew. The I is simultaneously chastened. Then, syntax tightens, metaphors disappear, aphorisms dominate. Here’s Crispin “annulled” by the tempest he thought he could stem.

Was clear. The last distortion of romance
Forsook the insatiable egotist. The sea
Severs not only lands but also selves.
Here was no help before reality.

As with style so with form, the implications of which On Extended Wings might have pursued more extensively. Every long poem presents a grand issue modestly: a spiritual crisis as a woman breakfasts on a “Sunday Morning”: the nature of love through an uncle’s monocle; the truthfulness of perception in looking at a blackbird thirteen ways: an ars poetica from Owl’s Clover; a theory of the imagination from a blue guitarist; a supreme fiction moved toward by means of notes; faith pictured in summer’s credences; our mind’s extraordinary darkness glossed in the ordinariness of a New Haven evening.

Each presentation develops through an open movement of the mind. Against this freedom, Stevens places a prosodic regularity. His stanzaic design ranges from couplets in “The Man with the Blue Guitar” through sonnetlike cantos of eleven lines (“Le Monocle”), fourteen (“Examination of the Hero, in a Time of War”), and fifteen (“Sunday Morning”). Two long poems are exceptions. The “Comedian” and “Esthétique du Mal” have verse paragraphs of varying lengths. Even in these poems, however, Stevens organizes his poetry through varied internal strategies like the tercet. The point is that every long poem has particular rhetorical and metrical blocks which are units of contraction and serve to restrain.

In the form of the long poem I find an analogue to the antithesis Mrs. Vendler observes in Stevens’ style: an impulse of prosodic closure pressing free mental activity. The cumulative effect is dialectical interplay. This is how man thinks, what Stevens means by “The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.” Poetic length signifies a psychic dimension, the space for searching. The persona moves associatively, flinging out questions, assumptions, desires, or devastations on the world that is not his own but all he has. The search invariably ends in irresolution with the object of pursuit suspended in inaccessibility (a supreme fiction) or clipped in mid-pursuit (a beloved). But the value of the quest is affirmed. The persona is brought further along in the “constant secondariness” that is selfhood.

Crispin’s sea change and the moral course of all Stevens’ personae are excursions behind the brow. Stevens measures spiritual breadth by poetic length. The form of the long poem expresses the shifting progress toward selfhood. Stevens trusts poetry because it “helps us to live our lives.” As a model, his poetry signifies many things. Its elaborate syntax traces the chance and indirection that are discovery. Its conciseness marks the impact of awareness. The stylistic precision emblematizes the perfection we move toward and fulfill ourselves in, but never reach. We are not all we say, or all we can say. We learn to let the supreme fiction stay supreme. Knowing what’s beyond us helps us to accept where we are. Imperfection has its consolations.

The expansive thrust in the long poem implies possibility, openness, liberation, renewal. Expansion accounts for the fact of death by refusing to end. The adjustments imposed on the mind reveal that ideas are half-truths requiring modification or enlargement by their inherent opposites. Such skeptical wisdom fortifies us in facing the final blankness at the center, “this sadness without cause.” Without cause, but with a beautiful consequence. We cherish others, savor otherness. Stevens puts this moment in the living infinity of the present tense:

Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation.

The serenade of love to one’s senora becomes an improvisation into self.

Warner Berthoff (review date May 1970)

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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 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.

Mrs. Vendler is especially good in describing Stevens’s style and its progressive transformations. (She gives due praise to earlier work on this subject, in particular Frank Doggett’s.) She writes tellingly of the “elaborately mannered movement of thought” that, in one tonality or another, is the basis of Stevens’s rhetoric; of a delicate “drift” of moods. and of provocatively unresolved debates over the meaning of certain exotic perceptions and “forms half-glimpsed,” the “presences” that attend the seasons and chromatic variations of the mind’s fluctuating life among phenomena (Stevens’s great subject); of the lavish accretion of metaphors which are “extremely provisional in their species, but quite permanent in their genus”; of the virtuoso play of “appositions and qualifications,” an elegantly “incremental” style, with corresponding “oscillations of rhythm”; of the special extensions of these strategies which give “The Man With the Blue Guitar” its “rigid and flawless structure” of alternating stasis and flow, and “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” its freer and grander harmony; and, movingly, of “the great and remote poetry of Stevens’s old age, so unlike any other poetry in English.” Her discussions continually send us back to the poems and concentrate a sense, lovely to renew, of their distinguishing solemnity and poise. What better service can commentary perform?

Specialists in American literature, among others, may nevertheless regret that Mrs. Vendler’s study sticks so closely to the tasks of descriptive explication. (And couldn’t a less devout title have been provided?) To place, for example, Stevens’s poetry of mental gesture and symbolic hypothesis in full relation to that subjectivist rhetoric which Emerson first mastered in American writing and which remains so primary a mode in our subsequent literature, and graphic art, is not only to reach a more precise sense of the governing genius of his style. It may also serve to situate that nagging further impression set down in Berryman’s little poem—an impression hardly to be admitted in a critical brief which makes its corroborative appeal almost exclusively to the class and type of Wordsworth, Milton, Spenser—of an “odd … something … something … not there in his flourishing art.” Mrs. Vendler acknowledges a “narrowness,” a persistent abstraction of experience into diagrammatic soliloquy; but—to take a major case—in her account of “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” she makes no mention, and gives no indication of feeling the absence, of that fourth section that Stevens once regretted not having gone on to write, a section to be called “It Must Be Human.” There is an issue of imaginative grasp and equity that must be faced in Stevens; a sense of a particular limitation (a built-in tautology of argument and syntax together) that we do not feel in the greatest poetry, including that of other Anglo-American moderns, like Yeats, Eliot, Hart Crane, not less capable of transcendental heightenings but holding a fuller purchase on the body of human life. (Stevens’s letters, in the great collection published by his daughter in 1966, seem to me very revealing in this regard, binding the poems far more intimately than one had suspected to a lifelong regimen, toughly and artfully persisted in, of personal endurance and self-restoration; but Mrs. Vendler does not make much use of them, except in matters of interpretive detail.) The point, of course, is not to put Wallace Stevens down or discourage absorption in him but to identify more precisely the real oddness of his achievement—of which the one thing that may not be said, as Lowell remarked of Emerson’s peculiar eloquence, is that it was not noble. This ultimate critical task is one which Mrs. Vendler’s book, where one agrees with it and where one disagrees, will both encourage and advance.

John L. Lievsay (review date Summer 1976)

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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 homiletic poems, the reader may or may not agree that “a purely homiletic purpose by itself never engenders a successful poem” (p. 163), but it is certain that Herbert’s verse-preaching results in some of his least attractive performances, as is demonstrated in Mrs. Vendler’s devastating dissection (pp. 163–66) of “Sunday.” But here and elsewhere in the book the reader will find many felicitous readings.

Like most close readers of poetry, Mrs. Vendler tends, I think, to overread her specimens and, overreading them, to overvalue them. I doubt that many readers, uninformed of its authorship (and thus not predisposed to favorable judgment), would think as highly as she does of the artificial echo-poem, “Heaven” (pp. 222–29). Skillful as he is in overcoming the limitations of a self-set form, Herbert does not show to best advantage in such a trivial exercise, “ethereal” as Mrs. Vendler finds it.

But, de gustibus. In sum, this is a readable, useful, and stimulating book.

Bruce King (review date October 1976)

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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 reading seems modern it can be defended by Walton’s Life where we are told that The Temple gives a picture of Herbert’s “many spiritual conflicts.” Whereas many have interpreted this to mean that The Temple suggests a narrative, Vendler is unconcerned with finding a story. She treats each poem as an independent entity in which artistic achievement can be measured by how well conflict is portrayed and how convincingly resolution is achieved. She has an unusually fine ear for meter and sound and supports her claims with demonstrations of how, within his deceptively bare style, Herbert’s technique conveys an experience of stress, rebellion, or resolution. Some of the best passages in Vendler’s book are excellent practical criticism in which Herbert’s poems are compared to those of his imitators and adapters. Where Herbert subtly complicates, his imitators ignore the truth of personal experience for the certainties of doctrine.

Vendler’s reading and judgments will influence future criticism. The interpretations are closely and seriously argued, perhaps too closely for immediate appreciation. Although many of the details of her interpretations are likely to be controversial (she often sees problems in passages that could be explained by convention, poetic usage, or iconographical practice), she has advanced serious questions and has given the kind of reasoned expositions of her views that make critical discussion possible.

While this is a major book, its critical perspective is limited to local effects and individual poems. No comprehensive vision of Herbert emerges. There are no large breakthroughs offering new lines of research into Herbert and seventeenth-century poetry. More important, the emphasis given dramatization of inner conflict does not answer those who feel that Herbert’s lyrics, no matter how full of drama, do not create the large sense of character that we find in the poems of Donne, Milton, or Dryden.

The trouble is that Vendler has attempted to make each poem stand on its own without reference to its neighbors or to Renaissance literary conventions. The Renaissance expected an implied narrative, a spiritual autobiography within a sequence of poems; there may be anticipations of future developments, digressions, or regressions to former emotions, but, following the conventions established by Petrarch and Dante, there is an implied story. Herbert’s originality, as recognized by his imitators, was to transfer such a method to religious poetry while creating a personality similar to that found in secular lyrics. As in sonnet sequences we feel events are taking place that affect the speaker’s mood, while the details are kept indistinct. The result is that The Temple has a larger interest than the poems taken individually. Even the guilt-ridden self-dramatization, the self-irony, and the changes of direction that Vendler notices in Herbert’s poems were part of the tradition of Petrarch and his followers. Petrarch’s influence can be seen in Herbert’s sometimes nervous, anguished diction in which the unexpectedness of a word or feeling carries what Vendler calls an implied metaphor. The native English tradition is also one of Herbert’s sources. Part of Herbert’s effect comes from the play of sophisticated wit within a setting of English drab seriousness. Moods of Petrarchan anguish, rebellion, and irony find new expression within less sophisticated registers.

Herbert, like many Renaissance authors, built his poems into a complex labyrinth of which the implied narrative is only one element. We may be puzzled by our inability to find a simple formal pattern for the organization of The Temple, but we will lose much if we do not understand that Herbert transferred to another medium the symbolic reading of a cathedral. There is modern individualization and self-dramatization in Herbert’s poetry, but part of its meaning and achievement is based on traditional materials. Even Herbert’s unexpected choice of words, the meanings of which Vendler puzzles over, might be explained as examples of Augustinian symbolism (a word as a sign of something beyond itself). To appreciate Herbert’s achievement it is useful to know the various religious meanings of the word “temple” and to see how they are related to what we might call his Eucharist theme. The emblematic poems which Vendler says do not succeed in portraying conflict and resolution may be effective for readers accustomed to, or willing to be governed by, their conventions. Where Vendler wants feeling expressed as linear thought, Herbert was often creating artifices which led the mind to larger emotions. Indeed it is the interplay between two modes of thought and imagination that caused the Tuve-Empson debate over Herbert’s originality in relation to tradition. To think of The Temple in relation to medieval allegorization provides a basis for seeing kinds of significance or levels of meaning upon which Vendler does not touch. Perhaps Herbert loses too much by being treated as our contemporary.

Harold Beaver (review date 1980)

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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 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 kind of a dare. But it is more sinister than that. It must be an academic conspiracy, since other critics are quoted in plenty. To establish the vague and partial (and therefore unquestionable) thesis that Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, David Ignatow, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop are all in some sense heirs of W. H. Auden, books and magazines are ransacked. As if what is relevant in assessing the rise of the novel, say, must pari passu be relevant to something called “postmodernism” (a term apparently first used in Jarrell’s review of Lord Weary’s Castle). Which is a wholly false assumption.

For the effect, far from illuminating the recent landscape, is absolutely reductive. There is something uncanny, alienating even, in the way in which vast trajectories of the mind can be reduced to rhetorical blanks (like “transparent eyeball,” or “deliberate derangement of all the senses,” or “unicorn,” or “l’azur”) without the merest flick of a nod to those submerged continents entitled Emerson and Rimbaud and Rilke and Mallarmé. It is what Gary Snyder might call Riprap: a cobble of clichés to make a trail for academics in the mountains. Only here what cannot be heard is the rhythm of physical work. What Snyder insists on is precisely missing. The prose runs smoothly without a hint of perturbation, or puzzle, or even hysteria breaking through. A scholarly quilt of quotations (from journals, fellow professors, and anthologies) covers all.

This is criticism as history. Everything must be processed as narrative. Influences must be traced. The footnotes everywhere invade the text. They colonize those open spaces with data and cross-references. It is purchase (in the sense of leverage or mechanical advantage) that such criticism is after. How can the play of scholarship that transforms a reading of Spenser, say, be transferred to our own contemporaries? But the question is unreal. It is, in every sense of the word, an academic question. For the task of valuation, of aesthetic choice, remains the prerequisite of all contemporary discourse. Such is the price we have paid for substituting a scholar’s game for the aesthetic game of “pass the parcel.” Off comes a layer to reveal a critic’s name. Off comes another layer, to reveal another. The rest is commentary. …

Helen Vendler has, without a doubt, the most assurance of all these critics [Richard Howard, Jerome Mazzaro, and Charles Molesworth]. For her strategy is not so much to center on the poem, or on the poet, but on the problem of writing such and such a poem. The act of writing is itself treated as a critical act: the critic’s role is to ponder and assess that act. Thus the close bond between criticism and poetry in Twentieth Century America. Thus the need, not for a reading exactly, but what Poe might have called “The Philosophy of Composition.” She has collected together her pieces from the Southern Review, New Yorker, The New Republic, the Yale Review, Parnassus itself; but the great majority first appeared in the New York Times Book Review. Each was written as an individual exercise in recognition.

But she is also alert to the tension between the poet’s personal life and that of his contemporaries. (“Really,” said Lowell of Berryman in his elegy, “we had the same life / the generic one / our generation offered.”) She is possessed of the axiomatic awareness that there is no one way of being right, however many ways there are of being wrong. So she is insistent on what alone matters: the presence of “exciting or strenuous writing” (in Lowell’s words), what one finds in Henry James on every page, good or bad. Convinced that books issue as much from reading as from life, she is nevertheless aware that T. S. Eliot (to quote Randall Jarrell) “was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived.” In a word, she is a critic one can trust. As she herself says of Jarrell, her most winning trait is her unhesitating belief that though books may not be life, it is life that they are about.

Yet fine and winsome and useful as all of this may be, Part of Nature, Part of Us does not add up to a summative testament. A reviewer as dedicated as Helen Vendler performs one kind of job. But great criticism requires a more intense dedication to speculative risk. Reviewers, by vocation, are resigned to intense and intimate reaction. That has its own savor. But rarely can a collection of such reviews achieve more than the sum of its parts. Her ultimate master, I imagine, is Wallace Stevens; enthusiastically she traces his search for a republican “grand style,” a democratic sublime, a radiant heroic voice which rejects Whitman’s sensual and mystical orgy. His was an epic quest such as Melville inaugurated in “Knights and Squires.” Yet nowhere can Helen Vendler find purchase outside his rhetoric. So, like Richard Howard writing on Ginsberg, willy-nilly she is sucked into the poet’s own self-serving vortex. Nowhere does she comment on his peculiarly mincing panache, the phony francophone fuss, that Watteau-like air of picnicking in a rococo landscape. Having established the problematic center of his style and congratulated the poet on his fastidious control, she hardly questions the result. The effort, the process (as she herself says of Stevens), rather than the achievement, is all.

Yet she is equally good on Frank O’Hara’s jumbled sensibility and kitschy radiance: “When the technique works,” she writes, “spontaneity fills the room like helium, and the poem takes off with pure buoyancy.” For ultimately it is that helium lift that matters, something “unforgettable,” as she says of Ginsberg. The “only true test,” she calls it, which is not so different from Housman’s itch at the base of the spine or wherever. That is how Adrienne Rich can be greeted, or the occasional line of Sylvia Plath’s. In the opening words of a recent essay:

It is hard to say whether what we most ask of our poets is a certain kind of voice or a certain kind of interior attention. By their voices we tell poets apart, but it is by a certain focus of attention that we name them lyric poets at all. Though on first reading a poet, we are struck by the distinctive voice, later, when the voice has become “natural” to us and almost transparent, we feel increasingly that the underlying attentive focusing is the truly constitutive quality of lyric.

That is the very voice of her own patient, sifting discrimination.

A long paragraph on A. R. Ammons could serve well to sum up her method; which is less a method than an endlessly alert, protracted hesitancy, a hummingbird-like hovering and darting from possibility to possibility. First she notes what Ammons had deliberately, it seems, omitted: “notably people and adjectives.” Followed by an aside: he’s no Whitman, that’s for sure; where would Whitman be, shorn of his adjectives? Followed by an afterthought: well, there’s his mule Silver and occasional adjectives of color and measurement. (Let’s count. I make it ten adjectives on two random pages.) This alone cannot account for his sparse “variety.” But it does at least begin to explore that oxymoron: “an imitative recreation, no less, of the whole variety of the natural world, if not, regrettably, of what Stevens called its ‘affluence.’” For aesthetic dimensions inevitably introduce moral dimensions and with them a relevant tradition: Stevens, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Williams, Donne. Yet there’s a problem: such asceticism “must refrain from celebrating the multiplicity of the world in human terms.” Gestalt-making is a human, not a natural, activity. Is that why Ammons’ poetry is stripped of give-away adjectives? Is the whole basis of his paradoxical art flawed? Not necessarily. Poetry offers its own discipline. Slithering from “monklike” dedication to Buddhist-like revelations of a “mantra in the snow,” the conclusion is capped by a scenario out of Stevens: “He is like a guitarist presented every day with a different señorita in the balcony, and commanded, like some latter-day Scheherezade, to think up each day different but appropriate serenades reflecting the lady’s different looks.”

There is nothing peculiar in all this, except that so few (as the present offerings suggest) are capable of such experimental reading, such rapid notations and imaginative phrasing. It is an act of definition. It requires intelligence. It requires intelligence’s audible partner, style. What is more, Helen Vendler is ultimately not afraid of choosing—shuffling the creative wheat from the chaff—saying this poem is better than that. Which remains the critic’s primordial role. As she tells us of Berryman’s posthumous volume: “There are two good poems, ‘Beethoven Triumphant’ and ‘Henry’s Understanding.’” So she stands up to be counted; and anyone who will can pick a quarrel.

Doris Earnshaw (review date Spring 1981)

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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 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 honor to the genre of literary criticism.

In the face of so much wealth, it is hard to choose a few special treasures. The explication of Stevens’s “Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion” is exemplary of her subtle accuracy. In the article “Apollo’s Harsher Songs” she writes, “More often than not, the human pang in Stevens is secreted inconspicuously in the poem, instead of being announced in the title or in the opening lines. It is the usual, if mistaken, way of commentators to begin at the beginning and to take Stevens’ metaphysical or epistemological prolegomena as the real subject of the poem, when in fact they are the late plural of the subject, whose early candor of desire reposes further down the page.” Using Stevens’s own phrases, she unravels and reemphasizes the poem’s technique and meaning.

A moving paragraph on her discovery of Adrienne Rich’s first book chronicles for millions of modern women a familiar experience. In the review of Rich’s later Diving into the Wreck, she writes, “I read it in almost unbelieving wonder; someone my age was writing down my life. … I had not known till then how much I wanted a contemporary and a woman as a speaking voice of life: ‘Strength came where weakness was not known to be, / At least not felt; and restoration came / Like an intruder knocking at the door / Of unacknowledged weariness.’”

On the Lowell verse autobiography Day by Day she writes of the influence of Horace. This is not the epistolary or nostalgic Horace whose note is heard in other modern writers, but the Horace of the Odes, because of their disconnection and compression. “Like a mortarless arch, they stand by the tension of force against counterforce.” She describes that book as “sumptuously varied,” and so is her own.

David Bromwich (review date 5 December 1983)

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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 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 “Ode on Melancholy” may feel embarrassingly homiletic, the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” divided between its wish for a cold sublimity and its responsiveness to human passions, and the “Ode on Indolence” an indecisive sort of warm-up. This, it should be added, is our modern consensus. Readers of Keats’s time, or of the World War I generation, would have cared for different poems for different reasons.

Helen Vendler’s argument is that the earlier odes lead up to the ode “To Autumn.” She shows Keats improving gradually, with false steps which she documents carefully. By treating the odes not only as a sequence but a progressive sequence, she gains some drama for the story, at the sacrifice of some credibility. The whole development that interests her takes place within a period of approximately six months and it would be best for her analysis if the odes came evenly spaced from each other. As it happens, the first five come nearly at once, and “To Autumn” so much later that one is tempted to take the absence of “ode” from the title as a clue that Keats did not regard it as part of the group. Further, Vendler’s ordering (Indolence, Psyche, Nightingale, Urn, Melancholy, Autumn) does not accord with Jack Stillinger’s edition of 1978 (in which these would be 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6), yet she offers no reason for correcting him apart from her own conviction. Still, the argument is original. It begins some way into Keats’s last phase, where other critics have been content to suppose his work already mature; and it explains as partial failures, or only interim successes, three poems which they have often regarded as masterpieces. “Other critics” is not an empty phrase, since of all English poets Keats has been the best served by modern criticism. In her opening pages Vendler acknowledges two dozen predecessors. Her list is not exhaustive, and yet she is not much indebted to any of them.

A device by which Vendler proposes to measure Keats’s advances within the ode-sequence is what she calls the “constitutive trope.” This varies from one poem to the next: taking them again in her order, she finds “dispute” helpful for an understanding of the “Ode on Indolence,” “reduplication” for the “Ode to Psyche,” and so on through “reiteration,” “interrogation,” “admonition,” to “enumeration” for “To Autumn.” The patterns that these words name are not what any other critic would call tropes—a term usually reserved for strong figures that twist the meaning of a word. They are, simply, patterns, or pedagogic aids to reading. If one thinks of a chain of powerful questions as essential to the effect of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?”—then the word “interrogation” justifies itself, without our having to pretend it gives us a new trope. Even with the help of “admonition,” however, the “Ode on Melancholy” may remain the most elusive of the group. In her somewhat perplexed admiration for this poem Vendler writes from a perspective natural to most readers today. But the same “Ode on Melancholy” would have been the poem of the group most accessible to Keats’s predecessors in the English ode, Thomas Gray and William Collins. Its allegory, which we find strained, was at home in their kind of poetry. It had become a conscious formality by the time Coleridge wrote “Hence, viper thoughts”; but to Keats that mode of address seems to come effortlessly again, and we are not sure what to make of his dexterity.

In arranging a deliberate buildup for Keats’s triumphal march at the end, Vendler is obliged to discover a fair number of shortcomings in the earlier odes, which readers not attuned to her story have either passed over or refused to consider as faults. The larger problems she discovers in Keats’s maturing view of poetry are often of her own devising. Thus, in the “Ode to a Nightingale” he is said to show dissatisfaction with his “postulate … that lyric art, of which the model is natural music, is self-expressive, a vehicle of sensation, nonmimetic, deceptive, uttered to no particular ear, and beautiful without respect to truth and verisimilitude.” Outside of this book, of course, Keats never credited anything like such a postulate, and its only function is to move the argument forward. Since we are two notches past Indolence but still three short of Autumn, something must be wrong, and this tells us what it is. Vendler’s more straightforward prospects of the task ahead can seem equally arbitrary. Because Keats went on writing at all after the odes “To a Nightingale” and “On a Grecian Urn,” we must, she supposes, “presume [that these poems] were still in some way unsatisfactory to him.” It would be just as safe to assume that he went on writing because he was delighted with what he had done so far.

Of Keats’s actual opinions, about poetry or anything else, we hear very little in this book. Vendler is as minimal as Cleanth Brooks in her use of biographical detail, and fragmentary in her dealings with all of Keats’s poetry before the volume of 1820. She excludes on principle most of his friendships, enthusiasms, hobbyhorses, prose, and sex. (In a curious moment she cites, as a mark of his identification with the nightingale, the fact that the bird is “sexless, [being] no more than a ‘wandering voice.’”) Nevertheless, the poet she has imagined is temporarily faithful to many postulates like the one just cited. He believes that “the diction of dream and waking” is “a way of making truth-claims.” He conceives of a flat opposition of sensation to thought, and beauty to truth, only at last coming to realize their interdependence. And in the “Ode to Psyche” he writes a poem which aims, “whatever its sensual metaphors (and these will demand their own recognition later), at a complete, exclusive, and lasting annihilation of the senses in favor of the brain.” The “recognition” seems plain enough, however, in a phrase of the “Ode to Psyche” itself—“branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain.” Vendler, in short, furnishes the mind of Keats with some silly notions, before she puts in their place some better ones.

On the whole, Vendler’s bias is ascetic rather than anti-intellectual, and she sees the temptations Keats has to resist as coming with about equal frequency from intellect and from fancy. In the “pained awakenings from fancy” may be found “Keats’s most solid poetic strength, a strength which eventually affirms not a vanishing but a discovery.” We are asked to trust those pained awakenings. Keats’s exhilarations, on the other hand, ought to leave us coldly suspicious: “Though it is true that the sequence about wine follows Keats’s usual rhythm of expansion and sinking, the impression left by the stanza (on us as on Byron) is one of feverish and insistent self-manipulation.” Byron’s exact words were: “Such writing is a sort of mental masturbation—he is always f—gg—g his imagination—I don’t mean that he is indecent but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state which is neither poetry nor any thing else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium.” Though Vendler does not give the passage, this must be what she has in mind: there is nothing else remotely like it among Byron’s comments on Keats. It does not capture the impression left by any part of the “Ode to a Nightingale”—indeed it was not written about any poem in particular. It is an instance of vulgarity and snobbery working together, and therefore a strange judgment for a modern critic to cite approvingly and in passing. Vendler probably would not go so far as to accuse Keats of frigging his imagination. Yet her willingness to have Byron as an ally is consistent with her general strictures: she admires Keats in his moods of equilibrium, and distrusts every touch of personal pathos. When she wants to praise lines that might seem to approach the “sublime-pathetic” that Keats appreciated in Milton, she has to clear them of any such feeling. “And, little town, thy streets for evermore / Will silent be …”: many readers have found in these words a strong current of sympathy. But for Vendler they express “a complete capitulation to mystery,” an “admirable acquiescence in ignorance.” The negative capability of this Keats is strictly negative.

The term of praise to which Vendler recurs most often is “aesthetic.” And a truly aesthetic art-object must be self-enclosed, autonomous, “a system of inexhaustible internal relations.” The Fall of Hyperion seems to her a failure because Keats’s muse, Moneta, and his subject, the Titans, “have not found a common aesthetic territory, or a theoretical base in Keats’s letters.” Again, the “Ode to a Nightingale” takes a wrong turn because “loading rifts is a retarding aesthetic.” The moral appears to be that a great many aesthetic defeats, which look like rhetorical victories, are needed to make a single aesthetic victory. For this critic the ode “To Autumn” is alone a sufficient reward for the long apprenticeship that produced it. She writes fifty-five pages on the poem, and leads in with three pages composed of twenty-two citations from other works by Keats. All that raw matter becomes important as ur-Autumn ode-stuff. In writing his farewell ode, Keats makes the “powerful discovery” of “a form of structural polyphony, in which several forms—each one autonomous, each one pregnant with meaning, each one continued for the full length of the ode—overlap in a palimpsest of effects.” So, very near the end of his life, Keats has the good fortune to be aesthetically complete. We may have admired “how great a step he had taken in the submission to reality in introducing, in the ‘Ode on Melancholy,’ Joy’s grape, which is nonetheless permitted to burst gratifyingly on the palate.” We must now recognize how far beyond this “To Autumn” reaches, with its fruit which “ascetically remains unconsumed, though crushed out of its former being.” To a performance that is chastened, realistic, and wholly serious, Vendler accords her highest praise:

Lyric—to Keats’s supreme joy—admits guiltlessly all five senses, and pleases all five senses, not directly … but with “spiritual sweets.” Keats’s perplexed mind has come to the great discovery that lyric makes sense by giving a natural topography to the algebra of thought. … [The poem] moves outward to engirdle the earth. … It can remember the songs of spring and it can forget that warm days can ever cease. … It is mimetic; it is (in its antiphony) dialectical. … Most of all, it is multiple.

“Guiltlessly” perhaps stands out as a vestige of the critic’s own asceticism rather than the poet’s, and the use of “algebra” may puzzle a reader who has not followed the whole argument of the book. But this word as Vendler employs it refers merely to the compression by which a detail may appear at once sensuous and allegorical. Simple arithmetic will in fact show the reason for her praise. “To Autumn” incorporates every pattern from the earlier five odes. It is therefore at least five times as good; and in describing the effect Vendler plainly shares something of Keats’s joy.

In addition to its several interpretations, The Odes of John Keats offers miscellaneous suggestions about sources and analogues. The retreat at dawn of the ghost in Hamlet, as a source of Keats’s “fade” in the “Ode to a Nightingale,” sounds reasonable but far from intuitive. On the other hand, the analogues with Yeats, which Vendler finds particularly in the “Ode on Indolence,” are good at first and improve on acquaintance. The connection she draws between Keats’s Moneta and Spenser’s Mutability is immediately persuasive, and will be important to anyone’s reading of Keats. And yet, having come this far, she misreads both the tone of Keats’s feelings about his muse, and the sense of his presentation: “the blank appearance of [Moneta’s] visionless eyes” reminds her chiefly of “art’s indifference to its audience.” But it is Keats who is indifferent, and Moneta who admonishes him for being so:

“High prophetess,” said I, “purge off
Benign, if so it please thee, my mind’s film.”
“None can usurp this height,” returned that shade,
“But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest.”

Moneta is visionless because she is beyond education by sight. She keeps the audience for poetry as well as its subject, the fate of others, always before Keats’s eyes; the miseries of the world concerned him so much that he could portray the “high prophetess” of his vocation as a being who knew everything about them. In a book full of good things, Vendler nowhere suggests the character of a poet for whom this could have been an appropriate muse.

J. S. Leonard (review date October 1985)

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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 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 sensibility”—but at the same time, a willingness to equivocate, to assume that tension and dislocation in the poetry are necessarily founded in tension and dislocation in the poet’s life, that, for example, a character named “Berserk” in the poetry is a message-in-a-bottle which conveys the poet’s fear of madness in himself. “The second phase,” says Vendler, “finds Stevens attempting to exorcise these private tensions by resorting to a solution in the social order”; and in the final phase, “Stevens writes a poetry of powerful retrospective weight,” recapturing the memories and attitudes of a lifetime. These descriptions of Stevens’ poetic phases are, for the most part, accurate (and correspond to those commonly accepted), yet the reasons given for the phases are questionable. Stevens for a brief period in the 1930s did try to write socially relevant poetry, but his motive seems not to have been “private tensions” so much as a well-publicized desire to write poetry appropriate for his time; and this, in the 1930s, entailed a degree of social concern. As for the late phase, Vendler rightly points out a certain air of dispassionate objectivity, but to assume that this reflects a final triumph over inner turmoil is to have overlooked the cool, abstract detachment of Stevens’ poetry from beginning to end—a quality widely recognized by both admirers and detractors.

Vendler, though perhaps not intentionally, proves something of a detractor herself as she begins her study by declaring, “Though there are poets undeniably greater than Stevens, and poets whom I love as well, he is the poet whose poems I would have written had I been the poet he was.” The tautological conclusion aside, what can we make of this casual banishment of Stevens from the ranks of the greatest? I would suggest that the disclaimer directly reflects the degree to which Vendler’s psychodramatic approach diminishes Stevens’ poetry by denying the consistent toughmindedness at work throughout—the clarity of mind which enabled him to rise above the merely personal, to illuminate the “principle” instead of the “particle.” She calls Stevens a poet of “winter,” finding in the poetry a predominance of “wintry feelings of apathy, reduction, nakedness, and doubt.” But Stevens is just as much a poet of “summer,” the time of the mind’s satisfaction (as seen in “Credences of Summer” and Notes). More important, Stevens reveals the “seasons of belief” within their aesthetic boundaries; and this does not at all mean that his emotional life necessarily fluctuates along with his intellectual interest. The “desire” he speaks of in his poetry is mostly not libidinal desire, as Vendler takes it to be, or even a more generalized desire for personal contact. It is, as he makes clear in his poetry and in prose comments, a desire for some object of belief which “satisfies the imagination” and adheres to the reality of the time in which he lives. Vendler is known as a sensitive reader of poetry, Stevens’ poetry included, but too often in this book the “words chosen out of desire” seem chosen out of her own desire to support a highly questionable thesis, and not out of the desire of the poet about whom she writes.

