Vendler, Helen (Hennessy) 1933-
VENDLER, Helen (Hennessy) 1933-
PERSONAL: Born April 30, 1933, in Boston, MA; daughter of George (a teacher) and Helen (a teacher; maiden name, Conway) Hennessy; divorced; children: David. Education: Emmanuel College, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1954; attended University of Louvain as a Fulbright Fellow, 1954-55, and Boston University as a special student, 1955-56; Harvard University, Ph.D., 1960. Hobbies and other interests: Classical, vocal music, the fine arts.
ADDRESSES: Home—54 Trowbridge St. #2, Cambridge, MA 02138-4113. Offıce—Department of English, Barker Center, 12 Quincy St., Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138-3929.
CAREER: Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, instructor in English, 1960-63; Haverford College, Haverford, PA, lecturer in English, and Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, lecturer in English, both 1963-64; Smith College, Northampton, MA, assistant professor of English, 1964-66; Boston University, Boston, MA, associate professor, 1966-68, professor of English, 1968-85, director of graduate studies, department of English, 1970-75 and 1978-79; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, visiting professor, 1981-85, professor of English, 1985—, William R. Kenan Professor of English and American Literature and Language, 1986—, associate dean of arts and sciences, 1987-92, A. Kingsley Porter University Professor, 1990—. Fulbright lecturer in American literature, University of Bordeaux, 1968-69; Fanny Hurst Visiting Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, MO, fall, 1975. Judge for National Book Award in poetry, 1972, and Pulitzer Prize in poetry, 1974, 1976, 1978, and 1986. Member of subcommittee on literary criticism awards, Guggenheim Foundation, 1974, 1976, 1977, and 1978; jury member for Mellon fellowships and Rockefeller fellowships, both 1979. Member, Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities, 1978-79, and Board of Educational Consultants, National Endowment for the Humanities; Pulitzer Prize Board, 1991-2000; senior fellow, Harvard Society Fellows, 1981-93; member of the educational advisory board, Guggenheim Foundation, 1991—; gave Jefferson Lecture, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2004.
MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America (member of executive council, 1971-75; second vice-president, 1978; first vice-president, 1979; president, 1980), American Academy of Arts and Sciences (councillor, 1976-80), English Institute (member of supervisory board, 1970-73; trustee, 1977-86), American Philosophical Society, Norwegian Academy of Letters and Sciences, PEN, Society of Fellows, Harvard University, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright fellowship, 1954-55; American Association of University Women fellowship, 1959-60; American Council of Learned Societies, grant-in-aid, 1963, fellowship, 1971; James Russell Lowell Prize, Modern Language Association, and Explicator Literary Foundation Award, 1969, both for On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems; Guggenheim fellowship, 1971; National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1975; Metcalf Teaching Award, Boston University, 1975; National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1977-78, 1986-87 and 1994-95; Graduate Society Medal, Radcliffe College, 1978; National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and notable book citation, American Library Association, 1980, both for Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets; National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism nomination, 1983, for The Odes of John Keats, finalist, 1997, for The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets; Keats-Shelley Association Award, 1994; Charles Stewart Parnell fellow, Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1995; Newton Arvin Prize for Literary Criticism, 1995; recipient of numerous honorary degrees, including those from Smith College, University of Oslo, Kenyon College, University of Hartford, Union College, Columbia University, and Cambridge University.
Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1963.
On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1969.
The Poetry of George Herbert, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1975.
Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1980.
The Odes of John Keats, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1983.
Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1984, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1986.
(Editor and author of introduction) The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1985, published as The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Faber (London, England), 1987.
(Contributing editor and author of introduction to contemporary poetry section) Donald McQuade, general editor, The Harper American Literature, two volumes, Harper (New York, NY), 1987.
(Editor, author of introduction, and contributor) Voices and Visions: The Poet in America (companion to Voices and Visions, broadcast on Public Broadcasting System (PBS), January 26-April 19, 1988), Random House (New York, NY), 1987.
The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1988.
The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (includes a CD of the author reading sixty-five sonnets), Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.
(Editor) Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press (Boston, MA), 1997.
Seamus Heaney, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1998.
(Translator) Czeslaw Milosz, 'Swiat: Poema Naiwne, Literackie (Krakow, Poland), 1999.
(Author of interpretive essays) Herman Melville, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War: Civil War Poems, foreword by James M. McPherson, introduction by Richard H. Cox and Paul M. Dowling, Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY), 2001.
A Life of Learning: Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 2001, American Council of Learned Societies (New York, NY), 2001.
(Editor) Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology, Bedford Press (Boston, MA), 2002.
Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2003.
Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2004.
