The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: essays on poets and poetry, by Helen Vendler, Harvard University Press, 444 pp. £25.95, ISBN: 978-0674736566
Poets and critics sometimes inhabit the same body. Think Eliot, Pound, Randall Jarrell, Donald Davie, Robert Pinsky, Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert or, from these shores, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Dennis O’Driscoll, David Wheatley, Peter McDonald, Justin Quinn. But poet-critics are an increasingly rare and imperilled breed, and most critical response and reputation-making or -shredding is left to vocational critics, often based in the universities.
In the United States Helen Vendler is a force to be reckoned with. Through her regular appearances in The New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, her editorship of the Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry (1985) and her many books on the likes of Wallace Stevens, Yeats, Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney, she has become, in terms of recognition and influence, the pre-eminent American poetry critic. This is not say that she is universally admired, even – or rather, especially – in the crowded pond of contemporary poetry. But her eminence can hardly be denied and it’s partly explained by and coincides with the shrinking prestige of poetry in American culture during her writing career. Attention to the details of lyric poetry, or what Vendler herself calls “aesthetic criticism”, is an activity deeply suspect in many universities, wedded as they are to their highly politicised and theoretical discourses. The wider culture too hardly falls over itself to celebrate or evaluate the mysterious arts of the lyric imagination.
“The larger problem for critics, professionally speaking, is that American culture is as yet too young to prize poetry,” she writes at the end of her introduction to the present volume. Indeed, not only poetry, she adds, but “any complex form of intellectuality except perhaps science”. She takes a sternly high culture stance and lambasts the youth of today for graduating from school “without knowing there ever was an American architect or composer or painter or sculptor or philosopher, and without reading any of the more complex poems by our American authors”. This – highly arguable – view of her domestic context might not seem greatly relevant to readers outside the US, but it provides a sense of her own position and priorities, a sense of the critic as arbiter, a mediator of the canon, an explainer of the achievements of accomplishment to the interested, or potentially interested, public.
If that sound evangelical, it’s a note picked up on in her title essay, which argues that the humanities should privilege “not the texts of historians, philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavour: art, dance, music, literature, theater, architecture, and so on’. “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’s a good description of her own method: enthusiastic, focused on particulars, determined to let the work speak on its own terms.
At the heart of that essay are three poems by Wallace Stevens which are themselves arguments for a keener apprehension of the world and also intense arguments for the role of art as the “necessary angel” that draws out the consciousness of life in the hands of the artist and makes us “see the earth again”:
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,
That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again …
(“Large Red Man Reading”)
It is fitting that Stevens should be central to that essay as he is very much the presiding spirit in the book. In one of three essays on his work, Vendler sketches in the so called New Critical or Formalist context that informed her own sensibility: the tradition of Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, IA Richards, William Empsom. “We were said to practice something called ‘close reading’”, Vendler comments, “a rather absurd term, since what, if anything, would ‘far reading’ be?” What united those critics was that “their fundamental choice … was a choice of attention: they chose to give more time to the intrinsic qualities of the work than to its contextual penumbra.” Vendler isn’t indifferent to the “contextual penumbra”: all of these review-essays carefully situate their poets in the wider social and literary frame, as their occasions demanded, but the bulk of the attention is firmly directed to the nuts and bolts, the handling of metaphor, the deployment of line, the close following of impulse and argument.
In many respects, the early love of Stevens defined the kind of critic Vendler became. In reminding us of his greatness she also inevitably outlines her own demands of poetry. His art, she argues, is built on ifs and buts: hypothesis, speculation, contradiction, the overcoming of self-imposed obstructions, a dialectic signalled by the opening poem of the Collected Poems, “Earthy Anecdote”, which enacts a fierce contest between a mountain lion and a deer. “At least one way of reading this little parable is to see it as an enacting of the response of the mind’s original inertia when it encounters new hypotheses and the contradictions of these hypotheses.”
This makes Stevens seem like a rarefied poet of abstraction, and he is an extraordinary poet of mind, but a mind in turmoil, trying to arrive at a possession of order and often failing to find comfort or meaning:
The physical world is meaningless tonight
And there is no other …
Vendler locates his escape from uncertainty in his “incorporating into his poetics the idea of necessity” and in an emphasis on process. She writes brilliantly on the poem that closes the Collected, “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself”:
… Stevens was above all a poet of fertility of verbal invention. His swerves, hypotheses, contradictions, hybridities, cubist multiplicities, accretive elaborations, and symptomatic progressions establish in his poetry a mental landscape anything but bleak, one that matches the distributed richness of the material world with its own unfailing wealth of emotional, intellectual, and linguistic forms.
That description of Stevens might function as a Vendler manifesto for what makes a good poem. There isn’t necessarily a Vendler poem, but certain qualities are more likely to be relished than others, and certain poets can be counted on to provide the kind of satisfactions she prizes: Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens, Heaney, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop or Jodie Graham, whose work recurs in her criticism in book after book.
Those satisfactions include a sense of dialectic, of the overcoming of obstacles, a developed sense of form – a poetry of mind and body, of apprehending and challenging intelligence, of complex pleasures and high seriousness, a resistance to paraphrase. To be rewarding, a good poem, in Stevens’s formulation, “must resist the intelligence almost successfully”.
