Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler is Porter University Professor at Harvard. Her collection of essays, The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar, will be published next year.

Why aren’t they screaming? Philip Larkin

Helen Vendler, 6 November 2014

Twenty​ years ago, Andrew Motion, one of Philip Larkin’s literary executors, wrote a scholarly and comprehensive authorised biography of the poet, whom he had known well; it was subtitled ‘A Writer’s Life’. Motion informed his readers that some important ingredients of Larkin’s life were still unavailable, especially most of the letters written to Monica Jones,...

Hopkins felt himself called to praise ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’. He himself embodied – in every community in which he lived, beginning with his family – each of these adjectives: he was (especially to the Irish) ‘counter, original, spare, strange’; and if common taste ran to the monotony of uniformity, he would prize, even if he was alone in prizing them, ‘dappled things’. Like some other early poems, ‘Pied Beauty’ – intended to be a poem about the reconciliation of the Many in the One – skirted danger.

But I feel a deeper falsity to Dante and his mentality in certain observations by Griffiths about both the poem and the world from which it issued. Some of them stem from a wish to bring Dante into contemporary intellectual trendiness, some from a patronising attitude towards religion and its accoutrements. Trendiness: ‘The Commedia has some title to be considered the first masterpiece by a postcolonial writer, for most Europeans were once Roman subjects’; and ‘some readers may find it helpful to compare the “now you see it, now you don’t” oscillations of the poem with Derrida’s employment of concepts sous rature’; and ‘the Commedia is a foray into self-consciously “virtual reality”.’ On religion: after the invention of printing, ‘it became easier to feel that you had “finished” the Bible as you might finish an Agatha Christie, and correspondingly easier to think of the sacred writings as like a . . . spiritual “miracle diet” with a defined set of unambiguous recommendations and vetoes.’

The new volume of poems by my Harvard colleague Jorie Graham, in its US edition, bears on its jacket a detail from Vermeer’s The Astronomer, showing the hand of the astronomer as it touches, almost affectionately, the zodiacal globe it is about to spin. Although the star-gazer cannot make physical contact with his remote field of vision, the caressing way his finger lies on the surface...

Fronds and Tenrils: Mark Ford

Helen Vendler, 29 November 2001

Suppose, having been betrayed – ‘hooked/then thrown back’ – you decide to let your instant reflex, a desire for revenge, cool off overnight; then suppose you wake up the next morning and your anger takes on a no less pervasive, if different, configuration. Is this how you might be feeling?

even after dawn

has tightened still further the angle between reflex and use,...

All Her Nomads: Amy Clampitt

Helen Vendler, 5 February 1998

Amy Clampitt died in 1994, at the age of 74; Knopf had published her first book of poems, The Kingfisher, in 1983. It was followed by What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), Westward (1990) and A Silence Opens (1994) – five books in 11 years. These are the books that make up this Collected (which does not include Clampitt’s chapbook, Multitudes, Multitudes, privately printed in 1973).’

Inspiration, Accident, Genius

Helen Vendler, 16 October 1997

In the sixties, three scholarly biographies of Keats appeared within a short time: W.J. Bate’s and Aileen Ward’s in 1963, Robert Gittings’s in 1968. Each is still very useful; all were admirable, if in different ways. W.J. Bate, who had been interested in Keats ever since he wrote his undergraduate thesis on the poet in 1939, paid special attention to Keats’s stylistic development in a discussion that has never been bettered; Aileen Ward brought to the study of Keats an almost clairvoyant psychological understanding (drawing on, but by no means limited to, Freudian insights); and Robert Gittings (who, before he wrote the biography, had published three short books on Keats) displayed an unexampled mastery of the facts of Keats’s life and its English context.

When Emerson wrote to Whitman that there must have been ‘a long foreground’ preceding the composition of Leaves of Grass, he expressed the curiosity every reader feels when coming upon a fully accomplished poem. ‘How did this art develop?’ – this question accounts for the fascination exerted on us by juvenilia and by manuscript drafts such as the 1971 facsimile of the manuscript of The Waste Land, edited by Valerie Eliot. Though some of Eliot’s verses not included in the 1963 Collected Poems were published in 1967 under the title Poems of Early Youth, it has long been known that a notebook containing other early poems, written between 1910 and 1917, languished in the Berg Collection of the New York Library, and that in the notebook there had once been some ‘obscene’ comic verses (these, excised from the notebook and given by Eliot to Ezra Pound, were later discovered among the Pound papers). Valerie Eliot has now allowed the entire notebook to be published, superbly edited by Christopher Ricks, whose T.S. Eliot and Prejudice is still the most acute and fine-grained investigation of the vexed question of the place of prejudice in Eliot’s writing.’