Contributor to numerous anthologies, including The Act of the Mind, edited by Roy Harvey Pearce and Hillis Miller, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1964; Forms of Lyric, edited by Reuben Brower, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1970; Wallace Stevens, edited by Irvin Ehrenpreis, Penguin (New York, NY), 1972; William Butler Yeats, edited by William H. Pritchard, Penguin (New York, NY), 1972; Literary Criticism: Idea and Act, edited by W. K. Wimsatt, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1974; Wallace Stevens: A Celebration, edited by Frank Doggett and Robert Buttel, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1980; Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1983; (author of introduction) Czeslaw Milosz, Swiat = The World (poetry), Arion Press, 1989; John Keats, Poetry Manuscripts at Harvard, edited by Jack Stillinger, Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA), 1990; (author of foreword) Polish Poetry of the Last Two Decades of Communist Rule: Spoiling Cannibals' Fun, edited and translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1991; (author of introduction) William Shakespeare, The Sonnets and Narrative Poems, edited by William Burto, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
Also contributor to "Modern Critical Views" series, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House. Contributor of numerous articles to periodicals, including Atlantic, Mademoiselle, Massachusetts Review, New Republic, New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Salmagundi, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, and Southern Review; contributor of numerous reviews to periodicals, including American Scholar, Nation, and Yale Review. Member of advisory board, Studies in Romanticism; consulting poetry editor, New York Times Book Review, 1971-74; member of editorial board, American Scholar, 1978-81; poetry critic, New Yorker, 1978—.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A history of Yeats's style, research on Milton's poetry.
SIDELIGHTS: Helen Vendler is regarded by many as one of America's foremost critics of poetry. Since the mid-1960s she has contributed numerous reviews and articles on poetry to prominent literary publications, in particular the New York Times Book Review, and since 1978 has served as poetry critic for the New Yorker. In addition to her reviews and articles, Vendler is the author of acclaimed book-length studies of poets W. B. Yeats, George Herbert, Wallace Stevens, John Keats, William Shakespeare, and Seamus Heaney. Her most noted work, the award-winning collection of criticism Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, is recognized as an extensive and informed view of contemporary American poetry. A second collection, The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, further explores the issues that surround contemporary British and American poetry. Regarding Vendler's accomplishments, William H. Pritchard once remarked in the New Republic: "To begin with a judgment widely shared, if not a truth universally acknowledged: Helen Vendler is the best poetry reviewer in America."
Vendler is often cited as one of poetry's best "close readers," her criticism frequently praised for its insightful explication of individual poems and its comprehension of individual aesthetic principles. Poetry is the literary art which, she states in the foreword to Part of Nature, Part of Us, is "the one form of writing that is to me the most immediate, natural, and accessible." "Poetry, clearly, is Vendler's passion," Phoebe Pettingell wrote in the New Leader. "She directs her observations straight at the heart of the matter, so that her readers may recognize at once what she finds so marvelous in a poem." Vendler's critical writings have been recognized as assured and illuminating discussions of poetry. Pritchard cited "the pressure of an appetite" and an "unreticent forcefulness" at work in Vendler's poetry criticism, adding that "her virtues are a rigorous attending to verbal structure and texture; the ability to quote appositely and economically; a sure though not a too-exclusive taste; above all, the ability to do the poem one better by putting into words the relevant responses we might have had if we'd been smarter and more feeling." In a review of Part of Nature, Part of Us in the New York Times, Anatole Broyard described a respect for poetry that becomes apparent in Vendler's criticism: "Unlike some critics, Helen Vendler puts herself entirely at the service of the poets she is talking about. Although she writes too well to be invisible, she does not compete or pontificate either. . . . What she does is to offer the poetry to you and somehow push and pull you into shape until you can accept it."
Part of Nature, Part of Us was a resounding accomplishment for Vendler, a collection of her reviews and essays published between 1966 and 1979 which "provides a sweeping overview of contemporary American poetry," John C. Hawley wrote in America. During the time span that these reviews and essays appeared, Vendler's reputation as a formidable literary critic was also bolstered by her extended studies of Stevens and Herbert. On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems "ought to be read, with care and gratitude, by every reader of Stevens, for no critic before her has understood so well his major poems," Harold Bloom noted in the New York Times Book Review, adding: "Helen Vendler . . . has written a superb and badly needed book." Likewise, Vendler's The Poetry of George Herbert was praised as an in-depth study of the early seventeenth-century English metaphysical poet. "Vendler is undoubtedly a finely trained and extraordinarily resourceful reader, and I cannot imagine that anybody who cares for Herbert, or more generally for poetry, will fail to learn something from this book," Frank Kermode commented in the New York Times Book Review. Kermode added that although Vendler displays a "willfulness" by examining those of Herbert's poems which most closely "fit her model," she lays the foundations of her study in the works themselves: "Her meditations are nearly always faithful to their texts—she very rarely succumbs to the vice of the 'close reader,' which is to speak more wonders than the poem is considering; and she has brought off a quite notable feat of construction in making a collection of disparate commentaries stand up as a book."