James Gardner (review date January 1986)

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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 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 event, these selections turn out to be quite unremarkable. Much more surprising in a book billed as a compilation of “contemporary” verse is the great preponderance of older poets (many of whom are long dead), and even among these poets, Professor Vendler’s selections are highly unusual.

There is, to be sure, a problem of definition here. A question to which Professor Vendler does not really address herself in her otherwise not uninformative introduction is the meaning that should be given to the word “contemporary” when applied to poetry. In the visual arts, although the term can mean works created in the post-World War II period, it is used most often to refer to the art being created right now, an art whose nebulous origins can be but dimly glimpsed in the dark age prior to 1980. Contemporary art may be allowed to extend back to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns in the early 60’s, because they are still very much with us, but it would seem peculiar to hear Jackson Pollock or Henri Matisse called a contemporary artist. Analogously, in poetry the word contemporary would refer to poets who are not only alive today but whose contribution is ongoing. Thus John Ashbery would be included because he continues to develop, in addition to being very influential with today’s younger poets, while Allen Ginsberg would be left out because his main influence was felt in the 60’s, and to the extent that he still writes he is more or less repeating what he did twenty-five years ago.

Professor Vendler may intend the word contemporary to be taken in its larger sense, referring to poetry written after 1945; yet even if it were conceded that this is a worthy aim, since World War II does not mark so great a division in poetry as it does in the visual arts she would still have much to answer for. What, for instance, is Wallace Stevens doing here, especially when she has left out T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, all of whom outlived him by rather a few years? Why is Langston Hughes included, when he is associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 20’s and even then was not the best black poet? What are Theodore Roethke’s poems from the 30’s doing here, or those of Randall Jarrell, who was never all that influential or all that good, as Professor Vendler herself would seem to agree, given the meager space she allots him? And it is also worth asking why poets surely better than many included here have been left out, among them Robert Penn Warren who is, if nothing else, very influential with the newest generation.

The upshot is that Professor Vendler does not exhibit a deep sense of where the roots of today’s poetry really lie, or at any rate she fails to communicate her ideas successfully either in her introduction or in her selections of older and younger poets. The reader who approaches this anthology in search of enlightenment about our nation’s poetry either in the 20th century overall or in the present generation specifically will probably not come away with anything other than a hazy and inexact general impression. And since the poetry included in this volume spans most of the century, there is also the danger that it will be mistaken for a wildly eccentric and misleading compilation of 20th-century American verse.

It must be said in Professor Vendler’s defense, however, that she has managed to communicate a sense of the diversity of the poetry of our time without sacrificing her sense of quality. Resolutely representing each “tendency”—whether in feminist, homosexual, or black poetry, or indeed any other—she persuades us that while certain voices have not always been included solely upon the basis of their poetic merit, if they had not demonstrated such merit they would not have been included at all.

In giving us the work of an individual poet, moreover, Professor Vendler conscientiously conveys an idea of his general achievement without trying to shape him into something other than he is. She also attempts to be at all times characteristic in her selection, so that the reader who comes to a poet for the first time in this anthology will have a fair notion of his overall output. One would imagine that the poets, too, would be happy with the selections, because Professor Vendler has almost always shown them at their best. Finally, the newcomer to this often difficult and hieratic poetry will be grateful for Professor Vendler’s choice of those poems which, in addition to being the best and most characteristic, also tend to be fairly readily understood.


In her introduction, Professor Vendler has some thoughtful and thought-provoking things to say about the poetry and the poetic language of modern America. “This anthology,” she begins, “will be able to extend its charm only to those who genuinely know the American language—by now a language separate, in accent, intonation, discourse, and lexicon, from English.”

A kernel of truth is undeniably present in this statement: there is surely a difference between the English spoken in the United States and the English of the British Isles, and our spoken idiom is apt to find its way into the poems that contemporary Americans write. But to say that the poetry here presented will appeal only to those “who genuinely know the American language” is, as I understand it, to say that it will be appreciated solely by people who either were born here or have lived here for some time, and this is probably not so. I do not know how it feels not to be a native American, but since I am able, without being British or French, to understand Philip Larkin’s somewhat dialectal “British” English, or the French of Blaise Cendrars, it would seem to me possible for a foreigner with little background in our specific use of the language to appreciate the poetry in this anthology. The point is simply that it is one thing to know a language actively, that is, to be able to speak it and write it, and entirely another thing to know it passively, that is, to understand what is written or spoken in it.

But more important than this, surely, is the fact that the crucial distinction between American and British English is one of vocabulary rather than one of grammar or word order. And the difference that does exist with respect to vocabulary usually has less to do with the names we give to things (with the exception of such obvious differences as saying “elevator” instead of “lift”) than with certain expression, mostly slang, which we sometimes substitute for ordinary words in order to make a statement more emphatic. When our poets use such slang and other conspicuously American expressions, they do so in order to accentuate primarily the emotional rather than the thematic thrust of a poem, and this merely reinforces the point made earlier, that even so idiomatic a language as that of much modern American poetry will be readily understood by non-native foreigners as long as they have had some grounding in the English that exists at the crossroads of all its dialectal aberrations.

In defining American English, Professor Vendler calls it “a language that has assimilated the syncopation of jazz, the stylishness of advertising the technicalities of psychoanalysis, the simplicities of rural speech, the discourse of the university disciplines, the technology of the engineer, the banalities of journalism.” This she contrasts with “the principal English vocabulary of lark, primrose, and cottage farm.” In this statement she would appear, astonishingly, to subscribe to the notion that England is a nation of butlers. One wonders what she would make of these robust lines by Larkin, who was considered for the position of England’s Poet Laureate:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
           They may not mean to, but they do,
They fill you with the faults they had
           And add some extra, just for you.

As is evident to anyone who has thumbed through an anthology of recent British poetry, all those “modern” expression that inform American poetry, though not in the degree that Professor Vendler believes, are to be found with equal force in the works of our transatlantic brethren.

The truth of the matter is that, rather than there being a distinctly American way of writing poetry, the predominant idiom in all European languages today is as much governed by a single aesthetic as was the poetry of the 17th, 18th, or 19th century. As the Mexican poet Octavio Paz has remarked. “There is not (there has never been) a French poetry, an Italian, Spanish, or English: there was a poetry of the Renaissance, a Baroque poetry, a Romantic poetry. There is a contemporary poetry written in all the languages of the West.”

One could even say that in many respects contemporary poetry is more strikingly homogenous than poetry ever was in the other epochs mentioned by Paz. And while it is true that the emergence of the United States as a world power has placed English in a position to influence other languages more than ever before, the poems in Professor Vendler’s anthology are nevertheless recognizable first as contemporary poetry and only then as some uniquely American creation in which a distinct body of our fellow citizens share and poets of other nationalities just as distinctly do not.


Still, if Professor Vendler has not presented a convincing case either for an autonomous American language or for a distinctly American poetry, in her comments on contemporary poetry as Americans write it she is often accurate. In referring to John Berryman, for example, she points to a pervasive feature among all contemporary poets which she describes as an “imaginative claim to a personal territory.” The importance of this factor can scarcely be overestimated: every single poet included in this volume has in some way been touched profoundly by the quest for a unique voice or manner.

This same quest for individuality, it need hardly be said, has dramatically characterized all the arts for over a century now. But its presence is somehow more neurotically insistent in poetry than in any other art form. The reason for this is that, of all the arts, undistinguished poetry, and undistinguished lyric poetry especially, is least able to offer a convincing excuse for its existence. A novel may not be very distinctive stylistically, but as long as the narrative is done with reasonable competence, the illusion of reality created by the novelist will be sufficiently compelling to keep the reader’s interest. The same may be said of a mediocre play or film, in which there is also the possibility of a good performance or a beautiful leading lady. Similarly, a fair piece of music still has the power to charm, and a mediocre work of visual art, even if less forgivable, can afford the sort of pleasure that derives from pure passages of color or the vivid representation of images; in addition, being a physical, possessable thing, a work of art can be exchanged for capital.

In contrast with all these, a mediocre and unoriginal lyric poem (for only lyric poetry is really being written today) can neither create an extended illusion, nor impinge directly upon any organ of sense, nor present us with the simulacrum of anything that would actually please if it were real, nor, finally, be bought or sold. A poem, in short, must be excellent or it has no reason for being. And since the excellence of modern poetry is defined by nothing so much as the persuasive individuality of the author, the poet must be entirely himself or he is nothing; thus does the quest for originality become a quest for poetic survival.

This was not always true, and it is to be regretted that we may never again be in a position to admire a poet for his conformity with a prevenient tradition. Among the poets included in Professor Vendler’s anthology, it is only the best who occasionally let us forget that so much of what they write has been influenced by the compelling necessity to be at all costs original.

This obsessive clamoring for a distinctive idiom manifests itself both in what is being said and in the manner of its expression. Implicit is the conviction, shared by audience and poets alike, that poetry must be existentially at variance with the general order of things, and that all its practitioners should assume the role of the accursed and antisocial poète maudit. We live in an age of Catullus and Ovid with no one to aspire to the grandeur of Virgil or Horace. Although there is no reason, in theory, that a great poet could not emerge equal to the task of honoring the nature of things, given the expectations of publishers and reviewers and readers, such a poet would soon enough know what it means to be truly maudit. One has only to consider the confusion and chagrin induced in certain British poets recently when they discovered that they were being considered for the poet laureateship of England.

The man who was ultimately chosen for that position, Ted Hughes, is, at least in his poems, something of a wild man, probably best known to Americans for having been married to the legendary Sylvia Plath, herself included in Professor Vendler’s anthology where she can be found declaring, in a not uncharacteristic passage:

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.

There are obvious similarities between this sort of thing and these lines by Charles Wright:

Flash click tick, flash click tick, light
Through the wavefall—electrodes, intolerable curlicues;
Splinters along the skin, eyes
Flicked by the sealash, spun, pricked;

The vast majority of the poems included in this anthology strive consciously for such roughness, constantly demonstrating the desire to violate the politeness and poise associated with the poetry of earlier times. Indeed, the alacrity with which our poets assail the superannuated conventions of their art is at the same time something of a political statement, stressing the ascendancy of the individual will, of “man’s unconquerable mind” (as Wordsworth says), over the tyrannous and inhibiting forces of society. But the ineluctable irony at the center of such violent expressions is that these outbursts are what society more or less requires of its poets.

This intricate and involved paradox, of a society in rebellion against itself and an aesthetic which is nonconformist at the behest of the very forces with which it will not conform, casts an unflattering light upon all but the very best poets collected in Professor Vendler’s anthology. After all, if society had not set its canon against convention, most of these poets would eagerly be writing sonnets and heroic couplets, taking neurotic care to make sure that all their syllables added up and also that their moral fiber was suitably in evidence. Or are we to believe that the human race, in a period of scarcely two hundred years, has undergone such a transformation that whereas most poets once seemed pious stuffed shirts and Tories, now through their own unassisted inclinations they have become honest, free-spirited, and bumptious?

One of the more interesting turns that this rebellion takes, if something so consistently sanctioned may be called a rebellion, is a kind of subversion of poetic form from within. This makes use of many of the older conventions of traditional poetry but in such a way as to cast the more contemporary elements into dramatic relief. In her anthology, Professor Vendler has included several such poets, among them Theodore Roethke, Howard Nemerov, Robert Lowell, and James Merrill. Why is it, for example, that the following lines by Roethke (which are not included in Professor Vendler’s anthology) could not have been written in the 18th or 19th century?

Should every creature be as I have been,
There would be reason for essential sin;
I have myself an inner weight of woe
That God himself can scarcely bear.

Where in precisely consists the contemporaneity of this first quatrain of a Shakespearean sonnet by Nemerov?

We who survived the war and took to wife
And sired the kids and made the decent living,
And piecemeal furnished forth the finished life
Not by grand theft so much as petty thieving—

Or this, from a sonnet by Merrill?

We love the good, said Plato? He was wrong
We love as well the wicked and the weak.
Flesh hugs its shaved plush. Twenty-four-hour-long
Galas fill the hulk of the Comique.

What is striking in all three of these excerpts is the smugness of the self-condemnation, in which Nemerov includes the rest of his generation and Merrill would seem to include the rest of Western society. In their attacks upon complacency these poets declare themselves to be sinful, thieving, and wicked—but less, one feels, out of any genuine self-hatred than out of a self-satisfied regard for their own becoming waywardness. Contrast these lines by Donne in one of his Holy Sonnets:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright.
But black sinne has betraid to endless night
My world both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

Unlike Donne, our three authors do not use the “I” in a universal sense, and unlike other earlier poets they do not attack a universal failing impersonally. Instead they externalize their own putative failings in such a way as never quite to reflect discredit upon themselves, but rather to endow themselves with a kind of glamorous anti-heroism.

This attitude had formal implications. If it is essential that today’s poets assert their radical individuality, one way to accomplish this is by locating themselves in opposition to poetic tradition. Thus it is that on the battlefields of their poems they seem constantly to be waging the same war that Eliot and Pound won for them unconditionally in the first quarter of the 20th century. Occasionally this will take the form of a mannered and thoroughgoing obedience to the metrical canon of the past, in which the unmodulated iambic pentameter rolls on with a monotony whose effect is only to confirm most people’s convictions that no one should write that way any more: to this formal insipidity is then added a formal waywardness—parallel to that spiritual waywardness I have already mentioned—such as the inexplicable absence of rhyme in Roethke’s third and fourth lines as well as the missing foot in the fourth, or the curious admixture in Nemerov of the grandiose and the banal in phrases like “sired the kids.” Then there are such blandly pat and alliterative lines as “And piecemeal furnished forth the finished life” and “We love as well the wicked and the weak,” written as it were within quotation marks and understood to allude to formal conventions to which, it is implicitly signaled, the poet does not wholly subscribe. Thus do the struggles of early modernism continue to play themselves out in ever more effect and self-conscious forms.


Helen Vendler makes a great deal of the influence on contemporary poetry of Wallace Stevens, who is (as I have already noted) the only poet of Eliot and Pound’s generation to be included in her anthology. In one sense she may be right to include him, not only on account of his manifest excellence but also for his cultivation of a kind of superfine disengagement this is enjoying a reinvigorated vogue among today’s poets. Yet if Stevens is to be judged more highly than Eliot, as he often is nowadays, he deserves the distinction only by virtue of his more copious productivity, which adheres more consistently to a very high standard. There is nevertheless something reassuringly human in Eliot’s variations in standard, and this human quality endows his poetry at certain priceless moments with a grandeur and profundity which Stevens never matches.

The conditioned reader of Stevens’s poetry in due course comes up against an overwhelming sense of limitation, a feeling that just as there is a high level below which Stevens does not fall, so there is another level, only slightly higher, beyond which he will never go. Although there is an undeniable beauty to many of his poems, which most of the poets in this volume will never realize the half of, still that beauty seldom alters its form, seldom varies in the degree of its intensity, and seems at all times to be placed in the service of one solitary idea (which is, paradoxically, the need for ridding oneself of ideas). Generations may pass before any of Stevens’s countless commentators has the courage to avow that the poet has moments of greater and lesser lucidity, during the latter of which he becomes more or less incoherent, and that he does best when he surrenders entirely to his unsurpassed gift for appealing to the eye through the ear, as in the well-known opening lines of “Sunday Morning,” the poem which more than any other may be said to have made his reputation:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo. …

Multiply this by five hundred pages, and you have the unique achievement of Wallace Stevens. The reader who forsakes the search for coherence in Stevens, and is willing to surrender himself wholly to the music, will find his greatest satisfaction in opening Stevens’s books to any page and reading a few lines at a time. Such is the frequency with which critics and scholars have quoted Stevens, and such is the nature of his poetic gifts, that few modern poets would be better served by suffering the fate of Sappho and Sir Walter Raleigh, whose primary texts have all been lost and who survive only in those numerous and choice fragments that their contemporaries could not forget. For there comes a point in Stevens’s poetry in which his method simply breaks down, and the attentive reader perceives through the mists of superabundant gorgeousness a human being struggling to make a good showing, hoping that his disconnected images will somehow pass for a theme of philosophical consequence.

In this regard, as in others, Stevens resembles that contemporary poet who, despite all their differences, most deserves to be called his disciple, John Ashbery. Ashbery shares with Stevens an aversion to ideas, and this is manifested in a similar failing (perhaps his only one), namely, the inability to persuade us that his many beautiful images have been invented to fit a larger whole. Yet Ashbery’s poems, free of Stevens’s icy formalism, also have an endearing commonsensicality that you will not find in Stevens. One of his principal virtues is a genuine humor, another a sensitivity to the ceaseless continuum of life on earth. Most of Ashbery’s poems seem to take place in the afternoon, in the hours of purest sunlight, and during this perennial siesta Ashbery finds a context in which to distill the quintessence of Stevens’s “pure being,” capturing it not only in what he says but in the very syllables he speaks:

                    All we know
Is that we are a little early, that
Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have
been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to

Or this (like the above, from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”):

                    Hasn’t it too its lair
In the present we are always escaping from
And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?

Ashbery has managed to intimidate many of his readers through the impenetrable entanglements of images and words in some of his poems, but there he is merely mistaking the nature of his own virtues, as though, having read too many of his exegetes, he actually has deluded himself into thinking he was ever able to articulate something of an intellectual heftiness. In fact, his sole virtue, considerable in itself, is that limpidity and directness which he must struggle never to lose sight of.


Stevens and Ashbery are almost alone in this anthology in being resolutely bored by politics. The most perverse statement of Stevens’s inability to understand much besides his own poetry is to found in his “Prose Statement on the Poetry of War.” Amid the mirthless gravity of World War II he delivered an opinion so characteristically opaque and narcissistically stylized that I for one have never been able to make much of it, nor have I ever heard anyone give a convincing explanation of what he was trying to say. As for the rest, Professor Vendler says it best in her introduction: “These poets also, many of them, write within a post-Marxist clouding of the American self-image: voices of protest rise from women (Plath, Sexton, Rich), from blacks (Hayden, Harper, Dove), from the dispossessed (James Wright), from the counterculture (Snyder), from self-declared homosexuals and lesbians (Ginsberg, Rich), from Americans in opposition to American foreign policy (Lowell, Merwin).”

In selecting works by these political poets, Professor Vendler has on the whole shied away from their more tendentious efforts, whose artistry is not infrequently stifled by the vehemence of their advocacy. In the case of Adrienne Rich, however, it is paradoxically true that her activist bent has liberated her from many of the preoccupations that so often impede the poetry of the other women, and indeed the other men, in this anthology. For she alone seems to believe that poetry has a purpose more important than the poetry itself, and while historically such a belief has led to propagandistic doggerel aspiring to nothing higher than inciting revolts in factories, in the case of Miss Rich it seems to have spared her the anxiety of trying first and foremost to find an original voice. It is as though her ability to write well derived from her not being afraid to write badly. Her tone of voice is usually clear, direct, and unmannered, and the sincerity of her poetry is one of its greatest virtues. Thus, reminiscing about her grandmother:

I see you walking up and down the garden,
restless, southern-accented, reserved, you did not seem
my mother’s mother or anyone’s grandmother.
You were Mary, widow of William, and no matriarch,
yet smoldering to the end with frustrate life,
ideas nobody listened to, least of all my father.

By contrast, in the work of another woman, the late Elizabeth Bishop, who is an equally good but not a better poet, there is always uppermost a concerted striving after victory over unyielding meters and challenging and arcane subjects. Like her friend James Merrill, with whom she has much in common, Elizabeth Bishop always seeks a fine-spun reconstitution of the material world into something rich and strange, one that will be purer than all the imperfections and fatigue of the flesh. Like Marianne Moore and Stevens, she is too vain to allow herself ever to be seen except in full dress, yet her creations are somewhat less agile than those of the two older poets, and the striving which they manage to conceal is not infrequently too evident in her verse.

Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who both committed suicide, are as a rule too unbalanced to take much interest in anything outside of their own problematic psyches; they may be considered feminists only in the sense that they cultivate a shrillness designed to explode any myth of woman as a soft and caressable creature. In Plath’s poetry there is furthermore an unassuageable anger directed both against her own father and against the institution of maternity, as though she intended to sever herself even from these last and heretofore indestructible bonds of human nature. As for the vaunted confessional integrity of her poems, any conscientious reader must at some point begin to harbor the distasteful suspicion that in submitting them for publication, Plath forfeited all title to honesty and was aiming for something else entirely: namely, fame and the esteem of her readers.

How different from this filial and maternal abdication is the renowned “Kaddish” of Allen Ginsberg, a long poem which Professor Vendler has had the bounty to quote in full. The tone of this poem has all of the vigor and little of the stridency of Ginsberg’s later homoerotic and anti-capitalist works, which rarely rise above pornography on the one hand and sophomoric propaganda on the other. It is written in the paragraph stanzas of Whitman, and while Professor Vendler asserts that Whitman is “our greatest American poet,” I would say that there is in Ginsberg’s use of the language a higher consistency of condensation, which partakes more fully of what we usually mean by poetry.

Ginsberg is in one sense quite similar to Ashbery, to whom, in so many other respects, he is diametrically opposed. Both men have only one virtue, but a pervasive and an idiosyncratic one, for the exercise of which it is essential that Ashbery be entirely Ashbery and Ginsberg entirely Ginsberg. We should not go to them for a classic or definitive utterance of anything other than themselves, and it would be foolhardy to expect from them a carefully reasoned or even clever meditation on anything. Rather, the pleasure to be derived from their poetry is the pleasure that arises out of a certain conjunction of syllables to which only they know the secret. If the reader develops a taste for this conjunction, he will seek it out in their poetry, and no matter what the ostensible subject matter, as long as the treatment is identifiably theirs it will give delight. As with that other long poem that Professor Vendler gives in its entirety, Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” so in “Kaddish” the reader may find his greatest pleasure to consist as much in dipping into it anywhere as in reading it as a coherent narrative.


Helen Vendler’s selection of poets from the latest generation, like Dave Smith, Louise Glück, Albert Goldbarth, Jorie Graham, and Rita Dove, really cannot be faulted, since they are all fairly representative, and none of them is conspicuously bad. But perhaps it will serve as a sufficient indictment of the present state of American poetry to note that she could easily have found ten or twenty other poets of equal quality without too drastic an alteration in the overall effect of this final part of her anthology. This is not to say that they are unoriginal, or even that they are ostensibly very similar to one another; the virtue of uniqueness is after all a precondition for their inclusion. But since none of them rises to too conspicuous an eminence over his contemporaries, taken together they cannot but give the sense of a drab and uninspiring coda tacked on to the more serious business that came before.

The title of precedence over all other living American poets will now have to be fought out by Ginsberg and Ashbery. Yet, at the risk of concluding upon a lugubrious note, it must be admitted that neither in America nor abroad is there now an English-language poet of the very highest stature, or even one approaching that slightly lower stature of Eliot, Stevens, and Yeats.

James E. B. Breslin (review date 12 February 1988)

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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 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 from John Ashbery to A. R. Ammons, from Seamus Heaney to Allen Ginsberg.

Individually, these essays confirm Vendler’s authority as a subtle, shrewd and demanding critic of recent American poetry and as a writer who possesses a confident, weighty, ruminative prose style, one that is richly allusive without being pedantic, and elevated without being stuffy. Concluding her review of Ammons’ “Collected Poems,” she writes with a characteristically moving intelligence: “Some of us have found, in these poems, a home for our own spirits, words for intimations we were unable to articulate alone. In this way, language becomes a habitable place, and place finds a home in language.” Familiarizing us with both new and traditional work, Vendler’s essays aim not to display the cleverness of the critic but to make poetry a habitable place.

Collected in book form, however, these essays also ask us to identify and assess the critical ground which Vendler herself inhabits. Strongly held, her values are not hard to find. Vendler is suspicious of “plain style” poetic realists who attempt to render physical or historical actuality—just as, at the other rhetorical extreme, she distrusts the oratory of romantic visionaries or prophets of social protest. In particular, angry women—Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich—disturb Vendler, though she has perceptive things to say about all three of them. Radically experimental poets she does not suspect, she mainly ignores, with innovators like W. C. Williams, Ezra Pound and Charles Olson occupying very marginal places in her canon.

Instead, Vendler prefers an inwardly reflective lyric, tragic in its sense of human limits and written in a dense, allusive language whose relation to the social, historical world is allegorical or emblematic. Keats, Stevens and Ashbery emerge as the pre-eminent figures in her poetic line. But Vendler’s emphases, not just subjective “taste,” define a particular critical position. Ammons, Vendler says, articulates what his readers have already felt. Similarly, Vendler holds that “to clothe common perceptions is striking language, not to enunciate striking perceptions, is the function of poetry.” This combination of familiar experience with unique language—which oddly separates form from content—establishes Vendler’s perspective as one linking traditional humanism with New Critical aestheticism.

The dynamic interaction between the two sides of this humanist/aesthete opposition works both to strengthen and to limit her work. The New Critic in Vendler enjoys the intricate verbal surface of poetry and the movements of a language freed from any proposition commitments; a lyric poem, she says, keeps “circling” or “doubling back” on “its own logic” rather than making positive or negative assertions. Such pleasures, however, are available only to a cultural elite; thus Vendler’s humanism works to ground them in shared, common” experience and to provide her with the base for her confident statements of what “we” think or feel.

At the same time, Vendler’s humanism works to defend her against the danger she feels in being carried away by the potentially ceaseless circulations of language. Humanism is a principle of limit, stability, closure—depending not upon a stated ideology but upon a pluralism that has real but unspoken limits. Vendler admires the bold, free-wheeling writings of someone like Roland Barthes, for whom, as she puts it, “the irreducible plurality of signifying is set against ideological consistency.” Yet “if there is a flaw in the Barthesian aesthetic,” she later warns, “it is the overvaluing of the hunger for innumerable new objects.” As a principle of limit Vendler can only vaguely appeal to—the principle of limits; “we” may or may not follow her here.

The problem is not that Helen Vendler has limits. Who doesn’t? The trouble is that the limits, because they are vaguely defined, sometimes seem social, a code of poetic good manners. Moreover, just as Vendler’s tone doesn’t permit much self-questioning or playfulness, her limits are not severely tested against work that is radically alien and disruptive of the more traditional means about which she writes so well.

Bruce Bawer (review date Winter 1989)

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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 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 University, and is the centerpiece of the American poetry criticism list of that university’s highly prestigious press. Not only does Harvard publish her books of criticism, furthermore—among them On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’s Longer Poems (1969) and Part of Nature, Part of Us (1980)—but when it came time to compile the Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry (1985), it was Vendler who was signed up as editor. Likewise, when the producers of the Public Broadcasting System’s recent “Voices and Visions” series about American poetry wanted a series consultant, it was Vendler whom they hired.

In short, Helen Vendler has assumed a singular, and a truly remarkable, place in the criticism of our time: she is that individual to whom a disproportionate number of the most influential editors, publishers, and producers automatically turn when the subject is poetry. In some of the most august editorial chambers in the country, to think of poetry criticism is to think of Helen Vendler. How, one may wonder, has this peculiar state of affairs come to pass? The answer is, I think, an involved, interesting, and instructive one. To begin with, it seems to me that Vendler’s prominence is directly related to the unprominent position of the art in which she specializes. Let me explain. A generation ago, it was a frequent complaint among poets that the typical educated American was ignorant of and uncomfortable with poetry; nowadays, alas, even the typical professional literary person—whether writer, editor, or publisher—is rather ignorant of and uncomfortable with it. And even those relative few who retain a lively interest in and affection for the poetry they learned in school don’t know much about the poetry that is being written today. Yet, every so often, such people must make decisions relating to contemporary poetry—decisions about review assignments, editing assignments, consulting assignments. In such an atmosphere, name recognition is all-important. An editor who knows little about contemporary poetry is unlikely to know much about those who do know something about it. He will tend, therefore, to go with a known quantity. What this means is that he will be likely to go for established poets and for big-name English professors at major universities.

But how many poets or academics of this description are actually capable of writing for a general audience about poetry these days? Not many. In growing numbers, the academics are irredeemable ideologues, straitjacketed by perverse conceptions of the nature of literary art (not to mention incapable, by and large, of producing readable prose). How about the poets? After all, since the Renaissance it has been poets who have made the most estimable contributions to poetry criticism. One thinks, for instance, of Sidney’s “Apologie for Poetry,” Dryden’s “Essay of Dramatic Poesie,” Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Arnold’s The Function of Criticism, and Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” As recently as a generation or two ago, the major American poetry critics—such people as Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Louise Bogan—were also distinguished poets. But things have changed dramatically. In our time, most American poets seem largely incapable of thinking critically or of writing competent, intelligent prose about their art; when they do want to say something, whether about their poetry or someone else’s, or indeed about the art of poetry in general, they tend to do so in interviews or published “conversations.” And what they have to say often proves to be astonishingly banal.

That leaves a relatively small number of suitable candidates for the role of American poetry critic to the multitudes—among them Helen Vendler. One factor in her favor is that she is not an ideological critic but, by her own description, an “aesthetic critic.” Quite admirably, she believes that a poem should be judged according to its value as a work of art and not according to its fealty to one or another set of extraliterary principles; she has little affection for poststructuralism, and even less for Marxist and feminist criticism. What’s more, she writes (for an academic) a relatively lucid prose, relatively free of jargon. All this makes her more welcome in the pages of a general-audience magazine like the New Yorker than many a member of the Derrida-era professoriat would be. Beyond these factors, however, the fact that Vendler, rather than some other, similarly qualified individual, came to be the most known of known quantities in her field is doubtless largely a matter of chance. What is certainly undeniable is that for some time now, the main factor in Vendler’s rising visibility has been the snowball effect: every time an editor, producer, or publisher taps her for another high-visibility assignment, the known quantity becomes even more of a known quantity. The problem of whom to retain for the occasional poetry assignment no longer exists. Thus does Vendler’s fame feed both upon itself and upon the very obscurity of the art she criticizes.

As I have suggested, Vendler’s role is doubly unprecedented. Not only is she the first American poetry critic to occupy so prominent a position in relation to her fellow American poetry critics; she is also the first non-poet to ascend to the first rank of those American critics who focus primarily on poetry. To my mind, the fact that Vendler does not write poetry (or, at least, does not publish it) is of considerable significance. For while such arts as music, painting, and architecture have often drawn their finest critics from the ranks of non-practitioners (e.g., Ruskin on art, Shaw on music), poetry is different. Poetry shares a medium—the written word—with criticism. Accordingly it is a good deal easier to imagine, say, a person attracted to the writing of art criticism but not to the practice of painting, than it is to imagine a person who is at once (a) drawn by his talents and his passions to the vocation of a writer and (b) genuinely and deeply responsive to the music of poetry but who (c) has no gift for, or attraction to, the composition of poetry. Indeed, it is here, I believe, that Vendler’s principal deficiency as a poetry critic lies. For, deeply responsive though she may think herself to be to the music of poetry, the simple fact is that she lacks the one thing a critic of poetry cannot do without: a good ear. She has no taste. She is as likely to praise a bad poet as a good one, as likely to quote with admiration an awful stanza as an exquisite one. The poets whom she has attempted to add to the contemporary canon—notably Michael Blumenthal, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, and Charles Wright—are conspicuously and uniformly bad. Vendler claims to be an admirer of Wallace Stevens, but the positively awful taste she has displayed in regard to poets who are her age or younger suggests that if Stevens were Vendler’s exact contemporary, and had started publishing his poetry about the same time she started reviewing, she would never have paid any attention to him.