Dark and Deep

Helen Vendler, 4 July 1996

‘It would be hard,’ Robert Frost wrote, ‘to gather biography from poems of mine except as they were all written by the same person, out of the same general region north of Boston, and out of the same books.’ Frost’s biographers, who began their collective labours well before he died, were not to be put off by such a statement, and the early collections of memoirs and reminiscences culminated in Lawrance Thompson’s three-volume biography published between 1966 and 1976. Frost was born in 1874 and died in 1963; between those dates he lived a long and harrowing life, the general details of which have become well known. They include the early death of his editor-father, the family’s return from San Francisco to Massachusetts and New Hampshire; Frost’s abortive stays at both Dartmouth and Harvard; his assisting in his mother’s school; his marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Elinor White; their ten-year stay on a New Hampshire farm given to Frost by his grandfather; the early deaths of two of their six children; the brief two-and-a-half year escape to England, where Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will (reviewed enthusiastically by Pound) was published; the subsequent appearance of many volumes of poetry, four of which received Pulitzer prizes; the sporadic teaching at Amherst and elsewhere as a poet in residence and éminence grise; the immensely popular stage-readings; the catastrophic fates of three of the four surviving children (Marjorie died of a post-partum infection; Irma was permanently confined in an insane asylum; Carol, the only son, committed suicide); the exhaustion of Elinor, whose heart gave out in her sixties after many changes of dwelling and ten pregnancies – the last when she was 52; the final years of public fame, culminating in Frost’s reading of ‘The Gift Outright’ at the Kennedy Inauguration and his meeting with Khrushchev in Russia.’’

The Three Acts of Criticism

Helen Vendler, 26 May 1994

This handy compilation (to which I myself contributed a couple of notices) covers, according to the jacket copy, ‘some 1500’ poets and ‘charts the shift from “poetry” to “poetries” – from primarily British and American traditions to a rich diversity of younger poetic identities elsewhere’. It may be doubted whether ‘poetry’ is so easily dislodged in favour of ‘poetries’, but no editor is responsible for his jacket copy. Nonetheless, the jacket copy (like the accompanying publicity material) is a test of the current way of marketing poetry; and it is disheartening that after a brief nod to ‘critical assessment’ and ‘biographical and bibliographical information’, the jacket flap launches into its trumpeting conclusion, that ‘20th-century poets have lived far from humdrum lives’:’

The Numinous Moose

Helen Vendler, 11 March 1993

Brett Millier’s new biography of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) is a substantial one, adding extensively to the biographical material provided by David Kalstone in Becoming a Poet (covering Bishop’s friendships with Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore) and by Lorrie Goldensohn in Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry (relating, notably, Bishop’s 15 years in Brazil). Millier (who teaches at Middlebury College) surveys Bishop’s life from cradle to grave, ordering its events in a readable narrative interspersed with paraphrases of poems which illuminate the life. This is not the most interesting use of poems, but it is a legitimate one. Millier has worked in the several archives of Bishop material, and has mined Bishop’s notebooks, rough drafts and letters (including previously restricted ones) to good effect. The few errors that I (from my limited knowledge) could spot were not serious ones; Millier, for instance, seems to think that classes at Harvard were not co-educational when Bishop arrived to teach there in 1970: ‘Harvard and Radcliffe had not yet merged. Her undergraduate students would all be male.’ In fact, courses had been co-educational since World War Two, when the classrooms were emptied of men. People with an intimate knowledge of Bishop’s life, or, say, of Brazilian politics, may find similar inaccuracies here or there. But the general external contours of the life seem adequately represented here, and the paraphrases of the poems are, for biographical purposes, reliable. Millier has conversed with many of Bishop’s friends and acquaintances, and her attitude to a life made persistently disastrous by alcoholism is a sympathetic and generous one.

Emily v. Mabel: Emily Dickinson

Susan Eilenberg, 30 June 2011

One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – One need not be a House – The Brain has Corridors – surpassing Material Place – ‘All men say “What”...

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Hand and Foot: Seamus Heaney

John Kerrigan, 27 May 1999

When Seamus Heaney left Belfast in 1972, to work as a freelance writer in the relative safety of the Republic, Northern Ireland was a war zone. Internment and Bloody Sunday had recruited so many...

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Recently I was teaching a poem by Yeats that has always reminded me of a stretched sonnet. ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ has an octave of 20 lines and a sestet of...

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Charmed Quarantine

James Wood, 21 March 1996

Helen Vendler has the power to steal poets and enslave them in her personal canon. For this she is squeezed between rival condescensions: theorists pity her comprehensibility, while in creative...

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John Kerrigan, 2 April 1987

Professor Vendler’s soul is in peril. Reviewing Black American broadsides in 1974, she found it ‘sinful that anthologies and Collected Works should betray the poems they print by...

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Somebody reading

Barbara Everett, 21 June 1984

Perhaps as a result of the lingering Symbolist inheritance, the aesthetic notion of most potency at present is the idea that the work of art is in some sense about itself. Even in the fine arts,...

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