“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 her future calling was the intuition that a style of such linguistic and structural idiosyncrasy is most likely a reflection of the poet’s inner being and personality. Thinking back over her long career, she describes herself as “a critic rather than a scholar, a reader and writer more taken by texts than by contexts.” Her own learning, she says modestly, tends to be as wide and unsystematic as that of the poets she discusses. She doesn’t care to be called a close reader and a formalist, though like thousands of others in colleges and universities in the 1950s and 1960s, when New Criticism was the dominant critical approach, Vendler was trained to do just that in her English classes.
I.A. Richards, one of the founding fathers of the movement and the author of The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), taught at Harvard, where she took his course and reports being influenced by his lectures, which showed her how to give full weight to every word in a poem and, with that kind of sustained attention, “open into further and further depths of perception.” Despite her background in detailed textual analysis (at which she excels), she prefers the classical label “commentary” or Walter Pater’s “aesthetic criticism,” in the belief that poems that are complex in thought and style deserve detailed intellectual and critical reflection. She also describes her own method as reading a poem from the point of view of the poet and forewarns her classes that she intends to teach them about the poetry of each poet separately, since poets are too idiosyncratic (that word again) to be compared under gross thematic rubrics that tend to undermine their linguistic originality.
This is an attractive idea, though I’m not clear how feasible it is in practice. There are a lot of things one can deduce about a poet by immersing oneself in his or her poems, except what in the work is a result of deliberation and what of fortuitous accidents, since even half the time they don’t know where their poems come from. I imagine what she is telling her students is that she will read the poets with sympathy and endeavor to see the world through their eyes. As she writes in the introduction to The Breaking of Style, her study of Hopkins, Heaney, and Jorie Graham, published in 1995:
It is distressing, to anyone who cares for and respects the concentrated intellectual and imaginative work that goes into a successful poem, to see how rarely that intense (if instinctive) labor is perceived, remarked on, and appreciated.
She is driven, she says, by the need to clarify to herself and to others, in a reasonable and explicit way, the imaginative individuality of a poem and to show its architectural and technical skill. This is not an easy task, as she readily acknowledges, mentioning how often she’s been “brought to mute frustration,” knowing “intuitively that something is present” in a poem that she hasn’t been able to isolate, name, and describe.
Vendler’s ideal critic is someone who not only possesses a solid knowledge of literature and an analytic ability, but whose imagination and sense of taste have been cultivated and refined from living with poetic images and metaphors all her life. Rereading some of her books over the last few months, I learned that this is not just idle talk. Even when I had disagreements with her, I found much of what she had to say about a poem or a poet credible and fresh. Her prose is free of jargon. She has had no interest in criticism that uses poems solely to demonstrate one of the many literary approaches that have been in fashion during her long academic career, from those centered on language like Structuralism and Deconstruction, to more recent ones based on gender, ethnicity, race, or some other criteria. “But, Helen, you’re so narrow,” she reports a colleague telling her. To which she replied, “What do you mean, Barbara? All of lyric from Shakespeare till now?” And the answer she got was, “Oh, you know what I mean”—implying that by eschewing lit crit, her work was not only lacking, but not to be taken seriously.
Not that Vendler had always been totally immune to theory. As she says in the introduction to her new book:
I was influenced by Freud, as was natural to a member of my generation, and especially to one reading poets who had undergone psychotherapy: Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Plath, Sexton…. I learned from Freud’s seductive expository style as well as his provocative content. The second resource that influenced me in studying the poets’ development and the consequent changes in their style was the discipline of linguistics…. Stylistics is a relatively undefined field, sometimes practiced by linguists, sometimes by critics…. However, linguists and stylisticians too often separate the elements of style from the total imaginative practice of a poet and from the psychological and intellectual motivations of verse. In writing on poets, I have wanted to connect inseparably—as they are connected in the fluent progress of a poem—imagination, feeling, and stylistic originality.
Writing about Robert Lowell in the new book, she speaks of his “depressive style,” and sees the “repetitiveness and obstructiveness” in his poems as a symbol of his depression. This brings to mind what Yvor Winters called the “imitative fallacy,” a claim “that a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration,” which he characterized as “merely a sophistical excuse for bad poetry.” She doesn’t go as far, because Lowell is a fine poet, but neither her examples nor her argument seems convincing to me. She tends to assume that poems by and large are involuntary or deliberate expressions of their author’s traumas—and so they are at times—but they are also works of imagination and accounts of behavior observed in other people’s lives.
That poets make things up to make their poems sound more interesting was not news to contemporaries of Homer and Sappho, so it’s puzzling to me that we’ve lost sight of it today. Vendler is on more solid ground arguing that a frustrated erotic desire and the miseries of an unhappy marriage lie behind a number of Stevens’s poems. I agree. What she doesn’t address, however, is the likelihood that his lack of candor about sex weakened those poems, notwithstanding their stunning imagery and the enthralling verbal play he employed so as to conceal himself.
