Helen Vendler
Helen Vendler; drawing by David Levine


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 an introductory course were appropriate in each case, giving much biographical and historical information before coming to the poems. Her gloss on Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” for instance—a poem well established with readers of poetry—seems designed for an audience that has been asleep for the past twenty years. Vendler decided, apparently, that her British audience would know little of American poetry, and perhaps she was right. At Emory, by contrast, she evidently assumed that her audience consisted of ideal insomniac readers such as those for whom Joyce wrote ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and that they could take whatever hard detail she chose to give them. On Hopkins’s “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” she writes:

This “sonnet” begins with a conventional Petrarchan octave, but then prolongs itself into a sixteen-line “sestet,” which includes four short trimeter “outrides.” …This “sestet”—rhyming cdcdcd (d) cc (c) ee (e) ff (f)—has added four “extra” rhyming lines in “cd” to the original Petrarchan sestet, and has then appended a “coda” of six more lines (adding the new “e” and “f” rhymes).

I wonder how she delivered those sentences at Emory. Or this one about Heaney’s “Terminus”:

So far, in dwelling on the way that adverbial clauses enact the paradoxical simultaneity of antithetical stimuli, I have neglected to return to Heaney’s internal rupture of his opening and closing adverbial frame by central nonadverbially modified first-person de-clarative sentences.

At Kent she didn’t try anything as arduous as those passages.1

The best way to read the three new books is to add them to Vendler’s similar collections, Part of Nature, Part of Us (1980) and The Music of What Happens (1988). This is desirable because the principles of her criticism are not available in any one essay; she refers to them from time to time in different contexts. It may be useful to say what they are, so far as I can bring them together. Her first principle is that literature exists. This is no longer agreed to be self-evident. It is fashionable to deny that there is anything special about the language of literature. Everything is “discourse.” Vendler doesn’t hold with this notion. She thinks, too, that a work of literature is an aesthetic object and that it calls for an aesthetic response. In The Music of What Happens she writes:


It is impossible, of course, to name a single set of defining characteristics that will discriminate an aesthetic object from one that does not exert aesthetic power, but that is no reason to deny the existence of aesthetic power and aesthetic response.2

In Soul Says Vendler finds that James Schuyler’s long poems “argue, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that poetry is not a matter of the isolated Paterian moment or of important political or intellectual argument, but is rather coterminous with perception, reflection, and feeling, wherever they extend themselves.” They extend themselves, I think it should be said, into the recesses of the language and gain their fulfilment only when the subject matter of each poem has been brought to formal perfection. It follows that criticism is a sustained act of reading by which one perceives the values embodied in the achieved form of the poem.

Poetry rather than prose achieves formal perfection, according to Vendler. Poetry “by its concision and free play can represent better than most prose the fluid access of a daring and unhampered mind to its own several regions.” Lyric poetry, she means. She has shown little or no interest in fiction, drama, or epic poetry: it is a disability of these forms that they feature scenes of “a socially specified self.” Subject matter engages her interest only in its passing to the lyric expression:

The virtues of lyric—extreme compression, the appearance of spontaneity, an intense and expressive rhythm, a binding of sense by sound, a structure which enacts the experience represented, an abstraction from the heterogeneity of life, a dynamic play of semiotic and rhythmic “destiny”—are all summoned to give a voice to the “soul”—the self when it is alone with itself, when its socially constructed characteristics (race, class, color, gender, sexuality) are felt to be in abey-ance. The biological characteristics (“black like me”) are of course present, but in the lyric they can be reconstructed in opposition to their socially constructed form, occasioning one of lyric’s most joyous self-proclaimings: “I am I, am I; / All creation shivers / With that sweet cry” (Yeats).

Lyric poetry is what soul says.

Vendler’s distinction between soul and self amounts to a bold claim. Poets as different as Marvell and Yeats have meditated on the conflict between soul and self. Each of these terms, personified, complains that the other one won’t leave it alone. In Marvell’s “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body” the Soul cries out that it is imprisoned in the Body and the senses:

A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins….
The Body replies:
Oh, who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?

