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Helen Vendler: The Poem Unfolded

An Appreciation by Henri Cole

By Henri Cole | HUMANITIES, May/June 2004 | Volume 25, Number 3

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.”

About the Author

Henri Cole is poet-in-residence at Smith College. From 1982 until 1988 he was the executive director of the Academy of American Poets. His books of poetry include Middle Earth (2003), The Visible Man (1998), The Look of Things (1995), The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge (1989), and The Marble Queen (1986).