Poems "tell complex truths of human response," Helen Vendler says, "and they structure words with particular force, wit, charm, intellectual responsibility, and plangency."
For forty years she has been reading poems with close attention, writing books about Keats and Yeats and Shakespeare as well as poets of more recent vintage such as Jorie Graham and Seamus Heaney.
"There's nothing more interesting to me," she told a poetry seminar, "whether in an old poet or a new poet, than figuring out why something has come alive, why somebody has been able to take a blank piece of paper and make something excitingly volatile and surprising all the time, where you don't know what is going to happen next."
Vendler, a professor of literature at Harvard University, is this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinction in the field. Among her books are On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems; Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath; The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets; and The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham. She has written poetry reviews for The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New Republic.
In her introduction to The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Vendler describes her fascination with the subject. "Poetry is the most speaking of written signs; it is the most designed of spoken utterances; it inhabits, and makes us travelers in, a place where every phrase of the spoken language would be as outlined as an urn, and where each sentence of the written language would ring like 'church bells beyond the starres heard.' Such a place exists nowhere in life." The dissimilarity to prose intrigues her. "While the novel, unstoppable, wants to keep reeling us into its labyrinth, the unjustified margin of poetry pulls us up, even if gently, at the end of each line."
The poet Henri Cole writes about her in this issue, in a role reversal: the poet analyzes the poetry critic. He writes of the intensity with which Vendler listens. She regards the poem as a score for performance. "You don't read or overhear the voice in a poem, you are the voice in the poem."
Vendler, who has been teaching the course "Poems, Poets, Poetry" for more than two decades at Harvard, discusses with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole the possibility of that voice being lost in younger generations. She faults schools for delegating poetry to the occasional visiting poet instead of teaching it as part of the regular curriculum. "A student can graduate from high school in the United States without knowing that there ever was an American architect or composer or painter or sculptor or philosopher, and without reading any of the more complex poems written by our American authors," she said in her 2001 Charles Homer Haskins Lecture.
Vendler believes that the nation should grow into an appreciation of its own heritage and its distinctive American voice. "That, I think, will change," she continued in her lecture, "as we eventually become proud of the significant art-works composed on our own soil, and incorporate them, as part of the patrimony of our patriotism, into the general education of the young. Meanwhile, those of us living a life of learning in what Stevens called 'the radiant and productive atmosphere' of poetry transmit as far as we can, in books and in the classroom, the beautiful, subversive, sustaining, bracing, and demanding legacy of the poets."