Yeats’s “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” resolves the dispute too easily by silencing Soul and giving the last word to Self. But neither of these poets implies that the dispute can be avoided by having one value converted into the other. They don’t suppose that Self can become Soul merely by going into the next room and disencumbering itself of its socially enforced attributes. I am all for the inner life, privacy, and subjectivity, because—as Emmanuel Levinas says—“the inner life is the unique way for the real to exist as a plurality.”3 The soliloquy is a valid form of expression. But the self’s conviction of being disencumbered seems to me a delusion.

Vendler assumes that “soul,” the self when it is alone with itself, has disengaged itself from social conditions. The lyric poem is therefore free of ideology. She thinks that a poet’s discourse of thought and knowledge guarantees this freedom and that the resultant song celebrates it. I see no good reason to think a soul is ever exempt from the conditions that press upon a self. Marvell is profoundly right in making the dispute between them irreconcilable. But in any case I wish Vendler had presented her claim as contentious rather than as secure. I agree that a particular effort of imagination is entailed by the lyric soliloquy. Maybe that is all she is saying.

Vendler distinguishes, too, between the dramatic monologue and the lyric:

The lyric is a script written for performance by the reader—who, as soon as he enters the lyric, is no longer a reader but rather an utterer, saying the words of the poem in propria persona, internally and with proprietary feeling. For poems that are overheard, I prefer to keep the name “dramatic monologue”; in such a poem the reader is genuinely placed in the position of overhearing someone else, clearly not himself, speak aloud to yet another person. I reserve the name “lyric” for poems that make their reader their solitary speaker.

I wonder if there is such a difference, or how useful it is to read as if there were. Lyrics, too, are dramatic monologues: the reader’s feeling is vicarious. I don’t see what I gain by cultivating the illusion that the words of the lyric poem I am reading are mine.


Vendler’s theory is at best partial. With Stevens, she deems the human imagination to be “the mind’s pressing back against reality.” In some of her early work, it didn’t seem to matter what reality the mind presses against: it’s the pressure that counts, the experience of seeming to force mundane reality into abeyance. But in the new books Vendler assumes that the reality in question is the stuff of a poet’s life, biographically and historically determined, and that the imagin-ation—now called soul—deals with it because it must:

Lowell’s genealogy gave him history; Berryman’s uncontrollable manic-depressive illness and severe alcoholism gave him the disgraceful Id; Dove’s skin-color gave her blackness. In Graham’s case, her trilingual education gave her a sense of multiple linguistic, and therefore virtual, realms to square against material life.

The theory is enabling up to a point but it seems constricting thereafter. Many poems have been written by poets who take their biographical conditions as given, predestined and inescapable till the poem appears to escape from them. These poets write themselves to the outer reach of their circumstances. But many poems have been written from a different set of forces. I am more persuaded by Coleridge’s claim, in Biographia Literaria, that one promise of genius in a poet is “the choice of subjects very remote from the private interests and circumstances of the writer himself.” Many of the poems in Lowell’s Life Studies and history have nothing to do with his genealogy; they are not transcriptions of his own life but imaginings of other lives. Berryman’s “Dream Song #4” (“Filling Her Compact & Delicious Body”) and several of the best poems in Dream Songs float free of his manic depression, his alcohol intake, and his father’s suicide. Dove’s most achieved poems in museum, Thomas and Beulah, and Grace Notes do not issue from her blackness. “Somewhere / I learned to walk out of a thought,” she writes in “The Other Side of the House,” and one of the thoughts she has learned to walk out of when she chooses is that of her being black. I can’t see how Jorie Graham’s trilingual upbringing in Italy, set in relation to her respect for material life, amounts to a fateful donnée.

