Helen Vendler is the Arthur Kingsley Porter 
University Professor in the Department of English at Harvard. Her latest book is The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, a collection of her most recent essays. (July 2016)

Wallace Stevens: The Real and the Made-Up

Wallace Stevens with his daughter Holly in front of their apartment in Hartford, Connecticut, 1929
The poetic imagination projects a world, says the poet Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) in a letter from 1940, but it is difficult to make that world believable to everyone: It is impossible to project a world that will not appear to some one to be a deformation. This is especially true …

Poet of the Violent and the Chaste

There are many writers—novelists, critics, journalists—who, after composing and even publishing poetry, come to a halt. Many find notable success in prose: Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence of Arabia. There is, however, a sadder version of the story, that of a writer who finds himself unable to continue as a lyric poet: …

The Poet Remakes the Poem

Susan Gilbert Dickinson on the day of her wedding to Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, July 1, 1856
How do poets edit their own work, when they are searching (as Keats wrote) “around the poles” to make the poem a work of art?1 W.B. Yeats, replying to friends who deplored his late revisions of early verse, said the definitive word on what is entailed in poetic second …

A Dazzling Poet

Lucie Brock-Broido, New York City, 2004
Lucie Brock-Broido’s most recent book, Stay, Illusion—a finalist last spring for the 2013 National Book Award and the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award—follows three dazzling earlier volumes: A Hunger (1988), The Master Letters (1995), and Trouble in Mind (2004). Brock-Broido is now the director of poetry and a professor …

Intriguing, Funny, Prophetic Ford

Mark Ford, New York City, April 2014
In 1992, a book—Landlocked—was published in England that contained remarkable and immensely likable poems by Mark Ford. I wanted to write on it, but the journal I was writing for wouldn’t review a book not published in America. Frustrated, I wrote to its unknown author instead, so that my delight …

Badger, Mole, and Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore (right) and her mother, Mary Warner Moore, at home in Brooklyn, 1932
In spite of the intimidating quantity of the huge Marianne Moore archive (including more than 30,000 letters), writers on Moore have courageously undertaken to construct the outlines of her life and work, with varying degrees of attention to the life and the poetry. It is simply not possible to compile an exhaustive account of either, let alone of both. Linda Leavell, a professor emerita at Oklahoma State University, has chosen, in her new and revelatory biography, to focus mainly on Moore’s family life, in part because she has gained access to new sources.

They Shined Together

At left, Edward Thomas, Steep, East Hampshire, 1914; at right, Robert Frost, 1913. Frost had moved to England in 1912, and between 1913 and his return to the US in 1915, Helen Vendler writes, he and Thomas ‘were as inseparable as they could manage to make themselves.’
Although the English poet Edward Thomas was born in 1878, Now All Roads Lead to France opens in 1913, when Thomas (already a widely published writer of prose) was thirty-five. A year later, encouraged by Robert Frost (then living in England), he wrote his first poems since his undergraduate days.

An Evangel for Poetry

Robert Hass at the American Academy in Rome, May 2012
Poets’ prose—a category all its own—enlarges our idea of a writer’s mind and demonstrates aspects of his character. To a reader knowing only the poetry, there are surprises in Emerson’s aphoristic journals, Whitman’s fact-filled memoranda of the Civil War, or Thoreau’s memories of his dead brother in A Week on …

‘Burnt with Frost’

Robert Frost and his wife, Elinor, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, 1911
What is “the art” of Robert Frost? The long-lived Frost (1874–1963) had several arts, sometimes incompatible ones. In this he resembles many other poets: it is hard to connect the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads with the Wordsworth of the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, or—to take an example nearer to hand—the Lowell …

Are These the Poems to Remember?

Attending a reception for Edith and Osbert Sitwell (seated at center) are, clockwise from top right, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Charles Henri Ford, William Rose Benet, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Horace Gregory, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart, Gore Vidal, and Jose Garcia Villa, Gotham Book Mart, New York City, November 9, 1948
Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound). Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.

