Helen Vendler is perhaps the most important critic of contemporary poetry writing today; her essays in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker have shaped contemporary opinion and given readers insight into and understanding of some difficult poets and opaque poems. The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics is an impressive collection that discusses many of the most significant poets of this century; Vendler also touches on three nineteenth century poets and deals with some issues in contemporary literary criticism. The book is divided into four sections: “On Criticism,” “On Poetry,” “On Poets,” and “Recent Writing.”
In the first section, Vendler discusses the current critical scene and the work of such significant critics as Geoffrey H. Hartman and Harold Bloom. She has some sympathy for their attempts to provide more accurate critical models for discussing literature, but her own criticism is rather different. Vendler describes her approach to literature as “aesthetic criticism,” an attempt not to “reveal the meaning of an art work” but to describe it and the pleasure which it conveys. That description takes the form of a close analysis of the language of the poem and how the details form a whole. She also recognizes, however, that “the art of poetry is far larger than any single description of its powers.” Her homage to those powers is one of the fullest and finest in critical literature.
The second section of the book, “On Poetry,” deals with three nineteenth century poets: William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Walt Whitman. The first essay, “Lionel Trilling and Wordsworth’s ’Immortality Ode,’” is a devastating refutation of Trilling’s Freudian reading of the poem. Vendler suggests that the more appropriate way to see the poem is as a “cure” of its earlier despair rather than following Trilling’s description of the poem as merely opposing two different views of life. Her discussion is rooted within the poem, and it describes and reveals the nature of Wordsworth’s vision much more closely; Trilling steps outside the poem in order to place it in a Freudian context.
“Keats and the Use of Poetry” and “Reading Walt Whitman” emphasize the growth and development of both poets. Vendler sees Keats altering his early didactic, and merely asserted, view of poetry to one that stresses “aesthetic experience.” Keats is, for Vendler, the ultimate example of a poet with both poetic power and integrity, and she often uses his poems as a touchstone to test the value of twentieth century work. Vendler sees a similar process in the way Whitman transformed his early patriotic elegies into something close to tragedy in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” She is always looking for a deepening of experience and expression, a quality found only in the greatest poets.
The third section of the book is entitled “On Poets,” and it deals with a dozen poets’ work, from Seamus Heaney to A. R. Ammons. Vendler’s criticism is not cramped in this section as it was by the more limited subject matter of the second section, and her responsive analysis and description touches on the poets’ earliest and latest work. The essay on Heaney is impressive in its response to the early pastoral and rustic poems, but she stresses his development beyond this stage in the later poems that deal with the historical situation of Ireland and Heaney’s necessary involvement in it. Vendler is especially perceptive on one of Heaney’s later collections, Station Island (1984), in which nostalgia for Ireland is replaced by an “adult judgment on the deficiencies of its people.” Heaney has acquired a satiric edge in this collection, as can be seen in his description of a young priest as a “holy mascot” and in the poems dealing with the butchery committed by both sides in the endless Irish conflict.
Vendler treats the poetry of two contemporary British poets, Stephen Spender and Donald Davie, with her usual responsive attentiveness. Both poets stress “clarity and particularity,” although Davie’s vision is much harsher and more uncompromising. Vendler finds the best of Spender’s work in love poems and elegies rather than in those dealing with historical and social problems. In contrast, Davie is a poet who lashes out at a broad range of targets, especially himself and his own failings. He is moved to poetry by “revulsion” rather than love; as Davie says, a
revulsionFrom the obscene;That more than anythingMy life-consuming passion.
The poetic situation of Czesaw Miosz is similar to that of Heaney; both have rich descriptive gifts and have celebrated their land in pastoral imagery. Neither, however, can escape the tragic history of his country. For example,...
(The entire section is 2038 words.)