Vendler achieves a similar effect in Part of Nature, Part of Us where, instead of extensively treating various aspects of a single poet, she examines diversity among a number of contemporary American poets—in the process giving testament to an entire artistic movement. "The effect of the book is to give a comprehensive and highly authoritative picture of the American poetry scene today," John Bayley wrote in the Times Literary Supplement. "There is nothing bitty about the technique: the whole sweep of her survey is sure and purposive, and coming to the end of the book one feels that a number of really significant generalizations have been made about the nature of the American poetic phenomenon, and the way it relates to the American consciousness." Forty-five different poets are discussed in Vendler's survey, including Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and Adrienne Rich. Vendler's remarks in the foreword to the collection both describe her approach and offer insight into its objectives: "My own preference is to focus on poets one by one, to find in each the idiosyncratic voice wonderfully different from any other. . . .All the poets of the century become part of a common music, but the voices of genius live vividly in their oddness and their intensity. Still, if they had nothing in common with us—if they were not, as Stevens says, part of nature and part of us, their rarities would not be ours, and we could not hear them speak. To write about them is to try to explain, first to oneself and then to others, what common note they strike and how they make it new." Monroe K. Spears commented in the Washington Post Book World that "in a time when much criticism seems increasingly academic and autotelic, self-generating and self-absorbed and perhaps self-destructive, it is a relief to find a critic who conceives of her work as having a definite and humane purpose." Part of Nature, Part of Us was the unanimous choice of the National Book Critics Circle for its 1980 award in criticism.
Vendler's critical perspective and writing style are central to the impact of Part of Nature, Part of Us and emerge as overall strengths of her literary criticism. Irvin Ehrenpreis wrote in the New York Review of Books that Vendler's critical stance is distinguished in that it does not start with the "poem as a completed object"; rather, "Vendler starts with the act of creation. She stands beside the poet and watches him compose. Reading her essays, one acquires a sense of works of art not laid out in an operating theater but just coming into being." Similarly, Harold Beaver noted in Parnassus: Poetry in Review that Vendler's "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." Thus, he explained, "the act of writing is itself treated as a critical act: the critic's role is to ponder and assess that act." Bayley contended that Vendler "is certainly the most thoughtful and humane, as she is the least system-bound, critic of poetry now writing. . . . Her examination of a poet is always as absolutely business-like and thorough as it is sympathetic, like that of a really good doctor."
Vendler's writing style in Part of Nature, Part of Us earned particular praise from a number of reviewers. Denis Donoghue wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "when she likes a poem and sways to its music, she pays it the tribute of paraphrase in terms that are often just as memorable as the poem itself." Ehrenpreis elaborated: "Vendler sparkles with brisk metaphors, colloquial rhythms, newborn phrases, [and] a syntax that evokes a mind endlessly responsive to the article before it. . . . The impression one gets of a wonderfully adaptable sensibility moving in company with the poet's genius is due not only to the wisdom and penetration of her judgement but to the unforeseeable, satisfying notions of her language and phrasing." Beaver described Vendler's technique as "less a method than an endlessly alert, protracted hesitancy, a hummingbird-like hovering and darting from possibility to possibility."
Vendler attracted much attention with her next book of criticism, The Odes of John Keats, a groundbreaking—and in some circles, controversial—study of the nineteenth-century English Romantic poet. In the book, Vendler examines several of Keats's most famous odes, not only in regard to their often praised rich language, but, as Ehrenpreis noted, "find[ing] . . . a special relation, dealing progressively with a common theme, the creative imagination." Pettingell explained that "Vendler presents the sequential progression of the odes as a series of tentative solutions, proposed, rejected, then used as building blocks toward the next." A number of reviewers, although impressed with Vendler's reading of the individual odes, pointed out problems in organizing them as a progressive larger structure. Ehrenpreis wrote that "Vendler takes for granted both an order and a progression, with each principle supporting the other. To some readers, therefore, her demonstrations will appear circular." New Republic contributor David Bromwich claimed that by examining the odes as a progressive development, Vendler "is obliged to discover a fair amount of shortcomings in the earlier odes which readers not attuned to her story have either passed over or refused to consider as faults." And Frank Kermode commented in the New York Times Book Review that Vendler's "overriding need to show development from ode to ode imposes some constraints, perhaps exquisite, on the expositor. It imposes orders, and these orders replace what might be rewarding in a different way, an acceptance of fortuity." Vendler's approach, however, also bears witness to a respect for the strength of Keats's writing, Maureen Corrigan argued in the Voice Literary Supplement: "By adopting close reading as her critical technique, she pays Keats the highest compliment of viewing his work as a crystallization of language and culture that anticipates, within its own structures, all the myriad 'outside' frameworks that could be imposed upon it."
