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Awards & Honors: 2004 Jefferson Lecturer

Helen Vendler Biography

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Humanities Magazine May/June 2004 cover

May/June 2004

Helen Vendler

“When you’re in a state of perplexity, sadness, gloom, elation, you look for a poem to match what you are feeling,” says Helen Vendler. She writes that “Poetry is analytic as well as expressive; it distinguishes, reconstructs, and redescribes what it discovers about the inner life. The poet accomplishes the analytic work of poetry chiefly by formal means.”

It is Vendler’s skills in unraveling the forms and explaining the heart of a poem that have made her one of the most influential voices in poetry criticism today. “She is like a receiving station picking up on each poem, unscrambling things out of word-waves, making sense of it and making sure of it. She can second-guess the sixth sense of the poem,” says poet Seamus Heaney.

Vendler’s influences include a Boston childhood immersed in poetry and hymns, an early interest in chemistry, and a wealth of wonderful teachers. Her own teaching career has spanned forty-four years and she is now the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University, where she received her Ph.D. in English and American literature in 1960. She previously taught at Cornell, Swarthmore, Haverford, Smith, and Boston University. She has held many fellowships, including three NEH fellowships and a Fulbright, and has frequently been a judge for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. She holds twenty-three honorary degrees from universities and colleges in the United States and abroad.

Vendler’s views on contemporary poetry can be read regularly in the pages of The New Republic, The London Review of Books, The New Yorker, and other journals.

Her recent books include Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath; Seamus Heaney; The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets; The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham; The Given and the Made: Lowell, Berryman, Dove, Graham, and Soul Says: On Recent Poetry. A forthcoming book, Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, will be published later this year.

Vendler lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has one son and two grandchildren.

-- Amy Lifson