Beauty, Violence, and the Gods

Robin Robertson, 1996
Robin Robertson, born in 1955, a Scottish poet and editor living in London, has produced four volumes of poetry, three of which, remarkably, have won a Forward Prize: A Painted Field (1997, Best First Collection), Slow Air (2002), Swithering (2006, Best Collection), and now, in 2010, The Wrecking Light (containing …

The Art of Flamingo Watching

Kay Ryan, Marin County, California, 2008
From Antelope Valley Community College to the poet laureate’s chair from 2008 to 2010—the story behind Kay Ryan’s late fame (she was born in 1945) is a transfixingly unusual one in the arts. The daughter of an oil-well driller, Ryan was raised on the Mojave Desert in a household she described on the PBS Newshour as a quieted one: “My mother was quite a nervous person and couldn’t stand too much stimulation or excitement. We didn’t have the radio on, certainly didn’t have television on. We lived quietly.” After two years at Antelope Valley, Ryan transferred to UCLA, graduating with a BA and MA in English. For thirty years, she taught basic English courses at the College of Marin, a community college near San Francisco, where her partner Carol Adair, who died recently, also taught. Ryan’s new collection, The Best of It, is inscribed, “For Carol/who knew it.”

Defender of the Earth

W.S. Merwin, early 1990s
The American poets born in 1926 and 1927 formed a remarkable generation that included A.R. Ammons, James Merrill, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, James Wright, John Ashbery, and W.S. Merwin. These poets were a disparate group: Ammons the prophetic ecologist, Merrill the lyric perfectionist, Creeley the fastidious minimalist, Ginsberg …

The Friendship of Cal and Elizabeth

The selected letters of Elizabeth Bishop (edited by Robert Giroux) and of Robert Lowell (edited by Saskia Hamilton) have been warmly praised and much quoted by biographers and critics. Thomas Travisano, one of Bishop’s most incisive commentators, has now joined with Saskia Hamilton to issue in a single book the …

‘A Powerful, Strong Torrent’

You have/no rightful way//to live. This is the apprehension hovering behind Jorie Graham’s new volume of poems, Sea Change. The apprehension springs in part from restless guilt concerning the ongoing American war, undertaken in our name by an elected president and an elected Congress. Any writer must wonder …

Snatched from the Air

The fundamental problem addressed by Charles Wright’s poetry is the invisibility of my inner world to you, yours to me. Unless your perceptions and responses are gathered and set down with their nuances intact, I have no way of knowing what today genuinely looks like and feels like to you.

From the Homicidal to the Ecstatic

Two books by Franz Wright have appeared in the past year and a half: a new collection, God’s Silence, and a reissue called Earlier Poems, which includes poems from 1982 through 1995. Between these earlier poems and God’s Silence, Wright published, among other volumes, The Beforelife and Walking to Martha’s …

The Democratic Eye

John Ashbery’s new volume, A Worldly Country, is another installment of the strange diaries regularly appearing from the poet over the last fifty years. (Ashbery will be eighty next July, and has had the good luck to retain the capacity to write his decades into poetry.) I think of Ashbery’s …

‘A Lament in Three Voices’

At times, a poem is so powerful that it bursts the bounds in which it was written—the bounds of language, geography, epoch. The notorious modern case is The Waste Land—an untranslatable poem, one might have thought, except that it has been universally translated, universally read, and universally—strange though it may …

‘Catching a Pig on the Farm’

I once asked two friends from the South what they associated most with Southern writing: one said “rural life” and the other said “oratory.” The first continued, “Even if the piece takes place in a town, the people aren’t generationally far removed from the country”; and the other added, “Hymns …

Life Itself

Dennis Joseph Enright, a British poet born in 1920 and still writing, spent his active life as a professor of English literature, mostly abroad. Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor[^*] is his witty and often appalling account of that life, its title derived from the official reproof he received in 1960 …

‘The Voice at 3 AM’

Ever since Charles Simic came to America from Belgrade in 1954, at the age of sixteen, he has been transmitting, in a rush of books of poetry and prose, images deriving from the traumatic no man’s land of his youth: The Germans bombed Belgrade in April of 1941, when I …

Staring Through the Stitches

Tomas Tranströmer, a psychologist by profession, is a master of the underside of the psyche. He lives under obligation to the signs made from the other side of consciousness, which present themselves to him as knockings, voices, faces, memories, tirelessly soliciting him. Most of us keep a well-defended wall between the haunted night of the mind and its rational day. For some, however, the wall is breached, and without their consent.