“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.
The Poem Unfolded
BY HENRI COLE
When I think of Helen Vendler, I think of her listening--listening to a seminar student explicate “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”; listening to Wagner’s opera of immolation and love, The Ring Cycle; listening to new poems by Lucie Brock-Broido or Seamus Heaney at Harvard’s Lamont Library; listening to the somber green water splash in the Giudecca canal; listening to the carnal and bloody acts of Hamlet; and listening to me—on the other end of the telephone line--report the latest treachery of my mother’s body.
Long before I was Helen’s colleague, I met her on the pages of Part of Nature, Part of Us, a collection of criticism which takes its title from Wallace Stevens (her titles are often borrowed from poets). I was a first-year graduate student at Columbia University and bought her book at the beautiful old Scribner’s bookshop, now gone, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It was 1980, when bookstores still put poetry criticism on their front shelves beside bestselling fiction.
A friend calls Helen Vendler an “institution,” because her voice as a critic carries so much authority, but that seems too imposing for the person who drives a Honda, is capable of sewing her own formal dresses, and, for the first decade of her academic career, moved nearly every other year, a single mother, frightened and worried about her prospects. And “institution” seems too grand for the person who at twenty-two hitchhiked from Belgium to Bayreuth, Germany, for the opera festival, because she had no money left after buying her tickets. Or for the stranger who once drove a young family, asking for directions in Harvard Square, to the Kennedy Library for the day. Or for the woman undertaking endless ordinary academic labors out of a sense of duty (and protectiveness of the decent whose lives are often at issue).
Born Helen Hennessy in Boston, the middle child of three siblings, she was a daughter of teachers: her father taught Romance languages in high school and her mother taught primary school until she married and was forbidden to continue. So teaching always seemed to Helen like the great happy thing to do, the thing her own mother had been robbed of. Unhappy with the way literature was taught at the Roman Catholic school for women she attended, she majored in chemistry; later, she decided to get a PhD in English, and, after a year as a special student at Boston University, was admitted to the Harvard English department, where she wrote her dissertation on Yeats. Helen married the late Zeno Vendler, a philosopher, with whom she had a son, today a Los Angeles attorney; but she continued teaching, too, moving from Cornell to Swarthmore, to Haverford, to Smith, to Boston University, and finally to Harvard, where she joined the faculty in 1981, and in 1990 was given the title of A. Kingsley Porter University Professor. Along the way, she has taught many NEH summer seminars for college and high school teachers, and since 1972, has often lectured at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland.
Helen writes to explain things to herself, she says. And she has been writing books for forty years. They include Yeats’s Vision and the Later Plays (1963); On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems (1969), which was awarded the James Russell Lowell Prize of the MLA; The Poetry of George Herbert (1975); The Odes of John Keats (1983); Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (1984); The Given and the Made (1995); The Breaking of Style (1995); The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1997); Seamus Heaney (1998); and Coming of Age as a Poet (2003). Her essays have been collected in three volumes: Part of Nature, Part of Us (1980), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism in 1981; The Music of What Happens (1988); and Soul Says (1995); and she has written a textbook and anthology, Poems, Poets, Poetry (1995).
In the domain of literary criticism, the pendulum is always swinging between text (with an emphasis on language and aesthetics) and context (with an emphasis on race, class, gender, etc.). A descendant of the New Critics of the 1930s, Helen reads poems not principally for moral messages, political ideas, or biographical reference, but chiefly for interior structures and stylistic devices, for the ways words are put together. Her two most indelible teachers at Harvard were I. A. Richards “because he gave full weight to every word in a poem and might track a history of a word back to Plato” and John Kelleher “because he saw the human situation from which a given poem would arise.” Praising Helen’s criticism, Seamus Heaney has remarked, “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. She has this amazing ability to be completely alive to the bleeper going off at the heart of it . . .”
Though she has written hundreds of reviews for The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, among others, she believes the canon is made by poets themselves, not by reviewers. “Reviews don’t mean much if your fellow poets don’t think you’re good,” she insists, revealing a deep respect for the impulse to create (and for creators), rather than the impulse to control taste. In the early 1980s she was at her professional peak, she admits this matter-of-factly, but now feels “out of fashion.” Critics used to compare one poem to another, when considering a poet, but that practice has now moved to the periphery of the profession. Even within her department--where scholars may be social critics or new historicists or followers of some other mode of “single-lens” criticism--she is in the minority, because she does not do contextual criticism or critical theory. Once I heard her remind her Keats seminar graduate students not to be too intellectual in their readings of his poems, denying themselves pleasures accompanying those of meaning. She then described the pleasures of the “Ode on Melancholy,” showing how it obliterates differences between “the higher” senses (hearing and seeing) and “the lower” senses (touch, taste, and smell), how it contains an inventive, extraordinary infrastructure of lists, how it embodies depressive, hysteric, and reflective moments of melancholy, and, finally, how it sublimates anger and logical narration in favor of transparencies of one scene done over again and again.
Because she is not interested in plot and does not have a “fictional imagination,” Helen has rarely written about fiction. “Stories always show cause and effect,” she says, “but life is not a matter of cause and effect.” Neither is the lyric. She prefers things “oozy” (her term) and undefined, rejecting redemptive linear plots, including that of Christianity. “I’m much more drawn to authors that I feel close to by temperament. I feel close to Stevens by temperament, I feel close to Keats and to Herbert by temperament. They are indolent and meditative writers,” she explains. She was necessarily marked by a girlhood in the Roman Catholic church, whose Index of Forbidden Books kept her from reading many things she desired to read, including Pascal, Flaubert, and Voltaire. When, at twenty-three, she received a Fulbright to the University of Louvain, she felt it as a liberation from home and its constraints. Nonetheless, she once said to me that she could understand my believing in God because my mother had. This same idea is behind her reading of Blake’s poem, “The Little Black Boy,” where she writes, “From his mother, the little black boy has learned love and kindness; but even his mother, repeating the Christianity learned from missionaries, tells her son that God lives in light, and that one day in heaven He will rid both mother and child of their ‘black bodies and this sun-burnt face.’ . . . How can the little black boy fail to believe his mother? Indoctrination accompanied by love is far harder to resist than indoctrination from an institution or text.”
Helen’s best writing hours are between four in the afternoon and eleven at night. She likes to sleep late and read the paper over breakfast. While a graduate student, she wrote her dissertation between midnight and four a.m. When her son was young, she would wake early to be with him before school and go back to sleep afterwards. When he left home, she felt faced by a daunting solitude, which is now compensated for by two grandchildren.
In Helen’s Cambridge row house, her bedroom is small and dark, a cave for sleeping. Down the hall, in her study, a life mask of Keats is on the wall. Her home is full of serene hallways and stairways, in which many framed manuscripts and broadsides of poems are hung, along with other mementos from a life devoted in great part to poetry. Her dream house would have multiple rooms, with a separate desk for each writing project. She does not show her writing to anyone for comment. “I couldn’t stand it,” she admits.
Helen once asked me if I thought my soul fit my body and then confessed she was twenty-seven when she felt hers finally fit. When I asked her if poems have bodies and souls, she replied, “Yes, the body is the sinew of the language, as when Hopkins said, praising Dryden, that in him you find ‘the naked thew and sinew’ of the language. You feel that the richly opulent Keatsian temperament is different from the briskly social Browning temperament. The body of the verse gives you a sense of a fluid sensuous body in one and an alert, greyhound body in another.” And the soul of a poem is the human experience it relates, the primary emotion it contains.
Helen does not believe poems are written to be heard or to be overheard. She believes that poems are a score for performance by the reader and that the reader becomes the speaking voice. “You don’t read or overhear the voice in a poem, you are the voice in the poem,” she argues. Her close readings are like flashlights shined high up onto frescoes in the apse of a Renaissance church, a metaphor for the poet’s imagination. Let the lamp shine its light on the thing itself, Stevens wrote. I think Helen would approve of this metaphor, since she loves painting—referring the chromatism and gradual progression of color in Piero della Francesca to the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio; preferring the depth of human faces--in Rembrandt--to the theatricality of more narrative paintings. The handling of medium--words, not paint--is her principal preoccupation as a critic. The characteristic ways a poet shapes language into art are much more interesting to her than thematic content. It is sad to her that a poet must often be topical to be noticed. She once told me a poem I had written was “victim poetry” and she didn’t like it. She has a very low threshold for sentimentality and prefers astringency (her term), explaining that “practically everybody in America descends from the Romantic tradition. What I think sentimental is what others think feelingful, and that’s a line that people draw in different places. What is ‘warm’ for one is sentimental for another. Someone else may see amplitude and joy where I see self-delusion and sentimentality.”
