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The Critic's Craft

A Conversation with Helen Vendler

HUMANITIES, May/June 2004 | Volume 25, Number 3

Poetry critic Helen Vendler is this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. She 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. Vendler, whom the poet Seamus Heaney calls "the best close reader of poems to be found on the literary pages," is the author of nineteen books, among them studies of Yeats, Herbert, Keats, Stevens, and Shakespeare. She is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University.

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?

Vendler: No.

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”

Vendler: Yes.

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.

Cole: Absolutely.

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.

Vendler: Yes.

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.

Cole: Exactly.

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.

Vendler: Yes.

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.

Vendler: Yes.

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.

Cole: Agreed.

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.

Cole: Wonderful.

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?

Cole: Yes.

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.