Skip to main content

Awards & Honors: 2004 Jefferson Lecturer

Helen Vendler Excerpt

Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath

read this issue now

Humanities Magazine May/June 2004 cover

May/June 2004

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.