Asked about the audience she imagines when writing criticism, Helen says she thinks of it as the poet--”What I would hope is that if Keats read what I had written about the ode ‘To Autumn,’ he would say, ‘Yes, that is the way I wanted it to be thought of.’ And ‘Yes, you have unfolded what I had implied,’ or something like that. It would not strike the poet, I hope, that there was a discrepancy between my description of the work and the poet’s own conception of it. I wouldn’t be happy if a poet read what I had written and said, ‘What a peculiar thing to say about this work of mine.’” Regarding her early training in science, she remarks, “What science did for me was to train me to look for evidence. You have to write up evidence for your hypothesis in a very clear way. . . . One thing has to lead to the next; things have to add up to a total picture. I think that’s a natural thing to do with literature, too. . . . I don’t like criticism that is simply rhetorically assertive at a very high level without much reference to evidence in the text.” When she was living in Cambridge, England, and was writing about Keats, she knew he had witnessed an autopsy as a medical student, so she arranged to do so herself. “How could I write about him otherwise?” she asked.
In a letter sent to me abroad, Helen wrote: “It’s a very late evolutionary development, writing. . . . The race mostly evolved getting along on talk and gesture (as most people still do). Writing is an excessively specialized evolutionary skill (far less useful than reading), and most people just are not comfortable doing it. They never do it from one day to the next, or, if they do, it’s in genre-bound terms like office memos. Writing as an expression of self is simply an undeveloped trait except in natural writers.” She wrote this when I was complaining about family and friends being bad correspondents. On another occasion, she exclaimed how strange it was that 250 million people could produce so few memorable poets. Her disappointment seemed authentic and deep: Merrill and Heaney and Ashbery writing at the same moment were not enough. On a more personal level, she once wrote about her grandson receiving an A+ in reading and writing: “I’m so glad for him. Having words is such a great help in life.” This, of course, is not surprising from one who can recite all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets or from one whose devout passion as a reader has brought her as a critic to the pinnacle of American letters.
Years ago, when I was living in France, I sent Helen a postcard from Les Baux, in Provence. It was a lush green Provençal landscape of olive trees and red poppies; she responded with the following: “I sat on the rocks of Les Baux 36 years ago picnicking on oranges, bread, & wine, vowing to be true to the ring I bought that day, which I have worn ever since, saying Longo mai (Provençal) on the outside & translated Bonheur toujours on the inside. It was my counter-magic to the ‘vale of tears’ theory on which I had been raised.” What a fine credo: Happiness always. I know friendship is the ability to give and receive on both sides, but Helen is mostly a “giver”; her generosity is legendary. Her sense of loyalty is deep. She is tender and quite funny and wise. As usual, Seamus Heaney says it best: “The great thing about Helen is not just her literary capacity, it’s her sense of honesty, justice, and truthfulness. I value these things deeply in her as a person and, naturally, they are part of her verity as a critic.”
Coming Of Age As a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath
To the young writer, the search for a style is inexpressibly urgent; it parallels, on the aesthetic plane, the individual’s psychological search for identity--that is, for an authentic selfhood and a fitting means for its unfolding. The human search for identity is conducted blindly; we find ourselves as adolescents suffering an incomprehensible series of apparently random preferences, revulsions, divagations, and evasions. We don’t at the time know why our feelings drift hither and yon on the waves of inexplicable compulsions, griefs, and admirations: it is only later that we may be prepared to acknowledge, with Wordsworth, how strange are the ways of identity-formation:
How strange that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself!
(1850 Prelude, I, 344-350)
Wordsworth awakes after early miseries, regrets, and terrors to an adult identity, pursuing an existence which derives calm from its conscious awareness of its selfhood, no longer mystified by youth’s emotional vicissitudes.
Wordsworth has recounted in this passage the normal course of individual human formation. But for a young writer, the stakes are doubled. The youthful writer cannot pursue an evolution to adulthood independent of an ongoing evolution of style. To find a personal style is, for a writer, to become adult.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Coming of Age as a Poet by Helen Vendler, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2003 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham
It is still not understood that in lyric writing, style in its largest sense is best understood as a material body. When a poet puts off an old style (to speak for a moment as if this were a deliberate undertaking), he or she perpetrates an act of violence, so to speak, on the self. It is not too much to say that the old body must be dematerialized if the poet is to assume a new one. “In art, in a sense,” John Ashbery wrote in Reported Sightings, “all change has to be for the better, since it shows that the artist hasn’t yet given in to the ever-present temptation to stand still and that his constantly menaced vitality is emitting signals” (187). The fears and regrets attending the act of permanent stylistic change can be understood by analogy with divorce, expatriation, and other such painful spiritual or imaginative departures. It is hoped, of course, that the new body--like the new spouse or the new country--will be more satisfactory than the old, but it is a hope, not a certainty.
I have been speaking as though the intention of a new stylistic body were a voluntary act, like filing for divorce or going willingly to live abroad. But there is much that is wholly involuntary about it. A new sense of life presses unbidden upon the poet, making the old style seem unsuitable or even repellent. “Some of one’s early things,” Wallace Stevens wrote, “give one the creeps” (Letters, 667). Robert Lowell complained that pieces of his earlier driven and violent style kept turning up like flotsam and jetsam when he was trying to write the ironic, mild, and distanced lines of Life Studies. The invention of a new phase of style, then, is often less a voluntary act than an involuntary one. One is repelled by one’s present body and cannot inhabit it any longer.
To represent style, I use the word “body” (rather than the perhaps more customary image of dress) because I want to emphasize the inextricable relation of style to theme. Yeats’s bravado in “A Coat” with respect to doffing his “old embroideries”--”There’s more enterprise / In walking naked” (Collected Poems, 125)--suggests, misleadingly, that one can, in poetry, walk naked—and that one can easily slough off a style. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher from The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham by Helen Vendler, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
The speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnets scorns the consolations of Christianity--an afterlife in heaven for himself, a Christian resurrection of his body after death--as fully as he refuses (except in a few sonnets) the learned adornment of classical references--a staple of the continental sonnet. The sonnets stand as the record of a mind working out positions without the help of any pantheon or any systematic doctrine. Shakespeare’s speaker often considers, in rapid succession, any number of intellectual or ideological positions, but he does not move among them at random. To the contrary: in the first quatrain of any given sonnet he has a wide epistemological field in which to play, but in the second quatrain he generally queries or contradicts or subverts his first position (together with its discourse-field). By the third quatrain, he must (usually) advance to his subtlest or most comprehensive or most truthful position (the third quatrain therefore taking on, in the Shakespearean sonnet, the role of the sestet in the Petrarchan sonnet). And the couplet--placed not as resolution (which is the function of the third quatrain) but as coda--can then stand in any number of relations (summarizing, ironic, expansive) to the preceding argument. The gradually straitened possibilities as the speaker advances in his considerations give the Shakespearean sonnet a funnel-shape, narrowing in the third quatrain to a vortex of condensed perceptual and intellectual force, and either constricting or expanding that vortex via the couplet.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher from The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Helen Vendler, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1997 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics
Vendler writes about poets John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop.
No scrutiny can exist without an angle of vision. Looking at a single poem, one critic is describing the lyric structure, another the influence of Shelley, and another the use of archetypes; but this does not make their observations “subjective” in the sense of unreliable. An enormous number of valid remarks can be made about any art work, and perfectly reliable connections can be made between those observations and others. Critics making observations can have a common language of debate; more rhapsodic critics, who use the text chiefly as a base from which to depart, cannot, and do not want to, have such a common language. Both kinds of critics are nontrivial: the first kind are the scientists of literature, the second the rhapsodes of literature; the first invite discursive reply, the second repel it by their style, but invite it by their energy. Probably society needs both sorts of critics; and it is clear that these two extremes of criticism are provoked by two quite different sorts of pleasure in the object. . . . . Ashbery retells both life and loss with American comic pragmatism and deadpan pratfalls:
The first year was like icing.
Then the cake started to show through.
