The Powers of Sympathy

Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets

by Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, 376 pp., $15.00

The American poet wants all the attention he can get, along with some cash rewards. American critics are seldom patrons, able to put money in his hand. But they must feel as their overriding duty the need to give him intelligent appreciation. Anyone who reads much of modern criticism comes to feel disheartened by the substitutes offered for true understanding and judgment.

Reviewers often provide lively (or not so lively) details of the writer’s life. Academic critics normally elaborate sober analyses of verse technique. Friends of the author like to honor him with vague panegyrics. But deep sympathy and discrimination are miserably rare. The power to convey these in attractive prose is just as rare. We abound in fence-sitting critics, enumerative critics (listing the themes, the forms, the influences, the titles!), irritable critics, learned critics. But a Randall Jarrell comes forth once in a generation (if at all).

Hence our gratitude for Helen Vendler. In her new book, Part of Nature, Part of Us, Vendler exhibits in abundance the qualities our poets long for, virtues that make the essays and reviews here collected useful to everybody concerned with the nation’s culture. High among these virtues is the fullness of Vendler’s sympathy with the poets whose work she examines, but even prior to that gift there is her point of view.

The usual attitudes of a critic are those of a consumer or judge. He sees the poem as a completed object, a substance to be tasted, measured, shredded. But 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.

In her account of Dave Smith’s “Eastern Shore: Smith Island,” Vendler gives us the experience of reading the poem as a series of discoveries, each part surprising us with an unexpected turn. She also recaptures the incidents which the poem evokes, the poet’s tour of a familiar, ancestral place which bursts with unfamiliarities. But she conveys as well the sense of a poem being written, the author finding his language and form as he labors or plays with the growing creature.

While doing so much, Vendler still manages to clarify difficult lines in the poem, and suggest the influences or models that the poet accepted in making it. Finally, by an act of subtle interpretation, she enlarges the particular meanings of the poem into a general significance.

The style of most criticism disappoints us. Reviewers often aspire to the false vitality of a sports reporter. Academic critics often push mechanically through schemes of examination. Vendler sparkles with brisk metaphors, colloquial rhythms, newborn phrases, a syntax that evokes a mind endlessly responsive to the article before it.

Some of her combinations puzzle me. In an essay on Wallace Stevens, “Apollo’s Harsher Songs,” the focus is the use the poet often makes of “brutality of thought or diction.” Exactly what that expression denotes still…

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