While some reviewers took issue with Vendler's thesis in The Odes of John Keats, many were quick to point out typical strengths of her literary criticism. "She is a materialist—and in a noble sense of the word," Nicholas Bromell wrote in the Boston Review. "Vendler roots her discussion of the odes in her deeply felt response to Keats's language. Her ability to present what Keats is doing and to describe the effects, registered in our minds, of Keats's verbal facility, is breathtaking." Ehrenpreis offered a similar opinion, commenting that although "reading the odes as a group is less likely to be successful than individual readings[,] . . . the most appealing feature of Vendler's work remains; and that is her desire to follow the poet in his labor of creation." Ehrenpreis explained that "Vendler's fundamental method is to enter intuitively into the decisions and changes of mind which lie behind the finished work, so that she gives us a dramatic sense of how the poem reached the state in which we know it." Kermode called Vendler a "virtuoso," adding that "readers should not expect that the task of feeling along her line will be less than arduous for them. Their reward is a renewed sense of what it might be to perform, or even write, these great poems." Similarly, R. Baird Schuman, in English Journal, praised The Odes of John Keats as a skillful illumination of the magnitude of Keats's poetic achievement: "To read this book or any major portion of it is to show readers ways of controlling complex detail, of infusing it with sensitivity and imagination, and of bringing forth epiphanies so profound and encompassing as to make one feel a pride in literary accomplishment greater than any that readers have felt before."
In The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, Vendler returns to her study of contemporary poetry and, in addition to presenting new studies of poets such as Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery, and A. R. Ammons, offers further insight into the foundations of her critical work. Aligning her methods with what she terms "aesthetic criticism," Vendler is first concerned with approaching a particular poem as a distinct artistic expression, understandable within its own context. She writes in the book's introduction that her aim "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." Vendler distinguishes her approach from "both ideological and hermeneutic (or interpretation-centered) critics [who] want to place the literary work principally within the sphere of history and philosophy." An "aesthetic critic," she explains, "would rather place it in the mimetic, expressive, and constructivist sphere of the fine arts—theater, painting, music, sculpture, dance—where it may more properly belong." Outside of such theoretical bearings, however, The Music of What Happens is primarily devoted to offering new insights into a range of contemporary poetry. "These essays confirm Vendler's authority as a subtle, shrewd and demanding critic of recent American poetry," James E. B. Breslin wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. But, as Anthony Thwaite commented in the Washington Post Book World, "some of Vendler's most incisive, balanced, and sometimes astringent pieces are on poets who are not Americans: Ted Hughes, Stephen Spender, [Donald] Davie." The essays in The Music of What Happens, according to Breslin, "aim not to display the cleverness of the critic but to make poetry a habitable place."
In 1995, Helen Vendler did what William T. Hamilton, in the Bloomsbury Review, called "nearly unprecedented: three books of poetry criticism by the same author, published in the same year, by the same press," though he suggested that may not be such an unusual occurrence if that writer is "probably the most influential critic of poetry at work in this country today." These three books—Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham, and The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition—offer, according to James Wood in the London Review of Books, "many examples of the critic as rhapsodic explicator, and the critic in formidable command of an artistic language of metaphor."
Soul Says offers a collection of twenty-one essays published between 1987 and 1995, generally to mark the appearance of each author's newest work. Here, Vendler's focus is on lyric poetry, where poets truly reflect the mind at work, for, as Robert Beum noted in Sewanee Review, Vendler believes that "the normal home for the 'soul' is the lyric, where the human being becomes a set of warring passions independent of time and space." Though neither hermetically canonical nor forcibly inclusive, the only flaw may be in its geographical restriction, for, as Hamilton pointed out, "The American West . . . is hardly represented except for a fine essay on Gary Snyder."
The Given and the Made, which contains Vendler's 1993 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent, explores how each poet's work is shaped by a particular "given," in his or her life. Of the four poets treated, Robert Lowell, given his family, was shaped by history; John Berryman, given what James Morris in Wilson Quarterly called "his alcoholic manic-depression" was shaped by "the Freudian concept of the id"; Rita Dove was shaped by the blackness given her at birth; and Jorie Graham, according to Morris, "given her trilingual upbringing" was shaped by "the arbitrary attachment of word to thing." Still, as Hamilton pointed out, "these 'givens' are only the starting place," for it is what these poets make of their particular backgrounds "that makes their verse as vital as it is."