Reading Ashbery, one notices the idiom: when, exactly, did “show through” come into common speech in this sense? and “started,” too, for that matter? The poem ends with the remark, “And paintings are one thing we never seem to run out of”: when did “to run out of something” become our normal way of saying that the supply was exhausted? “What need for purists,” says Ashbery, “when the demotic is built to last, / To outlast us?” His campaign (of course, not only his) to write down the matter of lyric in the idiom of America is a principled one. His eclectic borrowing from many past styles--an aesthetic some would like to call postmodern--creates a “variegated, polluted skyscraper to which all gazes are drawn,” the style of our century, to which we are both condemned and entrusted, a “pleasure we cannot and will not escape.”
. . . .The attitudes in Bishop that I have dwelt on here--her sense of deformity, her cold capacity for detachment, her foreignness in human society, her suspicion that truth has something annihilating about it, her self-representation as observer of meaninglessly additive experience, her repugnance for social or political of religious association, her preference for mapping and abstraction--are those that are particularly well-sustained, thematically and formally, in the Complete Poems. Each of these attitudes had consequences. They led Bishop toward certain genres (landscape poetry, poetry about sky and ocean, travel poetry) and away from others (historical poetry, religious poetry, poetry of social enumeration). They led her as well to certain moments that recur in her verse: the moment of existential loneliness (“The Waiting Room”), the moment of epistemological murk or vacancy (the yawning grave in “Over 2,000 Illustrations”), and the moment of abstraction (“The Monument”). And they ensured Bishop’s avoidance of closure through certainty or through social solidarity, in favor of closure in questioning, loss, or inscrutability. Bishop made a new sort of lyric by adhering to a singular clarity of expression, simplicity of effect, and naïveté of tone while making the matter of her poetry the opacity and inexplicability of being. Without her sense of deformity, estrangement, and even murderousness (the poisoned toad, the dangerous iceberg) as central matters of art, she could not have felt the benign contrast of her apparitional moose. Had she not the greatest admiration for artists (Herbert, Cornell) who used very common means for very subtle effects, she would not have couched her conviction of the opacity of existence in words of such limpidity of effect. The combination of somber matter with a manner net-like, mesh-like, airy, reticulated to let in light, results in the effect we now call by her name--the Bishop style.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher from The Music of What Happens by Helen Vendler, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1988 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Soul Says: On Recent Poetry
The significant poem, for me, can be about anything, or almost anything. I have never been drawn in a positive way to subject matter: that is, I do not respond more enthusiastically to a poem about women than to a poem about men, a poem about nature than a poem about the city, a political poem than a metaphysical poem. Though I grew up in a city, my favorite poems, from Keats’s “To Autumn” to Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn,” have often been ones using metaphors from nature; I have liked Protestant poets (from Milton to Clampitt) and Jewish poets (from Ginsberg to Goldbarth) as well as Catholic poets (from Hopkins to Péguy); though I can read only Romance languages, my two indispensable contemporary foreign poets are Paul Celan and Czeslaw Milosz, whom I cannot read in the original. Though I am white, I could not do without the poetry of Langston Hughes and Rita Dove. I have written on both gay and “straight” writers. I bring up these questions of locale, religion, language, ethnicity, race, and sexuality because these days they appear so much in writing about literature, and because there is a jealous appropriation of literature into such socially marked categories.
At first I found it hard to understand, when such categories were ritually invoked, why people felt they could respond only to literature that replicated their own experience of race, class, or gender. I heard many tales beginning, “I never found literature meaningful to me till I read . . .” and there would follow, from a woman, a title like Jane Eyre, or, from a black, a title like Invisible Man. After a while, it dawned on me that these accounts mostly issued from readers of novels. The first time I heard Toni Morrison speak, she told of going from novel to novel “looking for me,” and, for a long time, not finding herself, or her story, anywhere. Then, when she found representations of black women in fiction, they were being victimized, or killed, or exploited, a fact that filled her with anger. Since I was not a novel reader, I had never gone on that quest for a socially specified self resembling me. The last thing I wanted from literature was a mirror of my external circumstances. What I wanted was a mirror of my feelings, and that I found in poetry.
An adolescent reader of poetry finds herself in a world of the first-person pronoun: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense”; “I awoke in the midsummer not-to-call night”; “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” The all- purpose pronouns “I” and “you” are tracks along which any pair of eyes can go, male or female, black or white, Jewish or Catholic, urban or rural. Poetry answered so completely to my wish for a mirror of feelings that novels seemed by comparison overburdened, “loose and baggy monsters,” and I cheerfully left them aside.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Soul Says: On Recent Poetry by Helen Vendler, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire
I do not mean to sentimentalize Stevens in insisting that his poems are meditations on emotions of love, idolatry, loss, self-loathing, and self-forgiveness. He is so chaste in self-revelation that his emotions are easily passed over. A poem like The Dove in Spring, written in “the little and the dark,” sees the sexual impulse, and all the love and idealization it gave rise to in life, as strictly parallel to the impulse to thought and the impulse to self-definition. In allowing a syntactic parallelism between these three impulses--the sexual, the intellectual, and the personal--Stevens is resorting not to Platonism but to memory, the memory of how his life had structured itself around three persistent groupings of identity. The grief of the ending of the poem is not the elegiac sorrow for the great bush or the large light state, but rather the grief of Tithonus, that one can neither die nor live, as one endures the last protests and affirmations of desire.
James Merrill once remarked in a Paris Review interview that Stevens “continues to persuade us of having had a private life, despite--or thanks to--all the bizarreness of his vocabulary and idiom.” On the whole, criticism has avoided the evidences of that private life, but it is, as Merrill says, so inseparable from the incomparable style invented to express it that it is a failure of imagination to discuss the style without its subject. The lapses and failures of idealization--especially the idealization of romantic love, forced on us by nature, culture, and, above all, literature--press Stevens to an ever more stringent, and even harsh, analysis of the interrelation of emotion’s flights and their eventual correction in time. It may be that the harshness or brutality which I have been describing is Stevens’s defense against a Romantic sweetness, though I think not. It is rather, I feel sure, the expression of an anger that a mind so designed for adoration never found adoration and sensuality compatible; they remained locked compartments, a source of emotional confusion and bitterness. In the end, however, Stevens’s unwillingness to abandon either of his two incompatible truths--the truth of desire and the truth of the failure of desire--led to a great amplitude of human vision not granted to those who live more comfortably in body and soul, and to a truth-telling ease not granted to those who have fewer difficulties to confess.
Reprinted by permission of The University of Tennessee Press. Wallace Stevens, Words Chosen Out of Desire by Helen Vendler, pp. 27-28, copyright © 1984 by The University of Tennessee Press/Knoxville. All rights reserved.
Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats
Poetry has often been considered an irrational genre, more expressive than logical, more given to meditation than to coherent argument. The “proofs” it addresses are, it is judged, more fanciful than “true,” and the experiences it affords are emotional and idiosyncratic rather than dispassionate and universal. The add-itional fact that poetry is directed by an aesthetic imperative, rather than a forensic or expository one, brings suspicion on the “thinking” represented within and by poetry. Since poems often change their minds as they proceed, they seem unreliable as processes or products of thought (Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself; I am large; I contain multitudes”). By contrast to the more “permanent” assertions of philosophy or science, poets seem nonchalant about the durability of their affirmations (Yeats: “Things thought too long can be no longer thought”). The poets themselves have sometimes disparaged “consequitive reasoning” (Keats). And the waywardness of the lives of the poets seems to give the lie to their reliability as purveyors of wisdom. For these and many other reasons, the word “thinking” is not often found in close relation with the word “poetry.”
It is not obvious where “thinking” as such (by contrast to “inspiration”) occurs in poetry. Is it part of “inspiration?” (The word means “breathing in,” a process hardly comparable to thinking.) Is it part of the finished poem? If so, is it uniform among poems? A poem need not observe any particular length, nor need it take up any particular subject. It need not make an obvious argument; it need not adduce evidence; it need not assert a new insight; it may be independent of a formal “system” (Blake: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”). A poem can be more lighthearted than the usual “thinking” process; it can be satiric, or frivolous, or mischievous. High seriousness may attend it—or may not. Bizarre imaginative fantasies may be what a poem has to offer; or “nonsense”; or some reduction of language normally considered inadequate to “thinking” (“Little lamb, who made thee? / Dost thou know who made thee?”) Unlike the structure of a perspicuous argument, the structure of a poem may be anything but transparent, at least at first glance.
