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…
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