“The natural act of a critic is to compare, and I was always comparing,” Vendler says about herself, and the same is true of poets. They read and reread the poets of the past and imitate both the major figures and minor ones, and through that slow, laborious process, beset with danger, eventually form their own poetic identity. Every original poem is a critical act, since it involves a decision by the poet about what to keep and what to discard from the poetry of the past. In Harold Bloom’s provocative study The Anxiety of Influence (1973), “the poet in a poet” is at the mercy of his forerunners; either he can overcome them if he is a “strong poet,” or he’ll be destroyed by them.
When she started out as a critic, Vendler had her own version of poetic influence, arguing that American poets like Stevens and others were fixated on British poetry (Wordsworth and Keats particularly) and had continued to rewrite their poems long into this century. There is truth in that; many of our poets started as descendants of the Romantics, though this leaves out the influence of nineteenth-century French poetry, without which there would be no American modernism. Now happily Vendler is more willing to give Whitman and Dickinson and European poets their due.
Vendler says that she likes indolent and meditative poets who roam freely in their thinking about a subject, giving Stevens, Keats, and George Herbert as examples, and she is at her finest explicating intricate, many-layered, longer poems that require unraveling ambiguities and following every nuance of meaning, every delicate turn of the argument. For her, Emily Dickinson ends her poems too soon. Poems in the “rebellious Anglophobic strain of American literary primitivism,” in the manner of William Carlos Williams and his followers, do not attract her. She’s drawn to ideas in poems, conveys them well, but tends at times to devalue physical setting, “what the eye beholds,” as if it were only a prop and not the hook that draws the reader in. The “poet’s sense of the world,” “the savor of life,” “the vulgate of experience” as Stevens called it—she often doesn’t do justice to these in my view.
I have in mind her analysis of a poem like “The Idea of Order at Key West,” where she follows the poet’s thinking well enough, but doesn’t show how closely tied Stevens’s meditation is to the changes taking place in the sea and the sky as the tropical night descends and the unknown woman walking along the shore sings her song, and why the speaker in the poem not only comes to understand what he is experiencing, but once he does is overcome with emotion, and so are we as readers. We are moved because we had experienced something like that once and couldn’t find words for it, and now have them. It’s that recognition that links the reader to the poet, and its interdependence of reality and imagination that Stevens strives to sort out in the poem.
There are twenty-seven essays collected in The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. In them, Vendler writes about Whitman, Melville, T.S. Eliot, Stevens (twice), Langston Hughes, Bishop, Lowell, Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, A.R. Ammons (twice), Ashbery (three times), Merrill (twice), Amy Clampitt, Charles Wright, Seamus Heaney (twice), Mark Ford (twice), and Lucie Brock-Broido. It’s one of her finest books, an impressive summation of a long, distinguished career in which she revisits many of the poets she has venerated over a lifetime and written about previously. Reading it, one can feel her happiness in doing what she loves best. There is scarcely a page in the book where there isn’t a fresh insight about a poet or poetry. Here’s a small sampling. On Ammons:
The Snow Poems suggests that the weather, as the most complex of visible dynamic systems, is the best symbol for human moods. For Ammons, the weather plays the role that color plays in painting…. Just as each collocation of colors has for both painter and spectator its own emotional weight, and each collocation of words, for both writer and reader, has its own atmosphere, so the weather—down to its minutest aspects—determines the “feel” on our skin and our sense of any given day.
Stevens is taken aback by the poverty of memory. When we summon up the past, it is usually, he says, in the form of a set of visual images. We cannot…hear the past or touch it or taste it or smell it. How odd it is that we can only see the past, that no other sense (in Stevens’s view here) has the capacity to return and reproduce itself in memory.
One form of suffering—seeing the day go by unregistered and unrecorded—is brought to an end.
The value system of an original poet—and therefore of his or her poems—will be in part consonant with, in part in dispute with, the contemporary values of the society from which he, and they, issue. Were the poetry not intelligible with respect to those social values, it could not be read; were it not at a distance from them in some way, it would not be original.
The essay called “Poetry and the Mediation of Value,” on Whitman’s great poem on the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” is one of the most moving Vendler has ever written. She describes his elegy as having “Roman succinctness and taciturnity” in that it never mentions the assassination or the assassin, the Emancipation Proclamation or other famous acts of Lincoln’s presidency. Instead, like a movie camera, the poem renders the very scenes of mourning, making them unroll before our eyes in what seems real time as the coffin travels on a train from town to town, from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, with the poet remaining discreetly in the background throughout the poem and, as she says, speaking calmly like a recording angel. Vendler’s inspired commentary not only does justice to Whitman’s poem, but ends up being as wise and poignant.