In short, the relation of poetry to thought is an uneasy one. One must always suspect that something other than the conduct of thought is governing a poem, even when a poem purports to be conducting the unfolding of thought. Yet one also suspects that even when a poem presents itself as an outburst of feeling, it is being directed, as a feat of ordered language, by something one can only call thought. Yet in most contemporary accounts of the internal substance of poetry, emphasis continues to be placed on the imaginative or irrational or psychological or “expressive” base of poetry; poetry is thought to be an art of which there can be no science. “Theory”—so dependent on anterior philosophical, social, or economic ideas for its own articulation—has been uninterested in lyric poetry for many reasons: it dislikes the privacy of lyric space, the courtly origins of lyric, the irreducible symbolic function of language in lyric, and the resistance to social or philosophical system in the articulation of a poetic oeuvre. “Intellectuals” and their “ideas” (always expressed in prose) occupy a space in intellectual discussion which is denied to poets and poems, as though poetry and responsible ideation could not overlap. I want to illuminate, if possible, the way thinking goes on in the poet’s mind, and how its processes can be deduced from the surface of the poem—that linguistic arrangement that John Ashbery has called the poem’s “visible core.”
Reprinted by permission of the publisher from the forthcoming title Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats by Helen Vendler, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2004 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Vendler spoke recently with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the power of words--spoken, sung, and written--and how a poem can be a companion through life.
Bruce Cole: Let me start off asking you about the path that you took to poetry criticism. I understand you were pretty young when you embarked on this.
Helen Vendler: My mother read poetry very intensely to us. She had been a primary school teacher. My father also read poems to us in foreign languages. He was teaching us Spanish, French, and Italian, which is what he taught in high school. He was himself bilingual in Spanish. He had lived for fourteen years in Puerto Rico and Cuba before he married my mother.
So around me there were languages and lots of poetry, as well as anthologies, all the way from children’s ones up through grownup ones, and ones of foreign poetry in translation, too—-Mark Van Doren’s Anthology of World Poetry was where I first ran across Baudelaire in translation, for instance. There was a home library that was basic to me. As was my mother’s habit of quoting poetry in conversation. I didn’t often know until much later—-when I came across a line—-that it was Wordsworth’s and not hers.
Cole: That’s great.
Vendler: So poetry was around me. I began writing verse when I was six, went on until I was twenty--six, and gave it up in favor of my thesis. I was happier with what I was writing in prose than with what I had written in poetry.
Cole: You haven’t written any poetry since then?
Cole: You talked about Baudelaire, but do you remember any of the very, very earliest memories?
Vendler: The earliest were, of course, hymns, because I was brought up a Roman Catholic. We sang the Psalms in antiphonal chorus, in Latin, when I was in high school. These were lyrics that were in my blood, together with the whole Latin liturgy, all the Latin hymns, the Tantum ergo and Adoro te devote and all that. We sang all that—-and the mass. My mother took us to mass every morning, always in a large parish a requiem mass, and so I heard the Dies Irae every morning sung in Latin.
Cole: So, while we talked about growing up with poetry, you really grew up with languages and hymns.
Vendler: Yes. Yes.
Cole: This is an auspicious launching pad for someone who has spent her whole life dealing with language in many forms.
Vendler: Yes, because you feel it in the body and not only in the eye, especially when you sing it, or do choral recitations. It enters into a kinetic frame.
Cole: Let’s talk about the art of teaching poetry. What were your influences? You have written about the influence of I. A. Richards. Could you tell me what the influences were and then maybe tell me a little bit about I. A. Richards?
Vendler: As I say, my mother was my first teacher. I don’t remember anything extraordinary going on in elementary school or high school except that in high school they made us write a senior thesis of sorts. I did that on Hopkins. My mother had brought home a new biography of Hopkins from the Bookmobile and, as I was reading that for the first time—-I was fifteen —-I became enamored of all his sounds and new structures. I memorized Hopkins practically whole, all the mature poems, when I was fifteen, and then when I was sixteen, wrote my senior thesis, forty pages on Hopkins. I think we were supposed to write seventeen and I ended up writing forty, which is still my trouble (laughter).
For years afterwards I thought I should really write a book on Hopkins, but I didn’t, and couldn’t understand why. Later I realized it was because I had written my “book” on Hopkins. At sixteen, I had written down everything I thought, and there was never again that first pristine impulse to go tearing after something in that way until I wrote on Yeats, in my first real book, my dissertation.
Cole: You talked about memorizing poetry. People in the past memorized long patches of poetry, right? This is not happening anymore, is it?
Vendler: There are many things that aren’t happening that would make the study of poetry natural to children. First of all, poetry should be taught from the beginning with good poems, not bad poems, and it should be surrounded by a lot of related language arts—-memorizing and reciting and choral recitation and choral singing and all those things that feed into the appreciation of poetry.
Right now what teachers mostly do is have the children write poems. This is distressing to me, because they don’t write good poems.
Cole: They don’t have many examples, right?
Vendler: No. My colleague, Jorie Graham, insists that her writing class memorize every week. She has added an extra hour for memory and recitation, because, as she tells them, would-be poets can’t possibly write out what they haven’t taken in.
Cole: I wonder if the skills of memorization have slackened. Since that is not a part of most people’s mental furnishings, it’s just much harder.
Vendler: It all depends on cultural values. If you can make schoolchildren in China memorize four thousand characters, you can make schoolchildren memorize anything. Indeed, they memorize on their own all kinds of baseball statistics or popular songs. It’s not as though they don’t have memories and that the memories can’t be activated. It’s just a question of will, whether we want to include that as an important part of the curriculum.
Cole: Right. And value.
Vendler: I’ve been told that in Japan everybody, before leaving high school, memorizes the hundred great poems in the canon. So of course it can be done. Children’s minds are enormously active and retentive.
Cole: Absolutely. You’ve been at Harvard since 1981, where you’ve been teaching a core course called “Poems, Poets, and Poetry”
Cole: Tell me a little bit about that. Is that based on your experience with Richards?
Vendler: Not entirely. Richards was braver than I. During the twelve weeks of the term, in his two hours’ worth of lectures each week, he would do one poem. So there would be two complete hours spent on, say, the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or on “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” Richards believed that if you could really think about one poem a week you were doing very well. I assign more poems than that—-I try to do nine poems a week, of which the students discuss three in sections, while I try to talk about three in each of my two lecture hours.
Cole: What do you want your students to take away from this course?
Vendler: For the most part, it’s designed for students who are not going to concentrate in the humanities, people who are taking it as a supplement to their work in the social sciences or hard sciences, just as a student who was going to concentrate in English might take a core course in physics. The idea of the Harvard Core was that the instructor would choose and arrange the material in a way suitable to introduce students to a given field. It was a wide--open rubric when the Core was instituted, and still is. People who prefer survey courses don’t entirely approve of the Core.
I myself don’t think that a survey course is the best way to introduce non-English majors to, say, poetry. To force-march students through from Beowulf to T. S. Eliot is not productive. It seems too mechanical. I do believe in a survey for English concentrators: they have to learn sometime who comes before whom. But I don’t think it’s the right arrangement for non-majors.
So when Henry Rosovsky, then the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, asked me to think up a Core course, I took him at his word that I could do whatever I wanted that would open my field to students. The course is roughly chronological (because there is something to be said for chronology) and it proceeds by genre; if students read several elegies, they understand what one might do in an elegy. If they read several sonnets, they understand the potential of sonnets.
Each week, I assigned, in addition to “old” examples, poems of modern poets within the same genre, so students would know there were still living people writing elegies or sonnets or nature poetry.
By the time the students finish the term, they have read a hundred-odd good poems, and they have had a chance in section meetings to discuss contemporary versions of the perennial genres.
Cole: When I used to teach art history to non-majors, I always used to wonder what they would take away from it, say, in fifteen or twenty years when they were engineers or CEOs. I always wondered, what did they take away from it? What could I give them? Do you think about that?
Vendler: I do think about it. The first thing I wanted to do was to ensure that my students enjoyed poetry and that they would think of it as a respectable intellectual endeavor, so that if a child of theirs some years later said, “I’m taking a creative writing course,” they wouldn’t say, “Ugh.” They would say, “Oh, I remember I had a very interesting course in poetry” or something like that. They wouldn’t be prejudiced against the genre; they’d think of it as a worthy endeavor for grownups.
Secondly, I felt it might catch on with some of them. There are many people who have an avocation for poetry even though they’re lawyers or doctors, as we know. In the future, my students might pick up books; they might read a certain author;they might go to a poetry reading.
Cole: They have their day job, but often what they live for is poetry or art or some other intellectual endeavor that is not necessarily connected with what they do for a living.
Vendler: Exactly. And I mostly want my students to think of the arts as a resource that can keep them company through life, something they would be sorry to have missed.
