Vendler, Helen Hennessy

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VENDLER, Helen Hennessy

Born 30 April 1933, Boston, Massachusetts

Daughter of George and Helen Conway Hennessy; married

Helen Vendler's sophisticated and demanding method and style have earned her a reputation as America's best "close reader" of poetry. She believes the close, passionate reading of a poem leads to the discovery of its human voice and emotion. Through her work as a scholar, critic, and teacher, Vendler offers readers the tools with which to understand and appreciate the artistry and power of poetry.

From 1950 to 1954, Vendler studied at Emmanuel College in Boston, where she took her B.A. in chemistry, summa cum laude. In the following years, she studied at the University of Louvain under a Fulbright Fellowship and at Boston University. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature in 1960 from Harvard University, where she is now a professor.

Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays (1963) is Vendler's defense of A Vision against critics who find it incomprehensible or embarrassing as a statement of Yeats' belief in gnosticism and a supernatural reality. Vendler believes critics stress Yeats' philosophical and historical failure at the cost of the more successful aesthetic statement.

In On Extended Wings: The Longer Poems of Wallace Stevens (1969), which won the Explicator Prize, Vendler tries to approximate Stevens' actual experience in writing a line of poetry. She then scrutinizes the repetitions and variations of syntactical pattern, diction, and mood to elucidate what the poet is continually in the process of doing rather than what he is finally saying. She believes Stevens himself is unrelenting in demanding that poet and reader participate vigorously, line by line, in the metrical, metaphoric, grammatical, and intellectual action of the poem.

In The Poetry of George Herbert (1975), Vendler explains her dissatisfaction with Herbert's reputation as merely a beautiful phrasemaker whose expression of sentiments is wholly conventional. Like other critics, she finds beauty and originality in his language, but primarily she demonstrates his religious attitudes and use of religious conventions are also original.

With The Odes of John Keats (1983), Vendler proposes the odes are best understood when studied together, in sequence. When read this way, she argues, the odes raise and attempt to resolve a series of formal and philosophical questions about the nature of art. Vendler's original treatment of the odes as an artistic unity was welcomed by critics as a full and persuasive study of Keats' great poems.

Vendler studies Wallace Stevens' shorter poems in Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (1984). She hopes to correct what she considers to be a popular misconception—that his work is remote and cerebral. Instead, she focuses on the "disappointment of desire" in Stevens' work, revealing the warmth and loneliness that permeate many of the poems.

In 1995 Vendler published The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham and The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition, both of which are based on lecture series. In The Breaking of Style, she examines the nature and significance of the changes during the careers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus Heaney, and Jorie Graham. Vendler further explores the work of Irish poet Heaney in Seamus Heaney (1998). In The Given and the Made, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Rita Dove, and Graham are the subjects of Vendler's discussion of how personal circumstances shape a poet's themes.

With The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1997), Vendler ignores the historical detective work, which is so often associated with the sonnets, and instead focuses on how and why the poems work. Her commentaries on the 154 sonnets offer new perspectives on the imaginative, stylistic, and technical features in these poems. A compact disk of her reading 65 sonnets is bound with the book.

The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, and Critics (1988), a collection of previously published essays, includes discussions of contemporary poets, as well as articles on Wordsworth, Keats, and Whitman. In a particularly interesting introduction, Vendler explains her critical methods. Dismissing interpretation-centered and ideological criticism as "paraphrase and polemic," she argues that a work of literature, like any work of art, can best be understood only through a thorough consideration of the work's formal elements and their relationship to meaning. She calls her own method "aesthetic criticism" and claims that too often critics involved in both hermeneutic and ideological criticism overlook aesthetic achievement, thereby missing the essence of the artwork itself.

Because her method and style are so sophisticated and because of her belief that to enjoy poetry at all one must be conscious of the use of a wide range of technical devices, Vendler appeals most to other critics and scholars. In her reviews and essays for magazines, she becomes more accessible to the general reader. Some of these works have been collected in Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (1980), which won a National Book Critics' Circle award, and in Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (1995).

Vendler edited the Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985), published in England as the Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1986), and served as poetry editor of the Harper Anthology of American Literature (1987). In 1987 she edited and contributed to Voices and Visions: American Poets, a companion work to the Public Broadcasting System television series of the same name. Vendler also edited and introduced Wallace Stevens' Poems (1985), and W. B. Yeats' Selected Poems (1990). She has written regularly for the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and the New York Times Book Review, and began as poetry critic for the New Yorker in 1978.

Vendler is the recipient of numerous professional awards including the National Book Critics Circle award for Criticism (1980) and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1986-87). She was a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Singapore in 1986 and at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1988. For many years she served as a judge for the Pulitzer prize in poetry and since 1990 has been a member of the board of that organization. She was the first woman to be awarded the A. Kingsley Porter University Professorship, the highest academic distinction Harvard awards faculty members.


Donoghue, D., "The Supreme Fiction," in NYRB (28 Nov. 1996). Pettingell, P., "Vendler's Letter to the World," in New Leader (18 Dec. 1995). Weiss, T., "Reviewing the Reviewer," in APR (May-June 1996).

Reference works:

CA (1979). CANR (1989). CB (1986.) MTCW (1991).

Other references:

Journal of American Studies (Aug. 1989). Nation (25 Dec. 1995, 29 Dec. 1997). New Boston Review (Mar.1984). NYT (27 Nov. 1983). TLS (2 Mar. 1984, 24 May 1985, 8 July 1988). Wilson Quarterly (Winter 1984).




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Vendler, Helen Hennessy

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