To be sure, Vendler has her virtues as a critic. Above all, she is good at taking poems apart and putting them back together again. Her explications of specific poems can be thoughtful and intelligent; she has a fine analytical mind, and can discuss with conviction and authority everything from a poem’s sound patterns to its structure of meaning. I share her desire, moreover, that students be familiar with “a hoard of poems in the mother tongue, known so intimately that they become nature, not art,” and her worry that “the classical and English canon may be slipping out of our grasp, to be replaced by a modern canon of unrhymed and translated pieces.” (Yet who has done more than Vendler herself to canonize contemporary poets with no gift for form?) I think she’s right to be uncomfortable when she sees a critic (Robert Hass) who can’t read Polish writing about a poet (Czeslaw Milosz) whose work is written in Polish. (Yet Vendler herself, who is equally unfamiliar with Polish, has herself written an essay about Milosz.) She is correct, too, in criticizing Dave Smith for the inconsistent tone of his essays, which are by turns chatty, hortatory, and academic—and yet she seems incapable of recognizing that much of Smith’s poetry, which she purports to admire, shares this same lack of tonal control. Which brings us back to her bad ear. Manifestly, Vendler’s failure to perceive the deficiencies of Dave Smith’s work is a vivid illustration of her inability to hear poems—and in an age when most other academic critics can’t hear them either, and when otherwise thoughtful and sensitive editors feel too intimidated by and unfamiliar with the subject of contemporary poetry to question her critical judgments, Vendler (to speak bluntly) manages to get away with this cardinal failing. Her power is such, moreover, that whereas there is probably no one else whose name stirs up so much heated negative comment when poets and poetry readers come together, virtually nobody else has ever dared to air his misgivings about her in print. More than one poet-critic known to gripe loudly about Vendler at literary gatherings has been known, upon being assigned a book of hers for review, to turn around and praise her fulsomely.

That Vendler’s ear for poetry has not improved in recent years is made painfully manifest in her newest book of critical essays, The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. Reprinted not only from the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, but also from the Times Literary Supplement, the New Republic, Salmagundi, Poetry, Critical Inquiry, the Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and two academic anthologies entitled What Is a Poet and Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, the thirty-six essays collected in this volume are concerned with the work of some thirty or so poets (from Wordsworth and Keats to Ashbery and Ginsberg), with a handful of critics (e.g., Bloom, Barthes, Robert Hass), and with—to quote the title of the opening essay—“The Function of Criticism.” It is while reading this very first essay that one begins to entertain grave doubts about the nature of Vendler’s responsiveness to poetry. For throughout much of this essay, Vendler’s emphasis is not upon the question of the value and purpose of literary criticism (which is, of course, an ancient and valid area of inquiry) but upon the question of the critic’s reason for writing criticism—the “motives for criticism,” as she puts it. The best Vendler can offer, by way of an answer to this question, is a frightening list of possible motives which she herself describes as “discreditable (if entirely human) ones … envy, competition, defensive reaction-formation, power-seeking, and spiritual parricide.”

Not a word does Vendler breathe about what, to my way of thinking, should be the foremost motive of any true poetry critic: a love of poetry so strong that one feels compelled to voice one’s reverence for the art’s most gifted practitioners, compelled to separate the wheat from the chaff, compelled to express one’s outrage whenever mediocrity is celebrated and beauty ignored, compelled to understand as well as possible what it is, in a given poem or body of work, that stirs one’s soul. Vendler’s failure even to give this motive a place on her list seems to me a mark of the thoroughly academic nature of her sensibility: to Vendler, plainly, criticism is not a calling but a profession. That this is indeed the case would seem to be supported by the revelation, in her 1980 collection Part of Nature, Part of Us, that her career as the nation’s number-one poetry reviewer began as the result of “a lucky chance”: “The Massachusetts Review annually commissioned someone to consider the year’s work in poetry, and in 1966, when I was teaching at Smith, I was asked to take it on.” Before that assignment, Vendler’s writing had been of the most routine professorial sort: she had published a few academic essays and a scholarly book entitled Yeats’s Vision and the Later Plays (which, by the way, she does not include in the dust jacket list of her “major books”). Her turn to poetry reviewing seems quite clearly to have been less a case of a woman following her heart than of a professor making a savvy career decision.

Vendler is, indeed, an academic through and through. One often gets the impression that poetry is unimaginable, for her, outside the English department. Certainly it doesn’t occur to her that someone other than a university professor might read or write about poetry. (“[A] greater problem for those of us writing commentary on poetry,” she maintains in one essay, “is the American compulsion to ‘communicate,’ intensified by our profession as teacher.”) Her sensibility is essentially that of an academic clubbist. Though not a practitioner of literary theory, she nonetheless speaks of herself—and of everyone who writes criticism—as having “been put on notice, by the salutary sternness of literary theory, that our terms are likely to be interrogated.” Likewise, though she disagrees strongly with the assumptions of feminist criticism, she quite blithely accepts the feminists’ politicization of literature and their affirmative-action approach to the making of canons and reading lists as part of the academic status quo. (“As Sexton passes into the anthologies,” she writes, “the more obviously ‘feminist’ poems will no doubt be chosen, and there is no reason not to represent them.”)

Like a true academic, moreover, Vendler writes as if poetry without criticism is as valueless as an LP without a record player. The first chapter of The Music of What Happens concludes with the assertion that “[n]o art work describes itself,” that “[o]nly 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.” (To be sure, the book’s introduction ends with the seemingly more modest observation that “the art of poetry is far larger than any single description of its powers”—yet would it even occur to a truly modest critic to make such a self-evident pronouncement?) Likewise, citing some lines in which Ashbery “asks for a new criticism, deriving from the actual current practice of poetry,” Vendler comments: “It is as though poetry were incompetent to see its own image until reflected in the discursive analysis of criticism. And it may be so.” One gets the impression, in fact, that what Vendler admires so much about the work of Ashbery is that it cries out for a critic to explain it; implicit in her feverish analyses of Ashbery’s poems is the notion that it is the very need for elaborate analysis that makes them deserving of attention. Vendler is strangely indifferent to the question of their actual merit, writing that “[n]o line, or … passage, or … inception or conclusion from Ashbery [can] be isolated as good or bad.” When she wants to give an Ashbery poem, “Songs without Words,” the ultimate accolade, she doesn’t say that it’s a great poem; rather—in a sentence that speaks volumes about the academic mentality—she writes, “Surely this poem will be anthologized.”

Yet the fact is that Vendler has a much better understanding of how anthologies are put together than of how poems are put together. Whenever she tries to think like a poet, she comes off as surprisingly obtuse. Quoting four lines from a Seamus Heaney poem (“They were two-faced and accommodating. / And seed, breed and generation still / they are holding on, every bit / as pious and exacting and demeaned.”), she comments that “[t]he five adjectives and the four nouns in this passage … cannot be budged (as anyone can discover by trying to put ‘two-faced’ in the place of ‘demeaned,’ or ‘generation’ in the place of ‘seed’).” Isn’t this true, however, of any good poem—that to rearrange the words would be to weaken it? Indeed, the very concept is a cliché; but one has the feeling that for Vendler it’s a fresh insight. She reveals this same obtuseness in an essay on Milosz, writing that the “linguistic versatility” demonstrated by Milosz and other poets—“combining words that have never been combined before, but doing it with a sublime justice and propriety, so that the effect is not a jolt but a confirmation of rightness—gives perhaps the highest pleasure that poetry exists to confer.” Then there’s a review of Amy Clampitt, wherein Vendler observes that “it is not just visual ‘rendering’ (by whatever analogies) that makes visual poetry ‘work.’ Poetic diction has its own laws that must be satisfied along with the requirements of the eye. Poetic diction demands that words be linked one to the other so that it will seem that they ‘grew’ there by natural affinity.” Well, yes, and yes again. But don’t we know these things already? Isn’t Vendler restating, in these sentences, the very definition of poetry: a sublimely pleasing, truly original, but thoroughly right-sounding combination of words? For Vendler to make such observations as if they were provocative and récherché, and not central to the practice of any first-rate poetry critic, is surpassingly odd—but, alas, entirely characteristic of her.

Even when she turns from poetry to life, Vendler makes remarks that seem astonishingly fatuous. Reviewing Stephen Spender’s journals, she suggests that his interest in politics may be “a result of his partly Jewish descent on his mother’s side” (where does that leave Auden and C. Day Lewis?) and comments that “Spender always remains a neophyte in life, capable of being hurt, shocked, surprised; when David Hockney tells him in 1983 about someone who had died of AIDS, he writes, ‘All this seems inexplicable, baffling, terrifying’—adjectives we associate more with adolescence than with the eighth decade of life.” Vendler’s implication here is that fear, confusion, and terror are things we leave behind when we become adults; on the contrary, one suspects that it is the rare person in the eighth decade of life who is not at least as familiar with these emotions as the average teenager. In adolescence, after all, we think ourselves immortal, and it is only as we age that we begin to grow wary and fearful of death; if we appear more serene than adolescents, it is not because we have shaken off fear, confusion, and terror, but because we have learned how to behave in public. In any event, it seems to me that a writer (of whatever age) who is no longer capable of being hurt, shocked, and surprised isn’t going to be writing much of value. Vendler exhibits this same distrust of emotion when she complains about Robert Hass’s poetry criticism that he is “sometimes, to my tastes, sentimental … too fond of coercive words: terrible, painful, wonderful, terrifying, agonizing, mysterious, shocking, raw, seductive. Such words not only say ‘Admire with me’; they are shopworn.”

As a rule, Vendler’s own professions of enthusiasm don’t convince. When she speaks, for instance, of “[Ted] Hughes’s remarkable adjectival gift,” or of “Ginsberg’s exuberant comedy,” her praise seems pro forma; when she says that Merrill’s rhymes “are the cleverest the language has seen since Byron,” it sounds hyperbolic. Her characterization of various poems as “shocking” rings especially false, if only because shock, for whatever reason, is one of the few types of emotional response to literature with which academic criticism seems wholly comfortable. Vendler refers, for example, to the “shock” with which one reads Sylvia Plath’s comparison of worms to “sticky pearls,” and she says of a line in a pallid Ashbery poem that “[a] middle-aged American reads ‘Hardly anything grows here’ with immediate recognition, a shock not possible any longer from the mention in a contemporary poem of ‘stubble plains’ or ‘the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.’” Vendler indulges, too, in what may be called the “no one else” formula:

[A]t his best [Michael Blumenthal] sounds like no one else. I cannot think of anyone in America just now who might write as Blumenthal does about looking down on one’s house after death.

There has not been for a long time a poem that sees us so helplessly in love with the rhythms of victimage and brutality, societal, sexual, and religious [as does Amy Clampitt’s “Easter Morning”].

[Ammons is] the first poet to have the conceptual equipment … to think this way. [That is, to reject anthropomorphism.]

Writing about Clampitt, Vendler says: “If Iowa has not had a poet before, it has one now”; in her essay on Ammons, she observes similarly that “[b]ecause of his coming, the literary map has changed, and as we have the New York of Whitman, and the Pennsylvania of Stevens, and the Massachusetts of Lowell, we now have the North Carolina of Ammons. There are states, many of them, still without a genius of the place. In celebrating the sixtieth birthday of A. R. Ammons, one celebrates as well the birth of North Carolina in his poems.”

What Vendler values most in poetry is that which she describes, in “The Function of Criticism,” as “the beautiful bizarre, not the beautiful familiar.” To her, a given poet’s most characteristic work—that is, his quirkiest, goofiest, most “original” work—is by definition his best. It follows from this that the quirkier a poet is, the better—and that when Vendler calls Merrill, for instance, “firmly idiosyncratic,” she means it as the highest of praise. At the beginning of On Extended Wings, Vendler announces that her “touchstone has been the best Stevens could do—those poems in which he seems most himself, most original.” Not surprisingly, this aesthetic criterion makes for some peculiar critical judgments: Vendler claims to prefer Stevens’ “The Auroras of Autumn” to “Sunday Morning,” and states that “the poem characteristic of Ginsberg, the one he writes over and over, is seen in its purest form in the faultless ‘American Change.’” In “Looking for Poetry in America,” she argues that “[e]very perception, without exception, does indeed, in poetry, need to be rendered strikingly.” One would be more comfortable with this formulation if it had made use of a different adverb: eloquently, perhaps, or beautifully. Though it can serve as a synonym for either of these words, strikingly also connotes shock value, noticeably for its own sake.

(And we’ve already seen, of course, how prominently the word shock figures in Vendler’s criticism.)

In the first paragraph of a piece on Stevens, Vendler makes it clear that, to her mind, greatness and conservativism are antithetical: “Was Stevens good? great? original? or reactionary? conservative? derivative?” Later in the same essay, speaking of Milton Bates’s book Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self, she expresses the hope

that a new generation of readers, brought up on this book, will recognize that the naive canards about Stevens—that he was a heartless hedonist, an ivory-tower poet insensitive to social distress, a cold, over-cerebral aesthete, a poetic conservative, and so on—are all untrue. Bates’s book rightly describes Stevens as a poet constantly enlarging the self … aware of social unrest, passionately concerned with the accurate way of conceiving the artist’s role in the social order, evaluating the claims of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche long before most members of his generation. …

Patently, Vendler is eager here to rescue Stevens from the charge of being a conservative, formalist intellectual, and to help create an image of him not only as an aesthetic innovator but as a social and political rebel who was, by the standards of the American academy in the 1980s, politically correct. Vendler seems utterly unaware that it is Stevens’ intellectuality, his austere aesthetic consciousness, and his powerful sense of form—not his politics, whatever they may have been—that make him a great poet.

A corollary of Vendler’s love of the idiosyncratic is that she likes poets whose poems run away from them, and dislikes poets who know what they want to say and how they want to say it. Taking note of a description of clouds in a poem by Charles Wright, Vendler comments admiringly that whereas “in another poet visual accuracy would be uppermost, in Wright the symbolic arbitrariness of the mind’s play [my emphasis] is at least as visible in such passages as any putative appearance of the clouds.” She is equally impressed by Dave Smith, whose poems she finds “torrential, impatient, exasperated,” and whose language is “theatrical, even melodramatic.” She is less happy with Adrienne Rich and Philip Levine, whose poems aren’t as “wayward” as Vendler would like: “They [Rich and Levine] are stern, even grim, ringmasters to their poems, and the hoops, once aligned at the beginning, remain in place in the poem for all subsequent jumps. One longs, reading Rich’s A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), for the poem to take an unexpected byway, to reverse itself, to mock itself, to question its own premises, to allow itself, in short, some aesthetic independence.” It is, needless to say, a most questionable notion that a poem should be “aesthetically independent” of its author; but this sort of idea is typical of Vendler.

Vendler doesn’t like poems that say something—or, more accurately, she’s very strict about the ways in which she thinks it is proper for a poem to say something. She draws a rigid distinction between art (as exemplified by painting and music) and discourse (philosophy, history, etc.), and finds it highly problematic that writing straddles both categories. Though at least once, in The Music of What Happens, she describes poetry as partaking of each of these tendencies (“The reflective and discursive verse of paradox represents one extreme of lyric; the opposite extreme is song. Song and reflection are the two sources of lyric, and poems move along a continuum between them”), she seems more often to see true poetry as “action,” not “discourse”—as belonging, that is, only in the category of art. The more predominant the rhetorical or intellectual content of a poem, then, the less Vendler is likely to think of it as a true poem. She dismisses “This Dust Was Once the Man,” for instance, as the work of Whitman “the orator-eulogist,” not of Whitman the poet. What’s more, in order to feel comfortable praising a poem widely thought to contain ideas, she finds it necessary to underplay, or even to deny, the presence of those ideas in the poem. Thus she ridicules Lionel Trilling’s reading of Keats’s “Immortality” ode as a statement of certain ideas about life. Time and again in Vendler’s essays, language-as-action wins the day. Though she admires “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” for instance, Vendler finds the poem flawed insofar as it does not approach the “vigor of language which we find in ‘Song of Myself’ or ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’”; to the extent that the poem is “stately,” imprisoned in “the fetters of a formal occasion and a formal genre,” it deviates from Vendler’s ideal of the “purely lyric” poem. It is in accordance with this conception of poetry that she distinguishes sharply between words and ideas, saying that “a writer who loves words—all words, single words—for their materiality and for their image-inspiring power is at the furthest remove from someone who loves ‘ideas.’” A real poetic mind, in her view, “thinks in images.” (Where does that leave Alexander Pope?)

One of Vendler’s favorite words of approbation is fluid—a lexical choice that seems to follow from an envisioning of discourse as solid, art as liquid. Thus she speaks of Ashbery’s “fluid syntax,” says that “Louise Glück’s sense of myth, while as firm as Ashbery’s, is less fluid,” and notes that A. R. Ammons “is sure that the number of fluid inner states is infinite … and the only mediating instrument between the liquid currents of mind and the mountains and deserts of matter is language.” Often her distinctions between the fluid and the not-so-fluid are, to say the least, rather murky: “Ashbery’s fluidity puts us in the res cogitans as it carries on its marvelous observations and retoolings; Glück’s sternness reminds us that we have also a precipitate, a residue, from life’s fluidity—that which we recite by heart, the immutable, the unadorned, the skeletal, the known.”

As some of these quotations may suggest, Vendler would seem to spend much of her time trying to figure out what to say about a given poet or poem, in the manner of one to whom the act of criticism doesn’t come at all naturally. The questions about the purpose of poetry criticism which she raises in “The Function of Criticism” never seem to be put to rest. She begins a piece on the criticism of Dave Smith, Robert Hass, and Robert von Hallberg by asking “What is there to say about a poem? about poetry? about a national poetry? about a poetry and the culture from which it issues?” On the first page of a piece about Harold Bloom, she says: “there has been a good deal of difficulty in knowing what it is proper to say about a lyric poem beyond what can be said about human imaginative expression in general.” To be sure, the purpose of poetry criticism is certainly a valid subject for discussion, but Vendler returns to this question so often that you get the feeling she really doesn’t know why she’s reading verse and writing about it, aside from the fact that the New Yorker pays well and that it’s good for her career. At times one feels like yelling at her: “For heaven’s sake, if you really don’t know why you’re writing about poetry, then why don’t you just keep quiet?”

And the fact is that time and again Vendler gives evidence that she really doesn’t know what to say about a poem. Like many academics, she sometimes seems to think that it is the job of the critic to discover (or pretend to discover) in a work of literature a controlling theme or structural principle that no one has ever noticed before. Implicit in criticism of this kind is the conceit that everyone who has previously read the work under discussion has misunderstood it; the paradox of such criticism is that any work capable of being so ubiquitously misunderstood could hardly be regarded as effectively constructed in the first place, and thus could hardly be considered deserving of such close critical attention. Sensible but kind English teachers euphemistically call interpretations of this kind “ingenious”: while they show a certain inventiveness, they have relatively little to do with the actual work of literature supposedly under consideration. Much of Vendler’s criticism has been of this sort; her book on Keats, for instance, centers upon a dubious interpretation of the odes as a coherent sequence. Equally dubious readings occur in the present book. The essay “Reading Walt Whitman” offers an interpretation of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” which is based on the notion that the poem represents a radical reworking of certain passages from earlier poems; Vendler argues that an awareness of these borrowings is essential to a full appreciation of the poem’s pathos. While there are indeed similarities between parts of “Lilacs” and some of these earlier passages. Vendler describes the composition of “Lilacs” in a way that, it seems to me, would sound utterly foreign to anyone who had ever actually written a poem. And she engages in rather too much mind-reading: “Other fragments pressed forward in Whitman’s mind as he composed. … It was in ‘Lilacs’ that Whitman sought to find a middle ground between triumph and ‘the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin’. … He wished to find, in the language of perception, an equivalent for transcendence.” The lamentable consequence of such an approach is to make Whitman sound less like Whitman than like Helen Vendler. It is one thing for a critic to write about poems in the language of a critic; it is another for a critic to write about poets as if they thought like critics. Whatever genuine insights Vendler may have into a poem’s form and meaning are rendered considerably less valuable by her thorough inability to understand the way a real poetic mind actually goes about creating form and meaning.

And yet Vendler has many of her readers convinced that she not only understands poetry, but also has a special insight into the nature of American poetry. Indeed, though she’s written books about English classics—among them The Odes of John Keats (1983) and The Poetry of George Herbert (1975)—Vendler is best known as a critic of American poetry. She has some very firm, and questionable, ideas about the subject. Like many critics, she recognizes certain qualities as being more prevalent in American poems than in their English or Continental counterparts; but she goes further than this, arguing that the very presence of these qualities in American poems makes the poems more American than poems without these qualities, and consequently makes them better. If she admires Ashbery so much, it is largely because “Ashbery is an American poet, always putting into his poems our parades and contests and shaded streets. He sometimes sounds like Charles Ives in his irrepressible Americana.” Indeed, “Ashbery’s gift for American plainness is his strongest weapon.” Yes, Ashbery’s poetry is full of clichés—but this is perfectly fine with Vendler, who claims that “Ashbery’s deep literary dependencies escape cliché by the pure Americanness of his diction.” What Vendler is trying to say in this characteristically clumsy sentence, I think, is that the clichés in Ashbery’s poetry are American clichés—that he writes the way we really talk here in America—and that his work therefore can’t be faulted as poetry. On the contrary, Vendler would have us believe that those American clichés give Ashbery’s work much of its strength. Ashbery, she writes, “insist[s], by his manner, that everything that is ‘in English’ has to be written over ‘in American’”; to Vendler, this is precisely what an American poet should insist upon. She proffers an example of the contrast between British English and the “American language” of Ashbery’s poetry:

If Keats’s sonnet reads,

When I have fears that I may cease to be
           Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,
          Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

then Ashbery will write,

I think a lot about it,
Think quite a lot about it—
The omnipresent possibility of being interrupted
While what I stand for is still only a bare canvas:
A few traceries, that may be fibers, perhaps
Not even these but shadows, hallucinations …

… The “educated” reader thinks that “poetry” must sound Keatsian, rhythmic, and noble. But our American language cannot speak in those “noble accents / And lucid inescapable rhythms” (Stevens) without modification. “I think a lot about it” is how we say “When I have fears.”

To Vendler, in short, British English is “noble,” American English colloquial. But surely every language has its high and low levels of diction. Vendler’s implication here seems to be that in England, in Keats’s time, common people actually talked in the elevated language of Keats’s poetry, and that this alone made it proper for him to use such language in his work. Nonsense. In the same way, she appears to be saying that what validates Ashbery’s poetry is that it represents the way we actually talk in America nowadays. But though the first two lines quoted from Ashbery seem colloquial enough, the rest of the quotation—beginning with “The omnipresent possibility of being interrupted”—doesn’t sound any more colloquial than Keats. The main difference between the language of these lines and that of Keats’s poetry is not that one is “noble” and the other colloquial, or that one is English and the other American, but that Keats’s words are beautiful and expressive and Ashbery’s are banal and unattractive. Vendler acknowledges Ashbery’s prosiness; indeed, she praises the poem for its “flat American beginning.” To her, clearly, a flat, prosaic American poem is a distinctly American poem—and the more distinctly American an American poem is, of course, the greater a poem it is. When Vendler wants to praise a poet who does not fit into this formula, such as James Merrill, she feels compelled to apologize for, or explain away, his artfulness: “Merrill’s diction, though it can be fully literary [ugh!], is also colloquial and topical [huzza!], and in that way, though he generally writes in meter [alas!], he writes in the current language of America [yippee!].”

Vendler is uninhibited in her praise of Ashbery for his “comic” and “eclectic” use of the American language. Lines containing the expressions “show through” and “run out of” inspire her to rejoice in our native idioms: “when did ‘to run out of something’ become our normal way of saying that the supply was exhausted?” Look it up in your OED, Mrs. Vendler: the first citation of “run out of” dates back to 1713, to an English writer; in fact, it’s not a uniquely American idiom at all. Nor is “show through,” both of whose OED citations are of nineteenth-century English writers. In short, these aren’t exclusively American idioms at all. But what does this matter, anyway? What does the provenance of these expressions have to do with the aesthetic value of poems in which they happen to appear? The fact is that while Ashbery does make frequent use of such idioms—which are really more distinctively colloquial than they are distinctively American—he rarely does anything interesting with them; if Vendler sincerely wants to see clever and funny uses of genuine colloquial American English, she’d be better off looking at the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer, say, than at the poetry of John Ashbery.

Throughout The Music of What Happens, “Americanness” serves as a well-nigh inflexible criterion of poetic excellence. If Vendler is less enthusiastic than one would like her to be about Elizabeth Bishop, it is largely because Bishop “resists the label ‘American poet’: there is in her work no self-conscious rebellion against English genres, or even English attitudes, of the sort we find in our poetry from Whitman and Dickinson on.” It is largely on this account that Vendler compares Bishop unfavorably with Ashbery; on similar grounds, she compares Robert Frost unfavorably with A. R. Ammons. However much one may admire Ammons, one cannot but be embarrassed for Vendler when she remarks disparagingly that “when we read Ammons … we see how distant Frost is from his rural characters, even when they are adapted from his own experience.”

Patently, Vendler has extraordinary ideas about the distinctions between American and non-American sensibilities. For instance, she writes in a review of Robert von Hallberg’s American Poetry and Culture, 1945–1980 that

The reasons why the general public [in America] does not read poetry are probably neither political (“Read those outlaws? those fascists? never!”) nor psychological (“I never could figure out that difficult stuff”). Rather, the reasons for the marginal status of lyric poetry tend, I would guess, to be largely historical and institutional. Poetry is not systematically and intensively taught in America as it is in Europe; since most world poetry does not reflect American history or culture, it has been thought irrelevant to our nation. Each European nation cherishes its poetry (and the classical poetry born on the same soil from which it grew) as part of the deposit of patriotism, and therefore institutionalizes it in the schools. There are no such reasons for America to institutionalize Virgil or Milton. A critic’s demonstration that poetry is really about your life and mine and can be understood without difficulty cannot institutionalize poetry in America if a large social commitment to it as a patriotic value did not exist.

Well! All this American can say, in response to these observations, is that he, for one, read a good deal of poetry in the New York public schools he attended as a child. The main problem with poetry in America is not that people don’t read it in school but that they don’t read it once they get out of school. (But then Vendler wouldn’t recognize such a problem, because poetry is, to her, an academic phenomenon; sometimes you get the feeling that if she weren’t being paid to do so, she wouldn’t be reading poetry either.) Likewise, in an essay on Roland Barthes, Vendler writes that “[t]he intellectual formation of a French child attracted to literature is hardly imaginable to Americans. We are unfamiliar with those sacred French institutions the cahier (the notebook in which never a blot can appear), the dictée (the oral dictation in which faults of spelling and punctuation are subsequently mercilessly reproved), the manuel littéraire (a potted version of literary history)—all the furniture of the school and the lycée.” Sorry to break it to you, Mrs. Vendler, but many of us who attended school in America can identify well enough with such things—we had our notebooks checked for neatness, punctuation and spelling, and even had our equivalents of the manuel littéraire. The same ridiculous sort of contrast appears in a piece on Yale critic Geoffrey Hartman and his book Criticism in the Wilderness. Vendler readily accepts Hartman’s notion that American students are congenitally less competent readers of poetry because (in her words) “they haven’t the cultural equipment to read it,” not having “grown up in that architectural and civic context which surrounds Europeans and reminds them that art always issues from a historical, religious, and philosophical ground.” This is absurd. Vendler speaks as if “cultural equipment” were something that Europeans are issued at birth, like football helmets and kneepads; as if culture were something that one absorbed from buildings, like ground radiation, rather than from learning.

Similarly, in her article on Milosz, Vendler writes that “[t]here are no direct lessons that American poets can learn from Milosz. Those who have never seen modern war on their own soil cannot adopt his tone; the sights that scarred his eyes cannot be seen by the children of a young provincial empire. A thousand years of history do not exist in American bones, and a culture secular from birth cannot feel the dissolution of the European religious synthesis, on which Milosz dwelt in The Witness of Poetry, his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard.” Where does one begin to argue with this? First of all, the ghosts of John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, and their fellow New England colonists would be surprised to hear that America has been “secular from birth.” Vendler writes about Americans, furthermore, as if we sprang up day before yesterday from the Virginia soil, with no churches, no forebears, no libraries, no awareness of world history, no consciousness of a heritage beyond these shores. Certainly a thoughtful and imaginative American is as capable of feeling “a thousand years of history” in his bones as well as any European; for the fact is that people exist not merely as pieces of a culture but as individuals. And it is as individuals, furthermore, that they read poetry and experience the emotions that it communicates. Too often Vendler, in her eagerness to promulgate sweeping definitions of America, its people, and its culture, ignores this simple fact.1

And too often she ignores such things as grace and clarity of style. For a writer whose job it is, in large part, to make delicately nuanced judgments about other writers’ use of language, Vendler has perpetrated more than a few breathtakingly awful sentences. Some are disfigured by ugly jargon: “Keats declares that art requires a social cooperation between the encoder-artist and the solitary decoder-beholder. … In the sonnet ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be,’ Keats summons up a rich gestalt.” (Would anyone who honestly responded to the music of Keats willingly sign her name to such sentences?) She can be sloppy about sentence logic (“Such passages alternate with a more relaxed mood”) and diction (she refers to Seamus Heaney’s colorful life as “an extreme sequence”); and sometimes she simply churns out the same sort of phony, fuzzy, fatuous prose that one may find under the bylines of a thousand overworked, underinspired professors on the publish-or-perish treadmill: “[Barthes] exemplifies his own definition of the human person—a consciousness constituted by the available languages of its social and historical era.” Or: “Wordsworth is following, in his ode, the classic proportions of elegy.” Or: “[Spender] takes upon himself the full consciousness of happenings in countries other than his own.” Or: “Leithauser’s search for perfection has, I think, been insufficiently noticed.” Interestingly, the pieces in this book that were originally published in the New Yorker are considerably more well written than the others; indeed, one can tell from the first paragraph whether an essay is from that magazine or not. This may be a reflection of the famous extent and expertise of New Yorker editing, or it may simply indicate that Vendler puts more effort into her contributions to her flagship magazine than into her work for other publications.

Vendler herself has described her style as “Francophone and rhapsodic,” and while I don’t think that rhapsodic is quite the correct word, there are altogether too many sentences in The Music of What Happens in which Vendler’s reach exceeds her grasp. She writes of Whitman’s perceptions, for instance, that they “diffuse into the oceanic or the impalpable, as they draw further away from the senses and closer to the pure rhythmic utterance of words forming in air.” (How’s that again?) Similarly, she comments about a Seamus Heaney poem that “[t]he aesthetic claim made by a poem like this is that the passage of life can indeed be tallied in a narrative, and that the physical processes of life exquisitely resemble the mental ones, with a fluid sliding of import between them.” She writes that Louise Glück’s “struggle to find a fluent that is not false is the shadow-twin of her claim that there is a fixed that is not marred.” (This sentence is a little clearer in context, but no more graceful.)

Pretentious diction abounds in Vendler’s essays. Though she pretty much avoids poststructuralist argot (e.g., metataxis, paralogical, intertextuality), she delights in words like appetitive, cotemporal, and methodized, uses instance as a verb, speaks of “transcultural philosophic universals” and “linguistic economies,” and refers (in various essays) to Whitman’s “perceiving apparatus,” A. R. Ammons’s “conceptual equipment,” and Charles Wright’s “descriptive equipment.” The word enables is a favorite (Vendler tells us that folk tales “enabled [Sexton] as a satirist” and that a certain realization “enables the song of the bird” in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”). So is enact. She explains how poets resist the pressure to be political “by enacting an aesthetic which embraces social reality in an algebraic way”; how “[a]rt, in its social function, … enacts for us the paradox of our orderly symbolic capacity as it exists within the disorder it symbolizes”; how two poems by Heaney and Milosz “enact [the poem’s] … necessary connection with social reality”; and how “stiff resolve and chagrined change of heart are enacted in separate [Davie] poems.” In some essays she seems especially to favor pairs of esoteric nouns or adjectives, speaking, for example, of the “phrasal and atomistic” nature of perception, of Spender’s “continuities and disruptions,” of Hughes’s “predatory and avian” poetry in Crow, of the way Heaney “aggrandized and consecrated his infant world,” of the “trenchant and pugnacious self visible in Donald Davie’s prose,” of the “prophecy and peccancy” of Davie’s verse, of the way a certain Davie poem “ends in temporariness and temporizing,” of the “stinting and bare” quality of a second Davie poem, and of the “processional and epigrammatic” syntax of a third. (Vendler’s characterization of her own style as “Francophone and rhapsodic,” of course, also belongs in this category.)

