The Incomparable Critic

Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, University of Oklahoma, 1976

“The critics always get everything wrong,” John Ashbery said. Well, some do and some don’t. They get on poets’ nerves, of course. Not just for the obvious reason that critics can find poems wanting, but even when they admire them, the way they read their poems often makes poets scratch their heads. Big deal, you may be thinking, who reads reviews of poetry books anyhow? If your name is Helen Vendler, thousands do, since her reviews have appeared regularly over the years in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic, reassuring readers that good poetry continues to be written despite frequent rumors of its demise. It’s likely that swept by her enthusiasm, now and then some of them even bought a book, demonstrating that an entrancing review can replicate poetry’s venerable use as an aid to seduction.

Her many books range from subjects like Shakespeare, Milton, and George Herbert to Yeats, Stevens, Heaney, and Ashbery, among other recent poets. For Vendler, critics “are evangelists, plucking the public by the sleeve, saying, ‘Look at this,’ or ‘Listen to this.’” Without them the beautiful, subversive, bracing, and demanding legacy of our poets would remain largely unknown.

In her marvelous introduction to The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, a collection of two decades’ worth of her essays, book reviews, and occasional prose, Vendler gives a brief, forthright account of her career as a critic and of her family background. She grew up in Boston, where her mother taught first grade for fourteen years before she married, and her father taught Spanish, French, and Italian in high school and also taught her and her sister these languages.

As strictly observant Catholics, the family never owned a TV or went to the movies, and when she was old enough, her parents refused their daughter’s pleas to attend the Boston’s Girls’ Latin School and later Radcliffe. They followed Cardinal Cushing’s decree forbidding, under pain of mortal sin, education at godless, atheistic, and secular colleges and universities. Instead, she went to a Catholic elementary school, high school, and college, where she majored in chemistry and where literature “was taught as a branch of faith and morals.” This experience, she says, inoculated her for life “against adopting any ‘ism’ as a single lens through which to interpret literature,” while her training in sciences taught her to make sure that anything a poet or a critic alleges is backed by evidence.

Vendler attributes becoming a critic to her discovery at the age of twenty-three of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. She had read dozens of poets before him and had memorized many poems, but reading him made her feel “as if my own naked spirit spoke to me from the page.” More germane to…

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