SOUL SAYS is Helen Vendler’s latest book on contemporary poetry, and she is, undoubtedly, the most sympathetic and illuminating critic of that poetry. The book is a collection of Vendler’s essays and reviews, most of which were written for THE NEW YORKER, on such major figures as James Merrill, as well as lesser-known poets such as Frank Bidart. Seamus Heaney and Jorie Graham are clearly of particular interest to Vendler, as she devotes three essays to each of these poets.
Vendler has called her critical method “aesthetic criticism,” and its main features are isolating the key poems and key passages. She is remarkably discerning in selecting such passages and then discussing them and the work of a poet. Vendler not only explains such passages but also sets them in a context of literary history. In addition, Vendler is a critic who is not looking for faults but to celebrate true excellence. The only recent poet she treats negatively is Adrienne Rich; she claims that Rich distorts the lyric poem by her concentration on political issues.
Vendler’s discussion of Seamus Heaney is especially noteworthy; she singles out his development and changes through a number of poetic and thematic phases, so she does not merely review one book of Heaney, in this case THE HAW LANTERN, but also discusses his whole career.
The individual essays of the book are taken almost exclusively with reviews and, therefore, lack the fuller development of some of her other books, yet it is a forcefully and gracefully written book that helps readers understand and respond to some of the most important, and most difficult, poets in recent years.