There are many other things about Vendler’s criticism that one could choose to elaborate upon. One might mention, for instance, the extremely narrow range of writers to whom Vendler is in the habit of making passing references; throughout The Music of What Happens, she continually cites either Keats, Stevens, or Ashbery (or all three) for purposes of comparison, even though in most cases none of these names seems remotely relevant to the discussion. But enough. It is not my intention here to enumerate every last flaw of Vendler’s critical method. Nor do I mean to suggest that there are not even less competent people than Vendler writing about poetry these days; on the contrary, America certainly has its share of critics (not to mention celebrated contemporary poets) who, notwithstanding their intelligence, knowledge, and analytical skills, are crippled by perverse aesthetic criteria and by a tin ear. Far be it for me to suggest, then, that Vendler’s deficiencies as a critic are in any way unparalleled. What is exceedingly disturbing, however, is that these deficiencies have never been written about prominently and at length, and that this altogether pragmatic public silence which her fellow critics have maintained in regard to her shortcomings has enabled her to accrue power and influence out of all proportion to her deserts. While Helen Vendler, in short, is not a thoroughly bad critic, it is without question a thoroughly bad thing that she wields such unparalleled influence upon the direction of American poetry in our time.


  1. Besides, it might be convincingly argued that since it is much more common in America than in Europe for an individual to claim descent from several different Old World national groups, the typical American individual has a more natural “feel” for European history, in Vendler’s sense, than the typical European. But of course it is silly to make such comparisons in the first place.

Sidney Burris (essay date Summer 1990)

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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 partisanship that unavoidably attends the making of a literary reputation. The reviewer’s spiritual home is Grub Street, and a continued residence there requires endurance and commitment.

Helen Vendler has been reviewing contemporary poetry since 1967, when an omnibus piece appeared in The Massachusetts Review, and her opinions, collected in 1980 under the title Part of Nature, Part of Us, have been brought up to date eight years later with the publication of The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. The two volumes comprise sixty-four essays—over three completed a year—and these, combined with her scholarly articles, her five books of criticism, and her two anthologies of poetry, amount to a sizable bulk of material. For two decades, she has been very busy, and as often happens whenever the complete works of a substantial writer are catalogued, the catalogue is unexpectedly long. For most writers—there are luminous exceptions—accomplishment in the literary arts is accompanied by an unceasing industry in the literary arts.

Quantity, happily, does not guarantee accomplishment, particularly in the reviewer’s trade, where the embarrassing history of voluminous and mistaken opinion tempers the swaggering judgments of any era. Vendler’s range in contemporary poetry is wide, and literary statistics alone indicate that many of the poets she praises will not continue to receive such laurels. All regular reviewers face this problem. Randall Jarrell, writing in The Yale Review in 1955, sourly claimed that the critic who “likes a great many contemporary poets … is, necessarily, a bad critic,” yet his sourness occasionally afflicts every toiler in the vineyard. Perhaps the bestowal of laurels, particularly in the matter of contemporary verse, is not ultimately the reviewer’s task: sensitive to changes in style and subject matter, but immune to the illusion of instability that these changes often promote, reviewers operate in cramped quarters, often no more than a column or two, and the most successful of them cultivate the voice of the engaged, persuaded reader. Vendler’s assessment of Jarrell’s abilities in this area summarizes one of her own strengths: “But generally he incarnates his own definition of a critic in his first book of criticism, Poetry and the Age (1953), as ‘an extremely good reader—one who has learned to show to others what he saw in what he read.’”1 With unflagging energy, she has shown us what she saw, and that is one of the unacknowledged virtues of the busy reviewer, particularly during a time when, as Donald Hall has assured us in a recent issue of Harper’s, poets and readers of poetry abound from coast to coast.

What Vendler has chosen to see will not please everyone, nor should it, but displeasure in a reviewer’s specific choices is often allayed by an analysis of the reviewer’s range. Readers who have a penchant for formalist poetry, specifically that, say, of Richard Wilbur, might turn to Vendler’s writing for an opinion, and although they would find nothing on Wilbur, they would find other formalist poets systematically treated—Auden, Merrill, and Nemerov, to name three. None of these poets will substitute for Wilbur, and if Wilbur’s reception is the sine qua non for a reader’s evaluation of a critic, then Vendler will not fill the bill. But there are other things to learn. Similar test cases for similar styles and schools would yield similar results. Deprived of the fantasized reviewer who confirms, poet by poet, every reader’s opinion, readers must settle for the next best thing, a reviewer who can accurately isolate the diverse strengths and distinctive intonations of the many poetries that vie to crowd the anthologies. One of the clearest records of a reviewer’s diversity lies in the table of contents, and Vendler’s appreciations, when coupled, reveal a gymnastic sensibility: Robert Penn Warren and James Merrill; Randall Jarrell and W. H. Auden; Howard Nemerov and Frank O’Hara; John Berryman and Amy Clampitt. To praise these eight poets, to attempt an understanding of their accomplishments, requires the reviewer to be receptive to jarringly different poetic styles, and this adventurousness abounds in Vendler’s reviewing.

The critic’s book-length examination of a literary methodology will always embarrass the reviewer’s necessary confidence in the unexamined evaluative criterion. Vendler is keenly aware of this problem. Reviewing collections of critical prose by Robert von Hallberg, Robert Hass, and Dave Smith, she expresses hesitations about each writer’s willingness to found an ars poetica on silent assumptions. Near the beginning of the piece—entitled “Looking for Poetry in America” and positioned second in The Music of What Happens—Vendler pauses and sounds the note that most distinguishes this collection from her earlier one, Part of Nature, Part of Us:

And I do know the impossibility of a return to first principles before each sentence one commits to paper. However, we have all recently been put on notice, by the salutary sternness of literary theory, that our terms are likely to be interrogated, and that we might first interrogate them ourselves. And though nobody likes to be reminded of this obligation, I take the reviewer’s—and fellow practitioner’s—privilege to make the reminder, as much to myself as to the writers under review.


Published in 1980, Part of Nature, Part of Us appeared in the same year as Frank Lentricchia’s After the New Criticism, one of the widely read treatises that analyzed the period from 1960 to 1980 as one of “the richest and most confusing in our critical history.”2 Partly as a result of Lentricchia’s work, these richnesses and confusions—handily organized now, and given something resembling a common parlance—visited most everyone concerned with the literary arts, and their “salutary sternness” was variously received. In The Music of What Happens, Vendler has responded to the transformed critical climate with a succinct introduction and an expansive initial essay, providing the self-interrogation that she had prescribed for von Hallberg, Hass, and Smith. Absent from the first collection, this prolegomenon provides her readers the material to evaluate her orientation as a reviewer and a critic. It is a vital addition to American letters because it confronts the seismic shifts that have occurred in literary criticism over the past three decades from the perspective of the reviewer, perhaps the last employee in the literary marketplace who unashamedly labors to make qualitative pronouncements about the work at hand.

Her introduction begins incisively:

In a 1986 essay in Raritan, W. J. T. Mitchell, who edits Critical Inquiry, called the present tendency in criticism “a shift in emphasis from meaning to value,” explaining meaning-centered criticisms as those interested in “interpretations,” and value-centered criticisms as those “focussing on the problems of belief, interest, power, and ideology.” As master-terms of criticism, meaning and value (in Mitchell’s sense) may seem important to others: to me they seem marginal.


What is important to Vendler, even when dealing with historical texts, is the question of “aesthetic success,” the other interests of interpretation or power being useful inasmuch as they specifically locate the work within the originating culture. The methodology defended here, as well as the characteristic terminology, will seem breathlessly antiquated to many contemporary critics and theorists, but to the reviewer of contemporary poetry, whose judgments are validated more often by the strength and spontaneity of the personal response than by the manipulation of a critical tradition, aesthetic practice is inevitable. The reviewer or critic in Vendler’s scheme, after all of the appropriate sleuthing for meaning and ideology is done, must make a further judgment, one that reveals the hierarchy of Vendler’s literary values: “The critic may well begin, ‘Look at it this way for a change,’ but the sentence must continue, ‘and now don’t you see it as more intelligibly beautiful and moving?’” (2).

Vendler’s readings are continually directed, as the simple comparative “more” indicates, toward excavating the poem’s aesthetic totality, and although many contemporary theorists will find her totalizing schemes as fantastically oriented as the poems she treats, her insistence on the aesthetic perspective does more than mark her as an occasional aestheticist; her criticism, its stylistic vigor often reminiscent of the lively eighteenth-century judgment, cultivates an essentially public rhetoric, attempting as a result what Frank Kermode in The Appetite for Poetry (1989) has recently called “the reconstitution of the Common Reader.” The extensive reordering of critical agendas that has characterized the last several decades of literary study has done much to alter our notions of the reading process and its influence on the most fundamental evaluation of culture, and Vendler’s unstinting attention to contemporary verse implicitly defends, perhaps even privileges, its place in this ongoing process of reconstitution. For that alone, she deserves unwithered garlands.

Her aesthetic method naturally entails advocacy, a measured plea designed to convince the reader of the work’s reigning integrity. Vendler carefully specifies the intention of such criticism, and because the operative literary values—often discussed at length in longer works—are succinctly embedded, according to Vendler, in the prose style of the criticism, it is well suited to the reviewer’s need for efficiency and abbreviation. More on this later. “The aim of an aesthetic criticism,” Vendler states, “is to describe the art work in such a way that it cannot be confused with any other art work (not an easy task), and to infer from its elements the aesthetic that might generate this unique configuration” (2). Description—not analysis, not structuring, not interpretation—is the definitive technique of the aesthetic critic or reviewer, and it engenders its appropriate vision of the sociopolitical aspect of lyric poetry: “It may be,” Vendler contends, “that discursive ‘speaking of’ is not lyric’s way of embodying social realities. ‘In truth,’ said Yeats, ‘we have no gift to set a statesman right’—but he did not mean by that, as his work shows, that one could not embody political and cultural realities in verse” (34). The descriptive technique, then, might reveal, where ideological analysis would not, the lyric’s generically specific form of political or social representation, and it enables reviewers to deploy lines of inquiry traditionally reserved for more detailed treatments of special interest.

Aesthetic description is unabashedly derived from the initial pleasure or delight experienced by the reviewer upon first encountering the work, and reviewers of contemporary poetry, whether confessing to it or not, rely most on these qualities as the substructure for their specific appraisals. “Pleasure,” as Auden wrote, “is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible,”3 and pleasure is one of Vendler’s pivotal concerns—the term appears twenty-three times in her twelve-page essay “The Function of Criticism.” Because it is so intimately connected with the description of artistic form, Vendler’s work provides a cogent example of how various formal pleasures are integrated in the aesthetic model to provide a way of reading and writing innately suited to the reviewer of contemporary poetry.

It should not be surprising, then, that Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (unfinished at his death) has influenced Vendler’s methodology: the work offers one of the fullest expositions of the ways in which aesthetic form, when properly understood, maintains its particular social dimension, the ways in which, to use Kermode’s phrase, it cultivates the Common Reader. This concern is so fundamental to the reviewer’s work that it most often goes unquestioned; the reviewer who recommends a book of poetry argues implicitly that interested readers might derive pleasure from reading the book of poetry, and to envision a pleasured readership, as most reviewers of contemporary poetry do, is to accommodate traditional ideas concerning the social value of art. In this sense, Vendler’s work as a reviewer is a field trial for Adorno’s work as a theorist—he is mentioned three times in her latest collection.

In her introduction, Vendler describes the nature of Adorno’s importance for our century: “The twentieth-century critic most faithful to art’s two sides—its originating propositions and beliefs and its necessary subordination of these to intrinsic efforts of form—is Theodor Adorno” (5). According to Vendler, there are two rules of thumb that govern aesthetic description—and presumably her own work—and both of them play an important role in Adorno’s own sense of artistic form. The first, that “no significant component can be left out of consideration” (3), is implied by Adorno’s discussion of form and content: “Aesthetic form ought to be the objective organization of all that appears in a work of art. … Form is a non-repressive synthesis of diffuse particulars.” Aesthetic description, then, will render visible as many of these “diffuse particulars” as possible. And Vendler’s second requirement, that “the significant components are known as such by interacting with each other in a way that seems coherent, not haphazard” (3), is related to Adorno’s concept of artistic unity: “Unity is brittle and insubstantial if the forms and moments of works consist simply of topoi rather than emerging directly from the individual work.”4 The salient moments of a work, then, resist the predetermined meanings of topoi and obtain their significance by “interacting with each other,” to use Vendler’s words, or by “emerging directly from the individual work,” to use Adorno’s. Vendler’s criticism, like Adorno’s speculation, has no intention of superseding what is often disparagingly labeled nowadays as literary formalism.

These two concerns, intimately linked to the aesthetic tradition, naturally govern Vendler’s judgments of the critics and poets whom she discusses. Lionel Trilling, Harold Bloom, and Geoffrey Hartman occupy her attention in the present collection, and her sanctions and praises conform to her enunciated values. Trilling’s well-known essay on the “Intimations Ode,” for example, errs by exclusion, breaking Vendler’s first rule of thumb: “Because Trilling chooses not to mention the intensely ‘naturalistic’ language of socialization in stanza 7 and in the close of stanza 8, he can represent the language of the first ‘answer’ as ‘strikingly supernatural’; because he omits all mention of the race, the palms, the children on the shore of the immortal sea, and the faith that looks through death in stanzas 9–11, he can represent the language of the second ‘answer’ as ‘entirely naturalistic’” (105). Vendler has always been counted one of Bloom’s discerning readers, and her few hesitations concern his tendency to read poems as analogues of other poems, thereby causing him to neglect “to remind us how different each great work of art is from any other one” (55)—a betrayal of her second rule of thumb where the “significant components” of a work are known not by their interaction with other works, but by their “interacting with each other.” And the critical act, according to Vendler, is analogous to the musical performance where “all sorts of ‘interpretations’ of a sonata are possible … but unless the interpretation accurately reveals a newly perceived coherence of structure … it can make no cognitive or emotional claim to replace an older interpretation” (2). Again essentially an aesthetic claim, it emphasizes the discovery of new symphonic coherences within the work of art—related to Adorno’s notion of art’s “immanent dynamic in opposition to society”—and so Hartman is praised for being a critic “as a pianist or a conductor is an interpreter, holding up the work in a new and coherent manifestation” (48). Vendler has taken the opportunity in this collection to examine her own predilections, and her application of them proves remarkably consistent.

Like all regular reviewers of contemporary verse, Vendler explicates the work of the poets she values with a partisan zeal; only rarely does she take up the poison pen. Lowell and Stevens sustained her attention longer than any of the other poets in the first collection, and although the number of poets discussed in her second collection has been pared down, many reappear, marking an enduring interest: A. R. Ammons, Frank Bidart, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Dave Smith, Wallace Stevens, and Charles Wright. Making their first appearances in the new collection are John Ashbery, Michael Blumenthal, Amy Clampitt, Donald Davie, Rita Dove, Stephen Dunn, Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Brad Leithauser, Czeslaw Milosz, Anne Sexton, and Stephen Spender. Talents have appeared or survived, and interests have been cultivated.

An unlikely rubric, that of prose style, provides the context for understanding Vendler’s judgments of these talents. Reviewers, as we saw earlier in Vendler’s scheme, depend upon the latent intentionality of their prose style to clarify the theoretical assumptions that, if explicated in their discussion, would consume the lion’s share of their column. This is an inherently formalist maneuver; true to her aesthetic orientation, Vendler argues in “The Function of Criticism” that “just as there may be many motives for entering a single profession—medicine, for instance—so too there are many motives for the writing of criticism, and I want to suggest that it is chiefly by its style that we know the motives and the aims of a given piece of criticism” (12). Although Matthew Arnold would seem in some ways an unlikely ally, Vendler correctly comments, with supporting examples, that he clearly knew that “the conduct of any critical argument is evinced as much by its tone as by its premises” (25). All readers make such judgments—often unknowingly—about a writer’s prose, but few writers indicate that in the matter of stylistic lies the matter of their motivation. This is an essential point to bear in mind when considering Vendler’s opinions of contemporary poetry because her opinions are often reflected by the stylistic features of her prose.

But stylistic analysis, when it rises above the level of parsing, is an inexact, affective analysis, and analysts proceed warily, creating their own terminology as they go. How would we characterize the following passage, where Vendler is writing about Elizabeth Bishop’s three prose poems spoken by a giant toad, a strayed crab, and a giant snail? “It is Bishop’s opalescent ribbon or glazed shell [from the snail’s monologue] left behind that we find in the Complete Poems (1983)—or so we might say if this were her only metaphor for verse. But, remembering the toad, its sacs of poison, and its shuddering pigments (Keats’s ‘chameleon poet’ metamorphosed), we must not take too simple a view of her achievement” (285). Vendler had previously excerpted several sentences from each monologue, and her incorporation of Bishop’s metaphors for poetry into her own reflexive analysis of Bishop’s metaphors for poetry represents one of her most common ploys. In the subsequent passage, Vendler begins to assign value to each of the three creatures, and although this essentially represents a moment of interpretation—not Vendler’s dominant interest—the interpretive language is subsumed by the metaphorical figure that initiates the argument. This is essentially a stylistic manifestation of the aesthetic dictum that the criticism of art must find ways to remain faithful to the originating propositions of artistic form: “Aesthetics is not something above and beyond art,” Adorno writes; “it has to retrace the dynamic laws of art of which the works themselves are completely unaware.”5 Allowing the poem at hand to set the critical vocabulary, Vendler is open to the charge, or compliment, of a rhapsodic prose. The method conforms, though, with her announced intentions, and by mimicking in her prose several of the compositional techniques of the poet, she swiftly familiarizes her reader with a few of the conceptual tacks that direct the poetry at hand. Such compression is not only born of the characteristic restrictions that often confront the reviewer, but is also part of the common ground of those readers, reviewers, and critics who have been naturalized within the domain of aesthetic practice.

Vendler’s description of Ted Hughes’s River (1984) represents another of her most typical methods of reading: it embodies her notion of artistic unity but ultimately concerns the specific sorts of unity available to the lyric poem. She is discussing Hughes’s well-known passion for finding in the natural world the imageries of violence, horror, and predation that are then transformed into the language of his own private violence, horror, and predation:

Hughes has gone about the world finding vessels in nature for his private horrors; once the poison is emptied into the natural vessel and the poem has fixed it there, the horror has changed places—of course, only for a moment. For the spell to work, the poem has to be adequate to its object, one presumes; but, even so, the aesthetic end is subordinated to the therapeutic one. These priorities need to be reversed if the poems are to bear the strain well and long.


More care must ultimately be given by the poet, Vendler implies, to the object described in the poem than to the therapeutic effect of having described it. Or at least that must be the illusion that governs the poem. Aside from offering her quiet comment on the dangers of poetic confession, Vendler also speaks here to the notion, expressed in the beginning of her essay on Rich, that “poetry, if it is good poetry, remains interesting after the topical issues it has engaged are dead letters” (368). For Vendler, the element of interest remains the aesthetic accomplishment of the poem, the only element that will “bear the strain” of shifting topics and changing readerships, and, for the reviewer, continually exposed to the topical interests that surround contemporary writing, this aesthetic scrutiny helps to stymie the lobbied evaluation.

Part of Vendler’s stylistic spectrum gleams with the language of advocacy, and although this does not concern aesthetic description per se, it does reveal something more about her own self-perception as a reviewer of contemporary poetry. Her adverse criticism of a poet, whenever it is offered, is most often couched within the larger context of approbation, because she is, as Jarrell on occasion was not, a reviewer of beneficent intention who would agree with Auden that “one cannot review a bad book without showing off.”6 Her advocacy often takes the form of a prose homage to the poet’s own poetic style. In the following passage, she is describing the importance of frescoes in Charles Wright’s “Journal from the Year of the Ox,” a poem from Zone Journals; those who know Wright’s most recent work will recognize its momentary influence on Vendler’s prose, particularly the way in which her parenthetical intrusions qualify through an act of specification, a function often served by Wright’s own serpentine and interrupting clauses:

Wright’s question suggests that the extent to which such a fresco represents our lives, or is an analogy to them, is an earnest of what the fully rich life of consciousness can be, how it can place the “real” (the duke’s daily round) in the light of cosmic orderly change (the zodiac) and suffuse it with the light of human motives idealized (Love, Wisdom, Art, Commerce).


This is not the clinically dissecting prose of William Empson, nor is it the learned palaver of Frank Kermode; it is not suited for prosodic analysis, nor would it be able to sustain the polemics of indictment. An imitative affection for the poetry infuses the prose, and in this sense, it is a pure example of homage.

When the objects of her homage—her personal choices—have been disparaged, Vendler has most often been accused of lacking taste, traditionally the last and weakest redoubt of aesthetic debate. But none of her accusers have yet proved themselves willing or able to trace the elusive, often deeply programmatic contexts that have ushered the term into the late twentieth century and defined its amorphous field of operation. Besides, it is difficult to bring such charges against a critic who has so far written book-length treatments of W. B. Yeats, George Herbert, Wallace Stevens, and John Keats and supplemented these with an unceasing stream of essays that cover a broad spectrum of contemporary verse. After all, to speak for the improper reader is no more the reviewer’s fear than it is to praise the right authors for the wrong reasons.

Adorno has argued that “taste carries with it a subjective bias that has to be reflected upon by aesthetics,”7 and one of the best ways for reviewers to monitor these subjective biases is by continually attempting to read and understand a measure of those poets who seem to challenge the reviewers’ assumptions. The practice is certainly informed by the anxiety of missing the Emily Dickinson of our day, but it seems innately suited to reviewing American poetry as well. “The first thing that strikes a reader about the best American poets,” Auden observed, “is how utterly unlike each other they are,”8 and if this is so, then the method of aesthetic description, bent on locating the myriad of formal integrities that populate our literature, provides the reviewer an effective technique for responding to our national diversity. Reviewers need not value this wide gamut when it comes to contemporary poetry, but those who work regularly have certainly confronted it. Contemporary poetry is always undergoing a transformation of style, subject matter, and technique, and the genuinely transformed poems will be first recognized by those from the reviewer’s quarter, at least, who privilege the diversity and vigorous individuality that transformation bestows. These reviewers—there are other breeds with other proficiencies—will descend from the aesthetic tradition to which Vendler belongs.


  1. Helen Vendler, Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980) 115.

  2. Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980) XI.

  3. W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays (1962; New York: Vintage, 1968) 5.

  4. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (Boston: Routledge, 1984) 207, 266.

  5. Adorno 186.

  6. Auden 11.

  7. Adorno 458.

  8. Auden 366.

R. S. Gwynn (review date 17 September 1995)

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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 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 be evenhanded, a tough enough task in today’s critical climate.

Speaking of the various ways in which the American poetry pie has been sliced in recent years, she says, “At first I found it hard to understand why people felt they could respond only to literature that replicated their own experience or race, class or gender.” She declares that her own experience as a reader is not constricted by such concerns: “The significant poem, for me, can be about anything or almost anything.”

Vendler sees the lyric as the main tradition of poetry in English, and she calls it “the voice of the soul itself,” an assertion mirrored in the book’s title. Her definition obviously goes against the confessional grain of much contemporary poetry:

“In lyric poetry, voice is made abstract. It may tell you one specific thing about itself—that it is black, or that it is old, or that it is female or that it is celibate. But it will not usually tell you, if it is black, that it grew up in Atlanta rather than in Boston; or if it is old, how old it is; or, if it is female, whether it is married; or if it is celibate, when it took its vows.” Regrettably, a good deal of contemporary poetry seems content to do just that and only that.

Vendler reserves a few harsh words for poets whose social agendas obscure aesthetic perception of their work. For example, she faults Adrienne Rich, albeit mildly, for the “fundamental Manichaean myth” by which Rich chronically divides the world into either-or: evil victimizers or saintly victims. Similarly, she accurately identifies a good part of Gary Snyder’s work as “boilerplate” or “heavy-handed protest poems.”

Because of their social agendas—in Rich’s case, feminist and gay; in Snyder’s, radical and environmental—Vendler manages to cut through the armor of high moral tone that renders them, in the eyes of many critics, beyond reproach.

At times, though, she handles poetic lapses with an excess of diplomacy, and she generally spares poets the blunt needle she reserves for the likes of Bill Moyers, whose “The Language of Life” she recently demolished in the New York Times Book Review. Because, as she explains, she discusses only poets whom she admires, Vendler is so intent on finding positive qualities that her demurrers often verge on equivocation or get stated as tepid paradox; in the case of John Ashbery she says, “Rarely has an exquisite writer deliberately written so badly.” This hardly answers the first question that readers of contemporary poetry are likely to ask and the first that a critic should attempt to answer: “Why is this good?”

Like the New Critics, Vendler displays a talent for close reading and an apparent dismissal of the particular circumstances of a poet’s life. Still, the identification of persona with poet has been so strong a habit in recent times that she cannot avoid falling into a common error. In discussing the opening of one of Dave Smith’s poems, she observes that “Smith drives out of Richmond” but later confuses the poet with his character by describing how the poem “ends in a fatal accident as the half-asleep, half-drunk speaker crashes into a hearse coming from the funeral of a black man.”

She is at her best when discussing individual poems or passages, especially in the cases of a sonnet by Seamus Heaney, when she performs a brilliant analysis of the relationship of rhyme to reason, and in several sections of Ashbery’s “Flow Chart,” when she finds the emotional core of a poem so wearying it may appear devoid of affect.

Her writing is informal, generally clear and only occasionally marred by academic jargon (“one’s selfhood is bounded by the available discourses of conceptualization during one’s existence”) or neologisms like “trappedness.” As her participation in Voices & Visions, she believes in a common reader and wants to elucidate the difficulties of contemporary poetry rather than further obscure them.

Vendler’s greatest weakness as a critic stems from a kind of celebrity worship; she sees the vocation of poets as glamorous. One result is her penchant for “fame dropping”—repeating a witty remark overheard at a poet’s birthday party, discussing her own role in a Pulitzer decision, mentioning how her admiration of a young poet’s work led her to push for the poet’s being hired at Harvard.

Like a tabloid reader lured by revelations about people she idolizes, Vendler repeatedly turns to the most sensational aspects of poets’ work: Lucy Brock-Broido’s eccentric monologues as spoken by a fratricidal twin or by Baby Jessica, the infant trapped in a well-shaft; Allen Ginsberg’s gruesome descriptions of his mother’s physical decay in “Kaddish”: Jorie Graham’s lurid account of a student who has attempted to cut his face off.

It may be that these are merely the stock repertoire of fin de siecle poetry, but they do clash with Vendler’s claim that she has “never been drawn in a positive way to subject matter.”

The last of the essays, on Jorie Graham’s “Region of Unlikeness,” raises more troubling concerns. In waxing ecstatic over Graham, Vendler forges favorable comparisons to 16 canonical poets in half that many pages and heaps praise on a poem that most readers, I suspect, will find unbearably pretentious. This over-the-top response to an over-the-top poet (who, we are informed, also supplied the title to the book) u unfortunately calls into serious question the quality of Vendler’s taste.

A. O. Scott (review date 25 December 1995)

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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 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 poems are written, read and judged. The Times’s depiction of Helen Vendler was thus somewhat unfair. While there is no doubt that Vendler—the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, a past president of the M.L.A. and a poetry reviewer for The New Yorker—wields considerable influence, her judgments have always seemed more expressions of readerly passion than pronouncements of institutional power. And though she is by taste, temperament and method conservative, she can hardly be called reactionary.

The lectures that make up The Breaking of Style and The Given and the Made address, among other matters, male homoerotic desire, racial identity and the female body. But while the very mention of such things may cause complaint on the academic right, those who believe that race, gender, sexuality and the body are the primary concerns of literary criticism will surely feel that Vendler does not pursue them far enough. It is true that she promotes work she believes to be in the mainstream of the poetic tradition in English (represented by Herbert, Keats and Stevens, each the subject of one of her many books). Her view of that tradition, however, is neither dogmatic nor exclusive; she has acknowledged the merits, over the years, of poets from Eliot to Ginsberg to Glück. There are grounds to quarrel with her judgments, and reasons not to rest content with some of her guiding assumptions, but Vendler is a critic readers of poetry, inside the academy and out, should take seriously.

Vendler holds to the old-fashioned, fundamentally democratic belief that the job of a critic is to help readers understand and better appreciate poems. She writes less as a scholar (though her learning is prodigious) than as one impelled by the special pleasures she finds in poems to trace each instance of that pleasure to its source. A sentence from the final pages of The Breaking of Style might serve as her statement of principles: “It is because I am struck, always, by a naive wonder at the convincingness of a poem that I feel driven to ask how that memorable persuasive power has been gained.” These two books, made up of seven essays on six poets, give us the results of this questioning. While they offer complex, sometimes difficult interpretations of work that is itself often difficult, they hew close to the primary experiences of wonder and conviction it is poetry’s special power to evoke. Her prose is, for the most part, lucid and elegant, though occasionally it veers toward the impenetrable (“Hopkins’ shocks are those of an assaultive inscape—almost always a contrastive inscape of twoness—which provokes a resultant affective instress”) or the gnomic (“The nature of adjectival poems is to be radial”).

The Breaking of Style, which considers Gerard Manley Hopkins’s metrical innovations, Seamus Heaney’s grammatical rigor and the long, Whitmanian lines and numbered sections of Jorie Graham’s recent poetry, is the more technical of the books; its subject is how individual poets invent a new “material body,” or style, for their poems. The chapter on Hopkins is a tour de force, the most concise and helpful account I have seen of the dense, jarring, strangely musical meter the Victorian Jesuit called “sprung rhythm.” Vendler brilliantly associates the body of Hopkins’s style, in its twisting agony and its proportioned beauty, with his poetry’s furtive and adoring glances at other, mostly male, bodies, both human and divine. Impressive as this chapter is, though, it’s also frustrating: I found myself wanting the overlap between style and sexuality pressed further, given a context. The intersection of aesthetics, sexuality and religion, especially in the nineteenth century, has after all been the subject of much valuable recent historical and literary scholarship: It is intriguing, for example, to think about how Vendler might read Hopkins, a scholar of classics at Oxford, in connection with Linda Dowling’s recent Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford, or Eve Sedgwick’s already classic Epistemology of the Closet. Some sign of engagement with this kind of scholarship—even a footnote or two—would not detract from Vendler’s close readings but would rather enrich them.

I don’t mean to suggest that Vendler is squeamish about the sexual content of Hopkins’s poems; what makes her uncomfortable is content itself. In the introduction to The Breaking of Style she expresses frustration at how seldom “contemporary interpretations of poetry … deduce [the] human import” of things like “prosody, grammar, and lineation.” By itself, the book might plausibly stand as a corrective dose of formalism in an age of message-hunting and cultural generalization. So what if sex, religion, politics, history and personal identity are treated as secondary to spondees, adjectives and enjambments? There is much to be gained from thinking about how poems are made as well as about what they say. We might even accept the general truth of what Vendler concludes about Heaney’s poems, namely that the “genetic code” of form gives them “their urgency as worked art, without which their urgency as message would falter.” Such formalism is defensible as a critical procedure, and it works reasonably well in The Breaking of Style. But in The Given and the Made, the more ambitious (and more accessible) of these books, Vendler’s emphasis on worked art produces critical messages that are decidedly mixed.

Her topic is how four recent American poets—Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Rita Dove and, once again, Jorie Graham—transform the determining facts of their lives into poetry, and so “[make] out of the problematic, the aesthetic.” Each of these poets faces what Vendler calls an “inescapable donnée”: for Lowell, the intertwined histories of family and nation; for Berryman, the monstrous alcoholic id; for Dove, the fact of her race; and for Graham, her trilingual upbringing. To treat these matters—all of them serious, all of them apt matters for poetry—as equivalent requires abstracting them from history, and this is what Vendler does. While she grants that “paying attention to poetic strategies necessarily entails awareness of the existential possibilities available at a given historical moment,” her discussion of these possibilities is somewhat restricted and inert. She has little to say, for example, on the subject of gender, claiming in the introduction that “the gender divide between generations … is itself unimportant, but perhaps of historical interest.”

But part of that history is the history of literary ambition in America, a history that materially affects the shaping of poems. Lowell and Berryman, that is, were not just white men, but white men who dreamed, from the dawn of their careers, of being Dead White Men, of laying claim to the laurels of Homer, Milton and Yeats. Dove, in contrast, who has just completed her term as the first African-American Poet Laureate of the United States, has written movingly of her feeling, as a young girl, that the enchanted garden of literature was off-limits to people of her color and gender. This is not to say that Dove’s poems about her grandparents in the extraordinary book Thomas and Beulah are therefore better than Lowell’s poems about his in Life Studies, but rather to suggest that the differences between them matter both to history and to poetry.

