Life, Lyric, and Two Decades Past: A Conversation with Helen Vendler

What is more astonishing about lyric poetry than its capacity to move a reader? Who among us has never been stirred by a lyric, perhaps stirred to such a degree that the moment felt, in Stevens’ words, like “a new knowledge of reality?” But who can explain how this happens? What critic, having had this uncanny reading experience, can ever hope to crystallize its nature for others, and to account for it while developing arguments about the poetry, when doing so would require such sensitivity to the poet’s imagination, passion, originality, and skill, as to seem impossible? Helen Vendler is that critic.

Helen Vendler has been a preeminent voice in aesthetic criticism for half a century. Her resume includes books on the poetry of Yeats, Stevens, Herbert, Keats, Shakespeare, Heaney, and Dickinson, and she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism for Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (1980). Vendler’s most recent book, The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry (2015), represents her selected essays and reviews from the past twenty years, including chapters on John Ashbery, John Berryman, Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Langston Hughes, Herman Melville, James Merrill, Walt Whitman, and others, as well as her 2004 Jefferson Lecture arguing for poetry’s importance in education and culture. Vendler was born in Boston in 1933 and has since returned there: she is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard.

In June 2017, I spoke with Helen Vendler about The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar and her lifelong relationship with poetry.

Michael Barach: Considering how many books you must have read in your life, I’m so curious to know—how do you organize your bookshelves?

At my office: English poetry, then American poetry, then reference books, then criticism; in a bookcase outside the office, European and other foreign poetry. At home, piled up in my study, heaps of books on whatever author I’m writing on. In my bedroom, art-historical books on artists or topics in art, a subject I don’t have to teach or write about, so there is no anxiety in pursuing it.

Do you have a system in place that helps you choose what to read next?

No, not at all. My late colleague Dan Aaron, in his 90’s decided to return to classic texts of the European novel; his favorite was The Man Without Qualities. I feel that I’m getting to that phase where I can look for writing that I should have read but haven’t: pieces of the Bible; more Henry James; more of Chekhov’s stories. More letters and autobiographies—the nearest things in prose to lyrics.

What are you reading now?

Rereading Yeats and Hopkins for two articles for special occasions: one on Yeats’s late adjectives, the other on “The Windhover.” Always rereading Stevens.

Do you have a favorite artist who isn’t a poet?

Rembrandt, for the portraits and “The Prodigal Son.” He’s the Shakespeare of painters. He’s tied with Vermeer, who is the Herbert of painters. One needs both: the dramatist of varied human life, and the artist so exquisite that “perfection” is the only word that fits.

If you couldn’t be a literary critic, which profession would you choose?

I would have liked to be a poet. I planned to be a doctor, took the MCAT, was deflected by a Fulbright, came back and did a Ph.D. in English. It’s a long story, which I’ve told elsewhere (in a lecture for the American Council of Learned Societies, published in their series “A Life of Learning.” I’ve told some of it in the first chapter of The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar (a collection of recent essays). I don’t regret at all having spent my college years studying the sciences. Organic chemistry gave me a new world of structures to think about, helpful in writing about poetry, where structure is so fundamental.

In poetry communities there’s been debate recently about Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. What’s your take on the situation?

“High” literature has always incorporated “folk” literature: the English and Scottish ballads led to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads and Auden’s ballads; Bob Dylan descends from that line. The adolescence of a whole American generation was mediated by Dylan’s songs (as I saw in my son’s youth): Dylan is a cultural phenomenon, a songwriter rather than a poet. The Nobel recognizes cultural importance in many of its awards.

The title chapter of The Ocean The Bird, and the Scholar makes an argument for the centrality of art in humanities curriculums—and, since its publication, it comes to mind that our current presidential administration offers even less support for arts education. Why do you think the arts are so susceptible to these sorts of dismissals?

