Helen Vendler Criticism - Essay

Richard Giannone (review date 9 March 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Seductive Gambits,” in The Nation, March 9, 1970, pp. 282-84.

[In the following review, Giannone discusses Wallace Stevens's poetry and offers a positive assessment of On Extended Wings.]

It is apt that Wallace Stevens should have expressed his attraction to the long poem with a metaphor about love. “I find that this prolonged attention to a single subject has the same result that prolonged attention to a senora has according to the authorities,” he wrote to Harriet Monroe in 1922. “All manner of favors drop from it. Only it requires a skill in the varying of the serenade that occasionally makes one feel like a Guatemalan when one particularly wants...

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Warner Berthoff (review date May 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John L. Lievsay (review date Summer 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Poetry of George Herbert, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXXV, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 595-96.

[In the following review, King offers a mainly positive assessment of The Poetry of George Herbert, but finds shortcomings in Vendler's failure to distinguish Herbert's “comprehensive vision.”]

If George Herbert’s poetry has not been in fashion during our century, it is not due to a lack of influential and serious admirers. The best poets of our time have praised him, while the critical and scholarly studies of his work have been of high quality and designed to convince others of his achievement. For most...

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Harold Beaver (review date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reviewing the Critics,” in Parnassus, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1980, pp. 329-35.

[In the following excerpt, Beaver comments disapprovingly on contemporary critical discourse and offers a tempered evaluation of Part of Nature, Part of Us. Beaver finds strength in Vendler's willingness to make summary judgments, but notes weakness in her tendency to focus on the poetic process rather than the end result.]

The vocabulary of criticism is in disarray. Terms like “diversity,” “phenomenon,” “style,” “strategy,” “irony,” “intersubjectivity” abound. But how seldom do they probe to any effect. How seldom do they suggest a deeper critical...

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Doris Earnshaw (review date Spring 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Part of Nature, Part of Us, in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1981, p. 320.

[In the following review, Earnshaw offers praise for Part of Nature, Part of Us.]

Helen Vendler is, by general consensus, one of the finest poetry critics today. A professor at Boston University, she has written superb full-length studies of Yeats, Stevens and George Herbert, and she contributes regularly to The New York Times Book Review. More than forty modern poets are discussed in this generous collection [Part of Nature, Part of Us] of her reviews from the seventies. Some, like Stevens and Lowell, have three or four essays, the...

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David Bromwich (review date 5 December 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Way to Autumn,” in The New Republic, December 5, 1983, pp. 34-7.

[In the following review of The Odes of John Keats, Bromwich finds shortcomings in what he considers Vendler's artificial treatment of Keats's odes as a sequence of progressive excellence culminating in “To Autumn.”]

This intense study [The Odes of John Keats] makes one great demand of its readers: they must have in mind, for any given stretch of exposition, a good many details from all of the six major odes; a text for each poem appears at the start of the corresponding chapter, and helps to lighten the task considerably. A fair review needs to make the same demand...

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J. S. Leonard (review date October 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire, in American Literature, Vol. 57, No. 3, October, 1985, pp. 522-24.

[In the following review of Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire, Leonard argues that shortcomings of the work include Vendler's conflation of Stevens's poetry and biography and the critic's personal bias in support of her subject.]

Helen Vendler finds in Wallace Stevens’ poetry the tracings of the personal drama of his life. Her earlier book On Extended Wings mapped this drama in his longer poems; Words Chosen Out of Desire continues in the same vein with a selection of shorter poems. Her readings...

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James Gardner (review date January 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Professor Vendler's Garden of Verses,” in Commentary, Vol. 81, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 50-5.

[In the following review of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Gardner faults Vendler's selection of poets, many of whom he contends are neither contemporary nor convincingly preeminent.]

It is a commonplace that the putting-together of a literary anthology is in itself a creative act. One might even be justified in invoking Harold Bloom’s already too-famous phrase and say that an “anxiety of influence” pursues anthologists no less than poets, for anthologists are interested not only in promoting those poets they most admire, but also...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Are We Her First Person Plural?,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 12, 1988, p. 8.

[In the following review, Breslin offers a mostly positive assessment of The Music of What Happens, but finds Vendler's criticism limited by her preference for a traditional style of “inwardly reflective lyric.”]

In the 1960s Andy Warhol predicted that soon “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” In the literary academic world of the 1980s—a realm of proliferating theoretical perspectives (Freudianism, Marxism, structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, Marxist deconstruction, Marxist feminist deconstruction)—it now seems that everyone will...