The Breaking of Style, the 1994 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University, traces changes in style of three poets—one English, one Irish, one American—which also reflect a change in each poet's worldview. For Gerard Manley Hopkins, it was the development of "sprung rhythm" which, as Hamilton noted, "matched his radical new approach to the world of his senses when he resumed his poetic career after seven years of silence as a newly ordained Jesuit priest." For Seamus Heaney, it is the turning of a poem upon a grammatical moment, which Vendler suggests marks the shift from public to private, thought to action, violence to art. For Jorie Graham, it is the shift from short lines to longer lines, allowing for the inclusion of dichotomies and irreconcilables, for a shift from "deliberation" to "desire." In each case, the poet is casting off an old body for a new one, so that both poet and poetic style shed the chrysalis and emerge in a new shape.
In Seamus Heaney, Vendler moves chronologically through the Irish poet's oeuvre, describing the clear progression that she sees in Heaney's work. Vendler divides her commentary into a series of categories, all beginning with the letter "A," including "antonymities," "archaeologies," "anthropologies," "alterities and alter egos," "allegories," "airiness," and "afterwards." Daria Donnelly praised Vendler's analysis in Commonweal, calling it "clear, concise, and comprehensive" and commenting, "The sheer pacing of her original and lithe insights makes this a tour de force of literary description." The book "spares the particulars of a personal biography," John Kennedy noted in Antioch Review, "but goes far into understanding how the intrusions and struggles of daily life define what a poet will write about and how he will write it."
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets goes to the heart of perhaps the most famous and intriguing sequence of lyric poems. In this collection Vendler has generated what may become the new standard text for the study of Shakespeare's famous sonnets by including close readings of all 154 sonnets and offering both the 1609 facsimile and modernized versions, accompanied by a CD of Vendler reading sixty-five of the sonnets. Disregarding the stock considerations of possible homoeroticism or the identity of the mysterious dark lady, Vendler, according to Kermode in New Republic, makes it her focus "to deal with the sonnets as poems, in themselves," arguing for a close reading of the text and utilizing a formalist approach. Although, as Kermode points out, this makes Vendler's commentary "addressed primarily to the scholar and serious student," Vendler's book is, nonetheless, "a great achievement, the work of an author with an almost devout passion for good poems." Still, this book, like all of Vendler's books, will be a success with readers with a passion for good poems, for, as A. O. Scott wrote in the Nation, "Vendler holds to the old-fashioned, fundamentally democratic belief that the job of a critic is to help readers understand and better appreciate poems."
Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath collects a series of lectures that Vendler gave at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. The lectures have one goal, as Amy E. Schwartz explained in Wilson Quarterly: "to pinpoint what the four poets had to accomplish at the outset, the problems of form and diction each had to solve before writing that initial 'perfect' poem, the first one to last down the years and embody the poet's mature style." Vendler selected "L'Allegro" as Milton's first "perfect" poem, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" as Keats's, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" for Eliot, and "The Colossus" for Plath. Although some critics questioned the choice of these poems, all have proved popular over the years, and, as Pettingell noted in New Leader, they may have suffered in the public mind from overexposure. "Our reverence for their achievement becomes stultifying," Pettingell said, but "by showing how these four writers came into their own, Vendler has rendered their lyrics vulnerable and human again."
Vendler once commented: "I write because I cannot not write. I discovered that writing books was essential to me only after I had completed two of them. The first, on Yeats, was the dissertation required for the Ph. D.; and I had been driven to write the second because writing seemed the only way to educate myself in the ravishing but mysterious poetry of Wallace Stevens. Between 1966 and 1968 I had been struggling to think about a book on George Herbert (wanting to explain to myself what made his Christian poetry beautiful to an theist like me.) At that time, I was a terribly overworked single mother, teaching ten courses a year: I had no money for household help or after-school child care for my son, who was in primary school. I was also moonlighting as a reviewer in order to pay for my son's private school (the public school was being razed, and the children were being 'temporarily'—for seven years, in actuality—dispersed into church basements and storefronts).
"I was so tired I could not think. And yet, when I reflected, one weary evening, on how I could make my life easier, it seemed the only thing I could give up was my book on Herbert. I clearly had to care for my beloved child, work, keep house, and moonlight in journalism to make ends meet. Since I was already tenured, I did not have to write another book at that moment. Yet, suddenly, something overwhelmingly powerful surged up in me, saying, 'They can't make me give up writing!' The unnamed 'they' were social conditions that make life impossible for single mothers in academic life: low pay, an absence of weekend drop-in centers for mothers and children, no affordable child-care, no cultural support.
"I was surprised by the vehemence of my own reaction: after all, I was in fact writing (reviews, essays, and so on). But journalism was—however pleasurable—writing-off-the-cuff. Total immersion in a great poet's work educated me in a way that a review could not. It was the writing that occurs during the composing of a book that I could not bear to give up.
