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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 eludes me. Yet by working with it, Vendler reveals fundamental aspects of Stevens’s poetry that no other critic has brought out—startling changes in the poet’s attitudes, along with profound continuities. As she ponders the idea of “brutality,” she says correctly but remarkably, “He has been too little read as a poet of human misery.”

Adapting a term that the poet himself employed, Vendler is wholly successful. In “The False and True Sublime” she presents us with one of the most illuminating accounts ever given of the development of Stevens’s talent, and she does so by scrutinizing the implications of “sublime.” The reading Vendler offers, in this essay, of Stevens’s poem, “A Discovery of Thought,” draws its power almost as much from her expression as from her insight. Speaking of the “utmost sublime” embodied in the poem, she says, truly and movingly, “It is a sublime of denuded language, a sublime of indicative effort…. We may believe that Stevens’ fastidiousness, more acute than ever in his old age; saw something overblown and coarse in the fulsome creations he had previously sponsored.”

For Vendler, in other words, style is part of appreciation. 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 judgment but to the unforeseeable, satisfying motions of her language and phrasing. She speaks with an unstrained clarity, an air of spontaneity, that only painful self-criticism can produce.

Sometimes Vendler is too quick for us. Obscurities are not always acknowledged as she leads us through the modulations of perception and emotion in which a poem lives. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England” comes out of Vendler’s account as exposing the inadequacy of “the domestication of nature so long as love is missing.” By this stage in her essay, alert readers will have grasped that “domestication” includes the imaginative transformation of reality by genius, and that the poem reveals the poverty of even the grandest occupations of art when these are not supported by a loving presence.

Most of Bishop’s poem deals with the solitary confinement of Crusoe before the arrival of Friday. In one small triumph after another the imagination strives to suffice, and make up to the islander for his loneliness. But the effort is finally as devastating as the isolation. When Friday comes, the one thing he does not need is to be transformed.

Vendler does not bother to spell such things out. But in her effort to stay with the central terms of the essay, “the domestic and the strange,” I think she leaves most readers unaware of the full meaning of a deeply ambitious, private, and difficult poem—unaware of the agony which the closing lines point to; for here the precious images with which the poet had constructed her art become junk when detached from the life-giving atmosphere that endowed them with beauty, i.e., the atmosphere of tender affection:

How can anyone want such things?
And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

Applied to another poem by Bishop, Vendler’s key terms may even get in the way of insight. This is “Filling Station.” Here the poet’s first impression of ubiquitous, black dirt and oil changes into a sense of invisible, loving presence as signs of feminine care and color appear—a doily, a begonia; and the reader surmises that there is an absent mother who looks after the men managing the station. Vendler refers the last line, “Somebody loves us all,” to a religious motif. But in the preceding lines, the “—so—so—so” of overlapping labels on stacked cans is supposed to comfort automobiles as if they were high-strung horses, i.e., like a mother, not a god. By clinging to the concept of domestication, Vendler, in a rare miss, overlooks the feature she has already and abundantly observed in Bishop’s “Sestina.”

The finest achievement of Vendler’s powers of sympathy is her essay on Adrienne Rich. The reason is not the common femininity of author and poet. It is rather Vendler’s admiration for a poet who refuses to stay still and cultivate familiar territory but moves dangerously into wildlands. Here Vendler gives the proper definition of the purpose of learned criticism:

If we try to isolate the self and style which appeared in A Change of World and which have continued, through age and variation, all the way up to Diving into the Wreck, we are asking, really, which are Rich’s best poems, how her voice makes itself both remarkable and beautiful.

Thanks to this resolve to follow the intrinsic self and style through their embodiment in the poet’s best work, Vendler not only brings out the excellencies of Diving into the Wreck; she also redefines those of Rich’s first books, especially in poems which, as she says, balance danger against decorum. The sympathy is more than aesthetic. Vendler dislikes phony solutions, easy outs. “Better a change,” she says, “than the falsely ‘mature’ acceptance of the unacceptable.”

Yet sympathy never blocks judgment. Vendler may offer reasons for a poet’s failures; she does not try to explain them away. Certain kinds of fault-finding are acts of respect. One does not waste criticism on trifles: de minimis non curat lex. What matters is that the less satisfactory poems should be seen as part of the venturesome career.

