Edgar Degas was dining one day, along with the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, at the house of Berthe Morisot. As a distraction from painting, Degas had begun to try his hand at writing sonnets—on dancers, racehorses, and Mary Cassatt’s pet parrot, Coco—and, according to an account by Paul Valéry, he rashly complained to Mallarmé, the most fastidiously exacting of poets, of the difficulties of the task. “What a business!” he cried. “I wasted an entire day on one damned sonnet, without making any progress at all…. And yet, I have no lack of ideas…I’m full of them…I’ve got too many….” To which Mallarmé—“avec sa douce profondeur“—replied, “But, Degas, it is not with ideas that you make a poem…. You make it with words.”
One can easily imagine Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard and one of the most distinguished critics of poetry in the English-speaking world, nodding her assent. In Vendler’s long and impressive career she has ranged from her early study of Yeats’s A Vision to her magisterial commentary on the intricate design of Shakespeare’s sonnets, from her pioneering work on the long poems of Wallace Stevens to her elegant and moving study of the odes of Keats. She has also written deft monographs on George Herbert and Seamus Heaney, as well as hundreds of articles and reviews in this magazine and elsewhere—reminding readers that poems are, after all, made with words, and not with received ideas or with what she bitingly calls the currently fashionable “contextual penumbra” of the poet’s race, class, nationality, or gender.
Vendler is much in demand as a public speaker. She gave the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in Washington last spring, and lately she has been publishing small collections of her lectures on topics such as the “coming of age” of young poets, or the manner in which mature poets “break” or reject one style to achieve another that may be more expressive. In these books, Vendler engages in close reading to find a poem’s distinctiveness of language and literary form since, as she puts it in Poets Thinking, “the highest poetic achievement is the gaining of an unmistakable, idiosyncratic, and formally coherent personal style.” In her lectures, she often discusses the same poets—Keats, Yeats, and Stevens among earlier poets, Heaney, Rita Dove, and Jorie Graham among her contemporaries—to advance her arguments.
The title of Vendler’s new book, drawn from her Clark Lectures at Cambridge University, suggests something hushed and solemn, with the heft, as one of the poets under discussion put it, of cathedral tunes. The topic of how poets think recalls earnest attempts during the past century, on the fringes of philosophy and religion, to define the nature of “poetic thinking.” One thinks of Jacques Maritain’s unlikely use of Thomas Aquinas to describe “creative intuition” or of Martin Heidegger’s use of cryptic passages in Hölderlin’s hymns as the basis for his own late philosophy. In an essay titled “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” Paul Valéry advanced a Kantian argument about the fundamentally impractical nature of poetic language; poetry, he argued, was “a language within a language,” with no other aim than to please the ear and mind.
More influential in America was George Santayana’s Three Philosophical Poets (1910), in which he boldly divided 2,500 years of European philosophy into three phases—the naturalism of the Greeks, the supernaturalism of the Christian Middle Ages and the Ren- aissance, and a Hegelian fusion of the two (Carlyle’s “natural supernaturalism”), which Santayana called Romanticism. Santayana argued that poets such as Lucretius and Goethe, not philosophers, best expressed the three phases:
Can it be an accident that the most adequate and probably the most lasting exposition of these three schools of philosophy should have been made by poets?
Santayana urged his readers to avoid the “leafless forests” of Aquinas and Kant and to wander instead in Dante’s dark wood. This proved a seductive invitation for philosophically minded young poets like Eliot, Frost, and Stevens, all of whom were drawn to Santayana at Harvard. Stevens, who adopted Santayana’s Lucretian naturalism as his own, closes his gorgeous tribute to Santayana, “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” with an evocation of Santayana’s “ambered room” in a convent in Rome, and a meditation on the relation of words and thinking in the creation of art:
Total grandeur of a total edifice,
Chosen by an inquisitor of structures
For himself. He stops upon this threshold,
As if the design of all his words takes form
And frame from thinking and is realized.
No one I know of has written more perceptively about Stevens than Helen Vendler, who has devoted two books to his work, one on the longer poems (On Extended Wings) and another on the short poems. In a recent fragment of autobiography—which I hope will eventually be part of a full-length book—she calls her discovery of Stevens while she was a graduate student at Harvard “the most profound literary experience of my life.”1 So one might expect her, in taking up the topic of poets thinking, to look into the ways in which a poet like Stevens, who once wrote that a poem “must resist the intelligence almost successfully,” simultaneously evokes and evades the conventions of philosophical writing. But this, it turns out, is precisely what Vendler is determined not to do in Poets Thinking. She summarizes her work on Stevens as “my attempts to treat Stevens as something other than a poet versifying ideas.” Far from blurring the line between poetry and philosophy, as Santayana did so effectively, she wants to draw it more firmly:
I ruled out…those poets who seem especially “philosophical” (Donne, Eliot, Stevens), because to discuss their relation to thinking would require…distinguishing the nature of ruminative meditations in verse from ruminative meditations in prose…. I decided, therefore, to take as examples of lyric thinking forms of poetic discourse that could not possibly be analogized to the discourse of philosophical thought.2
If there is a single belief that underlies all Vendler’s work it is that of the inseparability of form and content, manner and matter:
As is often said, but as often forgotten, poems are not their paraphrases, because the paraphrase does not represent the thinking process as it strives toward ultimate precision, but rather reduces the poem to summarized “thoughts” or “statements” or “meanings.”