America was founded by Dissenters, who repudiated art because they considered it the province of decadent elites. We in America cut English literature out of the curriculum without replacing it with a serious study of American (or other) literature of merit, a fatal mistake. The memorizing and reciting of poetry disappeared from the schools. The sterile curriculum of “language arts” and “writing skills” sidelines literature. Consequently, current high school teachers in America (with few exceptions) are uneducated in the poetry of both England and America, and are therefore timid about teaching poetry of the past. Earlier generations of Christians in the United States were trained in poetry by singing hymns: with the decline of the liturgy Americans get no acquaintance with the power of regularly sung hymns to educate the young mind in a love of poetry, rhyme, rhythm, and song. Choral singing is not practiced in K-12, for the most part.

My favorite essay in this collection investigates A.R. Ammons’s lifework by analyzing his books’ titles. Not only is it a great read, but it also suggests the multiple ways one might approach writing an essay, and how one’s approach might affect the writing process. Do you find your process changes from project to project?

Thanks for the kind words. That essay was offered as a talk after Ammons’s death; I wanted to survey the whole of his work, and to talk about the titles seemed a short way to give a bird’s eye view. Since I usually write books on single poets, each enterprise is a new project. One can’t write on George Herbert as one might write on Wallace Stevens. I knew the poets I have written on before I studied them as a critic; the reasons for their originality lie in their style, so one needs to learn a new idiolect for each new poet. Style—which, as Yeats said, is what makes works last—is a hidden thing, in comparison to the relative obviousness of theme.

The hardest project I have ever worked on was my commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets. To try to understand the game of style in each was often frustrating, but also immensely entertaining; Shakespeare has more ingenuity in writing lyrics than anyone else. I once heard a Shakespearean call the Sonnets “monotonous.” They aren’t if you want to know the new map of a linguistic terrain in each.

Reviewing a brand new book by a contemporary poet was thrilling: there, too, I had to become familiar with the style of a poet new to me. My first review for the general reader was on John Berryman’s His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. Who could have believed that such poems could appear from a poet who had been hampered when writing imitative verse (Berryman’s Sonnets for instance). Who could have imagined the surprising candor of Merrill’s lyrics (different from the same effort toward candor in Lowell or Ginsberg)? What was I to make of Heaney’s bog bodies? Or of Graham’s meditations on painting in Erosion? To be the first treader of an unexplored volume has never seemed less than a grand endeavor.

Speaking of titles, the title of The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar refers to Wallace Stevens’ poem “Somnambulisma,” and the book includes several essays on his poetry. Would you talk a little about why Stevens has remained so important to you?

I’ve been chided for saying that had I been a poet, Stevens is the poet I would have been. But I said it as a simple truth; listening to him read on the old Caedmon record when I was 23 changed my life. I can’t say it was déjà vu, because he was a new voice. But hearing him read was like getting a transfusion of compatible blood; instant blending, instant heartening, instant strength. “Strength came where weakness was not known to be,” to use Wordsworth’s words. His words ratified my own thoughts, feelings, and taste as they came back to me from his page “with a certain alienated majesty” (Emerson).

You’ve written that in order to crystallize what seems ineffable about a poet’s style, a critic has to acknowledge the passion that underlies creative expression. Are there ways that critics can improve their ability to identify and acknowledge a poet’s passion?

Yes, by first believing in what Frost said: “no tears in the author, no tears in the reader.” Breaking from silence into speech requires both emotional passion and linguistic passion. One doesn’t confuse lyric with autobiography, since lyrics are always making a fierce selection from the stream of life’s continuum, on the one hand, and, on the other, from the availabilities of the common language (as Hopkins said, poetry had to embody “the current language, heightened”). The symbolic voice from the lyric page, in accomplished poets, is always arresting as it embodies in language the vicissitudes of life. Lyric poetry changes less from culture to culture, from age to age, than novels. The perennial “fire-born moods,” as Yeats said, are the only human universals: sadness, elation, discouragement, anger, desire. Catullus can speak to us, the Psalms can speak to us.

Your essays also seem interested in revealing the trajectories of poets’ entire careers. But when you think back on your own life as a writer, what do you notice about how you’ve evolved?

The unaccountable development of a writer from immaturity in thought and style to mastery of feeling and expression is miraculous, and has always seemed to me the master-narrative of criticism. “Each poem proves another and the whole” (Stevens); to know Whitman as he advances from his awful temperance novels to “Song of Myself” is like watching a movie going from youth to old age, with all the suspense of events—in both life and language—as they happen.