Vendler’s argument, in The Given and the Made, is that poetry is a special way of confronting, and symbolically resolving, the hard facts of life. And poetry, which has for so long seemed to be approaching an ultimate marginality, surely needs defenders like Vendler, so committed to protecting its singularity as an art form. But I am not sure it needs to be quarantined, to be protected from the incursions of politics and sexuality or from the extrapoetic implications of a poet like Graham’s relentless questioning of what it is to have a body, to be a person. While it is silly to insist, in a narrowly ideological way, that poems must be political, it seems to me equally questionable to imply that they are better when they avoid, or transcend, the political altogether. The argument of so much poetry in our time is that there is no such transcendence: “The poem,” wrote Vendler’s cherished Wallace Stevens in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” “is the cry of its occasion. / Part of the res itself and not about it.” Poetry is part of the world, and thinking about poems is a way of thinking about the world.

And I don’t think Helen Vendler disagrees. It may just be that my way of thinking about the world, and of thinking about it through poems, always leads me back, however reluctantly, to questions of politics. I find it most useful, therefore, to read these illuminating books somewhat against the grain. In the very title The Given and the Made, after all, we can hear an echo of the definitively political desire to wrest freedom from the prosaic world of necessity. In attending to what Charles Olson called “the will to change” as it manifests itself in poems, we might learn about more than just poetry.

James Morris (review date Spring 1996)

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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 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.” Her singular talent as a reader is to assume the inner life of poet after poet, and to write precisely and eloquently about this merger of sensibilities.

When Vendler was 17, lyric poetry seemed to her “the voice of the soul itself.” It still does, by the evidence of her three latest books: a volume of review essays and two volumes of thematic lectures. The essays on 20 contemporary poets in Soul Says date from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and generally mark the appearances of each author’s newest work. But time and again, a brief topical essay is a map to the larger world of the poet’s achievement.

The Given and the Made (the 1993 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent) considers how “an unasked-for donnée” shaped the work of four poets. Robert Lowell’s donnée, given by his famous family, was history. John Berryman’s, given by his alcoholic manic-depression, was the Freudian concept of the id. Rita Dove’s, given by birth, is her identity as a black American woman. Jorie Graham’s, given by her trilingual upbringing, is the arbitrary attachment of word to thing, and the corresponding relation of an invisible to a material world.

The Breaking of Style (the 1994 Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University) traces the process by which three poets—Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus Heaney, and (again) Jorie Graham—shed an old style for a new: the equivalent, for Vendler, of casting off a material body. These transformations permit Vendler to explore the essential connection between style and substance in poetry, and to argue (against interpretive fashion) for “the human perceptual, aesthetic, and moral signals conveyed … by such elements as prosody, grammar, and lineation.” Hers is a method of steady engagement with the poetry—with line length, with images, with odd detail, and overarching argument. There is a soul in the body of a poet’s successful disposition of words.

Not every page of these books is equally persuasive, and there is some repetition among the volumes—especially when the same poets, and poems, are discussed. The books are best read not straight through but with time out to sample the poetry. Of living poets, Vendler’s favorites seem to be Heaney and Graham; you will no sooner finish her essays about them than make your way to a bookstore.

And that may be the great achievement of all Vendler’s criticism: its ease, assurance, and clarity, set in a bedrock of careful scholarship, persuade diffident readers to tease out the soul’s sense beneath a poem’s surface puzzle.

Sheldon P. Zitner (review date Summer 1996)

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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 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 sonnets; and a collection of essays on each. In addition there’s a bonus, a compact disk with Vendler’s ‘performance’ of some of the best known pieces. Offering these readings is insightful and daring rather than self-indulgent. Shakespeare writes for the ear; the expressiveness of his phrasing and verbal texture is often grasped more quickly through a ‘performance’ of the text than through poring over the page. So few of us seem to be good at reading poetry aloud that in Practical Criticism I. A. Richards sternly warned prospective teachers not to try it in the classroom. But Vendler’s readings are effective, and parallel her analyses as well as confirming her love of the sonnets. The Harvard Press is to be commended in keeping the price of this plenty comparatively low: evidently they expect, and the book deserves, large sales.

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Vendler acknowledges, is not for reading through, but for dipping into. The essays on individual sonnets are for the most part brief, but reflect the intensity and the rewards of her nine years’ labour. The two pages on Sonnet 44, to take an example at random (one of the easy ones, it turns out), relates the thought of the sonnet to that of Sonnets 27 and 45 and to “the usual Platonic/Christian dualism,” shows how the sonnet plays the “fiction of spatial instantaneity” against the “fact of time” and moves from noting a paradox centring on “thought” to demonstrating the course of the sonnet from self-reminder to ridicule and then to deflation and tears. As if to underline the lucidity of her account, Vendler leaves it to most readers to discover elsewhere that a clepsydra (mentioned in passing) is a water-clock. Vendler’s delicious sonnet-pastiche in the Introduction (4–5) may prompt us to wonder if the ne needlessly exotic clepsydra is not also a bit of mischief.

The short essays are workday reading, but the Introduction is a delight, a well-argued and demonstrated entrée to poetry, to the sonnet, to Shakespeare as a sonnet-writer, and to some wrong turns and main roads of criticism. The Introduction leaves us with what Vendler hopes for the readers of her individual commentaries—“the elation of seeing what Shakespeare is up to.”

Vendler is sturdily direct about her formalist position: the Sonnets are poems, that is, “a writer’s projects invented to amuse and challenge his own capacity for inventing artworks … beautiful, too, exhibiting the double beauty that Stevens called ‘the poetry of the idea’ and ‘the poetry of words’.” This is no rejection of the idea that poems are also “formal mimeses of the mind and heart in action” and hence “representations of human reality,” but only an insistence that the question of mimesis is, for Vendler, not a primary concern. Formal analysis belongs to Firstness; referential and contextual analyses to Secondness or to categories more remote.

Among the fruits of her own formal analyses are a conviction of the aesthetic necessity rather than the (frequently argued) superfluity of Shakespeare’s couplets, an understanding of the subversive quality of his thought and language, and a teasing out of the complex links and mutual undoings among the quatrains.

I don’t want to damn the book with too loud praise. The commentaries seem in a few instances unnecessarily difficult; the treatment of sound repetition sometimes arbitrary. One wants to raise the issue of circumstances of composition that must be understood prior to formal analysis. And there is always the issue that dogs minutely close reading: at the extreme (as with the numerological revelations of Fowler and Hieatt), whether lexical and other patterns laboriously discovered can actually affect reader response. To inquire thus, Shakespeare’s contemporaries might have said of the discovery of such patterns, is to inquire too curiously. According to Frost, “the poem is entitled to everything in it.” But perhaps Aristotle defined the issue when he proposed as a standard that works be “of a certain size and magnitude,” that is, that their structures be perceptible under the conditions of reception implicit in the genre. None of these considerations is intended to detract from Vendler’s achievement. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a book that anyone serious about poetry will want to have close by.

Frank Kermode (review date 17 November 1997)

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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 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 for such a challenge is “a devil’s puzzle,” and such puzzles have been explained, or explained away, in dozens of different ways. Sometimes the interpretation of an entire sonnet is disputed—an obvious example would be Sonnet 94, “They that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none.” More often the crux is a single line or quatrain. Booth happens to choose Sonnet 16 as his example of a devil’s puzzle.

We had better have the whole sonnet before us, though the discussion turns mostly on the third quatrain, lines nine through twelve. It is necessary to add that the sonnet is a sort of follow-up on 15. “When I consider every thing that grows / Holds in perfection but a little moment,” of which the lay person probably has no difficulty in following the sense: men are like plants, they flourish, fade, and die, but the poet will fight nature and time in an attempt to preserve in verse the beauty of his friend. Sonnet 16 then asks whether the youth shouldn’t take a better way than this, and perpetuate his beauty more efficiently by marrying and having children, a course that the poet has advocated several times in the earlier sonnets:

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours.
And many maiden gardens, yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers.
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair
Which this time’s pencil or my pupil pen
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live drawn by your own sweet skill.

A common reader, who in any case will not enjoy all 154 sonnets equally might feel that he or she can here detect clear enough thought that is not given very clear expression. This is a fault of Shakespeare’s long since pointed out by Dr. Johnson: “It is incident to him to be now and their entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in such words as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and resolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.”

Indeed, much arduous leisure has been bestowed on this sonnet. We have had three full scale editions since Booth’s, all expert, all good in their various ways, all having a lot to say about that quatrain. What are the “lines of life”? Lineage, offspring, lines on the hand as read by a palmist? Lines drawn by a portraitist? Booth points out that a reader might well understand “So should the lines of life that life repair” to mean “So should the lines of life which repair life,” and the “Which” of the next line, forcing us to treat “that” as a demonstrative, though it cancels this interpretation, does not abolish it; it is hanging around there. Booth, in what I take to be the most brilliant of the commentaries, is keen to show how much is always hanging around. In this, though he is less cavalier and more explicit, he is a descendant of William Empson, who began his remarkable career by showing how much there was hanging around in the line “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Naturally Empson had a go at the lines of life, pointing out, among much else, the ambiguity of the word “should.”

There is just as much ingenious commentary on the “time’s pencil” line, but it would be extravagant to go into that now. The question I am getting round to is, what kind of commentary has Helen Vendler provided? Her book [The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets] is not an edition, though she makes some textual changes and observations. She accepts, for example, the old and (I think) unnecessary change of “he” to “she” in line 8 of Sonnet 41, and, not being an editor, she sees no need to defend the reading. The sonnet says that the speaker is not too hurt by the thought that his young man attracts the attentions of women:

Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
And when a woman woos, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her till he have prevailed?

Changing “he” to “she” seems sensible on the face of it, and the emendation was made in the eighteenth century; yet “he” may not be wrong. It could be making a slightly less expected and subtler point, namely that the woman’s business may be to prevail upon the man to believe that he is doing the prevailing. One can’t have both readings, and editors and commentators must make up their minds about such things. Here Vendler normally a bold and independent spirit, has preferred what I suppose is the consensus view (though it is not Blakemore Evans’s).

On other matters Vendler feels no need to choose between views, and the effect of this immunity is to distance her commentary from what common readers may think their natural or rightful interests. She does not speculate about the identity of the young man addressed in the first 126 sonnets, nor of the Dark Lady of sonnets 127–152. I myself see no reason why she should. The sequence involves Young Man and a promiscuous Lady; these figures, erotically associated with the speaker of the sonnets, become erotically involved with one another. There is a story, a scandal allusively mentioned, and it has for a very long time seemed to hundreds of commentators that the story is incomplete unless one can identify the originals of the characters. Young Man and Dark Lady in themselves are not enough, being masks and not real people who have become involved, as masks hardly could, in an interestingly steamy threesome.

But modern scholars simply don’t allow this. John Kerrigan, in his New Penguin edition, perfunctorily mentions some candidates for the role of Young Man: William Herbert, Henry Wriothesley, Willy Hughes, the boy actor invented by Oscar Wilde, and others with the initials H. W. or W. H. (Mr. W. H. is “the onlie begetter” to whom the book of the sonnets is dedicated); and Mary Litton, Lucy Negro, Emilia Lanier, and others for the Dark Lady. He adds that “none of this matters much,” and Blakemore Evans in the New Cambridge edition refers all who care about the matter to the vast Variorum edition of Hyder Rollins, with its awe-inspiring” list of candidates. Still, there are those, including the late A. L. Rowse, who have regarded the detection of the originals as essential to the study of the poems. (Rowse heavily backed Emilia Lanier,) Of course, those names are proposed only because something—in some cases, quite a lot—happens to be known about them on other grounds. And although Shakespeare’s job ensured that he had contacts in aristocratic, theatrical, and what might be called bohemian circles, we know little about his social life; and it is more probable, after all, that any historical originals would be persons quite unknown to fame.

Clearly, there is here a divide between the interests of casual readers and the interests of professional readers. It appears that most people prefer to read biographies of authors rather than their works. They seem to have a prior and perfectly legitimate interest in personalities. But the professionals apply themselves to other issues, and the attitude of contemporary commentators and editors is reflected in what Kerrigan says. Or perhaps he is too gentle; to the professionals, none of this matters at all. I admit that this formula accurately expresses my own feelings.

Again, like most modern editors, Vendler is content to leave the sonnets in the order in which they were first published. The argument about Shakespeare’s homosexuality or bisexuality is not her primary business. Still, she is more interested in it than Booth, allowing that both sequences, addressed to the man and to the woman, have sexual infatuation as their inescapable motive. Indeed, she has some strong words on this subject, offering the Freudian observation that the homosexual infatuation of the first part is subliminally linked, as it were, to the choice, in the second part, of a promiscuous woman (desiring “to be anchored in the bay where all men ride”). Yet as a rule Vendler avoids this kind of thing. Her main task is to deal with the sonnets as poems, in themselves; and she makes clear what this entails by remarking that “I do not regard as literary criticism any set of remarks about a poem which would be equally true of its paraphrasable propositional content.”

Although she insists on elaborate occult ties that give the entire sequence order, Vendler treats the sonnets one by one, finding in each of them its own structure but also something that it shares with the rest—the trick of repeating in the couplet words, or variants of words (all counting as “Key Words”), which occur in all three preceding quatrains. Some will find the application of this principle, which she calls the “Couplet Tie,” rather strained; it can sometimes depend on an assonance or even on an anagram. And the rules are such as to make it impossible for the commentator to lose: we are told that the absence of a key word is equally significant.

This formalistic approach ensures that Vendler’s commentary, like Booth’s, is addressed primarily to the scholar or the serious student. Her claims on their attention have no false modesty. She says of two very famous sonnets, 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) and 129 (“Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame”) that their “moral substance has not been properly understood because they have not been described in formal terms.” We are presumably to understand that now it will be. And she repeatedly makes plain her disagreements with her predecessors. Thus Booth is accused of being so concerned with his overlapping structures that he is satisfied to remain in contented irresolution rather than choose among interpretations; he makes “too ready a surrender to hermeneutic suspicion.” No predecessor has paid proper attention to the sonnets as poems; and if Vendler can afford to be politely condemnatory throughout on the lucubrations of the admirable Booth, she has understandably little time for poem-avoiding psychological and gender criticism. Astonishingly (when one considers the vast bulk of commentary), she claims that the Shakespeare’s sonnets have never had decent attention; only ten or fifteen of them have been given the full treatment by critics.

Obviously this is a book to be worked through, rather than simply read. Vendler remarks ruefully that “total immersion in the Sonnets … is a mildly deranging experience to anyone,” and this derangement, as well as conferring advantages, may take also a benignly paranoid form. She literally knows the sonnets by heart, and has worked on them for years, but even so she has to admit that she is occasionally baffled. In her introduction she actually prints a cento-sonnet, a sonnet that she has herself constructed from lines written by Shakespeare, in order to demonstrate that the real thing is different, this fake having “no structural coherence, no logical development.”

This, I think, is not quite true. Vendler undervalues her own poem to enhance her praise of Shakespeare’s. It seems worth saying that not all the sonnets are truly worth the attention that she declines to offer to her own. At moments she suggests agreement with this opinion by giving some poems rather scant attention. And sometimes, she says, she has “not been sure of the ‘game’ of a given sonnet,” but that there is a good game to be detected she is reasonably certain. She has too high an opinion of her poet’s intelligence and skill to register a temporary lapse into the obvious, the vacuous, or the tedious.

It might have strengthened rather than weakened her book to have considered the possibility that some of the games are not worth the candle. Certainly there are poems here that contain lines that assault one’s sight with a sudden glory: for instance, “Nativity, once in the main of light / Crawls to maturity.” In such passages different discourses are mingled, and the result is the kind of thrill in which most readers delight. One gets it again in the lines that delighted Keats, the harvest sheaves “borne on the bier with white and bristly beard.” Yet even Wordsworth, himself an indefatigable but sometimes fatiguing sonneteer, complained of a general “sameness” in the sequence, and by the time one reaches 108 (“What’s new to speak, what now to register, / That may express my love, or thy dear merit?”) one may be inclined to agree; though of this particular sonnet Vendler finds a lot to say, including the observation that it contains an “aural pun” on “wrinkles” and “ink.” So she does not agree with Wordsworth, and goes to some trouble to refute the charge made by John Kerrigan, in his good Penguin edition, that Sonnet 105 is “dull” (it almost admits as much itself), saying that “the poem is one of Shakespeare’s many witty defenses of the (apparently) invariant matter and form of the Sonnets.

It sometimes occurs to me that those of us who truly want to preserve Shakespeare’s position of eminence (and there are people who in one way or another seek to dislodge him from it) would do well, now and then to speak of his bad moments as well as of his good ones. He will do very well without bardolatry. Not that Vendler overtly practices anything of that vulgar kind. She has made a great effort to familiarize herself with the mind of an author whose resources she rightly assumes to be immense. It nowadays seems much to his credit that he was rarely interested, as some sonneteers were, in mere rhetorical decoration—a point she makes in her introduction and frequently in her commentary.

But let us go back to Sonnet 16 and see how Vendler deals with it. She devotes a long and ingenious essay to Sonnet 15, but she is briefer on its sequel. Sonnet 16, having almost nothing to say about the “lines of life” except that “lines” may be a pun on “loins.” She spends more space on the argument that “ward, read backwards, yields draw,” which is somehow held to explain the odd use of the word “drawn” for “procreative activity.” There is a discrepancy, she argues, between the martial opening and the imagery of the maiden garden; perhaps, in this last of the sonnets urging procreation, “[t]he speaker may feel his biological arguments exhausted,” or perhaps he has become so personally attached to the young man that he has lost interest in the desirability of his getting married. Still, the key words “your self” and “war (drawn, inward, outward),” together with “live” or its representatives “living, life” or perhaps even “flowers,” occur just as they should in all three quatrains and then in the couplet. These preoccupations indicate the idiosyncrasy of Vendler’s interests; little of what she says is anticipated by other commentators.

This method is employed consistently throughout, but I will give only a sample or two. Sonnet 20 (“A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted”) is the one on which turns much of the argument about the author’s sexuality. Vendler calls it a little myth of origin. Nature has made a beautiful woman but, falling in love with her creation, has added a penis to the model (“pricked thee out for women’s pleasure”). She detects a number of dirty jokes (puns on “acquainted,” lewd play on “one thing” and “no-thing”) and says the key word is “woman.” She finds it bizarre but true that the letters of the word “hews (hues)”, appear in “as many lines as possible.” Yet she says little about “master-mistress,” although, according to Kerrigan, this “hint of eroticism flusters interpreters and drives them to extremes.” While Blakemore Evans, in the New Cambridge edition, begins his long and learned note by remarking that the phrase “has probably generated more heat than any other in the Sonnets,” it has not flustered Vendler. Booth stays very cool; for him the sexuality of the Sonnets is of the Sonnets only, and tells us nothing about the life of their author. Vendler does not believe this, but her commentary is cooler still. Her eye is fixed on the language of the poems, and on their occult structures.

Sonnet 42, like 40 and 41, is about the young man’s having an affair with the poet’s woman. Vendler makes the dubious point that since the youth is not called “thou” in the last five lines as he is in the first nine, a reduction in intimacy is being suggested. But he isn’t called “you,” either; and in any case the Elizabethan rules about tutoyer were never very firm. (Explain Artemidorus’s warning to Caesar: “If thou beest not immortal, look about you.”) This pronominal plot looks imaginary to me. Of course, the whole enterprise is very challenging; one isn’t expected to believe everything.

One difficulty is that Vendler rarely gives expression to her undoubted love for these poems. In Sonnet 53, she mentions the topic of shadow and substance and its Platonic ancestry, but she never cries aloud with pleasure at the boldness of “millions” in the second line:

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?

And there is little sign of excitement in the treatment of Sonnet 65 (“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?”) with its extraordinary legal intrusions; and nothing to explain why “that affable familiar ghost / Which nightly gulls him with intelligence” in Sonnet 86 is unforgettable. Instead we have learned observations: “The phonetically and grammatically tautological pun—‘thou art all my art’—which conflates the copula and its predicate noun. …”

On “They that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none” (Sonnet 94), Vendler’s comment concerns its structure (moving from the social to the vegetable). Sonnet 107, which includes the famous line “The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,” is praised for its Latinity and its etymological puns; it is not this commentator's business to discuss who or what the mortal moon was, though other critics think the mysterious allusion helps to make this one of the most difficult of the sonnets. Attempts on it are varied and numerous: the Spanish Armada with its crescent formation; the queen’s climacteric (thought to occur at age 63, a dreaded multiple of seven and nine); an eclipse of the real moon in 1595; and so on. Rightly or wrongly, people want to know what had been prophesied (“And the sad augurs mock their own presage”), and what the reference to peace means (“And peace proclaims olives of endless age”). Of course they can look elsewhere, and it could be maintained that in any case they will not find a secure answer.

The discussion of the famous Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) turns on the argument that it is written in reply to the young man, who has been saving, more or less, “For my part I have to admit the possibility of impediment to the marriage of true minds,” and we are advised to read it so: “Let me not. … Love is not love,” and so on. He has been employing a disingenuous “utilitarian rhetoric” to make this deplorable case that love does alter, and can be removed with the remover. Now he is being corrected. This “reinscription” idea may seem plausible enough in the context of a series of bitter sonnets of betrayal, but surely it is, in the end, merely a fancy, not to be proposed as the master reading. There is an interesting comment on the difficult 121 (“Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed”), though it seems questionable that this first line exhibits “moral desperation”; I have always taken it to be sour and resigned. But Vendler is always explicit, and it is easy to disagree.

The Dark Lady sequence starts with 127, and Vendler likes it less than 1–126, but it is possible—indeed, I find it easy—to prefer it. Still, she gives these poems the full treatment. She is very good on 128 as a sexual jeu d’esprit, and on “Th’ expense of spirit” (129). She seems to miss the tone of 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) and spends her space warning against a palpable misreading that few will make. Sonnet 138 (“When my love swears that she is made of truth”) is a wonderful poem, more resigned than bitter; the speaker is a clever man trapped in an affair that calls for fantasies and lies that he is by now too weary or too disgusted to enjoy. (We would think the lover on the downslope of age, but the first version of the poem appeared in 1599, when Shakespeare was 35. Perhaps that was the downslope.)

Sonnet 144 (“Two loves I have, of comfort and despair”) makes a point of what Kerrigan calls “intricate bawdry,” calling for more explanation by editorial commentators than it is part of Vendler’s program to provide. Another puzzler is the remarkable 151 (“Love is too young to know what conscience is”). Vendler, here following Booth, who is learned on dirty words, finds a genital pun in “conscience.” (Can this be what Hamlet meant when he said “conscience doth make cowards of us all”?) Of course this poem does depend on its double meanings. Of the grim 152 (“In loving thee thou know’st I am forsworn, / But thou art twice forsworn to me love swearing”), Vendler admirably remarks that “the reader admires the clarity of mind that can so anatomize sexual obsession while still in its grip, that can so acquiesce in humiliation while inspecting its own arousal. …”

This book is a great achievement, the work of an author with an almost devout passion for good poems, a passion that the academy has not succeeded in killing. Vendler insists that her purposes are aesthetic, often enough saying that her predecessors’ were not, yet her book is deliberately dry and, for some readers at any rate, fearsomely technical. Ideally, it should not be used until one has worked with Booth or, better, some more conventional editor. Blakemore Evans has the right kind of solid learning and the right desire to explain. As I write, a new Arden edition, by Katharine Duncan-Jones, is about to be published, Vendler salutes it in passing, and it will have the advantage of printing poem and comment on the same page. Like the others I have mentioned, and also the Ingram-Redpath edition of 1964/1978, it will no doubt cater to readers on the low ower slopes as well as more practiced climbers, for whom alone this devoted and expert commentary is intended.

John Bayley (review date 18 December 1997)

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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
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.

(No. 13)

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: …

(No. 22)

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 friend is urged “to read what silent love hath writ,” and learn to “hear with eyes” (No. 23). Whatever the friend’s beauty may suggest, he is not physically a woman, so there can be no question of sex between them (a joke is made of this), but the friend is both fickle and coquettish and is soon upsetting his poet, who “has still the loss,” even if the other repents of his wanton behavior (No. 34). The poet is too much in love to feel bitter, but he wonders at himself and at the irrevocable damage that this passion has done him, wasting not only his heart but his precious time.

Being your slave, what should I do but
Upon the hours and times of your desire?

(No. 57)

The most penetrating of these love complaints, and the one, it may be, most painfully recognized by the reader’s own experience of, falling in love, is Shakespeare’s sense of the loved one’s casual indifference, however much he may “play along” with the poet’s infatuation. Sonnet 61 presents us with the bitter knowledge that the loved one shows no jealousy, or even curiosity, about what his friend (or slave) may be up to when they are apart, while the man who feels true love is devoured with speculation and anxiety on just this point. This, for the poet is the great test of the real thing, and he concludes, “O no, thy love, though much, is not so great.”

The poet’s only hope is that his verses on the young man’s beauty will outlast time itself. But even here there is a sudden danger, for the young nobleman has begun to extend his patronage to a rival poet. “The proud full sail” (No. 86) of the other poet’s verse is not the problem, only that our poet’s own genius will forsake him and be “enfeebled” if the other is preferred. He continues to love, but he is also sad and disillusioned.

Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing.
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate.

(No. 87)

The poet meditates on his own loss, on the nature of “They that have pow’r to hurt,” and by implication on the discovery, not so different from that made by the novelist Scott Fitzgerald three hundred years or so later, that “the rich are different from you and me.”

But the worst is yet to come. The poet has a dark-haired girlfriend, and to distract himself he now takes to praising her by dispraise. (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. … If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun: If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” No. 130) In a sudden dramatic revelation, we learn that the friend has met the girl, who has always led the poet on, and she has bewitched him until he is now as much involved as the poet himself. The poet addresses her forcefully:

Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken.
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed …

(No: 133)

The friend must not be blamed: indeed by a paradox, and though unavailingly, he has done the generous thing.

Him have I lost, thou hast both him and
He pays the whole, and yet I am not free.

(No. 134)

And so the poet is left with two loves “of comfort and despair.”

The better angel is a man right fair;
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.

(No. 144)

The drama is over. Has it all been made up? Was it an ingenious piece of virtual reality, a “real” play, invented by a poet-dramatist, perhaps to flatter and to fascinate a clever young grandee to whom the poet was genuinely and deeply attracted? Did the poet want not merely support and patronage but the equality of regard and affection given each other by two men who fall in love? Or was it only a make-believe, a lyric exercise that developed at the magic touch of a master playwright?

Ah, that’s the question, as Pushkin, another great and enigmatical poet, was in the habit of saying. It is the question at least for most of the critics, historians, and Shakespeare buffs who have considered the sonnets, but not for a more austere minority. In her learned and equable way Helen Vendler is the latest of the critics to disregard all the fuss, and instead to concentrate, as her title [The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets] makes plain, on how the poetry of the Sonnets works: What notes and harmonies, familiar and unsuspected, are there for critic and reader to ponder over and to trace out?

She recognizes of course that a real man, Shakespeare, must himself be involved. In what way might the art of his sonnets involve an actual experience? Other writers, past or present, might themselves help to answer that question. Anthony Powell, doyen at ninety-two of English novelists, and one who has created a panorama of English society, has remarked on several occasions nonetheless that a writer can do no other than “write what he is.”

The dictum is worth pondering in relation not only to more or less modern novelists but to great writers in the past. In what sense did Homer or Dante or Shakespeare write themselves? Dante perhaps did so most clearly, through peopling hell, purgatory, and heaven with his acquaintances and contemporaries. As a dramatist Shakespeare is telling tragic or comic histories, telling them no doubt in his own way; as a sonneteer he had license, if he wanted it, to be present himself among his own dramatis personae. The sonnet form had traditionally been used for the purpose: its structure had even evolved to give the impression that it was being so used. “Fool! said my muse to me,” exclaimed Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophel and Stella, “look in thy heart and write.” The exhortation becomes conventional. Nonetheless Wordsworth, himself the most confiding of poets, took it at face value, and wrote in admiration of the Elizabethan sonnet form that “with this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” “If so, the less Shakespeare he!” retorted Browning.

Browning held that the Bard had given nothing away, while Wordsworth assumed that his handling of the sonnet form had done the job for him. The point at issue becomes tautologous, or a truism, if we assume with Anthony Powell that a writer has no choice but to write what he is, or, as Henry James more circumspectly put it, “to be present on every page from which he so laboriously sought to remove himself.” In relation to the vast volumes of speculation that have been begotten by Shakespeare’s Sonnets the point seems important, however illusory it may turn out to be, and it is this that has divided the scholars, roughly speaking, into two camps: those who hold that a “real story,” and a fascinating one, is present in the Sonnets: and those who maintain that in his sonnet sequence Shakespeare is both novelist and dramatist, transmuting invention into the passion, or dispassion, of art, writing himself, rather than about what had actually happened to him.

Commentators in every age have given us much by way of elaborate argument, and yet the problem—if indeed it is one—is no nearer solution. Scholars in the first camp hold that there must be a solution, though it may never be found. Those in the second maintain that the whole concept of a “real story” is meaningless. Helen Vendler, wisest and most penetrating of today’s close critics, chooses to approach the Sonnets—not the “problem” of the Sonnets—by a different route. She takes for granted what is obvious, and yet about which so much ink has been spilled: that the emotions—sex, love, jealousy, envy, despair, and longing, to name only a few—are all present in the Sonnets, and in the peculiarly intense and virulent shape that art and experience can give to this particular verse form. Inevitably the emotions become dramatized into a story about a real story; inevitably that story is the author’s, though not necessarily about him. The point can be waived.

Of course many readers prefer not to do so, in which case the Sonnets are, so to speak, perfectly happy to oblige. The Elizabethan historian A. L. Rowse is sure that his erudition in the period has revealed to him who the Dark Lady really was, what references Shakespeare makes to the Spanish Armada—the “mortal moon”—to Queen Elizabeth, the Earl of Southampton, and many other events and persons of the time. Such references may be all a part of the enigmatic melody of the Sonnets, their “unity of play,” as Helen Vendler puts it—a byproduct of “all the language games, in which words can participate”: or they may be as real and humdrum as the news of the day we take for granted when we converse with friends. As Vendler briskly shows, Shakespeare when he wanted could write a masterly sonnet expounding a well-known historical reference, as he does at the end of Henry V. But the Sonnets in themselves are a different matter. Within them public and private event are equally equivocal, and aesthetically speaking equally irrelevant.

The Oxford Elizabethan scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones has just published an edition of the Sonnets in the classic Arden Shakespeare, whose introduction gives us a fascinating and persuasive study of the “human” element in the Sonnets. She comes down squarely on the side of Shakespeare’s being a homosexual, or perhaps discovering his homosexuality in his own amazement at his growing passion for the beautiful nobleman, and the intensity with which he found his art recording it. She also inclines to the view that this nobleman was the Earl of Pembroke rather than the Earl of Southampton (both incidentally had well-known homosexual inclinations) and that some of the sonnets are therefore quite late, written, or perhaps rewritten and revised, not long before they were first published in 1609.

All these and many other such suppositions have of course been made many times before; but a good critic and scholar can always give them a new twist or relevance in line with the state of critical art and psychosocial fashion. Human interest will be interpreted in every age in its own way. Nor should we discount the “feel” of the thing, which a good reader himself cannot help but be aware of. As Vendler implies, Shakespeare encourages alertness in his readers, even though that readiness of response should, she feels, compel the reader to wonder more about what Auden called the “verbal contraption” than about his question of “What kind of guy “inhabits this poem?” Nonetheless, the guy inside the poem cannot help in some sense writing himself, even though what most matters for Vendler is what she calls “the aesthetic challenge for Shakespeare in writing these poems.”