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Bruce Bawer (review date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sidney Burris (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reviewing Contemporary Poetry: Helen Vendler and the Aesthetic Method,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 240-50.

[In the following essay, Burris discusses the role of literary critics and the perspective and methodology of Vendler's “aesthetic” criticism.]

Seasoned reviewers of contemporary poetry are durable reviewers. Seduced by their passion for new poems, yet driven by their devotion to establishing context and tradition, they speak to their audience, when they speak most forcefully, with the inspired tones of advocacy, and as advocates, they quickly learn that those who differ with them often desert the genteel grounds...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kind Words for Contemporary Poets,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 17, 1995, pp. 2, 13.

[In the following review of Soul Says, Gwynn finds fault in what he terms Vendler's equivocal criticism and “celebrity worship.”]

Helen Vendler’s credentials precede her by a length and a half. She is Porter University professor at Harvard, a former president of the Modern Language Assn., editor of the Harvard Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, consultant to the MacArthur Foundation and a member of the Pulitzer Prize board.

That a non-poet (and an academic to boot) should wield such influence over American...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry without Politics,” in The Nation, December 25, 1995, pp. 841-42.

[In the following review of The Breaking of Style and The Given and the Made,Scott commends Vendler's moderate conservatism, but finds shortcomings in her effort to “quarantine” the form and aesthetics of poetry from the cultural realities of sexuality, politics, and history.]

In a recent survey of the current poetry scene, The New York Times Magazine called Helen Vendler a critical “gatekeeper of the poetic establishment,” defending the American Parnassus from the Spoken Word barbarians of MTV and the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe. Aside from the irony of the...

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James Morris (review date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Soul Says, The Given and the Made, and The Breaking of Style, in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 84-5.

[In the following review, Morris presents a positive assessment of Soul Says, The Given and the Made, and The Breaking of Style.]

When Helen Vendler describes the act of reading poetry, she makes it seem as straightforward as understanding the newspaper or humming a favorite tune: “The senses and the imagination together furnish rhymes for the poet. The rhythms of the poet translate themselves back, in the mind of the reader, into the senses and the imagination.”

But nowadays the space...

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Sheldon P. Zitner (review date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 76, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 285-86.

[In the following review, Zitner offers praise for The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets.]

The academic consensus, which on this issue at least includes some very tough-minded types, is that Helen Vendler is our best reader of poetry. This encounter between Best Reader and Best Writer does not disappoint, though it will irritate some and bemuse others: irritate because it offers apt objections to some recent commentary on the sonnets, and validates those objections by wickedly relevant citation, and because of the line in the sand it draws: “I do not...

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Frank Kermode (review date 17 November 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Millions of Strange Shadows,” in The New Republic, November 17, 1997, pp. 27-32.

[In the following review, Kermode offers an extended analysis of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Though he praises Vendler's work, Kermode concludes that it is best suited for more advanced scholars.]

In 1978, when Stephen Booth published an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets—his dual purpose was to help the lay reader and to satisfy the expert—he made certain observations on the nature of his task. The common reader, he argued, simply isn’t bothered by passages that stretch the understanding of the expert. Sometimes “a reader will see the speaker’s point...

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John Bayley (review date 18 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mona Simpson (review date 27 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Burt (review date July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Daria Donnelly (review date 6 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Poet Illuminated,” in Commonweal, November 6, 1998, pp. 18-19.

[In the following review, Donnelly offers a positive evaluation of Seamus Heaney, despite finding Vendler's treatment of Heaney's Catholicism lacking.]

Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, and America’s best-known poetry critic, has been an ardent admirer of Seamus Heaney since she first heard him read at the Yeats School in Sligo in 1975. It must have been a stunning moment of the soul leaping up in recognition: her appetite and love for poetry, apprenticeship in Yeats, commitment to writing for both a professional and general audience, and generous...

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Catherine Addison (review date January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jay Rogoff (review date Winter-Spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Pratt (review date Summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bridget Gellert Lyons (review date Autumn 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Bernard O'Donoghue (review date January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Second Thoughts,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XLX, No.1, January, 2000, pp. 88-96.

[In the following review of Seamus Heaney, O'Donoghue commends Vendler's incisive analysis. O'Donoghue, though, finds inherent limitations in Vendler's strictly formal, as opposed to thematic, approach. O'Donoghue concludes that Vendler's is not the most authoritative study of Heaney, but it is “the most enjoyable.”]

From the time in 1975 when Helen Vendler heard Seamus Heaney in Sligo reading poems from his forthcoming volume North, she has remained one of his most constant apologists and attentive readers. Over the intervening years she has written...

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