The evolution of a critic is different from that of a poet. I felt in graduate school that I was being fundamentally asked to sit in many different chairs, seeing what it was like to do intellectual history with Perry Miller, archetypal criticism with Northrop Frye; “close reading” with I.A. Richards, contextual reading with John Kelleher, comparative literature with Rosemond Tuve. I could sense when a chair was not one I could sit in. And although the professors were supposedly intellectually classed by historical era, I soon perceived that although Douglas Bush and Rosemond Tuve were theoretically professors of the Renaissance, they rarely taught anything but poetry. There was a crypto-company of “poetry people,” and I knew I belonged with them. This was a joyous discovery. Although there was no open admission of it, one could be a “genre person” rather than an “era-person.”

Although I liked writing, I was annoyed as a girl by the fact that a seminar paper was so short: how could I say anything about Alexander Pope in 25 pages? And I had no authority for what I said: after 12 weeks of Pope, I knew virtually nothing of his life-work. Finally, my dissertation on Yeats gave me world enough and time: I read all that Yeats had written (though much remained unpublished), and almost all the extant criticism on his poetry, prose, and drama. When I wrote after that immersion I felt I could at last claim authority, and it was wonderful to be able to speak buttressed with learning rather than with a few weeks’ acquaintance with an author. I had learned the difference between superficial criticism and responsible opinion.

But I hadn’t learned yet that a critic has to be understandable by the reader. The most valuable thing said to me in graduate school was Reuben Brower’s injunction to me: “Think of the reader!” I was having my rapturous private colloquy with Yeats, feeling that “if I please him, I write fine and wittie” (Herbert on God). If (as I put it to myself) Yeats would approve of what I said of his work, I was satisfied. To discover that there was someone out there that didn’t know anything about Yeats’s Vision or his later plays, and that I was supposed to make it all clear to that person, was a whole new revelation, and affected me for life; it really made it possible for me to write for the general reader.

And the last great help to the novice me was the greatly gifted editor of my first two books, Margaretta Fulton of the Harvard Press; for my first book she gave me Freshman English for Writers #1 and then—when I thought I had learned all she had to teach—she gave me, as she edited my second book, Freshman English for Writers #2. She was devoted and deft, and finally made me into a readable critic. After that I was on my own. I know more now than I did then, after studying and teaching so many poets from Shakespeare to Heaney, but I think I am the same sort of reader and writer that I was when I was young: I still (as I did in graduate school) write poems out in longhand to feel what it was like to think up the lines word by word; and I still memorize a good deal of the poet I’m writing on. Poems that reside in your heart are portable and always available for meditation, whether in doctors’ offices or on buses. (I was also helped by having had three years of Latin, and by reading Spanish, French, and Italian poetry; different linguistic things are possible in different languages, from syntax to rhythm to cultural allusion to sound-effects.

In a Paris Review interview, you’ve mentioned that you connect to Keats and Stevens partly because they are “indolent and meditative writers.” And Christian Wiman argues that “Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence.” Why is indolence so important to the creative process? Is it important for critics as well?

Silent thought and feeling look to others like indolence, but they make the writer’s instincts grow, and until feelings are ready for words, the poet has to resist forcing the writing. No better answer than Keats’s in his “Ode on Indolence”:

One morn before me were three figures seen,

With bowèd necks, and joinèd hands, side-faced;

And one behind the other stepp'd serene,

In placid sandals, and in white robes graced;

They pass'd, like figures on a marble urn

When shifted round to see the other side;

They came again, as, when the urn once more

Is shifted round, the first seen shades return;

And they were strange to me, as may betide

With vases, to one deep in Phidian lore.

How is it, Shadows! that I knew ye not?

How came ye muffled in so hush a mask?

Was it a silent deep disguisèd plot?

To steal away, and leave without a task

My idle days? Ripe was the drowsy hour;

The blissful cloud of summer indolence

Benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;

Pain had no sting; and pleasure’s wreath no flower:

O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense

Unhaunted quite of all but—nothingness?

A third time pass'd they by, and, passing, turn'd

Each one the face a moment whiles to me;

Then faded, and to follow them I burn'd

And ached for wings, because I knew the three:

The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name;

The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,

And ever watchful with fatiguèd eye;

The last, whom I love more, the more of blame

Is heap'd upon her, maiden most unmeek,—

I knew to be my demon Poesy.