One of the consequences of Vend-ler’s theory is that she must construe the words of a poem as coming after the lived experience that is imposed on the poet, the apprehension of the circumstantial fate the words press against. This requirement makes it impossible to recognize words that don’t issue from these given conditions, words which bring an incipiently imagined experience into being for the first time. There may be some biographical context for T.S. Eliot’s “La Figlia che Piange,” but it has not determined the impulses at work in the poem. As Eliot writes in “Little Gidding”: “the words sufficed / To compel the recognition they preceded.” The last line of Keats’s “Four Seasons Fill the Measure of the Year” comes in two variants: “Or else he would forget his mortal nature” and “Or else he would forego his mortal nature.”4 Whichever reading you prefer, it’s clear that Keats wasn’t pressing back upon a different reality in each version but discovering a further possibility among the syllables of the verb.

It is also a problem with Vendler’s principles that she construes “soul” as merely “self” when it is by itself. In “The Over-Soul” Emerson says that “the soul is superior to its knowledge, wiser than any of its works.” The effect of Vendler’s taking the soul to mean the self when the self is alone is that the soul is deemed to be merely equal to its knowledge at any moment. There is nothing beyond what the soul knows. Knowledge is therefore deemed to be absolute; it extends itself to cover every occasion, and governs the entire field. The lyric voice utters that knowledge. There is no remainder. Nothing falls outside the range of that voice, or beneath it.

This explains why Vendler appears to have little sense of the sublime or the demonic as states in excess of the soul’s knowledge, states in which the soul is driven, dreading the loss of its powers, beyond itself or beside itself.5 In her reading of poetry, a lyric poet’s knowledge comprehends everything that is the case. When she makes this assumption, I feel impelled to wonder, as the Syrian does in a work Vendler knows well, Yeats’s The Resurrection: “What if there is always something that lies outside knowledge, outside order? What if, at the moment when knowledge and order seem complete, that something appears? What if the irrational return?”


Vendler’s criticism may be constrained by a partial and somewhat domestic theory, but her gifts are so immense that in most of her essays we hardly notice the constraint. Her essay on Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” in The Music of What Happens, remains for me a classic instance of close reading, practical criticism. I admire particularly Vendler’s sensitivity to Wordsworth’s language in this passage:

I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a newborn Day Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.

On this Vendler writes:

The eye that has seen the child “fretted” by its mother’s kisses can perceive the brooks as “fretting”; the man remembering his own light tripping as a child can say of the brooks that they too “trip lightly”; the adult who has called a new-born child innocent can transfer the epithets “new-born” and “innocent” to a bright dawn; the eye that has kept a death-vigil can compare the clouds in a sunset to the watchers “gathering round” a deathbed, and can, by the metaphor of the deathwatch, confer a “sober colouring” on a sunset panorama which to the pure seeing of the visionary child would have represented simply a lively play of vivid sky-hues.6

That is so good, so justly responsive to Wordsworth’s lines, that I wish it could be adopted in high schools and colleges as an example of the best interpretative work of reading.

In Soul Says there are comparable passages of finesse, as in Vendler’s reading of Charles Simic’s poem “War” from Hotel Insomnia:

The trembling finger of a woman
Goes down the list of casualties
On the evening of the first snow.

The house is cold and the list is long.

All our names are included.

Vendler comments:

This short poem…exhibits all the hallmarks of the Simic style: an apparently speakerless scene; an indefinite article establishing the vagueness of place and time—a “woman” somewhere, anywhere, on a wintry evening; then a menacing definite article focusing our gaze, in this instance on “the” list; then a late entrance of the personal pronoun engaging the speaker’s life and ours. This coercive poem of war excludes everything else that might be going on in “real” wartime (people eating, drinking, going to school, manufacturing guns, and so on) in favor of a single emblem—the domestic Muse enumerating the many war dead—followed (as in emblem books) by a motto underneath: “All our names are included.”

Except for the demeaning quotation marks on “real,” the commentary is superb.

The new books have a number of such analyses, continuously alert to the detail of the poems, but they are not as frequent as in Part of Nature, Part of Us and The Music of What Happens. There is in Vendler’s recent reviews a slight displacement of emphasis from the poem to the poet. She is now inclined to write profiles of her poets, characterizations mainly biographical, and to add poetic analysis as evidence of the justice of the profile. This is her method especially with Amy Clampitt, Rita Dove, Frank Bidart, Seamus Heaney, and Jorie Graham.