Cole: We’ve talked about your course at Harvard, but you’ve talked about grade schools not doing poetry. We touched on that before.
Vendler: Not doing it as an integral part of the curriculum, as something sustained and central. It should be central to the language arts.
Cole: If it were your class, let’s say, in grade school, what poets would you pick to draw kids into the world of poetry?
Vendler: Well, Seamus Heaney has done two wonderful anthologies with Ted Hughes. The first one is called The Rattle Bag and the second one is called The School Bag, for slightly older children. In The Rattle Bag, which is designed, I would say for maybe third-graders up, you find Blake, and ballads, and little things by Coleridge and Wordsworth. Almost all the notable poets are in there, with their smaller and more accessible poems, which are still poems of great power. Nobody would say “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright” is not a poem of great power.
Vendler: There’s no reason you can’t give that to a third-grader.
Cole: Absolutely. Yes, we do often suffer from just these low expectations. You just don’t expect that these kids can do this anymore, and that’s distressing.
Vendler: It’s discouraging. And I don’t want to blame the teachers, because their lot is not a happy one.
Cole: No. No. I agree. So let me ask you a couple of global questions. What dimension does poetry provide that prose can’t? Why, at the end of the day, read poetry?
Vendler: I just had a letter about a talk on this subject given by Seamus Heaney, in which he mentioned the value of learning poems by heart. Otherwise, you need access to a book where you can track down a poem you once loved, if you haven’t memorized it. When you’re in a state of perplexity, sadness, gloom, elation, you look for a poem to match what you are feeling. There were almost no poems about motherhood when I became a mother; and there were almost no poems about giving birth, which is an extraordinarily disturbing and moving and exalting experience full of emotions that nobody has clarified or even reflected on. Poems about relations with children are also very rare. I don’t say that these subjects would make good poems, but it would be nice to see a strong poet try.
Cole: It’s such a central human experience that you’d think that people would have written on it.
Vendler: Yes. The elegy is everywhere, of course; death is very well covered. You have the occasional wedding poem, but very little of a powerful sort about family life. Perhaps this is beginning to change.
Sylvia Plath has written well about being a mother, as well as about being a daughter. But such a success takes a great deal of talent, and you can’t make the talent happen overnight.
Cole: Right. We’ve talked about teaching poetry and the dimension that poetry provides. But let me just turn to criticism. What does criticism give to the reader that the poem itself can’t provide? As an art historian this is something that is central to what I am interested in.
Vendler: Of course.
Well, just as poems are companions through life (once you have read them, heard them, seen them, and internalized them), so it seems to me paintings are companions through life. Who could forget, once you have seen it, the Death of Adam of Piero della Francesca? Who could forget Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body, about which Jorie Graham has written a wonderful poem? Who could forget the Rembrandt portraits? Who could forget the Vermeer girl, “solid with yearning,” that Lowell writes about? Who could forget the view of Delft? Once artworks are inside you, they reverberate so intensely.
Cole: I believe that some of the absolute finest criticism of art is written by poets. It is so hard to find a kind of visual and emotional verbal equivalent for what you see, because, of course, art is not verbal. I think poets have a rare understanding of and ability to express an insight into works of visual art.
Vendler: Exactly, as they have insight into emotions. We say baldly “I’m depressed” or “I was upset.” Poets have words for those emotions that we don’t possess.
Cole: Let me ask you a question about yourself now. You were the first woman to be elevated to the rank of University Professor at Harvard.
Cole: Were there unexpected happenings along the way?
Vendler: I came up at a time when there were very few women who stayed in graduate programs, because they did their best to discourage us. When I went to have my program card signed on my first day at Harvard as a graduate student, the chairman said to me, “We don’t want you here, Miss Hennessy. We don’t want any women here.” That was my welcome to Harvard. Most of the women dropped out. Because prejudice is everywhere, and institutions are quite rigid, I’m sure the former prejudice has just moved to the left or the right. We should not think ourselves better than our predecessors.
Vendler: Nonetheless, along the way, I was taught by exceptional men—-all the teachers at Harvard were men during my time, except for Rosemond Tuve, who passed through as a visiting professor. And before Harvard, at Boston University—-after having done chemistry as an undergraduate, I spent a year at Boston University as a special student in English—-the professors were wonderful to me, and they were all men. One professor there, Morton Berman, who made a huge difference in my life, taught me Yeats at the end of his marvelous course in Victorian literature, and prompted my writing my Harvard dissertation on Yeats. After Harvard, during my years of teaching, it happened that everyone wanted a token woman to appear in every roster that had hitherto been entirely male. I found myself in consequence filling various slots.
I don’t mean that I considered it any less an honor to be given such a role. It was a great honor to be made a University Professor, but at the same time, in 1990, it was clearly time that they put a female in the group. It was a convergence of my being in a generation with very few women PhDs, and the institutions having to look around for a woman to ornament various rosters.
Cole: You studied science as an undergraduate.
Cole: How does that, do you think, affect your criticism, or does it?
Vendler: I think it’s at the base of everything I do. You have to be exact in all your writing in science: your flow chart has to go from beginning to end with all the steps accounted for, and all the equations have to balance out. Evidence has to be presented for each step of your reasoning.
Science is very beautiful in its structural shapes, too. Organic chemistry pleased me almost more than anything else, because of the three-dimensionality of the assemblage of the molecules and the complication of the organic structures. It was just like seeing the structures of poetry: a molecular branch could go this way, or that way, there could be all sorts of wonderful, complex arrangements. I loved those geometric arrangements, as I love them in poetry.
Cole: My scientist friends, when they talk about science and they talk about their discovery, the thing they sometimes appreciate most is the aesthetics of it.
Vendler: Yes. There’s an economy in all works of the mind. The mind wants to make things correctly shaped or correctly hierarchized. I like evidence and I like exactness and I like shapes.
Cole: This is reflected in your analysis and criticism, which shows a high order of analytical thinking. What do you see as your role as a critic?
Vendler: Well, all critics broker art.
Cole: What do you do to encourage poetry at large, to get us to read, to reflect on what the poet tells us?
Vendler: When I was young and read poems, I wanted someone to tell me how they got there. The first book of that sort that I read was by Cecil Day-Lewis, called Poetry for You. He illustrated how one of his own poems got made, showing many drafts. I didn’t know poems had drafts. I thought they just appeared on the page.
The idea that a poem had a history was, for me, exceptionally interesting. It made me curious about manuscripts and about the evolution of any poem. I’m interested in two things: how works of art come to be and how they get better through the author’s life, if they do.
Cole: Yes. I’m very interested in that myself, the genesis.
Vendler: Genesis and subsequent evolution form the most dramatic story in the world. You sometimes find that sort of story in science, too, of course. How does Einstein come to the theory of relativity, and how does it get elaborated as it goes along? The creative impulse and its elaboration is, for me, always a compelling subject.
The other thing I really feel deeply about the work of criticism is a patriotic impulse of a sort. We have a wonderful patrimony of the arts, as you know, in America, and not enough is being done to disseminate it so that our population will love what has been supplied to them by their artists and writers.
Cole: When I talk about patriotism, I talk about it as a derivation of patria, you know, love of place, love of country.
Vendler: It’s easy for people to love the place, because they have their home ground and other parts of the country they have visited—-the national parks, for instance. But it’s harder to bring citizens to love the patrimony of the arts.
Cole: I agree. But I think both are important. We have an initiative called We the People, which is going to provide funds for the study not just of American history but of American culture as well.
Vendler: That’s good. And I hope that eventually there will be a sort of sequel from it into classical and past European culture, on which we are naturally so dependent. Perhaps there should be an endeavor of pairing, so that if you read Emily Dickinson, you read some English hymns—-that kind of connection.
Cole: Sure. It’s important for us to know who we are and what our patrimony is. You also can’t make sense of that unless you understand the world around you and where you are in it.
Your dissertation was on Yeats. How did you come to choose him?
Vendler: Well, as I said, I encountered Yeats, early Yeats, at the tail end of Victorian literature. I thought, “Who is this?” The books at home had gone up through the nineteenth century, and my own investigations had started with Eliot, and I had no idea that in between there was Yeats.
Once you encounter him he makes an enormous impact. When I found him lurking there for me between Tennyson and Eliot, I couldn’t believe that there was someone there that I hadn’t known about. When I found Yeats through that course at B.U., I thought, “I must read more of him.”