It cannot be wholly irrelevant, as it is certainly always intriguing, to ask the kind of questions the new Arden edition of the Sonnets suggests even to give the kind of answers proposed by the “sociopsychological” critic Eve Sedgwick, whom Vendler quotes with mild disapproval. For Sedgwick the Sonnets “seem to offer a single, discursive, deeply felt narrative of the daggers and vicissitudes of one male homosocial adventure.” Oscar Wilde and many others felt much the same thing, for the Sonnets, like the plays, have the kind of art which offers itself with total generosity to whatever kind of guy the reader may happen to be. They read us, even as we read them.

Subjective though it may be, the “feel” of the thing cannot be disregarded. In 1595 the poet and playwright Richard Barnfield published twenty sonnets addressed to Ganymede, the only sequence in the period apart from Shakespeare’s that are directed to a man, and these are explicitly homosexual in character, so obviously so that they point up Shakespeare’s lack of any discernible sexual warmth in that direction. Marlowe’s plays, too, are homosexual in feeling and frequently in theme, and, unlike Shakespeare’s, display no vigorously and sexually alive female characters. It is not the shadowy figure of the nobleman but the sexual personality of the Dark Lady which is most alive in the Sonnets, and inspires the most powerful and involuntary emotions of love-hatred. As Vendler says, “It is suggestive that the speaker repeatedly and obsessively dwells on the promiscuity of his mistress, and that he remains baffled … by her power to arouse him.” Freud, she notes, recorded in one of his essays “the case of men who can be sexually aroused (when the object is a woman) only by a woman known to be promiscuous.”

Nonetheless, critics who try to pluck out a mystery at the heart of the Sonnets usually wish to detect, like Eve Sedgwick, a “homosocial adventure.” It is for this reason that she wishes to treat the Sonnets like a novel. The many readers who are tempted to regard the sequence in this way are undoubtedly conditioned by the true novel—especially it may be the Jamesian novel—to the point where they confuse an enigmatic relation in poetry with a concealed or undercover one in the very different world of the society novel.

Vendler remarks on how well the structure of the whole sequence “mimics the structure of thinking,” and she might have added that it appears to mimic, too, all the nuances to which the novel has accustomed us. But her conclusion is an uncompromising one. The true actors “in lyric” are words and not persons, and “a coherent psychological account of the Sonnets is what the Sonnets exist to frustrate.” It may be impossible all the same, at least where the modern reader is concerned, for heterosexuals not to feel that the overall “feel” of the Sonnets is heterosexual, while for homosexuals it is the other way round. Marlowe, like Barnfield, represents in his poems and plays a pretty unambiguous case, whereas Shakespeare here, as usual, is all things to all men, presenting us with what Dryden and Dr. Johnson used to refer to as his “comprehensiveness” and his “universality.”

Vendler dryly observes that

the persistent wish to turn the sequence into a novel (or a drama) speaks to the interest of the sociopsychological critic, whose aim is less to inquire into the successful carrying-out of a literary project than to investigate the representation of gender relations.

“It is perhaps a tribute to Shakespeare’s ‘reality-effect,’” she writes, alluding to Sedgwick, that “‘one wishes the Sonnets were a novel’, but it does no good to act as if these lyrics were either a novel or a documentary of a lived life.” Her main point is precisely that a literary project is being successfully carried out in the Sonnets, but the arguments she uses for this purpose can only be two-edged, in that they would merely confirm for lovers of the poet’s “reality-effect” that he is here going to the heart of the matter: even deliberately “seeing through” the conventions and pretensions of Elizabethan sonnet language.

What Vendler has to say about Sonnet 20 is a good example. No patron, as she points out, and patrons were the usual recipients of sonnet sequences, was ever addressed in language like this.

A woman’s face, with Nature’s
own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion: …

She has already expounded what is for her the crux of the matter.

Aesthetically speaking, it is what a lyric does with its borrowed social languages … that is important. Shakespeare is unusually rich in his borrowing of diction and formulas from patronage, from religion, from law, from courtship, from diplomacy, from astronomy, and so on; but he tends to be a blasphemer in all of these realms. He is a master subverter of the languages he borrowed, and the point of literary interest is not the fact of his borrowings but how he turned them inside out. … There is no social discourse which he does not interrogate and ironize.

The critic in search of a novel in the Sonnets can of course retort, even though it must be anachronistic to do so, that Shakespeare has deliberately, and quite literally, taken the hint in Sir Philip Sidney’s famous line, and so has looked into his heart and written, subverting all the conventional artificiality of sonnet language in order to show the reader how and why he is doing it. There could be an analogy here with the development of the novel itself, striving ever in diction and in feeling for greater “realism.” But just as the novel cannot crawl out from under the net of language and linguistic patterning, and can only replace one form of convention with another, so it must also be with the language of poetry. Vendler’s point, and it is a profoundly true one, is that Shakespeare’s subversion of diction is never a “debunking” process, but is a fascinating and unsettling intellectual game, designed to reveal how emotion and expression interact, and how the play of language can reveal the hidden perplexities of thought and feeling.


After an introduction both comprehensive and conclusive, Vendler prints each sonnet both in the Quarto and in the modern text, together with a commentary on each. These she tells us are not intended to be read consecutively, but as accompaniment to each sonnet as the reader may chance or choose to study it.

A woman’s face, with Nature’s
own hand painted.
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion:
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s
souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their

(No. 20)

The “master-mistress” is Shakespeare’s personal and entirely novel trope. It was quite conventional of the sonneteer to address the sequence to his “mistress,” the word in that context conveying not so much a sexual as a social and worshipful relationship. Shakespeare’s coinage not only sharply reminds us of this basic ambiguity in the word but creates a new sort of ambiguity. “Master Mistress” (the suggestiveness of the phrase is more apparent in Quarto form) crosses up all the wires. “She” is the Master but, as Vendler points out, might be sexually available in what is for Elizabethan sonnets the more uncommon sexual sense of mistress, were it not that Nature herself has fallen for him/her as “master,” and hence fouled the whole thing up. Human interest critics, whether of the novel or of sociopsychology, might be inclined to adduce from this sonnet either that Shakespeare was unmistakably heterosexual, and hence balked of his goal by falling in love with a man; or that he was obviously homosexual, concealing his own sort of desire under the disguise of a baffled shrug and smile. Either “I love you all the more because I can’t do the obvious thing with you,” or “I love you all the more because in fact I could and can.”

Vendler is not interested here in the human question but in the poetic one, although in fact so good is her commentary that the two are revealed as inextricable. Her chief interest is in Shakespeare’s wholly original idea that nature—or rather “Nature,” the creating goddess—can in fact have all-too-human characteristics, and can be as flippant and irresponsible in her behavior as is the lovely young man himself. (There is surely a parallel with the immensely elaborate love poem Venus and Adonis, which concerns a doting goddess and a beautiful but indifferent young man.) The great physician Galen supposed all embryos to be originally female, and the poet plays with the idea that Nature in this case has done the unheard-of thing and made one of them male for her own pleasure, because besotted by its beauty.

Apart from the “pricking out” there is a good deal of sexual joking in Sonnet 20: because equipped with a cunt women are acquainted with fickleness by nature, and the “thing”—the organ of sex—is in this case a “nothing” to the poet. The final couplet defiantly cuts love off from intercourse, and this has great importance for the direction taken by the later sonnets. As Vendler says, “Once one has separated love from the act of sex, love can—indeed must—eventually stand alone, hugely politic, inhabiting the realm of the [Platonic] Forms. It certainly no longer inhabits the realm of the flesh, though it pervades the emotional and erotic imaginative life entirely.”

A great deal of ingenuity has been expended throughout the history of Sonnet criticism on the significance in Sonnet 20 of “hew” and “Hews” (as spelled in the Quarto version), a possible secret revelation of names and identities. Vendler’s austere methods ignore such speculation, though she is interested in the wordplay involved, and by the number of lines in the sonnet containing the individual letters of h-e-w-s or h-u-e-s. The master-mistress’s powers of controlling appearances are thus subtly manifested in almost every line, like repeated and related notes in a melody on the virginals.

The sestet, or final six lines, it might be said, is suddenly lighthearted, as if his idea of a scherzo or conceit on Nature’s fond aberration had raised the poet’s spirits, and withdrawn his attention from the tense and ominous possibilities in the octet, where in spite of his presumed possession of, “A woman’s gentle heart” the young man’s masculine and aristocratic powers of “control” may yet turn out to be twinned with the female fashion for “shifting change.” A master-mistress, it may be, cannot have one power without the other, and the harmony of musical balance, full of gaiety and warmth in the sestet, has grave and disturbing chords earlier on.

For Vendler, nonetheless, the “key word” that recurs in each quatrain and in the couplet of the sonnet and determines its harmony—she almost always locates a key word and ends her commentary with it—is WOMAN: and the implications of this could be far-reaching in themselves. Could it be that Shakespeare, even at play, was so helplessly heterosexual that the man with whom he finds himself in love must for him in fact be a woman, the “master-mistress” a true mistress after all?

The brilliant ingenuities of Sonnet 20 bring out the best in Vendler’s method, as does in a quite different way a very different sonnet, the famous No. 66, for which the audience shouted in Moscow when Boris Pasternak read his translations during the cultural oppression of the old Soviet regime.

Tired with all these, for restful death
I cry:
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly (doctor-like) controlling
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill.
Tired with all these, from these would I be
Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

Vendler has a particularly apt technical point to make about “art made tongue-tied by authority”—the line for which the crowds at the Moscow poetry reading were waiting.

What would a tongue-tied art sound like? It would sound (to use a modern simile) like a needle stuck in a groove, which is precisely what this wearily reiterative and syntactically poverty-stricken and … and sonnet offers as utterance. It is so tired, and so tongue-tied, that it sounds repetitive and anticlimactic. … Even its generalizing lack of specificity is tongue-tied, and the un-Shakespearean tri- and quadri-syllabic rhymes (jollity, strumpeted, disabled, authority, simplicity) make lines end weakly. The sonnet “comes alive” only if readers “animate” it by reflecting, as if a character in the masque passes by, on the contemporary face they would attach to each personae. The poem becomes acute, relevant, and painful.

Although Vendler, who normally eschews the indulgence of comparative or contemporary reference, does not seem aware of the Moscow episode, her notion of attaching contemporary faces to the formal personifications in the masque must have been exactly what the Soviet audience itself was doing—they saw Stalin’s image in Shakespeare’s words. And if art has been “tongue-tied,” then the sonnet itself, as Vendler says, “cannot afford to appear eloquent.”

Vendler’s technique can appear lofty and abstract, even chilly, as if she herself read nothing but the best poetry, and never looked into novels good or bad, or even into the swarming human underworld of Shakespeare’s own plays. But there are naked moments of sorrow or abandonment in the Sonnets when art, however illusorily, seems pushed aside by powerful natural feeling, the reader being only aware of a catch in his breath and a lump in his throat. When we read in Sonnet 120. “That you were once unkind befriends me now,” skill appears to break down before the misery of facts and the poet’s forlorn and final attempt to bargain with them.

O that our night of woe might have rememb’red
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits …

It seems the real thing: the lovers have hurt each other desperately, and their consolation for having given each other “a hell of time” can only be mutual recognition: “Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.”

These things speak for themselves, as Vendler comes close to admitting when she addresses another desolatingly intimate sonnet, No. 148, one of the very few in the series in which emotion seems to cause the line to overrun.

… Love’s eye is not so true
as all men’s: no.
How can it? O how can love’s eye be true,
That is so vexed with watching and with tears?

Vendler is no doubt right to see a pun in “eye” (“aye,” and “no”). Lover’s themselves can never speak the truth, though their eyes—or “ayes”—do it for them. But even Shakespearean word-play, and his undoubted passion for it, is surely not the point to dwell on here: and equally irrelevant is her reference to Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” (“How can her terrified vague fingers push / The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? / And how can body, laid in that white rush. / But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?”) Yeats’s poem is equally and magnificently an aesthetic affair, but its lofty air of cold triumphalism surely resembles in no way what Vendler so rightly calls the “pathos and helplessness” in Shakespeare’s lines.

The most striking thing about some of the Sonnets, this one in particular, is how “naturalistic,” they can be, how they suddenly break though what George Santayana admiringly called the “old finery” of Shakespearean language. Often in fact the octet soars up to a climax of such finery, the tone changes in the sestet, and it abruptly changes again in the concluding couplet, which, as Jan Kott has pointed out, can often resemble the histrionic admonition of a stage actor to himself in soliloquy.

No wonder that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, belonging to a generation which took poetry more directly and literally than ours does, had the simple pathos of such an appeal in mind when he maintained that the famous Elizabethan sonnet which begins “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part” could only have been by Shakespeare himself, although we now know it to be the work of Shakespeare’s friend and fellow poet, Michael Drayton: The youthful Keats refers several times in his letters to the complex explorative workings of Shakespearean metaphor, but it is clear that he also felt the naked truth in the Sonnets. In her commentary on Sonnet 144 Vendler herself, and quite abruptly, admits as much. “And truly,” she writes, “the least strained hypothesis about the Sonnets is that they are, roughly speaking, psychologically and dramatically ‘true.’” She leaves a question open here, since “psychologically and dramatically” need not imply that they are in any sense literally true. And yet it is difficult to feel otherwise about the first four lines of the sonnet which has caused Helen Vendler to make her comment.

Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair;
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.

(No. 144)

With that we are back where we started from. It was a platitude to the Elizabethans that “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” and yet “When Shakespeare wrote ‘Two loves I have,’” urged John Berryman in his book The Freedom of the Poet, “reader, he was not kidding.” Helen Vendler, who in her homely and uncombative but uncompromising way has produced here what is probably the least irrelevant and most critically illuminating of all extended commentaries on the Sonnets, in the end more or less agrees with that plain and pungent poet’s judgment.

Mona Simpson (review date 27 December 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2865

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 in poetry. But then, compatible verdicts are not what I read scholarship for. I didn’t always agree with R. P. Blackmur, and no one in their right mind could agree with Nabokov’s or Henry James’ assessments even half the time.

I read Vendler’s prose for the reason I read any prose. I’m persuaded by the voice; I feel the presence of a sympathetic sensibility and—as she has said of the speaker in Shakespeare’s sonnets—I believe she has created a “credible” intellectual self. In her essays, one feels a mind constantly working at the old questions of how to live and feel through the reading of poetry. And after a while, one holds a common body of reference. (Granted, yours is always a subset of hers. She sang the liturgy in Latin in seventh grade. Growing up, she wasn’t allowed movies or TV; her parents thought of those as “unimproving ways to spend time.” I worked high school nights at a California ice cream parlor, reading Proust and straining to make out Grateful Dead lyrics from the radio.)

And now Vendler has taken on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the cycle of 154 poems that has riveted and intrigued readers for the nearly 400 years since they were published. They begin with an older poet giving advice to a beautiful young nobleman. The tone of the poems changes from fond paternal interest to infatuation, intimacy, passion, as the poet continues to address the young man who seems at first to “lead him on.” Finally, the poet reckons with his own life for what it is: a solitary passion. Then the Young Man takes up with the poet’s girlfriend, a promiscuous Dark Lady toward whom the poet voices a full range of love and rage.

Shakespeare comes late in the sonnet tradition, and his linguistic transmutations imply a panoply of human moods with complex accuracy. They animate the almost smug comfort of even imagined reciprocity; the raw pain of jealous suspicion; the wintry admission that the beloved, though reassuring, does not feel the same way; and the older poet’s subsequent endless accommodations, his scaling down of expectation.

Part of the poems’ lasting appeal is just how “real” they feel. The unlikely nature of the protagonists (an older poet, a young man, a promiscuous dark lady, a rival lady) makes them more striking and has given rise to volumes of speculation about the work, which, according to John Bayley, falls into two critical camps: Those scholars on the hunt for the real story behind the sonnets and those who read the sequence as they would a novel, assuming invention, not only linguistic but also in terms of “plot” and “character.”

Vendler wisely reminds us that the “feelings attached to fetishistic or anomalous sexual attraction are identical to the feeling attached to more conventional sexual practice, and it is essentially feelings, not love-objects, which are traced in lyric.”

Which is to say that the feelings are true, regardless of whether there ever was a young man in Shakespeare’s life or a dark lady.

Written over nine years, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets prints the poems in their 1609 quarto version and in a modernized version of Vendler’s own (for which she seems to have picked and chosen from G. B. Evans’ 1996 edition and Stephen Booth’s comprehensive commentary). Each sonnet is followed by her commentary.

In her introduction, Vendler says she is interested mainly in the poems as verbal contraptions, and she creates her own technical apparatus to look at their overlapping structures. She catalogs the words in the couplets that also appear in the body of the sonnet and labels them “Couplet Ties.” (She counts a word and its family of variation as one word for this purpose.) She charts enjambments, anagrams, phonemic and graphic patterns and considers the structural units of meaning, whether they are Italian, Petrarchan or one of Shakespeare’s many variations.

Though intricate and technical, Vendler’s analysis of the sonnets is never boring. Even the conceit of the Couplet Tie, which at first annoyed me with its other-sonnet-another-couplet-tie monotony, had me convinced of its power by sonnet 67, in which every quatrain contains a variation of the word “live” except the couplet. There, Shakespeare refrains from offering the word, and this disappointment contributes to the ominous feeling one is left with at the sonnet’s end, emphasizing “that the young man does not ‘live’ in the present, rather, he is a preserved relic of the past.”

As the Poet reconciles himself to the nature of the Young Man’s somewhat shallow affections, he backs away from his early hopes for reciprocity and concentrates his devotion on the building of the linguistic monuments to him. Commenting on sonnet 55, Vendler notices that the speaker scales down his hyperbolic suggestion of an audience suggested by “all posterity” to “the more probable audience for the sonnets, lovers.

It’s hard to imagine many contemporary American lovers reading either the sonnets or any commentary about them, but the Vendler book can be read by all lovers of poetry. It’s not only for academicians. Though my copy of the book is full of technical words such as “epideictic,” “commination.” “proleptically” and “aureate,” underlined and looked up, it is, in fact, easy to read. Though meticulous, Vendler is consistently, reassuringly sensible. She stays in the poem: She’s interested in corners of feeling, new positions, new hues on the spectrum of daily passion we may recognize but not know to name. (The way Degas, for instance, may introduce a physical position one has bent over into many times but never seen depicted.)

The tone of her discourse reminds me of what English classes in college used to be, when students took them because they loved books and words. Now, English departments are often animated and divided by minds passionate about historical context, sociology, psychology, gender politics or some other kind of politics.

Vendler writes in the introduction: “In the past I have often wished, as I was reading a poem, that I could know what another reader had noticed in it; and I leave a record here of what one person has remarked so that others can compare their own noticings with mine.”

Her meticulous structures of analysis are a gift. They quietly allow one’s own interpretive faculty to rise. By clearing up all the mechanical obstacles to understanding, your own apprehension of the poem emerges whole, and you’ve only to recognize it.

Sometimes reading the sonnets before and after the commentary gives me back the feeling of learning to read again. The teacher would ask a question, and I knew the answer before I could really commit to it. I knew in some feeling way that the letters on the board said “truck,” but I couldn’t get it out. My answer seemed too internal, murky, too my own, maybe too easy to be true. Later, of course, I could read, but the moment of learning itself—like the moment the leaf grows in those photosynthesis films—is always missed, never experienced.

Vendler’s myriad attentions to the minute patterning of words and sounds yield just such mysterious glories. She diligently, even stringently, employs her technical surveys, and what emerges from beneath their grid is surprising, substantial, evanescent.


She couldn’t care less who the “real” (dead) subjects of the sonnets are (the closest she comes to speculation is to say, after sonnet 82: “the use of the word hue … suggests once again that it may have been some occult reference (now lost) to the young man’s name.”)

She’s a subdued commentator. She’s not the kind of critic who says of sonnet 73’s Bare ruined choirs: “Wow!” Or of sonnet 30’s Sessions (“Sessions!”) of sweet silent thought. She is interested in the inner life of the speaker and refuses any political judgment of content.

Yet she’s amazingly big-minded; Shakespearean in her own voice, in the sense that it’s hard to feel exactly where she is located. With so many critics, you can tell just what they’re looking for and from what angle. She seems more or less to take what’s there. There’s no strict agenda to her noticings.

She’s nimble imaginatively. “It is true there is irony in the sonnets … but there are also, I believe, sonnets of hapless love—intended as such by the author, expressed as such by the speaker. … Judging the presence or absence of authorial irony is a matter of poetic tact in reading.”

At one point, she asks rhetorically, “Is irony, lover of proverbs, a better state than hopeful attachment and anguished loss?” Vendler strongly suggests that the answer is no.

But she’s not dippy about passion either. Her vantage isn’t the love-is-the-only-highroad air sometimes evinced by people who’ve recently left long-time spouses. When Michael Silverblatt asked her on his radio program, KCRW’s “Bookworm,” if there were any ignored sonnets she particularly liked, she cited sonnet 50, in which the speaker is riding a horse. She finds the speaker’s obsession unsympathetic. “Nowhere is the obsessiveness of love better exemplified in the sonnets than in the speaker’s response to his bloodied horse’s groan. … We are meant, I think, to wince at this tenacity in private grief in the presence of the horse’s pain.” This is as close as she comes to political correctness. She intends us to believe that Shakespeare, separate from his speaker, sides with the horse.

Though her tone is maternal (one longs for an adjective to imply a kind of female avuncularity), her emotional temper is expansive and worldly. She prefers the sonnets to the young man to those to the Dark Lady. Only occasionally, she lets her own language soar, as in her assertion that the last five lines of sonnet 15, “sung under the sign of the sullying scythe, remain a hymn to the human love-syllable, you.”

She has many ways into a poem. She observes of the beautiful nocturne, sonnet 29, that “Nothing much happens by way of events; but there is an inexhaustible supply of fresh scenes (a characteristic of lyric from Petrarch on, as we see the lover on horseback or sleepless in bed.)”

In sonnet 61, she puzzles together a ghost poem (“indecorous, shaming, accusing”) beneath the more “sayable” poem. The tone begins gently, with the speaker wondering whether he’s being kept awake by the young man’s spirit from afar prying “To find out shames and idle hours in me.” Then he sadly recognizes that it is not the young man’s jealousy but his own, tormenting him. “Oh no, thy love, though much, is not so great; / It is my love that keeps mine eye awake.”

After identifying several sonnets as reply poems, she goes ahead and writes out dialogues between the young man and the speaker, which could have taken place just before the sonnet begins.


A factor in all her interpretations is her deeply oral conception of poetry. She first heard these sonnets as a child, recited by her mother. She herself learned all 154 by heart. Her ear training is profound and often yielding. The book is accompanied by a compact disc onto which Vendler has recorded the sonnets. It’s a relief to hear a reader, rather than an actor, read the poems.

When asked by the Paris Review whether teaching helped her criticism, she replied, “Oh, it would have to, if only because you learn more poems by heart every year from teaching them. They work on you, then in a different way they work on you when you’re reading them off the page. … Out of the depths of my heart will come a quotation completely unbidden. And then I will think: Oh, so that’s what I am feeling today. On any occasion when a response is called for, what usually comes to my lips is a line from some poem or other. My son laughs about this and says, ‘A quotation for every occasion, Mom.’”

What first struck her about Wallace Stevens was hearing his voice on a record.


Like the best teachers, she’s willing, at times, to seem dumb and a little goofy. “There is no return to a closing statement by the poet,” she says, referring to sonnet 32, “e.g. (with my apologies) ‘If thou wilt read me thus, I’ll not repine / For all I think and all I write is shine.’”

Talking about sonnet 42, she resorts to charts.

YM—via S—M

M—via S—YM

loses YM

S } they find each other

loses M

She’s willing to tell us “the gist of” a quatrain.

When she damns Shakespeare, she damns gently. “Sonnet 7 has little to recommend itself imaginatively …” and sonnet 26 “is not notable for imagination.” My only impatience with the book is that sometimes I think she displays too much evenhandedness. There’s a relentless fairness that makes me want to go out and shout, dance, sing Bruce Springsteen lyrics, live in the language now. For my taste, she’s occasionally one degree too reverent of writers. Sometimes I feel she’s a little cowed by Shakespeare. She’s a believer in the contradicting, antithetical mind, but she doesn’t grant him ample mental range to admit one simply uninspired outpouring, one true dud.


In a way, a straight-through reading of the book seems false, as one would more naturally leaf through the sonnets, according to mood. At first, her responses feel like individual essays, but about halfway in you realize that huge orchestral movement is being made from the resonating phrases.

Her argument about the speaker’s hope for and delusion of reciprocity in the early sonnets is like the prelude in a long novel, such as “Swann in Love.”

She persuasively demonstrates how Shakespeare creates a “credible self,” in the form of the speaker, by following his fast, contradictory thoughts in “this portrait of a mind plunging among its categories to find resemblances as it does in the creation of multiple temporal phases.”

In addition to the gathering force of her major binding thematic arguments and persuasions, there are the smaller pleasures of her erudite asides, her deep, easy knowledge of church Latin, liturgy, of Keats lore (he remembered sonnet 97 in his ode “To Autumn”) and Chapman lore (Chapman believed he was in communication with Homer). The volume is sprinkled with pertinent references to Keats, Hopkins, Stevens, Heaney, Yeats, Frost and fewer than I personally would have expected to Marlowe.


Vendler argues that the couplet in the sonnets should be taken not as a resolution to the poem but as a coda, with many possible relations to the body of the work (summarizing, reinforcing, refuting, ironic).

As my coda, I want to mention one aspect that I admire in Vendler’s work, which she may not even like. I accord her the same stature I accord Joan Didion and Alice Munro—contemporary artists of prose fiction, women and personal icons. She’s someone of genuine intellectual stature who also writes seriously about motherhood, from both sides, without sentimentality.

“My mother was the first person to introduce me to Shakespeare’s sonnets. She quoted them often, and had memorized many of them. Her last pieces of writing (which we found after Alzheimer’s disease had robbed her of memory) were fragments of the sonnets which, either from fear of forgetting or as a means of self-reassurance, she had written down on scraps of paper. It is no mean tribute to the sonnets that they, of the hundreds of poems she knew by heart, were the last to fade.”

John Burt (review date July 1998)

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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 sense of that word. Although literary theorists have delighted in imagining the dire political consequences that follow from valuing sensibility (tying, for example, respect for poetic inwardness to the me-first egocentricity they associate with “late capitalism”), the chains of implication which tie that aesthetic to those consequences are by no means chains of iron, and in fact for the most part have no stronger basis than analogy-mongering. Indeed, not long ago precisely the opposite point was being made about the specific political bearing of imaginative inwardness, which was then felt, on grounds no weaker than those the contemporary view employs, to serve progressive politics.

This is not to say that sensibility never has a political bearing. Even Vendler, who sometimes says that “Poetry will not make us better citizens,” praises Seamus Heaney’s poetry for bringing human depth to political quarrels where humanity is hard to keep in play, and criticizes Rich (and sometimes Lowell) for a crudeness and simplemindedness that is not only imaginative in nature. Imagination does have political affiliations, but it’s not obvious that all of those affiliations are on the same side. Like all essentially contested concepts, aesthetic inwardness is the common blessing and the common bane of every party. Vendler’s very forthright allegiance to the aesthetic may well foreclose some views of the relationship between poetry and politics, and it may blind her to the work of some poets, but for the most part it not only leaves the question of the relationship between poetry and politics an open one, but also leaves it far more open than competing views do.

A more telling distinction than that between “conservative” and “subversive” (to use the contemporary talismanic word of praise) is that between scholar and critic. Of course, most literary professionals play both roles all the time, sometimes carefully weighing the evidence for a claim, sometimes illuminating the inner suggestiveness of a poem through an act of intuitive sympathy. But the two roles are often in tension. What separates the scholar and the critic is not the division between fact and value but the difference between demonstration and intuition as ways of knowing. Certainly to those with the scholar’s caution and skepticism about claims whose grounds cannot be fully brought into the daylight, what the critic does appears to be not only lacking in rigor but to depend upon mystification. Little of what the critic does meets the scholar’s standard of proof, and the critic’s trust in a poem’s “feel” and a critical “ear” must always seem to the scholar to be a kind of covert appeal to authority: “People who have good taste (like me) think this way; if you don’t, that’s your problem.”

Part of the difference between these two points of view is a quarrel about what kind of knowledge the knowledge of poetry is. An aesthetic experience of a poem always involves somehow “playing” the poem upon a trained sensibility. And the scholarly temperament is, not without reason, suspicious of any claim that can only be validated in the shadowy regions of inwardness. But the fact that aesthetic experiences depend upon a kind of inwardness does not mean that they are “subjective” in the sense one means that term when one uses it as a term of abuse.

Sensibility has a curious kind of objectivity after all: it is at least partly detached from wish-fulfillments, from force of will, and from the unexamined guiding commonplaces of culture, since it sometimes runs counter to all of these. Whatever the much-abused phrase “the autonomy of art” means, it means that aesthetic responses are at least partly free of such ulterior motives or at least cannot wholly be explained on their basis. Nor is sensibility entirely the creature of whim, since it demands a principled self-consciousness from which one expects some account of its inner logic even if the ultimate origins of an aesthetic response remain mysterious. Like all arts, criticism can be described as a complicated dance between intuition and method in which each is engaged by and checked by and deepened by the other. The fact that its methods are not and cannot be formal does not mean that it lacks method or that its appearance of method is only the product of indoctrination in the reigning nonsense. One knows critical method in the way one knows how to dance—one is initiated into a practice which is deeper than merely knowing the steps, and from within that practice even the freedom of improvisation not only is conditioned by discipline but expresses an insight into the meaning of that discipline. That the method cannot be formalized is a sign of its depth, not of its shallowness or lack of rigor.

The inwardness of sensibility is not quite privacy either: we do talk about aesthetic experiences with each other, and our experiences develop in an ongoing engagement with the sensus communis about such matters. But sensibility is not totally the prisoner of the sensus communis; artists do sometimes make the taste by which they are to be enjoyed, and critics find upon reflection that their sensibilities will turn in directions contrary to their already acknowledged tastes. Sensibility has a way of catching one unawares: one keeps finding one’s self intrigued or drawn to things that one had assumed one wouldn’t be at all interested in, and in following those things out one has at least to imagine a world larger than that circumscribed by one’s preconceptions.

Knowledge of poetry is not knowledge about poetry but knowledge through poetry. It presents poetry not as a thing known but as a habit or occasion of knowing. One knows a poem not the way one knows the melting temperature of lead but the way one knows those few people one loves best. And what one says about a poem in criticism is no more a rigorous description of that poem than the poet’s blazon is of the beloved: both are occasions not for analysis but for intimacy, but it is an intimacy that requires delicate handling and which there are any number of ways of getting wrong. Poetry requires a severe discipline, like love, and although it resists being formalized it also rewards those who strenuously follow out its trains of thought with a deepened and more variegated experience of its central but never to be fully articulated truths.

The traditional attack upon sensibility-based criticism, that because it is under-theorized it is a prisoner of an implicit theory it does not have the discipline to be self-conscious about, assumes, reasonably enough but also, I believe, mistakenly, that a way of reading poetry must be able to justify itself all the way down to something like first principles. But the first principles of a literary theory do not have a deeper reality than poems do, for claims about the first principles of literary interpretation always issue from someone who is at the moment not engaged in that art. When people are asked to describe the rules of a game they play brilliantly, they often, with perfect seriousness, describe the game inaccurately. So it is with literary theory: its claims have the same relationship to literary criticism that school-house grammar has to language.

Every serious reader of poetry has had his or her views of poetry transformed by particular poems in ways nothing in his or her intellectual history could have predicted. Readers have this experience because sensibility has depths of implicitness that are not plumbed by constructions from first principles. To retort that poetry only transforms us in ways we are already ready to be transformed (although we didn’t know it yet), and that therefore poems never bring us to a new way of thinking but only confirm what is already implicit in our ideologies, is to confuse the object of explanation with the grounds of explanation. Traditionally one proves the political inevitability of such a transformation retrospectively: once it has already happened, one puts together a story that accounts for it. But doing that proves nothing, because anybody can cobble together a plausible retrospective account (and it’s safe to say that had the transformation taken precisely the opposite turn, one could have cobbled together an equally plausible retrospective account). To make the ideological case persuasively one has to predict such a transformation before it happens, and that one is unlikely to do with any more reliability than astrological predictions have.