One of the pleasures of reading Vendler’s criticism is that of seeing a poet’s achievement lavishly appreciated. She enjoys praising the poets she likes and showing poetic reason for the praise. “The poets about whom I have written in the essays in this book are poets whom I admire,” she says in the Introduction to Soul Says. That is nearly true, but she has forgotten a dismissive review of Robinson Jeffers—his “anvil chorus is finally boring”—and some mixed reviews of favorite poets who, in the book under consideration, have tried her patience—notably Dave Smith and James Schuyler. Vendler does the best she can with Donald Davie. She admires his “In the Stopping Train” as it deserves, but she can’t bring a sympathetic imagination to abide with his pilgrim’s progress from Low Church to the Anglican communion. Indeed, she seems impatient with expressions of Christian faith unless they occurred, as in Hopkins’s poems and Herbert’s, at the safe remove of a century or more.

Sometimes Vendler’s praise is so comprehensive that it overlooks blotches on the face of the poem. In Soul Says she quotes Seamus Heaney’s “The Mud Vision,” which begins:

Statues with exposed hearts and barbed-wire crowns
Still stood in alcoves, hares flitted beneath
The dozing bellies of jets, our menu-writers
And punks with aerosol sprays held their own
With the best of them. Satellite link-ups
Wafted over us the blessings of popes…

This is not the tone of the Heaney many of us love, the poet of the “Clearances” sequence in The Haw Lantern. But it doesn’t occur to Vendler to note how crude Heaney is here, for once, in correlating those four sentences, as if the public events they referred to were equally trivial. It is uncharacteristically sour of him to assume that a papal message contains nothing more telling than wafted blessings. In a similar spirit Vendler refers to “useless statues of the Sacred Heart,” but they are not useless to those faithful who still pray in their vicinity.

Vendler’s criteria of poetic quality are hard to find in any one essay or book, but she apparently thinks three considerations essential. First, the poem must arise from prior experience deemed to be opaque, and must achieve a clarification in the form of a personal cadence, a song of “the inner life.” Second, “mimetic accuracy.” In the chapter on Hopkins in The Breaking of Style, she refers to “that mimetic accuracy—one not only of visual representation but of structural and rhythmic enactment—which is the virtue, the fundamental ethics, of art.” Here “virtue” gathers up implications from two sources, the good and the powerful, and fulfills them in “ethics.” Third, the poem is all the better if it embodies persuasive relations with earlier poems, especially poems by one of Vendler’s unwobbling pivots: Herbert, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, and Stevens.

Take for instance Graham’s “Act III, Sc. 2” in Region of Unlikeness. I quote it in full:

Look she said this is not the distance
we wanted to stay at—We wanted to get
close, very close. But what
is the way in again? And is it

too late? She could hear the actions
rushing past—but they are on
another track. And in the silence,
or whatever it is that follows,

there was still the buzzing: motes, spores,
aftereffects and whatnot recalled the morning after.
Then the thickness you can’t get past called waiting.

Then the you, whoever you are, peering down to see if it’s done yet.
Then just the look on things of being looked-at.
Then just the look on things of being seen.

Graham’s theme in that lyric, according to Vendler in Soul Says, is “the problem of representing accurately one’s emotional position as participator once one has begun, in middle life, to be a watcher of one’s own history even as one enacts it.” (She notes that Graham borrows here from Stevens’s poem “Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion.”) Reverting to Graham’s poem in The Given and the Made, Vendler says:

This remarkable little poem represents an anthropomorphized Whitmanian God (“you, whoever you are” from “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”) who peers down at his creation to see if it is done yet, like a dish set to cook in an oven. At completion, it will be looked-at. After completion, it will be seen. History is something peered at by its composing author-deity, looked at when “done” by its author-as-judge, and finally seen only by inhabitants of the next succeeding epoch. History, untranscendent, brings out in Graham the colloquial diction that mentions “aftereffects and whatnot recalled the morning after.” History is a this-worldly thing, experienced by others precisely like ourselves, and therefore able to be discussed, at least in part, in terms that do not rise above the quotidian.