I took a seminar on his work in my first year at Harvard and wrote a final paper, that the teacher, John Kelleher, liked. I asked, “Do you think that might be a thesis?” and he said, “Absolutely.” So from my first year at Harvard I knew what my thesis would be, which meant I could go ahead very fast, because everything I read fed into it.
Cole: Yeats’s brother was a painter, right?
Vendler: Yes, Jack Yeats, yes. The father was a painter, too, who painted portraits. He’s a very touching painter.
Cole: I didn’t know that.
Cole: I’ve heard you read Yeats and I think it’s terrific. I have to say it was thrilling.
Vendler: Thank you.
Cole: Well, then you went on to Wallace Stevens.
Vendler: Yes, a friend made me sit down in a Harvard library to listen to a recording of Wallace Stevens reading his poems. I had skipped over Stevens in my Oscar Williams anthology of modern poetry because I didn’t understand the first words of “Sunday Morning,” “Complacencies of the peignoir.” I thought, “A peignoir can’t have complacencies. What is he talking about?”
Then when I heard Stevens read I was struck like Saul on the road to Damascus. This was my poet above all others. This meaning came clearly through the voice as it had not off the page. Earlier, I had been impatient with his originality: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” seemed to me incomprehensible. Now I wonder what was wrong with me. I had already committed myself to the Yeats thesis, but when my dissertation was published, one reviewer said, “There is a crypto-book on Wallace Stevens hiding in the footnotes of this Yeats book.”
Cole: It’s interesting how our attitudes change towards works of art. I think of them in a way as kind of a Rorschach blot: when you come back to them or you think about them they always have changed around and you think, how did they change?
Vendler: Oh, yes.
Cole: But, of course, it isn’t they that changed. It’s you. What role, speaking about these two poets, do you think biography should play in the interpretation of poetry? This is, of course, a big thing when you’re thinking about visual arts, as well.
Vendler: Of course. We don’t know anything about Shakespeare to speak of, nothing that would help us know why he wrote Hamlet, and we get along just fine without that biographical knowledge. On the other hand, I don’t see any reason to preclude knowing any facts that are out there. I think you should know the biography of a poet if you’re writing on a poet.
The trouble with giving the biography to students is they substitute it for the poems. It’s perhaps cruel to withhold the biography and make them look at the actual words and thoughts on the page. They find it very frustrating. But, at some point, they have to stop thinking, “He wrote this because he lived in Venice,” or something of that sort.
Vendler: All scholars know the biographies of the poets or the authors about whom they write, but I’m not sure biography is the best way to introduce work to students. Because they welcome it, I think one should give them a bit—-not enough to replace the poem, but enough so they know when this person lived—-
Cole: Yes, to put it in some kind of context.
Vendler: Yes, and a headnote, a brief headnote, can do this. Then they can focus on the poem.
Cole: This is not my idea, but it’s Kenneth Clark’s, who has a three-tiered way of looking at art. First, you see the thing and you are somehow attracted to it. Then you want to know something more about it so you go and read up on it and put it in some kind of context. Then you go back to it and you see it with an enlarged vision.
Vendler: That’s true.
Cole: When you’re not reading as a critic, what are you reading?
Vendler: I read a lot of art history, to tell you the truth.
Cole: Do you really?
Vendler: I can read it and learn things. I like to learn things. Since I never had a course in art, I’ve never been formally trained. What I like to do is get a big heavy book on an artist and work my way through it. Right now I’m reading about Bellini, to whom I became addicted when I spent a month in Venice.
Cole: Bellini. There is the poet’s painter.
Vendler: I have picked up books on Vermeer, on Fra Angelico, Rembrandt, Carpaccio, and Breughel. I read them as I get to them. Such reading makes me very happy, as does going to museums.
Vendler: I wanted to tell you that on account of your book on the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, I went to see the Chapel when I was living in Venice. I couldn’t get in; nonetheless I saw it from the outside, and I had your book for the inside. I did want to thank you again for that because it made me want to go there; next time I’ll book ahead.
Cole: Well, that's the highest compliment you can give an art historian. What I really wanted to do when I wrote was to get people to go and look for themselves.
It sounds as if you spend a lot of your leisure with books.
Vendler: I listen to a lot of music, too.
Cole: What do you listen to?
Vendler: I’m attracted to vocal music, naturally, since I study the lyric, so it’s lieder and opera I listen to most. I’ve begun to understand instrumental music better, so now I’m beginning to listen to Brahms’s chamber music.
Cole: You said you don’t often do negative reviews. What do you do with a book you don’t like? How do you handle it?
Vendler: I forget it--you mean if I have to write about it?
Vendler: I tell the truth as I see it. I was reading a biography of Mary McCarthy, and it turns out she was hurt by a review that I did of her Birds of America. But she also believed it to be true, which hurt her more.
Cole: As a writer and a professor, I guess I understand both sides of the equation. This has been interesting. Thank you for taking time out from your academic schedule.
Vendler: Thank you.
The Ocean, The Bird, And The Scholar
"Poetry is the scholar's art."
Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous
When it became useful in educational circles in the United States to group various university disciplines under the name "The Humanities," it seems to have been tacitly decided that philosophy and history would be cast as the core of this grouping, and that other forms of learning--the study of languages, literatures, religion, and the arts--would be relegated to subordinate positions. Philosophy, conceived of as embodying truth, and history, conceived of as a factual record of the past, were proposed as the principal embodiments of Western culture, and given pride of place in general education programs.
Confidence in a reliable factual record, not to speak of faith in a reliable philosophical synthesis, has undergone considerable erosion. Historical and philosophical assertions issue, it seems, from particular vantage points, and are no less contestable than the assertions of other disciplines. The day of limiting cultural education to Western culture alone is over. There are losses here, of course--losses in depth of learning, losses in coherence--but these very changes have thrown open the question of how the humanities should now be conceived, and how the study of the humanities should, in this moment, be encouraged.
I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on. After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered. For every person who has read a Platonic dialogue, there are probably ten who have seen a Greek marble in a museum, or if not a Greek marble, at least a Roman copy, or if not a Roman copy, at least a photograph. Around the arts there exist, in orbit, the commentaries on art produced by scholars: musicology and music criticism, art history and art criticism, literary and linguistic studies. At the periphery we might set the other humanistic disciplines--philosophy, history, the study of religion. The arts would justify a broad philosophical interest in ontology, phenomenology, and ethics; they would bring in their train a richer history than one which, in its treatment of mass phenomena, can lose sight of individual human uniqueness--the quality most prized in artists, and most salient, and most valued, in the arts.
What would be the advantage of centering humanistic study on the arts? The arts present the whole uncensored human person--in emotional, physical, and intellectual being, and in single and collective form--as no other branch of human accomplishment does. In the arts we see both the nature of human predicaments--in Job, in Lear, in Isabel Archer--and the evolution of representation over long spans of time (as the taste for the Gothic replaces the taste for the Romanesque, as the composition of opera replaces the composition of plainchant). The arts bring into play historical and philosophical questions without implying the prevalence of a single system or of universal solutions. Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion. The arts are true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived--as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms. The case histories developed within the arts are in part idiosyncratic, but in part applicable by analogy to a class larger than the individual entities they depict. Hamlet is a very specific figure--a Danish prince who has been to school in Germany--but when Prufrock says, "I am not Prince Hamlet," he is in a way testifying to the fact that Hamlet means something to every one who knows about the play.
If the arts are so satisfactory an embodiment of human experience, why do we need studies commenting on them? Why not merely take our young people to museums, to concerts, to libraries? There is certainly no substitute for hearing Mozart, reading Dickinson, or looking at the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Why should we support a brokering of the arts; why not rely on their direct impact? The simplest answer is that reminders of art's presence are constantly necessary. As art goes in and out of fashion, some scholar is always necessarily reviving Melville, or editing Monteverdi, or recommending Jane Austen. Critics and scholars are evangelists, plucking the public by the sleeve, saying "Look at this," or "Listen to this," or "See how this works." It may seem hard to believe, but there was a time when almost no one valued Gothic art, or, to come closer to our own time, Moby-Dick and Billy Budd.