The risk of being occupied with judgment and discrimination is that reading may turn into a chore. Vendler speaks of poetry as “the one form of writing that is to me the most immediate, natural, and accessible.” It is the form she most enjoys. The vocation of criticism, for Vendler, in no way hinders pleasure. Delight, reflection, and discrimination live together in her mansion. This openness to every kind of pleasure that poetry affords is I think most visible in Vendler’s appreciation of Frank O’Hara, whose writing allows so few holds to the usual methods of analysis.

Hyperattentive” is Vendler’s term for O’Hara’s attitude to common experience. He wished “that life could always be lived on the very edge of loss, so that every instant would seem wistfully precious”—hence the exclamatory character of his style. O’Hara exhibits the felicities of inclusion. As Vendler suggests, what charms us is not simply the range of experience that he encompasses but the juxtapositions: “frivolousness, bathos, high-pitched boredom, and self-satire”: a movie about the frozen north (on television, I think) and an attempt to cure a friend’s hangover.

Perceptively, she sets a mark at the degree of satisfaction O’Hara’s poems can supply, and questions the “air of determined social duty about a lot of these poems, as though the balloon of cheerfulness had to be batted back to the next player.” I would go even further and suspect that the obligation to be cheerful is the lid on a well of despair. Is it not the mixture of presexual emotions and the most blasé experience of sex that distinguishes O’Hara’s comic style—effervescence battling against disillusionment?

It should be obvious that versatility is one of Vendler’s gifts. Is there another critic capable of doing justice to Stevens and Dave Smith, to Rich and O’Hara, to Ginsberg and Merrill? But there are limits. Vendler distrusts conventional resolutions of what she wisely calls “the misery of contending rights and needs in human existence.” She also tends to judge a poet above all by what he produces late in his career.

By such standards Eliot is bound to disappoint one. He offers at last a traditional kind of religion that Vendler finds shallow in our century, and he seems to her exhausted before he is forty-five. I wonder whether Vendler’s vigor of sympathy does not require her to be cold to a few culture heroes. The essay on Eliot is unworthy of her. To mock a poet for experiments that he suppressed, to depreciate a poem for the circumstances it was composed in, to treat The Waste Land as if its most interesting features were due to Ezra Pound and the Eliots’ maid, to dismiss Four Quartets with a sneer at the versification—all this is too easy; it involves little reflection or discrimination.

At the opposite extreme from coldness, the threat of too much sympathy is possessiveness. Lowell attracts Vendler as naturally as Eliot repels her. He has, she says, “forgone the comforts of nostalgia, of religion, seemingly of politics.” He offers, she says, “the solace of truth.” He loses interest in transcendence. His mind swings at last toward the clear-eyed outlook that Vendler respects.

This may be why, in her writing about Lowell, the tone is sometimes defensive. Vendler’s harsh comments on a young scholar’s not very useful book about the poet sound as if she were granting it more emotion than it requires. Did he seem like an interloper?

The use of information received from the poet himself, of bits of his conversation, does not always indicate what Vendler knows, that Lowell spoke even so to other students of his work, that other visitors to his classes took notes on his obiter dicta. Lowell, like Frost, was not unwilling to contribute to his own reputation.

Yet Vendler shows tact, discretion, and the highest intelligence in making the firsthand material serve the alert responsiveness of her sensibility. While she writes with great discernment on Life Studies, she exerts herself to recommend the work of Lowell’s final decade. Vendler’s claims for Day by Day are not too bold. Whether or not the poems in that collection mark a fresh development in the history of the lyric, I am not sure. Nor am I persuaded that Horace’s odes are the dominant influence on Day by Day. But Vendler demonstrates that so far from being self-indulgent, these poems are powerfully concise and rest on carefully balanced elements straining against each other.

It is still possible that Lowell may be too close to us. Dealing with more remote figures, Vendler does not seem to step between them and us; rather, she removes barriers. With Lowell perhaps we remember too much; the views which Vendler sets before us seem oddly obstructed.

