The Supreme Fiction

Soul Says: On Recent Poetry

by Helen Vendler
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 266 pp., $14.00 (paper)

The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham

by Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, 100 pp., $14.00 (paper)

The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition

by Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, 139 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Helen Vendler is justly admired as the author of critical studies of George Herbert, Keats, W.B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. Her current project is a study of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She is also the most influential reviewer of contemporary poetry in English: her reviews of new books of poetry appear frequently and forcefully in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, parnassus, and other journals. Soul Says—the title is taken from a poem by Jorie Graham—is a collection of her recent reviews: the poets she considers include Allen Ginsberg, Louise Glück, A.R. Ammons, James Merrill, Dave Smith, Robinson Jeffers, James Schuyler, Frank Bidart, Albert Goldbarth, Amy Clampitt, Donald Davie, Charles Simic, Gary Snyder, John Ashbery, Henri Cole, Rita Dove, August Kleinzahler, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, Jorie Graham, and Lucie Brock-Broido. Occasions to write about these poets arose, I imagine, from happy chances, invitations from editors.

The Given and the Made and The Breaking of Style are the results of Vendler’s own choice. The Given and the Made is the text of the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures delivered at the University of Kent at Canterbury in 1993, in which she surveys the diverse poetries of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Rita Dove, and Jorie Graham. The Breaking of Style is, I think in revised form, the text of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature that Professor Vendler gave at Emory University in 1994, presenting the work of Hopkins, Heaney, and Graham. The three books inevitably contain a certain amount of repetition. Heaney’s “Terminus” is quoted four times, his “The Grauballe Man” three times, and Graham’s “At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body” twice. Vendler’s favorite poems by Dove and by Graham keep turning up from book to book; and why not?

Vendler’s sense of the conditions besetting the writing and reading of new poems is grim. She refers to the US as “a culture that does not notice whether poems are being written about it or not.” Poetry, she observes, “is almost wholly absent from American elementary and secondary education, and absent from university education except in the training of English majors.” Reflecting on the appointment a few years ago of Rita Dove as Poet Laureate, Vendler refers to “the invisibility of poetry in America to all but the converted.” Poets continue to write, and to have their poems published and presumably read. But new poems rarely become part of the general culture as new films do, or TV programs, or (occasionally) a new novel.

The situation for poetry in England is not much better, if Vendler’s lectures at Kent are indicative. There is a striking difference between the lectures she gave there and those she gave at Emory, and it works in favor of Emory. Vendler’s lectures at Kent presuppose an audience virtually ignorant of the poems she deals with. She treats Lowell, Berryman, Dove, and Graham as if the style of …

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