Unlike other reviewers (William Logan comes to mind) who range widely and write trenchantly about many more poets, Vendler has devoted herself to a small group of favorites who in her opinion have demonstrated staying power, and has written about them almost exclusively with affection. We understand only what we admire, appears to be how she defines the art of criticism. That is most likely true, even though, by not telling us what works and what doesn’t in their poetry, she leaves us frequently irritated and in the dark about her criteria, since withholding judgment while reading is not how we normally go through a book of poems. As her recent essay on John Berryman in these pages demonstrates, she is perfectly capable of making such distinctions when she chooses.* (The piece is included in her new book.)
Setting that aside, there are obvious benefits to concentrating on few poets and deepening one’s knowledge and understanding of their work over many years. Still, by leaving out of her deliberations so many American poets of the last hundred years and not considering the likelihood that some of them may have played a part in the development of the poets she favors, one gets an odd, ahistorical picture that every poet and devoted reader of our poetry, and even fans of her criticism—among whom I count myself—would have trouble accepting, since it excludes many beautiful and occasionally great poems that are a part of our literature.
It’s not that Vendler never changes her mind. Unless I’m greatly mistaken, Lowell and Bishop are diminished figures in the new book, while others like Graham, Ashbery, and Ammons, with their ability to continuously reinvent themselves, appear unequaled among their contemporaries. “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess,” she quotes Keats approvingly. This is the quality her poets all share. Vendler describes the ambition of Graham’s poems as a desire for aesthetic possession of everything that goes on around us and inside our minds, a kind of “total coverage,” as it was for Whitman.
When it comes to “opening up new possibilities for the American lyric,” Ashbery, more than anyone else, according to her, has led the way. He has done that
by enlivening the page with diction of a startling heterogeneity; by being more broadly allusive than any other modern poet, including Eliot; by being boyish and amusing while maintaining emotional depth; by finding a gorgeousness of imagery rare since Stevens; and by taking headstrong risks that have endangered whole books (notably The Tennis Court Oath), but which have paid off in original forms of narrative and fable.
I agree with much of this, but again question the omission (for the sake of comparison) of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Tate, and a number of other poets, going back to Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Rexroth, and Robert Creeley, who also tinkered interestingly with the lyric. “There is in [Ashbery’s] poetry,” Vendler observes,
a persistent sense of plot aborted, of journeys on circular tracks, of aspiration engaged in and mocked, of synapses of allusion constantly making electrical sparks and then fizzling out. Human meaning is made and exploded, and no larger backdrop of sustained systematic thought or belief guarantees either its fittingness or its permanence.
This is a brilliant summary of his practice, but as a universal recipe for lyric poetry, it is not likely to work if some cook other than Ashbery is stirring the pot.
What about Ammons? Are he and Ashbery as different as night and day? Not so, according to Vendler. Theirs is a poetry that acknowledges the fragmentation and contradictions of our contemporary lives, in which we find ourselves bombarded verbally and visually from all sides in an information-laden, secular, and baffling world, in what feels like a continuous present where various distractions and surprises following one another constitute our day. Despite one being a poet of small-town rural America and the other being a city slicker, they both write poems that are either tightly constructed or sprawling, use elevated or colloquial language, mix tragedy and comedy, and are fond of adopting tentative, provisional, or irreverent attitudes.
And yet Ammons’s literary antecedents are very different from Ashbery’s. Vendler finds them “in Williams’s experiments in disjunction, in Stein’s experiments with childish aspects of language, in Thoreau’s wood watching, in Whitman’s broad democratic vistas, in Frost’s shapeliness of form, even in the Beats.” However none of these had the audacity, she points out, to switch back and forth between the sublime and the ignobly ridiculous as Ammons did. While Williams, most notably in Paterson, distinguishes the flute of the solo lyric from the clamor of the communal, she notes that for Ammons there is a “continuo of the personal—the ‘noise’ of the everyday mind—from which the lyric rises and into which it subsides.” This setting “of the lyric moment within its non-lyric ‘surround,’” Vendler writes, “is the fundamental device” of modern poetry, from The Waste Land to this day.
I find her discussion of these two poets’ poems cogent and her high regard for them justified. Ashbery’s reputation is firmly established with his Collected Poems 1956–1987, published by the Library of America, and with the rest of his opus to follow, but I’m afraid that Ammons, who died in 2001 and left a body of work as varied and inventive as Ashbery’s, is no longer read very much and somewhat forgotten. If there’s a revived interest in him in the future, it will be due to Vendler and some young critic or poet who picks up The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar and reads her immensely entertaining and stimulating account of his poems, especially the book-length poem Garbage. He wrote it after seeing a gigantic pyramid of rubble in Florida that made him feel that this is “the sacred image of our time.”
I went and reread Ammons and other poets Vendler writes about and thought better of them and enjoyed myself immensely doing so. Arguing with her from time to time, I thought this is what a great critic does, makes us read, either for the first time, or once again, a book or a poem we either ought to have known or thought we knew and understood well, and then find our lives enriched when we discover we were wrong about it.