"In the event, I decided to give myself a break by applying for a Fulbright Professorship; the following year, in Bordeaux, work was much lighter, and I wrote the first chapter of my book on Herbert. Somehow my resolve to write books became easier to maintain, since I had learned that I was psychologically unable to give up that sort of writing. In certain ways, life got harder: my parents aged, my son became an adolescent, my professional responsibilities widened. But after doing many NEH summer institutes for my son's college and law school expenses, I could at last give up summer teaching, and have time to think and write in a sustained way. At this point, I have written books on Yeats, Stevens (two of them), Herbert, Keats, Shakespeare, and Heaney. I would like to write another book on Yeats, and perhaps one on Milton.
"In writing criticism, I have had before me the example of my teachers in college and graduate school. It may be surprising that the first ones I would mention were my teachers of chemistry, biology, and mathematics. (My college degree is in chemistry. Since I did not like the way literature was taught in the religious college that my parents insisted I go to, I changed to the sciences, which could not be ideologically corrupted.) From my teachers of science and mathematics I learned the beauty of clear thought, the satisfaction of providing a chain of demonstrable evidence, and the virtue of rational and logical exposition. For the first time, in the 'hard' sciences, I saw that thought could be orderly (I already knew its intuitive dimension). Nothing has been more useful to me as a critic.
"Those who taught me in graduate literature classes at Boston University and Harvard all had different ways of talking about poetry. Some took a psychological view, some a biographical one; some emphasized the historical, some the linguistic. I could never subsequently be a partisan of any one way of looking at poetry because I learned from them that poetry is subject to many forms of investigation. The answers you receive depend on the questions you ask: ask a psychoanalytic question, you will get a psychoanalytic answer; ask a stylist question, you will get a stylistic answer. A combination of at least three or four questions achieves a more comprehensive set of answers: I have discovered that my questions tend to be psychological (what was the person who was compelled into uttering these lines feeling at the time?); generic (what sort of an elegy is this, and how does it revise its predecessors?; stylistic (why these words in this order? why this syntactic form?); and architectonic (what is the architecture of this poem, its 'floor-plan,' its 'elevation'?) My mind is not historical, and it is not philosophical: I would see more if I had leanings in either of those directions. A young critic has to be taught to think not only of her subject but also of her reader: after I had handed in a knotty set of dissertation pages on Yeats's obscurer prose, one of my directors said to me with some exasperation, 'Helen, there are other minds!' He meant that something that was clear to me wasn't yet necessarily clear to him—that I should enlarge the hermetic loop going from me to Yeats so that it would include non-Yeatsians as well. I've never forgotten his sentence, and it has helped me in writing lectures and reviews.
"The contemporary who most influenced the way I think about literature was my closest college friend, Marguerite Moloney Stewart, who did a brilliant Ph.D. dissertation on Tennyson at Yale. She had an acute sense of the way literature represents—by using means of extreme delicacy—human relations. I was more solitary and bookish: she brought me into an ampler human sphere. She did not publish, but her students at Bennington, as well as all her friends, benefited during her life from her remarkable psychological insight, her exquisite sense of language and genre, and the striking originality of her conversation. One could say of her, as Wordsworth said of his brother John, that she was a 'silent poet.'
"I have also been influenced by an admirable set of contemporary poetry critics—American, Canadian, English, Welsh, Irish—too numerous to name here. I have learned from all of them, and also from the poets who have been willing to write essays about poetry, from Cecil Day-Lewis (whose book for children, Poetry for You, was my introduction to criticism), through Kenneth Burke and Randall Jarrell, to such contemporary writers as Seamus Heaney and Louise Gluck. Criticism hovers between creation and scholarship: critics don't quite belong with those scholars whose work is based on historical research; yet they don't quite belong with the poets, either. That poets sometimes become critics—and critics poets, though more rarely—makes me trust that the boundaries between poetry and criticism are semi-permeable ones.
"How do I write? First I take notes on the text I'm writing about. Sometimes these are lengthy: when I was working on Shakespeare's sonnets, I pasted each sonnet on a separate page of a bound ledger, and then filled up the rest of the page with notes of things I noticed in the poem. Often, I have learned by heart some of my texts (such as the rhymed poems of Shakespeare, Herbert, and Yeats). Then, having done my reading, I consign the murk of problems that have arisen to my unconscious mind. This hidden machine seems to revolve by itself till one day I wake up and see the problem in a different light, or find that the murk had cleared. I can't write until this happens. When I have tried to force myself to write (to anticipate a journalistic deadline), I can't produce anything. Nonetheless (and reassuringly enough), my unconscious mind seems to have taken the real deadline to heart: suddenly the internal well begins to overflow and I can write with rapidity and ease. Getting the shape and import of a single poem clear in my own mind and on the written page is a great pleasure; and an even greater satisfaction comes from seeing single poems assemble themselves into a developmental story of the author's evolution from youth to age.