A second reason to encourage scholarly studies of the arts is that such studies establish in human beings a sense of cultural patrimony. We in the United States are the heirs of several cultural patrimonies: a world patrimony (of which we are becoming increasingly conscious); a Western patrimony (from which we derive our institutions, civic and aesthetic); and a specifically American patrimony (which, though great and influential, has, bafflingly, yet to be established securely in our schools). In Europe, although the specifically national patrimony was likely to be urged as preeminent--Italian pupils studied Dante, French pupils studied Racine--most nations felt obliged to give their students an idea of the Western inheritance extending beyond native production. As time passed, colonized nations, although instructed in the culture of the colonizer, found great energy in creating a national literature and culture of their own with and against the colonial model (as we can see, for instance, in the example of nineteenth-- and twentieth--century Ireland). For a long time, American schooling paid homage, culturally speaking, to Europe and to England; but increasingly we began to cast off European and English influence in arts and letters, without, unfortunately, filling the consequent cultural gap in the schools with our own worthy creations in art and literature. Our students leave high school knowing almost nothing about American art, music, architecture, and sculpture, and having only a superficial acquaintance with a few American authors.
We will ultimately want to teach, with justifiable pride, our national patrimony in arts and letters--by which, if by anything, we will be remembered--and we hope, of course, to foster young readers and writers, artists and museum--goers, composers and music enthusiasts. But these patriotic and cultural aims alone are not enough to justify putting the arts and the studies of the arts at the center of our humanistic and educational enterprise. What, then, might lead us to recommend the arts and their commentaries as the center of the humanities? Art, said Wallace Stevens, helps us to live our lives. I'm not sure we are greatly helped to live our lives by history (since whether or not we remember it we seem doomed to repeat it), or by philosophy (the consolations of philosophy have never been very widely received). Stevens's assertion is a large one, and we have a right to ask how he would defend it. How do the arts, and the scholarly studies attendant on them, help us to live our lives?
Stevens was a democratic author, and expected his experience, and his reflections on it, to apply widely. For him, as for any other artist, "to live our lives" means to live in the body as well as in the mind, on the sensual earth as well as in the celestial clouds. The arts exist to relocate us in the body by means of the work of the mind in aesthetic creation; they situate us on the earth, paradoxically, by means of a mental paradigm of experience embodied, with symbolic concision, in a physical medium. It distressed Stevens that most of the human beings he saw walked about blankly, scarcely seeing the earth on which they lived, filtering it out from their pragmatic urban consciousness. Even when he was only in his twenties, Stevens was perplexed by the narrowness of the way in which people inhabit the earth:
I thought, on the train, how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds. It still dwarfs & terrifies & crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless.
[Souvenirs and Prophecies, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1977), note of April 18, 1904, p. 134]
The arts and their attendant disciplines restore human awareness by releasing it into the ambience of the felt world, giving a habitation to the tongue in newly coined language, to the eyes and ears in remarkable recreations of the physical world, to the animal body in the kinesthetic flex and resistance of the artistic medium. Without an alert sense of such things, one is only half alive. Stevens reflected on this function of the arts--and on the results of its absence--in three poems that I will take up as proof--texts for what follows. Although Stevens speaks in particular about poetry, he extends the concept to poesis--the Greek term for making, widely applicable to all creative effort.
Like geography and history, the arts confer a patina on the natural world. A vacant stretch of grass becomes humanly important when one reads the sign "Gettysburg." Over the grass hangs an extended canopy of meaning--struggle, corpses, tears, glory--shadowed by a canopy of American words and works, from the Gettysburg Address to the Shaw Memorial. The vacant plain of the sea becomes human when it is populated by the ghosts of Ahab and Moby--Dick. An unremarkable town becomes "Winesburg, Ohio"; a rustic bridge becomes "the rude bridge that arched the flood" where Minutemen fired "the shot heard round the world." One after the other, cultural images suspend themselves, invisibly, in the American air, as--when we extend our glance--the Elgin marbles, wherever they may be housed, hover over the Parthenon, once their home; as Michelangelo's Adam has become, to the Western eye, the Adam of Genesis. The patina of culture has been laid down over centuries, so that in an English field one can find a Roman coin, in an Asian excavation an Emperor's stone army, in our Western desert the signs of the mound--builders. Over Stevens's giant earth, with its tumultuous motions, there floats every myth, every text, every picture, every system, that creators--artistic, religious, philosophical--have conferred upon it. The Delphic oracle hovers there next to Sappho, Luther's theses hang next to the Grunewald altar, China's Cold Mountain neighbors Sinai, the B--minor Mass shares space with Rabelais.
If there did not exist, floating over us, all the symbolic representations that art and music, religion, philosophy, and history, have invented, and all the interpretations and explanations of them that scholarly effort has produced, what sort of people would we be? We would, says Stevens, be sleepwalkers, going about like automata, unconscious of the very life we were living: this is the import of Stevens's 1943 poem "Somnambulisma." The poem rests on three images, of which the first is the incessantly variable sea, the vulgar reservoir from which the vulgate--the common discourse of language and art alike--is drawn. The second image is that of a mortal bird, whose motions resemble those of the water but who is ultimately washed away by the ocean. The subsequent generations of the bird, too, are always washed away. The third image is that of a scholar, without whom ocean and bird alike would be incomplete:
On an old shore, the vulgar ocean rolls
Noiselessly, noiselessly, resembling a thin bird,
That thinks of settling, yet never settles, on a nest.
The wings keep spreading and yet are never wings.
The claws keep scratching on the shale, the shallow shale,
The sounding shallow, until by water washed away.
The generations of the bird are all
By water washed away. They follow after.
They follow, follow, follow, in water washed away.
Without this bird that never settles, without
Its generations that follow in their universe,
The ocean, falling and falling on the hollow shore,
Would be a geography of the dead: not of that land
To which they may have gone, but of the place in which
They lived, in which they lacked a pervasive being,
In which no scholar, separately dwelling,
Poured forth the fine fins, the gawky beaks, the personalia,
Which, as a man feeling everything, were his.
Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America)
Without the bird and its generations, the ocean, says the poet, would be a geography of the dead-- not in the sense of their having gone to some other world, but in the sense of their being persons who were emotionally and intellectually dead while alive, who lacked "a pervasive being." To lack a pervasive being is to fail to live fully. A pervasive being is one that extends through the brain, the body, the senses, and the will, a being that spreads to every moment, so that one not only feels what Keats called "the poetry of earth" but responds to it with creative motions of one's own.
Unlike Keats's nightingale, Stevens's bird does not sing; its chief functions are to generate generations of birds, to attempt to sprout wings, and to try to leave behind some painstakingly scratched record of its presence. The water restlessly moves, sometimes noiselessly, sometimes in "sounding shallow[s]"; the bird never settles. The bird tries to generate wings, but never quite succeeds; it tries to inscribe itself on the shale, but its scratchings are washed away. The ocean is falling and falling, the mortal generations are following and following. Time obliterates birds and inscriptions alike.
Imagine being psychically dead during the very life you have lived. That, says Stevens, would be the fate of the generations were it not for the scholar. Stevens does not locate his scholar in the ocean or on the shale, the haunts of the bird; the scholar, says the poet, dwells separately. But he dwells in immense fertility: things pour forth from him. He makes up for the wings that are never wings, for the impotent claws; he generates fine fins, the essence of the ocean's fish; he creates gawky beaks, opening in fledglings waiting to be fed so that they may rise into their element, the air; and he produces new garments for the earth, called not "regalia" (suitable for a monarchy) but "personalia," suitable for the members of a democracy. How is the scholar capable of such profusion? He is fertile both because he is a man who "feels everything," and because every thing that he feels reifies itself in a creation. He gives form and definition both to the physical world (as its scientific observer) and to the inchoate aesthetic world (as the quickened responder to the bird's incomplete natural song). He is analogous to the God of Genesis; as he observes and feels finniness, he says, "Let there be fine fins," and fine fins appear.
Why does Stevens name this indispensable figure a "scholar"? (Elsewhere he calls him a "rabbi"--each is a word connoting learning.) What does learning have to do with creation? Why are study and learning indispensable in reifying and systematizing the world of phenomena and their aesthetic representations? Just as the soldier is poor without the poet's lines (as Stevens says elsewhere), so the poet is poor without the scholar's cultural memory, his taxonomies and his histories. Our systems of thought--legal, philosophical, scientific, religious--have all been devised by "scholars" without whose aid widespread complex thinking could not take place and be debated, intricate texts and scores could not be accurately established and interpreted. The restless emotions of aesthetic desire, the wing--wish and inscription--yearning of the bird, perish without the arranging and creative powers of intellectual endeavor. The arts and the studies of the arts are for Stevens a symbiotic pair, each dependent on the other. Nobody is born understanding string quartets or reading Latin or creating poems; without the scholar and his libraries, there would be no perpetuation and transmission of culture. The mutual support of art and learning, the mutual delight each ideally takes in each, can be taken as a paradigm of how the humanities might be integrally conceived and educationally conveyed as inextricably linked to the arts.