There is more, equally perceptive and helpful, but I have quoted enough to suggest Vendler’s criteria. Graham’s poem deals with a difficult, intractable experience, which it tunes—though Vendler doesn’t say how, precisely—to a personal rhythm in song. The poem is dense with poetic reference, not necessarily allusions but echoes and affiliations. It also summons up the voice of a great precursor, Stevens, not in rivalry but in philosophic fellowship. Vendler believes, like Words-worth in his first “Essay upon Epitaphs,” that “the best feelings of our nature” are those which, “though they seem opposite to each other, have another and a finer connection than that of contrast.” It is a connection, as Wordsworth says, “formed through the subtle progress by which, both in the natural and the moral world, qualities pass insensibly into their contraries, and things revolve upon each other.”7 Graham’s poem takes part in these relations by echoing kindred relations in other poems; in Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” for instance—which Vendler doesn’t mention—where “the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at.”

With The Breaking of Style Vendler’s criticism has taken a new turn, a more deliberate emphasis on the grammar of lyric poetry. In those lectures she is concerned with a poet’s change of style from one poem or book to another. More particularly, she studies the relation between lyrical statements and their dependence upon one or another of the standard parts of speech—especially nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and participles present and past. I take it that her predecessors in this line of work include Erich Auerbach in mimesis, Josephine Miles in Eras and Modes in English Verse and other books, Donald Davie in his study of syntax, Articulate Energy, and Christopher Ricks in The Force of Poetry, where he examines, among many other lexical factors, the force of Wordsworth’s prepositions.

This is a rich tradition in criticism, as these names indicate. Such work is immensely valuable because it stays close to the detail of the poems and novels and makes general considerations emerge, if they will, from that analysis. In The Breaking of Style Vendler is interested in the act by which a poet breaks his own conventions, and she notes

…the expressiveness of prosody broken and re-formed between youth and maturity by Hopkins; …the expressiveness of grammar broken and re-formed poem by poem by Heaney; and…the expressiveness of lineation broken and re-formed, volume after volume, by Graham.

But she goes much further than these recognitions. In the following passage on Heaney’s work she moves, without hesitation or misgiving, from the emphasized part of speech to the statement she designates as corresponding to it:

A poem says a great deal by saying “I am written in verbs”: it says, as “Field Work” (IV) does, “I have found at last an action in which I can believe, in which I can engage, which I can render sacramental, and which I can report as good.” A poem written in adjectives, like “The Grauballe Man,” says, “I am making successive casts to say what this phenomenon is like; I am hoping to revive it into verbal presence; I yearn to categorize it; I need to stylize it; can I succeed?” A poem written in adverbs says, “They happened together, these things: why? What is simultaneity? Is it a form of cause and effect, of necessity, of affective response, of practical reason, of imagination, of temperament, of fantasy? How is a lifelong simultaneity of perception connected to a revulsion from a priori judgment?”

The eloquence of this nearly prevents one from seeing how doubtful such claims can be. Parts of speech are not numerous enough to account for the variety of the statements made with their help. Nor are metrical forms committed to particular attitudes or divinations. Vendler claims that Hopkins’s use of sprung rhythm “corresponded to his fundamental intuition of the beautiful—that the beautiful was dangerous, irregular, and binary.” She means handsome young men, and the excitement they provoked in Hopkins; not the beauty of landscape or the world.

The chapter on Hopkins remains extraordinarily forceful, but I don’t understand why Vendler takes such a cavalier approach to some of the evidence. Commenting on a line from stanza 31 of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”—“Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and”—Vendler says that “this prosodic twoness—stressed march beats ver-sus rapid, tripping, almost liquid footfalls—characterizes all sprung rhythm.” But she can say this only when—silently dissenting from the edition she quotes, Norman H. Mackenzie’s of 1990—she shifts Hop-kins’s marked stress from “of” to the more conventional “ring.” The point of Hopkins’s irregular stress on “of” is to trip up the tripping footfalls before they have gone too far too lightly. Enough is enough.