Sensibility-based criticism must concede to the scholarly view that sensibility will always be a matter of phronesis and can never provide the certainty of theoria. But to concede this is not to concede that sensibility comes down to subintellectual impressionism. Phronesis has discipline just as theoria does; but it is a discipline that one can only be initiated into by practice. Indeed, it is the very things which most drive the scholarly-minded to the view that criticism is hopelessly flabby that are most central to the critic’s view of what the discipline of his or her discipline is.

Theoria and phronesis have different assumptions about the relationship between the patterned and the predictable. For theoria the patterned and the predictable are the same, and if one’s account of a pattern is not borne out by predictions made on its basis, then one’s account is incorrect. Phronesis, by contrast, is concerned with occasions where patterning and predictability are opposed to each other: an artistic invention unfolds in a state of endless becoming, changing restlessly enough so that it avoids staleness but never so restlessly that it becomes entirely unintelligible. It solicits the expectation of pattern, yet at every scale it must continuously alter, transform, rethink, or deepen what its sense of that pattern is, so that one’s accounts of that pattern are always retrospective and never are fully predictive of how that pattern will develop.

The failing of both the scholarly and the literary-theoretical view of poetry, relative to the critical view of poetry, is that they seek to apply the conditions of theoria to what only phronesis is capable of rendering intelligible. It is the ambition of those views—and it is especially the ambition of ideology theory—to use the evidence of pattern as evidence of predictability. But to be satisfied with that kind of account of the work we must programmatically ignore the very things that make that work live.

One of the attractive features of trust in one’s sensibility is sensibility’s habit of opening up to one poems one might not have anticipated being to one’s taste. The twenty-one essays in Soul Says deal with a wide variety of poets, and Vendler reads them with an open mind. She often will try on the poet’s convictions for size, so that when she discusses a poet of the high style such as Merrill, she adopts, provisionally but not merely for convenience, a vision of poetry which opens for her the virtues of “intricacy of form, and teasing obliqueness of content,” from the point of view of which a more populist poetry such as Whitman and Frost wrote seems “gross, heavy-footed, ugly” (p. 35). Yet when she thinks about the more exoteric poets, she never seems to be slumming, and the power of that kind of poetry is not lost on her either. Like James, and like the poets she admires, she is one of those upon whom nothing is lost.

Soul Says covers a wide variety of poets, which alone is a testament to the catholicity of Vendler’s taste. Thoughtful appreciations of some of her favorite poets (Heaney, Dove, and Graham), while covering some of the same territory covered in the other two books under review, nevertheless break some new ground. Vendler has long admired Heaney’s sanity and humanity, and in her treatment of Heaney’s essays in The Government of the Tongue she brings out the clear-eyed moral integrity and perceptiveness that has always been one of Heaney’s gifts to an unsettled and histrionic cultural and political world. Likewise, although much of Vendler’s take on Graham is familiar, Vendler’s pointed contrast between Graham and Rich is perceptive. Her quarrel with Rich, while leading her to censure what seems to her to be Rich’s tendency to create morally simplistic cartoons, never leads her to resort to blanket dismissal, and she is able to step outside of her general criticism to offer homage to several moments of unashamed appreciation of natural beauty in Rich’s poems. Vendler’s essays on Graham are distinguished from her readings of this poet in other volumes by her attention to Graham’s moments of uncharacteristically simple pathos, as in her description of her Grandmother’s last days in a nursing home, “there in her diaper sitting with her purse in her hands all day.”

The range of Vendler’s interests is large. Included are reviews of recent books by established poets (Merrill, Ammons, Glück, Ashbery), retrospectives of poets of an earlier era (such as a harshly critical review of a new edition of selected poems of Robinson Jeffers, and a thorough and thoroughly evenhanded consideration of Donald Davie’s work, on the occasion of the publication of his Collected Poems). Vendler is always at pains to specify accurately what the ambitions are even of poets whom she finds unsympathetic. Although she is taken aback by the sense she has in Dave Smith’s poetry that in it “the page becomes something wrestled into submission, its repudiatory blankness overcome by a broad and strong calligraphy” (p. 43), she nevertheless can be impressed by his ear for the uncanny and the grotesque. Her review of Gary Snyder’s No Nature begins by dismissing Snyder as more guru than poet, but ends by being taken by his poems anyway, and defines in his work a vision of what poetry can do which is not like anyone else’s, a poetry which “registers the passage of time with an impersonality full of wonder” (p. 122). Although she finds Charles Simic’s view of the world nightmarishly claustrophobic and obsessive, going so far as to describe his poetry as “coercive” (p. 102), she is also alive to the power of the unbearable tension that is his element, and takes relish in “the poems of slightly surrealist malice that still seem to me Simic’s best” (p. 107).

Vendler’s purview is not restricted to poets of established reputations. Of August Kleinzahler, for instance, she brings out his unlikely dual affiliations with Ammons and with Stevens, and without condescension or that lowering of standards one sometimes undertakes in the name of generosity to new talents (she rather tartly rebukes his tendency to “fall over the edge into tough-guy sentimentality” (p. 154)), is able to attend to those “jaunty skips and riffs” of his that so much “solace the ear” (155). A similar generosity sharpened with justice characterizes her review of Lucie Brock-Broido’s first book, A Hunger. After rebuking the young poet for persistent use of a few obsessive words, she nevertheless is impressed by the vigor, the “Grand Guignol relish” (p. 173) of her poetic energy, and the tartness and astringency of her take on the life of the feelings.

The two lecture-collections are each unified by a loosely constructed problem. The Given and the Made treats how four poets (Lowell, Berryman, Dove, and Graham) take up and transform the inescapable facts of their personal lives in poetry. The problem is general enough that one might use almost any poet to examine it. And yet the overarching concept seems more here to be an enabling conceit than a central occasion for criticism. Graham’s trilingual education, for example, does not appear in Vendler’s essay to be quite a “given” in the same sense that Lowell’s genealogy or Berryman’s mania and alcoholism or Dove’s race are givens. But the book does not stand or fall by this, so long as its local readings are insightful, as they are.

The Lowell chapter delineates his career in a few swift but sure strokes. She sees in the poems of Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) a stern but ultimately rather mechanical recipe for public lyric history—“the disaffiliated son rebuking with grim triumph his rotting ancestors” (p. 5). But Vendler’s distaste for this early stance is not just a function of its repetitiveness but arises from a sense of its ethical as well as aesthetic failure, for Lowell’s “implacably vengeful” poems repeat the crime they rebuke, so that the narrator comes off as “a predestinarian Calvinist of the very stripe he condemns” (p. 6). Vendler treats the stylistic crisis in Lowell’s career over the years preceding his breakthrough Life Studies (1960) as not merely a repudiation of the style he had learned from Allen Tate but also as a thorough rethinking of the kinds of things poetry can do and of the quality of judgment it should bring to historical and familial experiences. Vendler sees the poems of Life Studies as turning on apparently peripheral matters that illuminate the big issues, in the way that Freudian slips or jokes illuminate the big issues. Tonally, the fierce and judgmental style of the early poems gives way to detachment and ironic understatement, “a dryly comic sense of the disproportion between human aims and life’s events” (p. 12).

If your family is the Lowell family, of course, an ironic family history is also an ironic public history. Lowell’s most powerful treatment of the abjectness of the present relative to the past, “For the Union Dead,” Vendler sees as treating public history with the same associative density Lowell brings to family history. Vendler argues that there is an anti-Irish edge to this poem (since the Irish have displaced the Yankees who ruled Boston in Colonel Shaw’s day), but Lowell’s animus seems to me to be directed more generally at the savage servility of ’50s culture generally; I see nothing specifically anti-Irish in the poem, and wonder what Vendler’s starting point for this claim is. Is it just that the Aquarium whose ruin Lowell laments in the poem’s opening lines happens to be in South Boston? Vendler’s reading of Notebook 1967–8 and of its “Poundian offspring,” History, is less sympathetic: she finds the tumultuous accumulation of blank-verse sonnets thematically shapeless, organized only by an arbitrary and procrustean form. Vendler ultimately sees Lowell as winning through to a more humane skepticism in Day by Day (1977), in which the overwhelming spew of agglutinated detail in the poetry of the 1960s gives way to a more detached and more lucid vision, unwilling to sum it all up, unclear even that it has a meaning, but able to find value and consolation in a clearsighted accuracy.

Vendler sees the form Berryman invented for The Dream Songs very differently from how she sees the blank verse sonnets through which Lowell attempted to impose order upon chaotic events. Berryman’s form is flexible enough to do justice to his irony and to his complexly shifting tone, and his use of a long series of brief anecdotal narratives, which Vendler sees as the poetic equivalent of a long series of psychoanalytic hours, seems far more congenial to her than the equivalent in Lowell. Vendler is taken by Berryman’s rhetorical energy, his endless self-satire, the glee with which he undercuts even deeply felt tragedies from his personal life: “He made, a thousand years ago, a-many songs / for an Excellent lady, wif whom he was in wuv.” She finds in Berryman’s Henry, the protagonist of The Dream Songs, “the first full-length poetic portrait of the Freudian Id—regressive, petulant, hysterical, childish, cunning, hypersexual, boastful, frightened, shameless, and revengeful; but also grieving, imaginative, hilarious, mocking, and full of Joycean music: ‘I have a sing to shay.’” (p. 40), Vendler also sees Henry’s blackface interlocutor with considerable clarity, nothing how he is always usually able to rebuke Henry when he is furthest off base without turning into the stern and sadistic Super-ego. The interlocutor exercises precisely the kind of humane and sympathetic judgment that “confessional poetry” is supposed to be least capable of. Vendler notes, however, that neither Henry nor his blackface interlocutor speak for the narrator, who regards both figures with distance and irony, able to know them and to know himself completely, able to make poetry out of that knowledge, but unable to use that knowledge to save himself.

Vendler’s account of Rita Dove’s career thus far is an account of a poet learning to free herself from the expectations her situation might seem in the eyes of others to impose upon her and to see things her own way. She sees Dove as working both with and against the populist poetry bequeathed to her by Brooks and Hughes, and her early poetry, dominated as it were by a single identity marker, seems to Vendler to be limited and predictable. The secret to Dove’s development as a poet seems to Vendler to be her ability to take the unpredictable point of view. A case in point is her much admired poem “Parsley,” which treats the 1937 massacre of Haitian cane workers by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo is an actual historical monster, although his trick of sorting out Dominican from Haitian on the basis of how they pronounce the word “perejil” (“parsley” in Spanish) seems something that Gabriel Garcia Marquez would invent. The moral seriousness of the poem is in Dove’s ability to enter the tormented but inventive mind of the dictator, who is no cardboard figure to Dove, although still of course a horror.

This sense of human depth particularly appeals to Vendler in her reading of Dove’s book-length poem about her grandparents’ hard lives after coming north in the great migration earlier in this century, Thomas and Beulah (1986). Dove portrays Thomas’s frustration as a worker in an aircraft factory during the Second World War with exquisite humanity: he feels that his masculinity is in doubt because he has been rejected from serving in the Army on account of his “frailness.” Working as a riveter instead, he reflects bitterly about being given the crude job of riveting rather than the sophisticated work of engine-building, which is given instead to “women with fingers no smaller than his.” He idly considers sabotaging the wings he is assembling by giving the rivets too short a blast from his rivet gun, but it is clear that even this thought is aimless and rather sad. It’s this insight into human complexity, and insight which transcends agendas, which so attracts Vendler to Dove’s work.

The linkage between the Graham chapter and the others is less than obvious, but Vendler offers perceptive readings of difficult poems nevertheless. Vendler sees Graham as putting her life-experience in three languages to work in a habit of thought able (because it can phrase those thoughts in several alternative idioms) to see itself at a far enough distance from itself to be able to catch its thoughts in motion and observe how they move. Vendler also sees the characteristic rhythms of Graham’s poetry in English as somehow bearing the impress of the speech rhythms of Italian; here, however, she does not present enough direct evidence to make this more than a passing intuition.

These are not the main themes of her Graham chapter, however, although they are the places where that chapter intersects with the concerns of the rest of the book. Vendler here (as elsewhere—she makes the same argument about Graham in all three books, and more than once in Soul Says) is chiefly concerned with Graham as a philosophical poet, as a poet interested in the tension between high abstraction and the turbulent flow of particulars and modifying perceptions. Vendler’s Graham is a poet who sees the philosophical stakes in small acts, seizes upon those acts as occasions for poetic meditation, and, catching her thought on the fly, is able to present the thinking-through of the world in the first person way of the poet rather than in the third-person way of the philosopher. The ability to catch thought on the fly and rethink it is something Graham shares with Ashbery, of course, except that what in Ashbery is an occasion for rueful irony and self-effacement is for Graham an occasion for rapt absorption in an intense moment of perception and thought.

Vendler sees Graham as growing into a poetry of the live experience of thought out of an early procedure in which a particular event becomes an emblem to be brooded upon, followed by a flight into abstraction which may or may not resolve the issue which that event stung the poet into thinking about. She provides a particularly rich reading of “At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body,” in which the painter, able to render the body accurately in art on account of his patient dissection of corpses, prompts the poet to think about why it is that the soul alone is not sufficient for heavenly bliss, why it is that at the last judgment the souls will all be restored to their bodies. This leads to a consideration of how Signorelli, his own son having died violently, dissected the body in a final futile act of love and knowledge Vendler is somewhat skeptical of the personal turn. Graham’s poetry took in Region of Unlikeness, but she makes a persuasive case for the meditations in The End of Beauty and Materialism, finding in her intellectual restlessness “a made art more diaphanous, more restless, and more metaphysical than any other contemporary American poetic construct” (p. 130).

The governing notion of the other lecture collection, The Breaking of Style, is that revolution in the poet’s style is a revolution also in the poet’s psyche and in the poet’s view of the proper work of poetry. The exemplary poets in this book are Hopkins, Heaney, and Graham. Here, as in The Given and the Made, it’s not obvious that this concept made the choice of these texts inevitable—indeed, Vendler freely admits that in Heaney’s case what she is examining are local stylistic changes rather than global ones.

Vendler argues that for Hopkins, the invention of sprung rhythm—the new “body” of his poetic thought—is linked to a new sense of the possible sacredness of physical things; the metrically smoother poetry of Hopkins’s early career also was more invested in a bodiless spirituality, and the invention of sprung rhythm is a consequence or at least a concomitant of a new sense of the immanence of the divine in this world. Vendler has a penetrating sense of the poetic resources sprung rhythm made available to Hopkins, and gives a fascinating explanation of why, in certain poems after his stylistic revolution, Hopkins chose not to employ his characteristic meter. Even when she reads familiar poems, Vendler sees them shrewdly, noting how Hopkins “squeezes out” unstressed syllables so as to produce a series of syncopated shocks, underlined with syntactic compression and intensified by a spondaic crush of alliterated syllables. When Hopkins’ vision darkens, late in his career, the rhythmic assault of his verse also darkens and clots, with an “eight-beat sprung-rhythm lines prolonging themselves into one undifferentiated monosyllabic vocal disharmony” that Vendler calls “the last agony of the stylistic body of poetry” (p. 40).

The stylistic changes Vendler notices in the poetry of Seamus Heaney are not metrical but grammatical. Others have noted the evolution of Heaney’s themes and subject matter. But Vendler notices also that at different phases of his career Heaney puts different parts of speech at the center of the poem. In his 1991 volume Seeing Things, for instance, Vendler notices that the mnemonic charging of past places and things by the events that happened there is figured in a style in which all of the verbs and adjectives become transformed into their equivalent nouns, so that the setting becomes a list of transfixing things that as it were possess the mind. By contrast, an earlier poem such as “Oysters,” from Field Work (1979), captures the vitality and urgency of what it describes by transforming all of the other parts of speech into verbs. This world of “verb, all verb” is a world of “an immediate, sensual apprehension of life unspoiled by sexual or political second thoughts” (p. 49). The earliest Heaney, argues Vendler, is a poet of adjectives, whose prowess in turning all parts of speech into adjectives is a way of rendering the turbidity and tactility of the natural world. It is his investment in adjectives, for instance, which imaginatively revivifies the preserved corpses of the bog people Heaney describes in North (1975). In each case the foregrounding of a part of speech is linked to a moral insight and to an occasion for poetic self-consciousness.

The stylistic changes Vendler discusses in Graham’s poetry here concern the length of her lines. Vendler finds in the short lines of Graham’s early poems an allegiance to a somatic conception of the line: the line is a unit of breath, and writing in lines is a way of marking out poetry with the rhythms of the body. Short lines break up the world into increments, so that each piece may be examined individually and seriatim, as if picked up in tweezers. Graham’s more recent experiments in long lines treat those long lines as “the formal equivalent of mortality, dissolution, and unmeaning” (p. 78). Because they break the relationship between line and breath, these long lines take the poem from the region of the body into the region of the mind. In postponing the end of the line they also postpone the “intellectual and formal dénoument” (p. 78) of completed statements, and since the completed statement inevitably falsifies the never completed back and forth rethinking of living intellectual experience, the long line offers to Graham a kind of poetic candor about the provisionalness of all real thinking. In Graham’s recent tendency to number her long lines, Vendler finds not a recurrence of her earlier desire to break the world up into manageable packets but rather an investment in infinitely extensible but discrete moments of gazing, so that “a trust in the vagaries of the perceptual replaces the earlier poetry’s trust both in the physiologically regulated order of breath and in a teleologically regulated order of truth” (p. 82).

In the introduction to Soul Says Vendler describes how the lyric “I” has an identity deeper than that which is a function of its social allegiances, an identity which Vendler calls “soul.” The identity of the characters of novels is, by contrast the identity of what Vendler calls “self.” Their rich specificity requires them to be seen in the tangled network of relatedness, and for this reason readers of novels naturally (if pitiably) hold novels prisoner to identity politics. The novel reader reads with and about the self. But the lyric speaker, and, Vendler argues, the lyric reader, is, like Whitman’s “Me myself,” not totally the creature of the powerful accidents which specify one’s time, place, culture, class, gender, or race. “These come to me days and nights and go from me again,” Whitman concedes, “But they are not the Me myself.” What Whitman calls the “Me myself” Vendler calls the Soul. It is an inwardness which does not lack specifications, but it is not netted in by them. Even when we read lyrics silently, we hear them spoken in our own voices. That’s how, Vendler says, soul speaks to soul.

Daria Donnelly (review date 6 November 1998)

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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 compels such worldwide admiration”; to testify to Heaney’s “vigilant willingness to change” as it is embodied in thirty years of poetic evolution as well as in poems that directly talk back to earlier ones; and, third, to convey the ways in which Heaney’s poems have enlarged “the specifically literary inheritance on which they depend.” Vendler keeps all three of these tasks in mind as she moves from poem to poem, volume to volume (nine in all), structuring her study by means of a series of “A” words (anonymities, archaeologies, anthropologies, alterities and alter egos, allegories, airiness, and afterwards) which describe, but never reduce, Heaney’s poetic strategies. The sheer pacing of her original and lithe insights makes this a tour de force of literary description. (And though I occasionally felt impeded by the apodictic statements that launch her close reading of poems, I concluded that they are more stylistic than invitations to serious quarrel).

Vendler strikes just the right note in her analysis of the relationship between Heaney’s evolving poetic style and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Born in 1939 in County Derry, Heaney, a Catholic, came to poetry just moments before the Catholic minority took to the streets of Belfast and Derry to demand their civil rights, a flowering of desire for change whose thwarted fruit was “a quarter century of life—waste and spirit-waste,” as Heaney called it in his Nobel lecture. While the accumulation of that still unconcluded history wrought some changes of emphasis in Heaney’s essentially elegiac vocation, it provoked far more dramatic changes in his methods. He has moved from a search for adequate outward symbols to describe reality, to an inward dramatization of the conflict, to, more recently, a philosophical consideration of his desire for equilibrium. In her attention to Heaney’s “second thoughts,” a phrase she borrows from his poem “Terminus,” Vendler makes a powerful argument for his humane political witness, accomplished by being faithful to the aim of lyric poetry, “to grasp and perpetuate, by symbolic form, the self’s volatile and transient here and now.”

Because Vendler’s work here is description and appreciation, she makes virtually no negative or comparative judgments about the poems and books that she so beautifully explicates. I admire this as a principled resistance to a culture (general and academic) that mistakes irony and aggression for intelligence. But I also think that a pugnacious and exacting reader, such as the poet Mary Kinzie, not only can brilliantly illuminate a poet’s art but also can accommodate those who instinctively resist the poems. (Her essay on Seamus Heaney, centered on the poem “Sandstone Keepsake,” can be found in The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet’s Calling [University of Chicago Press].)

In particular, I wish that Vendler had pressed harder against Heaney’s professed relationship to Catholicism. The poet respects faith, is comfortable in his unbelief, reaches for poetry as a restorative force, and uses Catholic mythology and sociology as poetic resources. Because she leaves that account unexamined, Vendler’s close readings of poems that touch on religious matters are partial. Relying (uncharacteristically) on the teller rather than the tale, Vendler does not consider the word “risking,” and so fails to hear the religious nuances in the conclusion of Heaney’s “Elegy” for Robert Lowell, “the fish-dart of your eyes / risking, ‘I’ll pray for you.’” More importantly, she does not distinguish poems that are dulled by announced unbelief from those, such as “Clearances” (section iii), that are sharpened by it. In this gorgeous elegy for his mother, the poet recalls, at her deathbed, their peeling potatoes together, “her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives,” while the parish priest goes “hammer and tongs at prayers for the dying.” By allowing the estranged and estranging religion in the poem to be opposed by, and found unexpectedly congruent with, the work of poetry, Heaney realizes the “equilibrium” whose poetic, political, and spiritual value he so eloquently sets out in the essay, “The Redress of Poetry.”

I was very happy to be led by Vendler to Heaney’s 1991 sequence, “Squarings,” in which his poetic theory of equilibrium takes on (in sections vi, vii, xii, xxiv, and xxvii) metaphysical force. When the poems merely posit external pressure (metaphysical or political), they tend to overreach in their claims, or conversely, in their despair. I find myself attracted to poems that present the shock (the wound) of external judgment without either overstating or overmanaging it (“A Constable Calls,” “Sandstone Keepsake,” “The Haw Lantern”). These are poems of breathtaking equilibrium, where Heaney holds off both his equanimity and his “responsible tristia.” It was Vendler’s illuminating orientation that set me in search of them.

Catherine Addison (review date January 1999)

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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 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 arrangement. She also accepts the “story” of the Sonnets as conventionally perceived—the Young Man and the Dark Lady sequences, with their fatal overlap—but she believes that “lyric is both more and less than story” (3). She speculates not at all about any “actual identities” of these protagonists: they remain for her fictional constructs, as does the speaker.

Vendler is a master-mistress of the art of close reading. Her attention to detail is minute, but what really impresses her reader is the way in which she relates each detail to its larger contexts—the poem as a whole; the stylistic, narrative and thematic sequences of which it forms a part; all of the Sonnets; the complete body of Shakespeare’s work; and so on. As she explains in her introduction, she learned all of the sonnets by heart before undertaking this work, and her extraordinary cognizance of verbal echoes of every type reflects the benefits of this out-of-fashion practice. Perhaps the most astonishing of her structural “discoveries” (or inventions) is the “Couplet Tie,” which is what she calls a word appearing in a closing couplet which is a repetition or variant of a word contained in the body of a sonnet. In almost every sonnet, Vendler finds a Couplet Tie—sometimes several. She also points out what she calls the “Key Word,” which is a word that appears in some variant in each quatrain and the couplet of many of the sonnets. Where the Key Word is defective, appearing in only two out of the three quatrains, its absence from the third plays games with reader expectations as noticeably as the presence of repetitions and variations. As a long-time reader of the Sonnets, I am amazed to discover such sweeping new generalizations about them which are so soundly demonstrable. Vendler, throughout this book, speaks with the tone of authority—perhaps most when her judgments are offered most tentatively—and I for one find myself assuming the posture of willing disciple to her authority.

Of course, this posture will not do, particularly for a reviewer. Acknowledging that authority is more a matter of rhetoric than of fact, I should take up a more seemly and democratic position from which to investigate Vendler’s strategies of power. After all, she is “merely” a reader, like the rest of us. But this fact, however self-evident and freely admitted by Vendler, is what she so devilishly conceals so much of the time. Often the trick is in the choice of subjects for her active verbs. These are frequently nouns referring to the poems—or to parts of them—rather than to any perceiving consciousness. Sonnets, quatrains, couplets, phrases, words “offer” or “present” certain effects—the verbs usually not followed by any indirect object, “to us” or “to a reader,” which might bring in the fallible human agent. She also uses “Shakespeare” as an active subject quite often, thereby claiming an intimate knowledge of his motives and stylistic habits. One may argue that she, of all people, is entitled to make such a claim; but her reader is not always conscious of the making of a claim at all, since she mostly avoids reminders of authorial presence in these sentences, suggesting, as an “omniscient” narrator of a novel might, that she has godlike access to the mind of the Other. Similarly, “the speaker,” distinguished from the author in the orthodox way, is very often the protagonist in her narrative sentences, which usually include no explicit reference to the process by which—or the person by whom—the “presence” of this speaker is deduced.

In fact, many of these devices occur for the best of stylistic reasons: the spare sentences of objectivity are more elegant than sentences that struggle to include at every turn the convolutions of self-reflexivity. Vendler does state her position at the outset. Defying traditional beliefs about lyric, she asserts that the “words of a poem are not ‘overheard,’” but that the “act of the lyric is to offer its reader a script to say” (18). In the process of “repeated personal recitation,” the reader fictionalizes her- or himself as the speaker of the poem, presumably eliding the necessity for specific discussion of a reader-in-the-process-of-reading. This makes her view of reception resemble that of Georges Poulet, to whom the reader is so self-effacing as to become almost mystically bonded with the voice that speaks in the text. The reader exists as the sine qua non of the reading experience, but under erasure as it were, subsumed into the persona generating, not receiving, the words.

This is not to claim that Vendler actually eschews mention of a reader or reading consciousness. It is simply a matter of emphasis. Particularly in discussing matters of uncertainty or ambiguity, she does invoke a reading subject—or subjects, rather, since her favored pronoun in this context is the first-person plural. But she uses not only the royal “we” of the professor emeritus condescending among the undergraduates; the impersonal “one” appears occasionally and also, always at moments of special interest for me, the first-person singular. She is an author absolutely in control of her tone and of her relationship to her reader and subject-matter. A virtuoso, she creates the illusion of objective authority only where it seems appropriate for reasons of elegance and succinctness, but she also breaks this illusion where necessary and steps into the lime-light as a creative and perceptive consciousness.

Jay Rogoff (review date Winter-Spring 1999)

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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 blank verse). Why should this be?

One possibility is that we have had it wrong all along, and that in spite of its greater generosity with rhymes, the Shakespearean form is actually more difficult to master. The juicy temptation of two new rhyme sounds for each quatrain smells too good for poets to pass up, until they confront the brevity of those quatrains and realize how much must get crammed into each—not to mention the daunting task of trying to conclude in a couplet without sounding trite. Certainly the Italian sonnet, despite the headaches of juggling a mere two rhymes for eight lines, offers in its octave and sestet more room to maneuver, to develop, to show off, giving the poet a freer hand in creating the illusion of felt life.

Another reason, of course, is the excellence with which Shakespeare manipulated the form, taking Surrey’s contraption of convenience, previously adopted by no poet of genius save Sidney in sonnets like “Leave Me, Oh Love,” and carving his powerful rhyme, a sequence varied in quality but reaching great pinnacles and profundities of poetic craft and feeling. Given Shakespeare’s lyric monument, we can understand why most later poets would shy from the sonnet renamed in his honor; after all, playwrights make no attempt to improve on Hamlet or Lear.

Shakespeare’s place in literary history creates even more problems for the later sonneteer because of the formal legacy of the English form. It combines, as Rosalie Colie noted, the mel, or honey, of love poetry with the sal, or salt, of epigram, and that epigrammatic nature of Shakespeare’s couplets gives most modern poets fits. Howard Nemerov, who wrote a number of first-rate English sonnets himself, liked to imagine Shakespeare regularly turning his three quatrains over to an apprentice: “Okay, now let’s see what you can do with that.” Ironically, the couplet, with its tight rhyme and syntactical wholeness, feels most unpoetical, most distractingly artificial to poets in our very-late-Romantic period, the part of the sonnet that refuses to hide the art. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the wit of Shakespeare’s couplets ultimately inspired eighteenth century prosody, a poetics that mined salt and a host of other spices, often to the neglect of the honeycomb. If so, the Romantic rebellion against Enlightenment practice might also have precipitated a two hundred-year reaction against the epigrammatic and proverbial feel of the Shakespearean sonnet.

Rarely since Shakespeare, in the hands of someone like Keats, does the English form open out melodically and imagistically, instead of hemming in. The way “When I Have Fears,” perhaps the greatest post-Shakespeare example, begins the couplet’s thematic material early, a at the end of the third quatrain, in order to achieve a moment of cosmic rapture before hauling the world back in, is both innovative and thrilling:

                                         then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

Keats here provides something of an exception that proves the rule. Although strict construction marks both traditional sonnet forms, the larger space of the Italian sonnet’s units, as well as the rhyme scheme’s greater freedom in its sestet, makes the form’s dictation of feeling less obvious and gives the Italian form the illusion of greater spontaneity. All the more reason, then, that Shakespeare’s accomplishment fills us with awe.

Helen Vendler’s new book, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, nine years in the making, arrives as a commentary on our chief poetic god from the critic most often dubbed our god of interpretation. In fact, the book itself comically played a sort of savior when it made its stage debut at the age of three months in John Guare’s The General of Hot Desire, far and away the best of seven commissioned short plays inspired by Shakespeare sonnets, produced under the collective title Love’s Fire (New York: Morrow, 1998). In Guare’s play, a theatrical company assigned to create a play out of the Cupid sonnets, 153 and 154 (Guare’s own task, of course), encounter frustration after frustration in puzzling out the poems, until one actress arrives with a copy of Vendler’s book: “Helen Vendler!” they cry, as they begin to read her commentary; “I love Helen Vendler!”

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets does give us much reason to love Helen Vendler, particularly if we revere the Sonnets as living, breathing poems, rather than as skeleton keys to Shakespeare’s life, sexuality, and personal attitudes, or to the secret identities of the young man, the rival poet, the dark lady, or Mr. W. H. Vendler undertakes to show the sonnets in their considerable, if not infinite, variety, keeping in sight at all times the continual turns of thought and feeling in each poem that make it “a system in motion” and “a trajectory of changing feelings,” and “trying to see the chief aesthetic ‘game’ being played in each sonnet.” She also argues—contrary to what I have suggested above—that Shakespeare, by “constantly inventing new permutations of internal form,” proves the English sonnet “far more flexible than the two-part Italian sonnet.” Most of all, she investigates the sonnets “from the viewpoint of the poet who wrote them,” asking “what was the aesthetic challenge for Shakespeare in writing these poems?” By attempting to reconstruct Shakespeare’s mind in the process of composition, she tries to construct our aesthetic experience in reading them.

Vendler, then, offers a flexible kind of reception theory approach to the Sonnets, and when she examines the poems’ use of overlapping structures—rhetorical, syntactic, formal, affective, and so on—she is indebted to Stephen Booth, who introduced these ideas in his Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets nearly thirty years ago. Likewise, Vendler takes her inspiration from Booth and others in discussing how shifts of feeling in the Sonnets seldom coincide with the formal divisions of 4, 4, 4, 2; rather, in Shakespeare’s hands the form more often works like an Italian sonnet, or in units of 8, 4, 2, or 4, 8, 2, or 12, 2, or 5, 7, 2, and onward almost to the limits of mathematical possibility. Vendler surpasses her predecessors in her sensitivity to Shakespeare’s language, and in the astonishing thoroughness and even obsessiveness with which she considers these issues of form and feeling in every Shakespeare sonnet. The result feels truly encyclopedic, and readers should therefore take under advisement her caveat that “this Commentary is not intended to be read straight through,” lest they feel inundated by her flood of structures, diagrams, and close attention to words, puns, and even meaningful anagrams. As with an encyclopedia, the book works better as a reference—a great browse—than as a good read, a characteristic that differentiates it markedly from her books on Herbert and Keats, for example.