"I began reviewing contemporary poetry by chance, in 1967, and have now been doing it for thirty years (in New York Times Book Review, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, TLS [Times Literary Supplement], and New Republic). Reviewing compels an ongoing self-seminar in the new (and sometimes, too, in the foreign): without it, my knowledge of the art of my own era would be more haphazard. Yet to investigate the new is also—in tracking its origins—to pursue the old. The circuits between Ovid and Frank Bidart, Dante and Jorie Graham, Aechylus and Seamus Heaney, Rimbaud and John Ashbery, suggest that within one continuous culture, all poems known to a given poet are mentally contemporary with each other. When I think about a question, my mind too may range, in answering it, from Wordsworth to Stevens, from Catullus to Berryman, from Pope to Merrill. After all, lyric poets within one tradition work at the same sort of task, and relish the same kinds of elation. All of them hope to bestow a 'living name' on 'poor passing facts' (as Robert Lowell puts it in his last published lyric, 'Epilogue').
"Like music, poetry has had an important place in both oral and literate cultures, West and East. In the largest sense, as intellectual history shows us, 'poesis' is the act of the imagination as it creates a hitherto unprecedented cultural object—a monotheistic religion, a perspectival art, a democratic state, quantum mechanics. In the narrower linguistic sense, poesis is the embodiment of any cultural mode in a verbal object which enacts that mode through a series of intricate inner symbolic and musical relations. The creative process is continually generating, in critics observing it, an analytic exploration and description of what has been created, so criticism, as the human mirror of art, seems in no danger of dying out. However, criticism is an ephemeral activity: it has to be formulated afresh in the vocabulary of each generation. If my own critical writing has 'brokered' poetry, both old and new, to audiences in the present, it will have done its work, and can yield its place, within a few years and without regret, to the young poets and lovers of poetry who will be the critics of the next age."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Vendler, Helen, Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1980.
Vendler, Helen, The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1988.
America, July 18, 1981, John C. Hawley, review of Part of Nature, Part of Us, p. 38; July 25, 1981; March 28, 1998, William Flesch, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 23-24; July 31, 1999, John F. Desmond, review of Seamus Heaney, p. 24.
American Poetry Review, May-June, 1996, Theodore Weiss, "Reviewing the Reviewer," pp. 37-45.
American Prospect, July 2, 2001, Wen Stephenson, "Mrs. Vendler's Profession," p. 31.
America's Intelligence Wire, March 11, 2004, Robert Ingrassia, "Helen Vendler, Renowned Author, Scholar, and Poetry Critic, to Deliver 2004 Jefferson Lecture."
Antioch Review, summer, 1998, Carolyn Maddux, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 374; spring, 1999, John Kennedy, review of Seamus Heaney, p. 246.
Bloomsbury Review, March-April, 1996, p. 26.
Booklist, May 15, 1995, Patricia Monaghan, review of Soul Says, p. 1627; October 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Seamus Heaney, p. 388.
Book World, February 25, 1996, p. 4.
Boston Review, April, 1984.
Chicago Tribune, May 18, 1988.
Commonweal, November 6, 1998, Daria Donnelly, review of Seamus Heaney, p. 18.
Critical Inquiry, winter, 2001, Robert Kaufman, "Negatively Capable Dialectics: Keats, Vendler, Adorno, and the Theory of the Avant-Garde," p. 354.
English Journal, October, 1984.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), December 14, 1985.
Hudson Review, winter, 1980; winter, 1990, Robert McDowell, review of The Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry, pp. 594-608.
Journal of English and Germanic Philology, July, 1998, John Burt, review of The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition, and Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, p. 458.
Library Journal, July, 1980, Alison Heinemann, review of Part of Nature, Part of Us, p. 1519; November 15, 1985, Rosaly DeMaois Roffman, review of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, p. 101; March 1, 1988, Bettina Drew, review of Voices and Visions: The Poet in America, p. 67; April 15, 1988, Lisa Mulenneaux, review of The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, pp. 82-83; April 15, 1995, Judy Mimken, review of Soul Says, p. 78; November 15, 1997, Neal Wyatt, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 59; January, 2003, Vivian Reed, review of Coming of Age as a Poet, p. 112.
London Review of Books, June 21-July 4, 1984; March 21, 1996, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 22, 1985; February 7, 1988; February 21, 1988; September 17, 1995, p. 2.
Modern Philology, August, 2001, Michael R. G. Spiller, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 102.
Nation, March 9, 1970; December 25, 1995, A. O. Scott, review of The Breaking of Style and The Given and the Made, p. 841; December 29, 1997, Susanne Woods, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 24-25; January 4, 1999, Jay Parini, review of Seamus Heaney, p. 25.
New Criterion, January, 1998, Paul Dean, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 68.