Vendler’s test case for adverbs—as rebukes delivered to a priori judgment—is “Terminus,” which she interprets as Seamus Heaney’s defense of his political neutrality, his refusal to take sides, in the ideological conflicts of Northern Ireland. But “Terminus” takes the Catholic, nationalist side, in the sense that not a word of it imagines what it is like to be on the other side, the Unionist or Protestant one, a position continuous from the Plantation of Ulster in the first twenty-five years of the seventeenth century to the current leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble. Vendler quotes Heaney on his boyhood sense of boundaries, but the only boundaries he mentions are those between one Catholic parish, one Catholic diocese, and another. Protestants don’t come into the reckoning, either in his comment or in “Terminus.”

Again Vendler makes much of Jorie Graham’s change from the short lines of erosion to the long lines and long sentences of The End of Beauty and subsequent books. But Graham’s later poems mix long and short lines in ways that make it implausible to say that the long ones are “the formal equivalent of mortality, dissolution, and unmeaning.” Ashbery’s lines and sentences are even longer than Graham’s, and Hopkins’s lines in “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” are longer still, but it doesn’t follow that these enact an even greater degree of mortality, dissolution, and unmeaning.

The most valuable chapters in the three new books are those in which Vendler leads us through difficult poems, especially Jorie Graham’s. 8 Some poems in Region of Unlikeness and Materialism are clear as day, but some are elusive—“How private these words?”9 I don’t understand the aborted sentences of “Notes on the Reality of the Self”:

…I am a widening angle of
and nevertheless andthis performance has rapidly—10

In “Concerning the Right to Life” Graham writes:

   Now I lay me down to
sleep—tick tock—I pray thee Lord to make these words have

In many of the poems her prayer is answered, the words are as material as words can ever be. When I read these poems, I reach from small facts and tiny certainties to metaphysical quandaries. In “Young Maples in Wind” Graham justly addresses “Dear history of this visible world.”12 But in several poems the words enact a mind meeting nothing but further forms of itself. Even when the apparent theme is a flock of starlings, the politics of abortion, Christopher Columbus, Stanislavsky, or Auschwitz, readers must be ready at a moment’s notice to enter Graham’s mind and move around there till they are restored to the history of this visible world.

Vendler does not try to explain every such poem. She has greatly aided my reading of “The Phase after History” and other poems in which the problem is to divine not the spirituality of what is going on, line by line, but what the several “anecdotes” are doing together in the same poem. A bird has flown into someone’s house and has to be released; a student has attempted suicide by carving his face from his body; Macbeth and his wife try by murdering Duncan to take possession of the future. What are these motifs doing together? Vendler says:

We can deduce, from this poem, that Graham thinks any account of “the phase after history” incomplete without some reference to her three simultaneities—natural event, personal complicity, and archetypal literary patterning. Her jump-cuts among these, and especially her concern with middleness rather than with inception, conclusion, or repetition, suggest that the fin-de-siècle, as we now imagine it, is something we actively will—as Graham’s student willed his suicide—in an attempt to shake off an irredeemable past; or that it is something we hesitate over—as Lady Macbeth hesitates in her dream-reprise of the murder. We seek to find something to justify our murder of the past, as we try to coordinate our executive hand and our intentional gaze; or we decide that the future is something that we head blindly into, like the bird crashing into the invisible windowpane. The indeterminacy of these possibilities, and the poet’s inability to decide among them, leaves Graham as watcher, but also, in the end (in the person of Lady Macbeth) as participant in a history she does not understand.

After this, the poem is still to be read, and read again, word by word, line, sequence, image cut into image. We have to get back from the discursive model, which Vendler so clearly describes, to the local movement and texture of the poem. But after Vendler’s commentary we are in a much better position to do so. I cannot think of a better justification for a critic’s work.

This Issue

November 28, 1996