"Somnambulisma" is the illustration of Stevens's adage that "Poetry is the scholar's art." What is necessary, asks "Somnambulisma," for creative effort? Emotion, desire, generative energy, and learned invention--these, replies the poem, are indispensable in the artist. But there is another way of thinking about art, focusing less on the creator of art than on those of us who make up art's audience. What do we gain in being the audience for the arts and their attendant disciplines? Let us, says Stevens, imagine ourselves deprived of all the products of aesthetic and humanistic effort, living in a world with no music, no art, no architecture, no books, no films, no choreography, no theater, no histories, no songs, no prayers, no images floating above the earth to keep it from being a geography of the dead. Stevens creates the desolation of that deprivation in a poem--the second of my three texts--called "Large Red Man Reading." The poem is like a painting by Matisse, showing us an earthly giant the color of the sun, reading aloud from great sky--sized tabulae which, as the day declines, darken from blue to purple. The poem also summons up the people of the giant's audience: they are ghosts, no longer alive, who now inhabit, unhappily (having expected more from the afterlife) the remote "wilderness of stars." What does the giant describe to the ghosts as he reads from his blue tabulae? Nothing extraordinary--merely the normal furniture of life, the common and the beautiful, the banal, the ugly, and even the painful. But to the ghosts these are things achingly familiar from life and yet disregarded within it. Now they are achingly lost, things they never sufficiently prized when alive, but which they miss devastatingly in the vacancy of space among the foreign stars:
Large Red Man Reading
There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.
There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,
They would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly
And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,
Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.
The ghosts, while they were alive, had lacked feeling, because they had not registered in their memory "the outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law." It is a triple assertion that Stevens makes here: that being possesses not only outlines (as all bodies do) and expressings (in all languages) but also a law, which is stricter than mere "expressings." Expressings by themselves cannot exemplify the law of being: only poesis--the creator's act of replicating in symbolic form the structures of life--pervades being sufficiently to intuit and embody its law. Poesis not only reproduces the content of life (its daily phenomena) but finds a manner (inspired, vatic) for that content, and in the means of its medium--here, the literal characters of its language--embodies the structural laws that shape being to our understanding.
Stevens's anecdote--of--audience in "Large Red Man Reading" suggests how ardently we would want to come back, as ghosts, in order to recognize and relish the parts of life we had insufficiently noticed and hardly valued when alive. But we cannot--according to the poem--accomplish this by ourselves: it is only when the earthly giant of vital being begins to read, using poetic and prophetic syllables to express the reality, and the law, of being, that the experiences of life can be reconstituted and made available as beauty and solace, to help us live our lives.
How could our life be different if we reconstituted the humanities around the arts and the studies of the arts? Past civilizations are recalled in part, of course, for their philosophy and their history, but for most of us it is the arts of the past that preserve Egypt and Greece and Rome, India and Africa and Japan. The names of the artists may be lost, the arts themselves in fragments, the scrolls incomplete, the manuscripts partial--but Anubis and the Buddha and The Canterbury Tales still populate our imaginative world. They come trailing their interpretations, which follow them and are like water washed away. Scholarly and critical interpretations may not outlast the generation to which they are relevant; as intellectual concepts flourish and wither, so interpretations are proposed and discarded. But we would not achieve our own grasp on Vermeer or Horace, generation after generation, without the scholars' outpourings.
If we are prepared to recognize the centrality of artists and their interpreters to every past culture, we might begin to reflect on what our own American culture has produced that will be held dear centuries from now. Which are the paintings, the buildings, the novels, the musical compositions, the poems, through which we will be remembered? What set of representations of life will float above the American soil, rendering each part of it as memorable as Marin's Maine or Langston Hughes's Harlem, as Cather's Nebraska or Lincoln's Gettysburg? How will the outlines and the expressings and the syllables of American being glow above our vast geography? How will our citizens be made aware of their cultural inheritance; how will they become proud of their patrimony? How will they pass it on to their children as their own generation is by water washed away? How will their children become capable of "feeling everything," of gaining "a pervasive being," capable of helping the bird to spread its wings and the fish to grow their fine fins and the scholar to pour forth his personalia?
To link, by language, feeling to phenomena has always been the poet's aim. "Poetry," said Wordsworth in his 1798 Preface, "is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science." Our culture cannot afford to neglect the thirst of human beings for the representations of life offered by the arts, the hunger of human beings for commentary on those arts as they appear on the cultural stage. The training in subtlety of response (which used to be accomplished in large part by religion and the arts) cannot be responsibly left to commercial movies and television. Within education, scientific training, which necessarily brackets emotion, needs to be complemented by the direct mediation--through the arts and their interpretations--of feeling, vicarious experience, and interpersonal imagination. Art can often be trusted--once it is unobtrusively but ubiquitously present--to make its own impact felt. A set of Rembrandt self--portraits in a shopping mall, a group of still lifes in a subway, sonatas played in the lunch--room, spirituals sung chorally from kindergarten on--all such things, appearing entirely without commentary, can be offered in the community and the schools as a natural part of living. Students can be gently led, by teachers and books, from passive reception to active reflection. The arts are too profound and far--reaching to be left out of our children's patrimony: the arts have a right, within our schools, to be as serious an object of study as molecular biology or mathematics. Like other complex products of the mind, they ask for reiterated exposure, sympathetic exposition, and sustained attention.
The arts have the advantage, once presented, of making people curious not only about aesthetic matters, but also about history, philosophy, and other cultures. How is it that pre--Columbian statues look so different from Roman ones? Why do some painters concentrate on portraits, others on landscapes? Why did great ages of drama arise in England and Spain and then collapse? Who first found a place for jazz in classical music, and why? Why do some writers become national heroes, and others not? Who evaluates art, and how? Are we to believe what a piece of art says? Why does Picasso represent a full face and a profile at the same time? How small can art be and still be art? Why have we needed to invent so many subsets within each art--within literature, the epic, drama, lyric, novel, dialogue, essay; within music everything from the solo partita to the chorales of Bach? Why do cultures use different musical instruments and scales? Who has the right to be an artist? How does one claim that right? The questions are endless, and the answers provocative; and both questions and answers require, and indeed generate, sensuous responsiveness, a trained eye, fine discrimination, and a hunger for learning, all qualities we would like to see in ourselves and in our children.
Best of all, the arts are enjoyable. The "grand elementary principle of pleasure" (as Wordsworth called it), might be invoked more urgently than it now is to make the humanities, both past and present, mean something relevant to Americans. Once the appetite for an art has been awakened by pleasure, the nursery rhyme and the cartoon lead by degrees to Stevens and Eakins. A curriculum relying on the ocean, the bird, and the scholar, on the red man and his blue tabulae, would produce a love of the arts and humanities that we have not yet succeeded in generating in the population at large. When reality is freshly seen, through the artists and their commentators, something happens to the felt essence of life. As Stevens wrote in the third of my texts, "Angel Surrounded by Paysans," the angel of reality then briefly appears at our door, saying:
. . . I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,
Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man--locked set,
And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone
Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
Like watery words awash; like meanings said
By repetitions of half meanings. Am I not,
Myself, only half of a figure of a sort,
A figure half seen, or seen for a moment, a man
Of the mind, an apparition apparelled in
Apparels of such lightest look that a turn
Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?
["Angel Surrounded by Paysans"]
That art--angel of the earth, renewing our sense of life and of ourselves, is only half meaning, because we provide the other half. Among us are the scholars who interpret those half--meanings into full ones, apparelling us anew in their personalia. In the apparels of his messenger, Stevens is recalling Wordsworth's great ode:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
The secular angel refreshing our sense of the world, apparelled in Wordsworthian light, stays only for a moment, our moment of attention. But that moment of mental acutiy recalls us to being, the body, and the emotions, which are, peculiarly, so easy for us to put to one side as we engage in purely intellectual or physical work. Just as art is only half itself without us--its audience, its analysts, its scholars--so we are only half ourselves without it. When, in this country, we become fully ourselves, we will have balanced our great accomplishments in progressive abstraction--in mathematics and the natural sciences--with an equally great absorption in art, and in the disciplines ancillary to art. The arts, though not progressive, aim to be eternal, and sometimes are. And why should the United States not have as much eternity as any other nation? As Marianne Moore said of excellence, "It has never been confined to one locality."