Moving from Vendler’s book to the essays by Daniel Hoffman on poetry since 1945, we notice at once the change in style. Suddenly we are in the drab world of “cameo-like carvings,” “superbly crafted” poems, and “more simplistic” light verse. We meet the unnecessary use of French words, often given incorrectly: a sickness “du fin de siècle,” “fleurs de mal,” a poem called “Un Coup de dés” attributed to Apollinaire. We hear clumsy phrases like “his twenty-page blank verse title poem.”

Hoffman’s three long essays make up over a quarter of the new Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, which he edited. It is no wonder that the writing sounds fatigued. About a hundred and forty poets are dealt with in these chapters. Some, like Lowell, require full-scale exposition in ten crowded pages. Others, like Dave Smith, are despatched among the items in a brief enumeration.

It bothers me that in the first of the essays, “After Modernism,” Hoffman feels he must give comprehensive accounts of Frost, Stevens, Eliot, and similar figures of the Twenties. A quick notation of their influence might have been pertinent, but hardly a review of whole careers. If Hoffman had curtailed his commentaries on W.C. Williams and Marianne Moore, he might have found room somewhere for the name of Jean Garrigue.

Where Vendler shows sympathy and discrimination, Hoffman offers a bland receptivity. At times he merely summarizes poems without making a judgment of their value or analysis of their form. At times he unnecessarily drops into biography. The poetry of Richard Howard gets a bit more consideration than that of Elizabeth Bishop; W.S. Merwin gets more than both of them combined.

Although Hoffman is a poet, his point of view is less that of the author than that of a diffident reader—one who needs facts. He sees poems and careers not from within but from without, not as taking shape but as completed.

Hoffman’s historical sweep allows him to make some pertinent generalizations, like a remark that by accepting the discontinuity of history, recent poets become inclined to make their style and form provisional, “reflective of the process of becoming self-aware.” He also has the chance to sketch important literary movements, as in some useful paragraphs on surrealism, which lead into the sub-essay on Merwin.

But there are also places where he discusses the same poet at about the same length as Vendler. One is a fresh critique of a poet not yet established, Charles Simic. Another is a review of a congenial and well-known poet, Howard Nemerov. In both these examples, the superiority of Vendler’s perceptiveness and vigor will startle anyone who makes the comparison. Hoffman seems to be going through a set of topics; he might be supplying answers to a questionnaire. Vendler responds to the work before her like a traveler enjoying a new country.

Hoffman tries to group poets by schools and ideologies: confessional poets, Black Mountain poets, the writers of long poems, and so forth. The labeling may be a convenient way to handle material. Whether it tells us much about the poetry, I doubt. Levertov and Olson represent very different sorts of verse. As for the New York school, when Hoffman says, “Ashbery’s stance and style are paralleled in the work of James Schuyler,” he amazes me. It’s not easy to believe he has read Schuyler’s exhilarating poems.

Of course, Hoffman is not merely conveying his appreciation of the poets he most admires. He is trying to map a region and to guide others through American poetry as a whole. He must include those who may not delight him but who have influenced younger authors. He must rein in his own impulses of eulogy or obloquy. Few scholars can avoid sounding pedestrian while performing such tasks.

Yet Hoffman often gives up the attempt to connect poets or to make meaningful transitions from one critique to the next. We are then left with isolated, gray patches of critical prose that do not in fact relate individuals to literary history. One asks oneself whom such an encyclopedic effort is going to help. Would a foreigner gain a proper entrance into our literature through a page of titles and opinions supplemented by indications of influence?

Who, then, wants these essays? The ordinary reader with little knowledge of poetry will find them dull and thin. To the knowledgeable or expert reader they will seem superficial. The academic vocabulary and plodding style will put off the young student. Maybe the advanced postgraduate will discover propositions he can enlarge on or denounce in his term papers. He may be glad to have Hoffman as a bulwark or a whipping boy.

But that is not much to show for what has gone into the essays. They are the product of much labor. Hoffman has read and pondered scores of books. He has organized hundreds of facts and observations in careful categories. In praising, he is sensible; in blaming, he is tactful. Nearly always, he is clear. Yet the outcome is a thing that few people will consult and fewer still will return to.

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