In attacking so explicitly what Cleanth Brooks melodramatically called the “heresy of paraphrase,” Vendler aligns her work with that of the self-styled “New Critics” (she prefers the name “Aesthetic Critics”) of the period after World War II. She sees herself as one more “inquisitor of structures” concerned with the “poem itself” and not another thing. Like the New Critics, she brings an almost scientific rigor to the analysis of poems while shying away from biography as a basis for interpretation, preferring to treat poetry as fundamentally “impersonal,” an escape, as T.S. Eliot once remarked in his Buddhist mode, from personality. She is, nonetheless, critical of the New Critics’ tendency to read poems as static productions, “well-wrought urns” and “verbal icons.” She calls instead for a “fluid view of lyric,” true to the dynamic process of composition, where the poem is “depicted primarily as a fluid construction that could change its mind as it proceeded.”
There is no clear pattern or progression among the four essays in Poets Thinking, and little attempt to relate the particular poets discussed to their age. These essays are, according to Vendler, individual “case studies,” since her subject, poets thinking, “cannot be generalized, but must be approached poet by poet.” What prompted her book in the first place was her dismay at the spectacle of three professors—the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam, the Harvard political scientist Judith Shklar, and the “non-Harvard anthropologist” Melvin Konner—all mistaking the tired ideas taken up and parodied in Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man as Pope’s own. The philosopher dismissed the “Enlightenment optimism” of the poem and the political scientist chided Pope for endorsing a “fixed social hierarchy,” while the anthropologist thought he was making a contribution by recalling Lovejoy’s notion of the “Great Chain of Being” in relation to Pope’s familiar lines about man’s “middle state” between the realms of angels and beasts.
Vendler finds it a “scandal” that the three scholars, pretending to interdisciplinary knowledge, “had only one way of thinking about a poem: they translated it into its conceptual paraphrase, and proceeded to dismiss the paraphrase on the grounds of intellectual irrelevance to modern thought.” Later Vendler concedes that more imaginative scholars might have made more of Pope’s poem, with the anthropologist, for example, exploring “Pope’s savage renditions of the tribal customs of eighteenth-century society.”
When we actually look at the poem Pope wrote, Vendler argues, we find a poet who delights in toying with received ideas. Pope juggles “the ideas before us as spectacles rather than as articles for assent,” she writes. He is fond of “miniaturizing” them, drawing from his “huge and learned reservoir of strategic diminution.” She rightly detects “an element of farce” in lines such as these:
Why has not Man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly.
“We are very close,” according to Vendler, “…to the Mad Hatter’s tea party.” Characteristically, she makes no effort to link this strategic diminution to contemporaries like Pope’s friend Jonathan Swift, in the Lilliputian passages of Gulliver’s Travels, or to the eighteenth-century taste for rococo and neoclassical miniatures, Meissen and Wedgwood, of all kinds. And instead of comparing Pope’s sallies to specific philosophers, she is mainly content with straw men—Pope’s “mocking demonstration that most philosophical arguments in prose are simply too drearily long.” In contrasting Pope’s “living thought” with the “thought embalmed” of “most” philosophers, she draws an unsatisfactory distinction between the two disciplines. For surely we find “living thought” in many philosophers—Emerson or Pascal or Pope’s own favorite, Montaigne—just as “thought embalmed” is something that even playful poets don’t always manage to avoid. Vendler’s own rigid distinction between philosophy and poetry is itself a relic of neoclassical aesthetics.
Like her essay on Pope, Vendler’s chapter on Whitman purports to be a rescue operation, buttressed by ample references to critics who, in Vendler’s view, have misunderstood how poets think. If Pope, at least in An Essay on Man, has been taken to task for thinking too much, Whitman, on the contrary, has been criticized for not thinking enough. “It is as if the beasts spoke,” Thoreau remarked of Whitman, while adding wryly, “if we are shocked, whose experience is it that we are reminded of?” Santayana, more critical of Whitman, wrote in an essay called “The Poetry of Barbarism”:
This abundance of detail without organization, this wealth of perception without intelligence and of imagination without taste, makes the singularity of Whitman’s genius.
Vendler argues that critics have been looking in the wrong places for Whitman’s thinking. She finds a distinctive pattern in Whitman’s use of what she calls “reprise,” or repetition with a difference. Critics have long noted the use of parallel structures in Whitman’s phrasing, sometimes suggesting that these are drawn from the Psalms:
See "Harvard Graduate School, 1956– 1960," in Under Criticism: Essays for William H. Pritchard, edited by David Sofield and Herbert F. Tucker (Ohio University Press, 1998). Vendler vividly describes the misogyny and anti-Catholicism that she encountered at Harvard during the late 1950s, along with such inspiring teachers as I.A. Richards and Northrop Frye. At the time, Alexander Pope, in contrast to Stevens, "was not, for all his brilliance, quite my cup of tea." ↩
An essay Vendler published last year in the journal Representations, "Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions" (Winter 2003), could easily be a fifth section of Poets Thinking. Vendler finds a characteristic structure of hypothetical formulations advanced and deflected in Stevens's poetry: "a mind at work investigating its first thoughts and rejecting them for a more accurate one."↩
See “Harvard Graduate School, 1956– 1960,” in Under Criticism: Essays for William H. Pritchard, edited by David Sofield and Herbert F. Tucker (Ohio University Press, 1998). Vendler vividly describes the misogyny and anti-Catholicism that she encountered at Harvard during the late 1950s, along with such inspiring teachers as I.A. Richards and Northrop Frye. At the time, Alexander Pope, in contrast to Stevens, “was not, for all his brilliance, quite my cup of tea.” ↩
An essay Vendler published last year in the journal Representations, “Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions” (Winter 2003), could easily be a fifth section of Poets Thinking. Vendler finds a characteristic structure of hypothetical formulations advanced and deflected in Stevens’s poetry: “a mind at work investigating its first thoughts and rejecting them for a more accurate one.”↩