New Leader, June 2, 1980, Phoebe Pettingell, review of Part of Nature, Part of Us, pp. 15-16; January 9, 1984, Phoebe Pettingell, "In the Spirit of John Keats," review of The Odes of John Keats, pp. 13-14; December 18, 1995, Phoebe Pettingell, "Vendler's Letter to the World," pp. 22-23; January-February, 2003, Phoebe Pettingell, review of Coming of Age as a Poet, pp. 30-32.
New Republic, March 29, 1980, William H. Pritchard, review of Part of Nature, Part of Us, pp. 36-37; December 5, 1983, David Bromwich, review of The Odes of John Keats, pp. 34-36; November 17, 1997, Frank Kermode, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 27-32.
New York Review of Books, May 29, 1980, Irvin Ehrenpreis, review of Part of Nature, Part of Us, pp. 12-14; April 12, 1984, Irvin Ehrenpreis, review of The Odes of John Keats, pp. 33-34; November 28, 1996, Denis Donoghue, review of The Breaking of Style, The Given and the Made, and Soul Says, pp. 59-63; December 18, 1997, John Bayley, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 60-64; March 4, 1999, Fintan O'Toole, review of Seamus Heaney, pp. 43-48; November 20, 2003, John Bayley, review of Coming of Age as a Poet, pp. 46-48.
New York Times, March 29, 1980; November 10, 1997, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, section B, p. 6, section E, p. 6; November 22, 1997, Dinitia Smith, "A Woman of Power in the Ivory Tower," section A, p. 13, section B, p. 7.
New York Times Book Review, October 5, 1969; July 6, 1975; March 23, 1980; March 29, 1980, Anatole Broyard, review of Part of Nature, Part of Us, p. 21; September 6, 1981, review of Part of Nature, Part of Us, p. 19; November 27, 1983, Frank Kermode, review of The Odes of John Keats, pp. 9-11; March 10, 1985, review of The Odes of John Keats, p. 40; November 16, 1997, Richard Howard, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 6; November 24, 1998, Michiko Kakutani, review of Seamus Heaney, section E, p. 11; December 20, 1998, Edward Mendelson, review of Seamus Heaney, p. 10; March 16, 2003, Laura Ciolkowski, review of Coming of Age as a Poet, p. 24.
Paris Review, winter, 1996, Henri Cole, interview with Vendler, pp. 166-212.
Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Volume 8, number 2, 1980; spring, 1999, William Logan, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 250-252.
Philological Quarterly, fall, 1999, Elizabeth Dietz, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 479.
Poets and Writers Magazine, January-February, 2000, Michel Scharf, "Metromania: The Vendler/Perloff-Standoff Handoff," pp. 19-23; July-August, 2000, Chris Stroffolino, "Metromania: A Pride of Independents," pp. 21-25.
Publishers Weekly, November 20, 1995, review of The Given and the Made, pp. 70-71; October 13, 1997, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 65; October 26, 1998, review of Seamus Heaney, p. 50.
Renaissance Quarterly, autumn, 1999, Bridget Gellert Lyons, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 918.
Sewanee Review, winter, 1988, Christopher Clausen, review of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, pp. 131-136; winter, 1996, Robert Beum, review of Soul Says, pp. iii-v; winter, 2000, H. L. Weatherby, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 124-131.
South Atlantic Quarterly, summer, 1976.
Style, fall, 1998, Dave Oliphant, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 524-528.
Times (London, England), January 29, 1987.
Times Literary Supplement, August 22, 1980; March 2, 1984; May 24, 1985; May 1, 1987; May 22, 1987; July 8, 1988, Charles Tomlinson, review of The Music of What Happens, p. 757; October 20, 1995, John Bayley, review of Soul Says: On Recent Poetry and The Given and the Made: Recent American Poets, pp. 9-10; January 2, 1998, Alastair Fowler, review of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 11-12; May 9, 2003, Olivery Reynolds, review of Coming of Age as a Poet, pp. 8-9.
U.S. News and World Report, October 4, 1993, Rebecca A. Neuwirth, "Pursuing Poetry's Many Complexities," pp. 110-111.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1976; autumn, 1980; spring, 1985; summer, 1988, review of Voices and Visions, pp. 100-101.
Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1983.
Washington Post Book World, April 6, 1980; January 31, 1988.
Wilson Quarterly, spring, 1996, p. 84; spring, 2003, Amy E. Schwartz, review of Coming of Age as a Poet, pp. 124-126.
World Literature Today, spring, 1981; summer, 1996, Mary Kaiser, review of The Breaking of Style and The Given and the Made, pp. 699-700, John Boening, review of Soul Says, pp. 700-701.
Yale Review, summer, 1984, Paul H. Fry, review of The Odes of John Keats, pp. 603-616; spring, 1986, Vernon Shetley, review of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, pp. 429-437.
National Endowment for the Humanities Web site, http://www.neh.gov/ (August 16, 2004), Bruce Cole, "The Critic's Craft: A Conversation with Helen Vendler."*