They faded, and, forsooth! I wanted wings:

O folly! What is Love? and where is it?

And for that poor Ambition—it springs

From a man's little heart's short fever-fit;

For Poesy!—no,—she has not a joy,—

At least for me,—so sweet as drowsy noons,

And evenings steep'd in honied indolence;

O, for an age so shelter'd from annoy,

That I may never know how change the moons,

Or hear the voice of busy common-sense!

So, ye three ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise

My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass;

For I would not be dieted with praise,

A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce!

Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more

In masque-like figures on the dreamy urn;

Farewell! I yet have visions for the night,

And for the day faint visions there is store;

Vanish, ye phantoms, from my idle spright,

Into the clouds, and never more return!

Thinking about these shadows influencing Keats’ poetry and about his refusal to be “dieted with praise” also makes me wonder about Something Understood, a book of poems and prose dedicated to you by various poets. Does this book give credence to the idea that criticism, too, influences art? Or what does a healthy relationship between criticism and art look like?

I don’t think criticism has any effect on art at all. It’s the other way round: art forms criticism. Poets of course influence poets, and that’s how the canon is constructed: Spenser admires Chaucer, Milton admires Spenser, Keats admires Milton, and so on. The talented recognize the talented: Hopkins recognized Whitman instantly, though he was made uncomfortable by the resemblance between his mind and Whitman’s. Mediocre poetry sinks into oblivion after its century is over. And good poetry (Dickinson, Hopkins), although obscured at first, rises to the surface, sometimes aided by critics. Poets appreciate being understood, and the poems and essays in Something Understood were contributed by poets who had felt appreciated in my writing. I had not influenced them, not a bit.

When taking stock of the poetry that rises to the top, it seems that so much of it is written in regular verse meters, and yet, in recent years, so few books are being published in those forms. Would you help to put our poetic moment in perspective? Can we hope for more poetry that sounds akin to Milton, Keats, Dickinson?

“And for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” (Hopkins). Who could have predicted (in the nineteenth century) the sound and feelings of Whitman or Dickinson? Who could have predicted “The Waste Land,” which changed the whole tenor of modern verse in English? Regular verse meters have been done in our lifetime with great distinction by Auden, Heaney, Merrill, and others. I hope no great poet ever sounds akin to any other one. It will be Venus on the waves for one, Grendel’s mother for the next. “Could you have said the jay would swoop to earth?” (Stevens). The most salient thing about great poets is that each of them is a new species.

You have to grow up reading a lot of verse to find the meters coming naturally to hand; most American poets have not been naturalized in verse in their youth. There’s a lightness in verse that is the sign of ease; to write in formal meters without that lifelong ease is fatal. Even Bishop, who had that ease, turned to free verse for many poems, in order for them to sound more natural in her own voice. And Ashbery, who certainly had ease to spare, turned to free verse and even to prose (in Three Poems) as the case demanded.

Throughout The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar are citations—and discoveries—of several poets’ definitions of poetry. Do you have a definition of poetry that you stand by?

No, because each great poet is an individual species, and each defines poetry in a way that suits the work in hand. All of the definitions are therefore special cases, and in that way provocative. Imagination and style are necessary to all creative effort, including lyric, but those are preconditions not definitions.

How do you feel about collaborative poetry? Do collaborations necessitate different kinds of criticism?

Renga (in which poets respond to each other’s work in a chain of lyrics) sounds charming in theory, but I’m not sure I know any cases of greatness in the form. And the excitement that we see between Coleridge and Wordsworth was a form of imaginative collaboration. But they didn’t compose poems together. I can’t imagine a lyric collaboration: on the stage, yes.

When the rapture comes, and St. Peter asks you to read a poem to gain access to heaven, what will you read?

What but Herbert’s “Love” III? Or, alternatively, Stevens’s “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” “A new knowledge of reality” is the point of attraction in both. Herbert learns that Heaven is not a site of judgment but of love; Stevens learns that he has been granted, in old age and against all odds, another year of life, one more spring.  

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