Vendler also departs from Booth and the other reception theorists in her insistence that the Sonnets finally mean something, and she thus rejects Booth’s conclusion “that the critic, helpless before the plurisignification of language and overlapping of multiple structures visible in a Shakespeare sonnet, must be satisfied with irresolution with respect to its fundamental gestalt.” On the contrary, Vendler not only finds the individual poems comprehensible, despite the difficulties so many of them present, but she calls the richly complex, often self-contradictory, but finally coherent presentation of “Shakespeare’s speaker, alone with his thoughts … the greatest achievement, imaginatively speaking, of the sequence.” Throughout her commentary, she makes good on this encouraging thesis, demonstrating that art can triumph, as Shakespeare’s speaker so often brags to his young man, and that at least some major aspects of the Sonnets as a whirling virtual experience are not necessarily damned to indeterminacy.

Reviewers have complained that Vendler gives no account of the overall structure of the Sonnets (a charge justly leveled at Vendler’s otherwise marvelous book on George Herbert, which never explores The Temple’s architecture), but in fact, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets accomplishes this somewhat—not in an individual introductory section, but in passing. We tack through the Sonnets periplum, navigating the coastline, striking strange shores and making key discoveries along the way about its overall concerns and shape, the unfolding of the speaker’s personality, and the messy progress of his attachments to first the young man and then the dark lady. Thus, early in the sequence, she notes the introduction of an “I,” the first address to the young man as “love,” the first mention of art as a defense against death, the first identification of the speaker as a poet, the first travel sonnet, the first instance of insomnia, the first comment on the young man’s flaws, and on and on, sounding a bit like MGM proclaiming, “Garbo talks!” “Garbo laughs!” Far more valuably, however, Vendler’s discussion of the sonnets of disillusionment that close the young man subsequence, ending with the six-couplet “sonnet” 126, and those that round off the dark lady subsequence, create a convincing understanding of how these Sonnets plausibly operate as a whole. Unfortunately, the reader can only glean this sense of overall structure by plowing straight through, not, as I have mentioned, the most profitable way to experience the book.

To help focus the formal structure of individual sonnets, Vendler introduces the concepts of the Couplet Tie, the Key Word, and the Defective Key Word. All fruitfully remind us how Shakespeare makes a poem cohere partly by the simple device of apt repetition of important words, word roots, or even punning parts of words in its different sections. The Key Word—a word that appears in each of the three quatrains and the couplet—is a particularly welcome study aid, although Vendler succumbs to the temptation to stretch things now and then, as in Sonnet 52, where the Key Word “blessèd” masquerades as “placèd” in the second quatrain, or, worse, in 53, where “one” constitutes the Key Word, but only “if one is prepared to find it orthographically hiding, as well as phonetically present” in such guises as “milliONs (2),.. AdONis (5), .. foisON (9),.. cONstant (14).” The reconstruction of Shakespeare’s thought process as he writes a sonnet surely engages a significant amount of presumed wordplay, but some readers might find Vendler’s pun-and-anagram-hunting punishing. Nevertheless, one of the book’s pleasures comes from learning how Vendler’s thought process works as she reads Shakespeare—the anticipation, for example, when we reach Sonnet 100 (“Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long”) that her ear and alertness to puns and transformations will lead her to identify “time” and “might” as a “possible (anagrammatic) key word.”

Of these three tools, perhaps the keenest insights into Shakespeare’s binding together the English form come from Vendler’s Defective Key Words, words appearing in all but one of a sonnet’s formal units. For example, in Sonnet 85 (“My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still”), the Defective Key Words “words” and “thought” appear in every formal section except the first quatrain, where “the poet’s Muse’s tongue-tied still[ness]” suppresses them. Even better, in Sonnet 143 (“Lo, as a careful huswife runs to catch”), a round in which the allegorical housewife chases a chicken while her “neglected child” chases her, the word “catch” appears in each quatrain but not in the couplet, since “the mistress never catches her lover,” the fowl the dark lady is here pursuing.

Vendler in pursuit of a sonnet’s mysteries is usually a splendid thing to witness, and she brings considerable wit and intelligence to her reading. She sorts the poems into helpful categories, as when she identifies Sonnet 20 (“A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted”), the speaker’s frustrated dissertation on his doting over the androgynous young man, as a “little myth of origin”:

The speaker’s sterile play of the master/mistress against the putative falsity of women can be explained by his anger at women for not being the young man, at the young man for not being a (sexually available) woman. … Though Galen thought all embryos were originally female. ., it is Shakespeare who creates the causal myth that the change to maleness in this case arises from Nature’s falling in love with the projected female, and therefore rendering her male. Under all the play, one is only sure that the speaker, too, has fallen a-doting; and the rather bitter wit—on acquainted [cunt], “one thing”/“no-thing,” and prick (Nature’s joke on the speaker)—is the last flicker of the helplessness of one who cannot play fast and loose, as he would like to, with a physical body.

Vendler here takes what she calls a jeu d’esprit and shows how its lascivious punning barely masks erotic despair, letting us enjoy the jokes but also making us take them seriously as entrees into complex psychological states. Her commentary, in fact, is so rich that sometimes her finest critical points arrive almost as afterthoughts, reinforcing our illusion of watching her mind work through a poem, Sonnet 71, for example (“No longer mourn for me when I am dead”): “We may read this poem, then, in a second, and truer, way—as a defensive construct hoping to awaken in the shallow young man the very depths of mourning that it affects to prohibit. This in fact seems to me the most probable reading. …”

Vendler is so good at showing us things in the Sonnets that, while she of course cannot show us everything, reading her trains us to see more for ourselves. In Sonnet 104 (“To me, fair friend, you never can be old”), the poem’s “acceleration in the pace of transience” belies the young man’s apparent eternal youth—so much so that the sonnet pulls off an aesthetic shock in its couplet, where the speaker addresses “thou age unbred: / Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.” “The stunning ‘turn’ by which the young man ‘dies’ in the space between Q3 [the third quatrain] and C [the couplet] is in fact the major aesthetic achievement (along with the speedup of change which caused it) of the poem.” Yet reading along we also notice for ourselves the poem’s insistent subjectivity regarding the young man: “To me, .. you never can be old”; “Such seems your beauty still”; “the seasons I have seen”; “Since first I saw you fresh”; “your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand”; until finally breaking down just before the couplet: “mine eye may be deceived.” We augment Vendler’s commentary by seeing how the poem attempts to balance the speaker’s urgent, subjective need to keep his beloved young by force of will against the sure knowledge that such a task is impossible. The speaker futilely tries to make the poem a safe haven, a world in which youth and love can endure, his failure making the release of the young man to the processes of mortality all the more poignant.

In becoming better readers, in seeing more for ourselves, we also become better prepared to argue with Vendler’s interpretations now and again. “I have often wished, as I was reading a poem,” she says in her preface, “that I could know what another reader had noticed in it; and I leave a record here of what one person has remarked so that others can compare their own noticings with mine. In such a way, we may advance our understanding of Shakespeare’s procedures as a working poet—that is, as a master of aesthetic strategy.” At times Vendler becomes so excited by her discoveries about a sonnet’s strategy that key features of the poem that might further complicate our understanding fall by the wayside. In the great Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”), she identifies the “glowing of such fire” in the third quatrain as the most vital part of the poem: “He is not the ashes of a fire, or the embers of a fire—he is no longer (as he was in the first two quatrains) a noun, but rather a verbal, an action, a glowing (not a dying). … [W]hen the speaker reads the erotic text of his emotional life, he sees a glowing. It is certainly easier to ask someone to love a glowing rather than a ruin or a fad[ing]. …” But while Vendler makes a strong case that the poem’s quatrains successively correct each other, she ignores the psychological activity that makes the first two quatrains just as affectively—and aesthetically—active. In the opening quatrain, particularly, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang,” looks perfectly straightforward until we notice the illogical progression of “leaves, none, few.” The line’s disorder surely enacts the speaker’s resistance to aging: he depicts the leaves, then their disappearance, but immediately finds the bare branches too devastating and so restores a “few” as a momentary stay and comfort. Those few leaves express a vitality and desire to hang onto life as urgent and plaintive as the glowing of the third quatrain.

Though Vendler apologizes for “the absence, except in occasional cases below, of metrical commentary,” some scansions she does include feel idiosyncratic. The ninth line of Sonnet 39 (“O how thy worth with manners may I sing”), which she hears as

O ábsence ❙ what a ❙ tórment ❙
wouldst thou ❙ próve,

and whose irregularity she notes, strikes me as a virtually orthodox iambic pentameter. And a line from Sonnet 108 she describes as regular, in order to reinforce the speaker’s feeling of monotony,

I múst each dáy say o’ér the véry

might more tellingly—and accurately—be scanned with four consecutive stresses on “eách dáy sáy o’ér,” emphasizing the speaker’s rebellion against the young man’s accusation of monotony in his poems. Her brilliant reading of Sonnet 126, the last of the young man subsequence (“O thou my lovely boy, who in thy power”) is marred by her insistence that the poem scans largely into trochees and amphibrachs. While this peculiar scansion conveys her strong understanding of the poem’s rhythms, she bases it on a false prosodic premise: “I prefer the [scansion option] which keeps words intact.” But scansion necessarily allows for the split word: we practice it to establish a poem’s regular metrical model so we can observe the poem’s metrical variations and better evaluate the poet’s rhythmic skill. To disdain divided words in scanning a poem seems as absurd as disallowing notes held over a bar line in music.

Further, some of the Sonnets move us most effectively through their rhythmic cruxes and cry out for more prosodic attention. In discussing Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), though Vendler troubles to construct an imaginary sonnet out of the conventions Shakespeare’s anti-Petrarchan gem satirizes—“My mistress’ eyes are brilliant as the sun, / And coral’s colour matches her lips’ red,” and so on—she seems oddly uninterested in that wonderful poem, perhaps because she doesn’t focus on its simple but brilliant prosodic climax. The third quatrain opens with three lines of perfect iambic pentameter, confessing with completely blasé regularity, “I grant I never saw a goddess go,” in order to set up a single delicious substitution in line twelve:

My mís ❙ tress, whén ❙ she wálks, ❙
tréads on ❙ the gróund,

That trochee in the fourth position enacts precisely how the mistress does not travel like a goddess but is more prone to tripping over curbs.

Vendler announces straight off that she has planned The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets “for those who already know the Sonnets, or who have beside them the sort of lexical annotation found in the current editions.” This sensible strategy allows her to dive right into some of the poems’ complexities without wrangling over archaic vocabulary or paraphrasing on the most basic level. Still, in recreating Shakespeare’s mind and aesthetic choices, Vendler could have more diligently historicized vocabulary, frames of reference, and especially literary usages and allusions, and for all these purposes, as Vendler recommends, an edition of the Sonnets such as Booth’s (New Haven and London: Yale, 1977, rev. 1978) provides invaluable aid in evaluating her arguments. The relative absence of discussion of parallel vocabulary and language in Shakespeare’s plays, especially the “lyrical” plays of the mid-1590s, his presumed sonneteering period, is especially surprising. (Her helpful invocation of language from Love’s Labour’s Lost to illuminate Sonnet 127 is the exception rather than the rule.)

Certainly our appreciation of several other sonnets would be considerably enriched by comparisons with language from the plays. For example, Sonnet 27’s “jewel” simile for the beloved glimpsed in a dream—“my soul’s imaginary sight / Presents thy shadow to my sightless view, / Which like a jewel (hung in ghastly night) / Makes black night beauteous”—makes this night vision, as Vendler astutely says, resemble a religious rapture, but it also reminds us of Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who, when the lovers are re-paired, finds “Demetrius like a jewel, / Mine own and not mine own,” reinforcing the Sonnet speaker’s dream as dream, and underscoring his uncertain possession of his love. Sonnet 119’s couplet presents a more complex example: after straying from fidelity to the young man, thanks to “potions … of Siren tears,” the speaker comes to his senses from “the distraction of this madding fever”:

So I return rebuked to my content,
And gain by ills thrice more than I have spent.

Vendler reads the poem as a “post-facto description of infatuations which have led one away from true love” and sees in the couplet “No irony … attached, I think, to this acquiescence.” But given our growing understanding throughout the young man subsequence of the speaker’s suffering at his beloved’s aloofness, hauteur, and infidelity, it seems impossible not to hear in the couplet Shylock’s bitter “I am content,” a literary echo so strong it even suffuses Yeats’s “I am content to live it all again.” The speaker’s triple recovery of his losses also recalls the Trinity Shylock accepts only under pain of death, as the speaker returns helplessly to his young man, presumably for more ill treatment, because the pains of love give him no alternative.

I intend all these quibbles with Vendler in the spirit in which she wrote The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets—that of a reader who has found some things in the Sonnets and is curious about what others have found there. Her book adds enormously to our understanding and prods us to continue to make our own discoveries. Even the accompanying compact disc of Vendler reading sixty-five of the poems deepens her interpretations of some sonnets while raising new issues concerning others. Her subtle pauses in Sonnet 76—“Why is my verse so … barren of new pride? / So … far from variation or quick change?”—reinforce her argument that the speaker here replies to the young man’s complaint of monotony in the Sonnets. On the other hand, hearing Sonnet 35 aloud (“No more be grieved at that which thou hast done”) forces our attention on the uncharacteristic accumulation of four “uh” rhymes in the first quatrain—“done,” “mud,” “sun,” “bud”—a vowel sound surely intended to convey the speaker’s disgust at both the young man’s corruption and himself; but Vendler does not mention this charged handling of rhyme at all. Still, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets grafts new feathers onto the wings of our understanding, lifting us a little closer to Heaven’s gate, and it once more confirms Vendler’s status as one of the smartest critics around. If it has occasional omissions and lapses, if there remains more to be said about the Sonnets, that’s not a judgement on Vendler, only evidence that Shakespeare, in his nearly infinite variety, surpasses later poets, readers, and critics, and remains smarter than us all.

William Pratt (review date Summer 1999)

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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 is all lyric poetry, and lyric poetry is validated by its form rather than its content, is to practice an extreme of formalism which no New Critic ever practiced, despite the accusations of detractors. To take for granted that North, the volume which Vendler says first attracted her to Heaney, and which was published in 1975 when Heaney was just emerging as a poet of potential greatness, is no better than such a recent volume as The Spirit Level (1996; see WLT 70:4, p. 963), published shortly after Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, is to overlook qualitative differences in a poet whose unevenness is generally recognized. Yet it is clear that the earlier volume registered with discerning readers, including the Swedish Academy (which awards the Nobel Prize), while the latter volume could only come “Afterwards,” as Vendler calls her final chapter.

She does grant that some Heaney poems are better than others, not because they are more relevant to the turmoil of Irish politics, but rather because they are more successful experiments in poetic form. Her principal argument is stated in her conclusion: “It should be remembered that the only thing to which the genre of the lyric obliges the poet is to represent his own situation and his responses to it in adequate imaginative language.” Now, Heaney’s preeminence among contemporary poets rests solidly on his ability to find, as he himself puts it in words often quoted by Vendler, “images and symbols adequate to our predicament,” and the bog poems of North are thematically superior to any recent poems he has written, just because they compare the bloodshed inflicted by the Irish on each other with the ritual slaughter practiced by their ancestors in “tribal, intimate revenge.” True, the current cease-fire may last, the bloodshed may lessen in the North of Ireland; but if so, Heaney’s poems will not lose their historical force, less like the pure lyric beauty of Keats than the daunting truthfulness of Yeats, though Heaney’s Irishness, unlike that of Yeats, is ominous, containing more violence than peace.

Bridget Gellert Lyons (review date Autumn 1999)

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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 arrangements. The three quatrains of the Shakespearean sonnet are labeled by her (Q1, Q2, Q3), with repeated “key words” listed at the end of each poem, as well as verbal links to the final couplets, which she calls “couplet ties.” Given this potentially mechanical method, the subtlety and diversity of her readings are impressive. She describes in her introduction a variety of possible relations among the three quatrains: in some cases, the final quatrain answers a question posed by the first two; in others, an analytical perspective is later supplied for earlier imagery; in yet others, we get “retreating panels of time” (19), to name only a few of the patterns she discerns. The degrees of “permeability” or separation between quatrains vary greatly also. But while she points out in her introduction that the final rhymed couplet is an occasional pitfall even for a poet of Shakespeare’s powers because of its detachability and tendency to anticlimactic summary, her emphasis in the commentaries on verbal repetitions in the couplets does not generally address the notorious question of their success as resolutions.

Vendler’s common sense approach is particularly evident in her analyses of figurative language. As in her book on Herbert, she sometimes posits a “normal” language from which metaphoric passages deviate, at times going so far as to rewrite parts of poems in standard everyday English of her own in order to accentuate their poetic heightenings, or to introduce sequential temporal sequences that have, according to such readings, been transposed poetically Together with her lists and diagrams—showing, for example, parallels or contrasts between the social and natural world, between lightness and darkness between distance and proximity, and the like—her commentaries suggest the poems’ fundamentally rational core. For this reason perhaps, their wonderful word-music—admittedly one of their most elusive features—is not a major source of interest. With very few exceptions (including the inferior no. 126), she does little with meter, let alone rhythm. While she clearly has her favorites, furthermore (no. 73, for example, “That time of year …,” which so beautifully exploits the three-quatrain form), she deals with each in roughly the same amount of space, two to four pages. Her spatial impartiality mutes a sense of aesthetic judgment about poems which many readers have found somewhat uneven in quality and complexity (even though few have quantified their preferences as W. H. Auden did when he called 49 of the 154 poems “truly excellent”). And though each of her commentaries is accompanied by the appropriate sonnet printed both in a facsimile of the first 1609 Quarto and in a modern version, she rarely comments on differences between the two, even when these are quite striking (the change from the Quarto’s “sel my name” to the modern “tell my name” in no. 76 is an example).

But despite such complaints, this remains a very valuable book, which all students of the sonnets, as well as general readers, will consult. Vendler simply notices more than most of the rest of us do when she reads these poems. Her perceptiveness about visual as well as auditory puns and anagrams, for example—sometimes involving French and Latin as well as English—is remarkable; it is also in keeping with poetic practice in a period where such ingenuity was much prized. More fundamentally, when she describes the “leakages” between metaphoric and analytic language, and between specialized vocabularies (legal astronomical, medical, botanical, and so many others), which become fused by Shakespeare in a kind of poetic “ur-language,” she uses her talent for rational distinctions to help us appreciate his achievement in the sonnets.

Bernard O'Donoghue (review date January 2000)

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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 Heaney pass judgement on the earlier. In practice this often also entails a—largely confirmatory—reconsideration by Vendler herself of how the poetry has stood the test of time.

She stakes out her critical ground clearly at the start, establishing the terms of engagement for this concise treatment. She is not concerned to describe or evaluate Heaney’s ‘vivid, metaphorical and intelligent prose’, nor his dramatic versions such as The Cure at Troy; neither has she set out to take issue with the critics who have reproved Heaney on grounds which Vendler criticises as ‘almost entirely thematic’. This dismissal of the ‘purely thematic’ might seem a disconcerting start. Surely the themes of poetry provide a good deal of the grounds on which the critic judges it? But Vendler believes in the possibility of evaluating poetry in purely formal—as opposed to ‘thematic’—terms to a quite remarkable degree, and what she sets out to do here is ‘to show by what imaginative, structural and stylistic means Heaney raises his subjects to a plane that compels such worldwide admiration’. She does this by taking ‘up in detail some of Heaney’s strongest poems to show the lyric process in action, and to investigate how form becomes realized in words’: a rigorously philosophical-sounding—almost theological—objective. The justification for this absolute formal emphasis is put very strongly at several points in the book, even in contexts where the thematic might be expected to be particularly prominent: ‘Generational conflict is … centrally a matter of conflicting styles; and the same can be said of cultural conflict’. And at the end, Vendler puts an even more forceful emphasis on the formal: her severely minatory last paragraph begins: ‘It should be remembered that the only thing to which the genre of the lyric obliges its poet is to represent his own situation and his responses to it in adequate imaginative language’.

Some obvious problems with this exalted objective—however perfectly implemented—inevitably suggest themselves, and the reader might feel from the start that Vendler is forcing her way past them. Is cultural conflict centrally a matter of style? And what, for that matter, about that minority of readers who don’t always share ‘such worldwide admiration’ for Heaney’s poetry? Vendler acknowledges the existence of what she calls ‘adversary critics’, but she doesn’t dignify them with a name. The book’s very last sentence gives a hint of the ‘thematic’ views held by these critics, only to dismiss them summarily: ‘Their demand that he see predicaments of politics or gender as they would, or have the same feelings about them as they do is, of course, unanswerable; that is not a demand one can make of art’. Such abstract propositions about ‘art’ rarely resolve artistic disputes. Even if they did, Heaney would be a strange case in which to invoke the equivalent of Sidney’s dictum: ‘The poet nothing affirms and therefore never lieth’. The book’s text as a whole is regrettably innocent of any reference to antecedent critics of Heaney. For example John Wilson Foster’s less unsceptical but enlightening reading of the corpus, seeing the crucial break not at the archaeology of North but at the lift-off imagery from Sweeney Astray onward, might have been taken into account in the context of particular poems. Vendler has eight endnotes, only one of which refers to a critic (Michael Parker, identified as a reliable guide to Heaney’s life), and a bibliography containing eighteen critical items. I point this out to make it plain what this book is and is not; it is an exercise in practical criticism (by, it must be emphasised, a highly gifted practitioner), rather than a descent into any kind of public debate. Her claim is to take those ‘strongest poems’ from 1966 to 1996, chronologically covering the same terrain as Opened Ground, and to anatomize them in order to uncover their inner workings.

How well does Vendler’s strictly formal method work in practice? How successful is it at laying bare Heaney’s procedures and successes? The short, initial answer is that, although in a pluralist world there is room for other kinds of criticism too, her reading of Heaney is a marvellously illuminating achievement. There are a number of reasons for this: Vendler is an admirably attentive reader in the New Critical tradition. And she doesn’t anyway always take herself at her own word with total fidelity (after all, Vendler’s claim that North is Heaney’s greatest—most ‘unforgettable’—volume can hardly be reconciled with a purely formal, non-thematic reading of the poetry; she doesn’t really think that ‘the poet nothing affirms’.) What she avoids is the importation of external knowledge into the poems; she does make use of situations which are explicitly (or even implicitly) present: for example the figure ‘neat-cuffs’ in ‘The Old Icons’ has her rather dry version of Heaney’s own gloss: ‘one Leonard McNally of the United Irishmen’.

But the most important strength of Vendler’s practice is that it seems to go with the grain of the poetry itself. At first reading it might seem that she has converted Heaney too much into an American poet of the Lowellian confessional stamp, with her emphasis on ‘second thoughts’ and self-questioning. But Heaney did go in for cross-referencing from a relatively early stage in his career: the two Antaeus poems, for example. And clearly the reversion to the opening line of ‘The Tollund Man’—‘Some day I will go to Aarhus’—in The Spirit Level (‘Tollund’) is a clear enough example of this returning to old themes. In all this there is a very significant medium between Heaney and Vendler: a poet even more consciously and consistently in Heaney’s sights than Lowell or Hughes or Kavanagh. It is Yeats, a poet upon whom Vendler writes with great distinction. Vendler’s ‘second thoughts’ crosswiring over the Heaney corpus, linking early and late, recall the way late Yeats poems balance earlier ones—the way ‘Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?’ revisits ‘No Second Troy’, for instance, or ‘The Statues’ recalls ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’. Another Yeats parallel is the relative reduction of the consideration of the early poetry (warranted I think in the case of Heaney by the greater volume of critical attention the early work has received to date), just as Richard Ellmann’s Yeats: The Man and the Masks tended to hurry past the early work to give more prominence to what Leavis questioningly dubbed ‘the late Yeats and the greatest’. In a much-quoted observation Heaney said ‘Up to North that was all one book’, and in Opened Ground he accordingly reduced the proportion of poems from the early volumes. Vendler abides by that judgement here: her first chapter ‘Anonymities’ takes the three pre-North titles together.

One consequence of this telescoping is to give considerable prominence to North itself, in keeping with Vendler’s high estimate of it. The term ‘Anonymities’ for its predecessors also has a reductive ring to it (influenced partly by Vendler’s somewhat factitious requirement that all her chapters have a title beginning with the scarlet letter ‘A’). The greater depth—and appropriateness—of ‘Archaeologies’ for North further weights the treatment in that book’s favour. However, the familiar early poems (‘Follower’, ‘Mid-term Break’, ‘Thatcher’, ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ and the prophetic ‘The Tollund Man’) are placed in a wider context within Heaney’s work, from North to The Spirit Level, as well as being looked at again in their own right. Examined in most detail is ‘The Peninsula’ from Door into the Dark (Vendler is painfully searching in her concentration on poems about writing block; I think her reading of ‘The Frontier of Writing’ is the best thing in the book); it transpires later that ‘The Peninsula’ is chosen for its ‘second thoughts’ version, ‘Postscript’, at the end of The Spirit Level. (As the last poem in Opened Ground, where it is followed only by Heaney’s Nobel Address, this poem has considerable prominence as the last one in the provisional ‘Collected’, at least for the time being.) Occasionally, as with the ‘A’ chapter-titles, there is a mild unease that Vendler’s method may be dictating her choices of poem. ‘The Peninsula’, which is quoted in full, is neither the most distinguished nor the most representative poem in Door into the Dark. Its claim is that it is ‘thematic’ within Heaney’s oeuvre, not that it is amongst ‘the strongest’ particularly.

Nevertheless, the Yeats link dispels this unease. For both Heaney and Vendler, Yeats’s procedure is exemplary for the organization of a corpus of lyric poetry. This commonly cited quatrain of Yeats is a dominating principle for both poet and the ideal reader of him that Vendler aspires to be:

The friends that have it I do wrong
When ever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.

Heaney’s revisitings, and Vendler’s tracing of them, are examples of such remaking. Her linking of the poems that take similar themes, shifting the balance, is constantly thought-provoking and original; because it is in tune with Heaney’s own instinctive organisation, it is often most revealing when most surprising at first glance. For example her chapter on Station Island, ‘Alterities and Alter Egos’, concentrates on the idea of the non-self: the individuals who are not the narrative persona, from the antipathetic ‘Docker’ in Death of a Naturalist (a characterisation severely scolded by Vendler as ‘a cartoon-like rendition from the outside’), to the patriarchal but kindly Protestant neighbour in ‘The Other Side’ in Wintering Out. Later Heaney ceases to dwell on the otherness of other groups of people; he moves on to the consideration of figures, often victims, which, Vendler suggests, are all sympathetic alter egos: people the narrator himself might have been. To represent this idea Vendler uses as chapter-epigraph one of Heaney’s greatest rhetorical questions (from ‘The Badgers’ in Field Work):

How perilous is it to choose
not to love the life we’re shown?

This leads on to a striking reading of Station Island as a sequence of alter egos; all the revenants, from Simon Sweeney to Joyce, are lives that might have been the one shown to the poet-narrator. This idea of the shift from alterities to alter egos (a validating use, it must be conceded too, of the A-words) is immensely productive. The alterities chapter ends with the most illuminating and unexpected pairing in the book, taking the ‘Dutch interior’ masterpiece ‘Sunlight’ from the paired prologue-poems to North along with the haunting and lurid poem ‘Damson’ from The Spirit Level (1996). ‘Sunlight’ is a tribute to the poet’s aunt Mary Heaney who sits on a hot afternoon after completing her household task ‘to the tick of two clocks’, and is recognised as a personification of ‘love / like a tinsmith’s scoop / sunk past its gleam / in the meal-bin’. ‘Damson’ recalls a skilled plasterer who grazes his knuckles, drawing blood of the same colour as the damsons seeping through his lunch-parcel. The memory becomes a nightmare premonition of murdered victims

Where they lay in their own blood once, in the hot
Nausea and last gasp of dear life.

The poet begs that these bloody victims be driven back

to the wine-dark taste of home,
The smell of damsons simmering in a pot,
Jam ladled thick and streaming down the sunlight.

Vendler’s inspirational linking of these two poems is suggested by the fact that the last word of ‘Damson’ is the title of the Mary Heaney poem, an ‘exquisite genre-piece’ as she calls it. Once the parallel has been drawn, it remains haunting: both poems turn on the quiet virtue of domestic and tradesmanly skill: bread-making, jam-making, plastering. But ‘Damson’ introduces blood into ‘the sunlit sanctuary of the childhood kitchen’. Vendler’s point, unlaboured though it is, is that the return in the later poem both validates and revises the earlier. But it is the inquisitive and probing awareness of the individual word (‘sunlight’), rather than concern for the thematic context or chronological stage of each poem, which has elicited this telling aesthetic conjunction.

Like many preceding critics, Vendler brings the ‘Allegory’ of The Haw Lantern less to life, noting that it is Heaney’s most intellectual volume. This chapter does contain the brilliant reading of ‘The Frontier of Writing’ as writer’s block already mentioned, but it also contains one of the book’s two least successful ventures in formalist criticism on ‘the wintry title poem’, setting out diagrammatically the poem’s elements. (The other application of this over-schematic, Vita Nuova-like analysis is to the lovely St Kevin poem in The Spirit Level.) But any reservations that the reader might have about the insistently formalist approach will not survive the brilliantly inventive chapter on Seeing Things, aptly called ‘Airiness’. When I said earlier that the absence of engagement with other critics is most to be regretted in the case of Foster’s The Achievement of Seamus Heaney (1995), I was thinking of how well the two treatments of Seeing Things fit together, perhaps establishing that volume as Heaney’s most ‘unforgettable’ after North. Vendler argues that Heaney’s earlier aspiration to write a poetry ‘clear as the bleb of the icicle’ (‘North’) is replaced by the idea of the ‘hieroglyph for life itself’. It is a movement towards ‘non-mimetic representation’ which makes no less a demand for accuracy: it is concerned, in a brilliant phrase, with ‘our immaterial extrapolations from the material’ (like, the reader is tempted to footnote, Yeats’s Byzantium). Life itself cannot after all be represented fully in words; the writer’s object is to find the perfect written symbol for it. More importantly again, the challenge to the writer who suddenly ‘credits marvels’ at the age of fifty and turns to the transcendental is how to cope with death. Vendler shows how ‘in Seeing Things almost every hieroglyph inscribes within itself its own annihilation: “The places I go back to have not failed / But will not last”’. She turns repeatedly to the idea of the ‘unroofed’: what is not protected but also open to the heavens. In a classic piece of New Critical close reading, Vendler finds that this tranche contains all the book’s central meanings.

Vendler begins her last chapter, on The Spirit Level (‘An Afterwards’), dwelling on the hope engendered by Northern Irish ceasefires from 1994 onwards. What, one might ask in some puzzlement, does this have to do with the non-thematic interpretation of poetry? It was the weight of subject, and the gravity with which Heaney treated it, that made Vendler in 1985 call North ‘one of the few unforgettable single volumes published in English since the modernist era’. Vendler has had no revisionary second thoughts about North which she again calls ‘unforgettable’ here, concluding her chapter on it by repeating that ‘there is no other body of work about those years that so wholly evokes the desperation and devastation felt in that period’. But then, lest this sociohistorical observation might displace the formal emphasis insisted on in Vendler’s book, she adds: ‘North reconstitutes, in powerful symbolic form and tense imaginative language, the impact of those years on one person’. Similarly she links the 1994 ceasefire straight away to ‘Tollund’ and the feelings that event elicited from Heaney in Denmark. Spirit Level poems (such as ‘Postscript’) have been used for the dialogue they set up with earlier work; now some of the major poems in the last volume, especially ‘Mycenae Lookout’, can be taken in conjunction with earlier crucial poems like ‘Punishment’. Vendler tries to make this volume an optimistic, stoic ‘Afterwards’: not entirely persuasively I think, though she is right to stress the admiration for stoical perseverance in poems such as ‘Keeping Going’.

The abiding impression of this study is not that it is the last word on Heaney (the second edition of Neil Corcoran’s Faber study probably remains the most authoritative single book), but it is the most enjoyable study, and the one that most gets the feel of what the positive experience of reading this poet is like. It is full of limpidness and felicity, as in the tribute to Heaney’s ‘allegorical tuning-fork’. To analyse how this poetry is made and what it is like has been this book’s primary objective; nobody could dispute that it achieves this magnificently and entertainingly. Most magically of all, it manages, while rejecting engagement on the ‘thematic’ level, to be constantly stimulating towards other readings while it entertains.


Principal Works


Further Reading