This collection includes reflections on Ashbery, Ginsberg and Langston Hughes, or more recent figures like Mark Ford or Lucy Brock-Broido, but still no one would come here for the latest news on the current directions of contemporary poetry in the English-speaking world. You know, pretty much, what you’re getting, and that’s no small thing. You get a mind deeply immersed in and deeply engaged with her poets, absolutely attuned to the fine workings of a poem and determined to communicate her findings to the widest possible audience.
It’s worth thinking about that: university scholars don’t on the whole, at least in literature, bother with the community outside their gates. Most contemporary literary scholarship is an internal conversation, if even that, or a kind of border-patrolling whose chief weapons are impenetrability and power prose designed to repel invaders. Vendler, from the outset, made a distinction between scholarship and criticism. Her introduction provides some interesting background to the formation of this decision. She remembers, for instance, her early struggles with domestic circumstances and a male-dominated academy:
My first professional experience as a graduate student was to hear the chairman of the English Department of Harvard say to me warningly …. “You know we don’t want you here, Miss Hennessy: we don’t want any women here.”
Having established a foothold in the academy, two things quickly became clear to her: that she wanted to study and write about poetry and that she wanted to be a critic rather than a scholar. It’s an important distinction, seeking above all else to clarify “the imaginative individuality of a poem and to give evidence of its architectural and technical skill”.
Good critics need good subjects, and Vendler has been fortunate to be practising at a time of significant achievements in American poetry. The poets she has written about established their reputations early. In some cases her attention has made the work more visible – Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham, Mark Ford – but mainly her subjects have been part of the established stream or tradition. Reputations rise and fall, of course. Elizabeth Bishop is prized much more highly now than in her own lifetime; investors in Robert Lowell, by contrast, will have seen their shares plummet dangerously since his death in 1977. If his reputation is beginning to recover it still has to get past the perception of him as a brilliant but flawed rhetorician, distrusted less because of his forensic privacies than because of his elitist Boston Brahmin view of the world that didn’t get “fairy decorators” (“Skunk Hour”) or underground carparks. In a review of the 2003 Collected Poems, Marjorie Perloff recorded her students’ bafflement at “For the Union Dead”:
In California, where I have been teaching since the late seventies, “For the Union Dead” never quite caught on. Here, after all, the automobile is a simple necessity of life. Innocent students are likely to ask, “Why does Lowell disapprove of those who drive cars? Why is theirs a “savage servility”? And this inevitably leads to such further questions as “Why is it a sign of moral decay to build an underground garage beneath the Boston Common? How were the members of the then growing work force, many of whom faced a long commute, to get to work downtown?”
(“The Return of Robert Lowell”, review of Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewbanter, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003 in Parnassus 27:1-1, 2003)
One of the most interesting essays in this collection is Vendler’s piece on Lowell and depression in For the Union Dead (1964), a book written out of “witheredness”, as Lowell called it. She reads Lowell’s style in the collection, with its odd line-breaks and apparent obstructiveness, as a form of depression: “Lowell’s stoppages reflect a mind moving sluggishly to organise its materials, as though it were an effort to find a piece of wit to join subject to object.” And tellingly, she isolates “another characteristic of the depressed style: it can imagine no possible future.” Life here is all “disjunctive, undependable, and static or unprogressive”.
She moves from that collection to Day by Day (1977), taking the short poem “Notice”, which “offers Lowell’s last word on depression and poetry”. The poem dramatises an encounter in an English asylum between the poet as recovering patient and his doctor.
These days of only poems and depression –
what can I do with then?
Will they help me to notice
What I cannot bear to look at?
Noticing what you can’t bear to look is an excellent description of Lowell’s grim persistence, as well as of the obdurate, relentless perseverance a life in poetry requires. Part of his uncomfortable gift was his perception, as Vendler puts it, “that something could be done with his stationary, parched and sad moments” and that makes him a powerful and unforgettable “artist of the inner life”.
If Lowell’s stock is still uncertain, what of that of another unforgettable magician of the inner life, John Berryman? Recent studies, including one by the Irish scholar Philip Coleman which argues for him as a public as well a private poet, and essays by critics like Michael Hofmann, have reminded readers of the scale of his achievement. But a glance at the Collected Poems also reminds us how uneven that achievement is, full of great wreckages and overreaching ambition. That unevenness, coupled with contemporary nervousness about the “blackface” performance of the Dream Songs have served to obscure his extraordinary, transgressive and deeply funny as well as tortured art. With Berryman, “if both beginning and end are radically imperfect, the centre is remarkable”. The heart of it remains the magnificent (if also necessarily uneven) The Dream Songs, whose first instalment, 77 Dream Songs (1964), Vendler describes unarguably as “one of the permanent volumes of twentieth-century poetry”. She quotes Michael Hofmann remembering in his youth how he knew the songs so well that, if given the number, the song would burst from his lips. “14!” “Life, friends, is boring.”
One of Vendler’s arguments is that it took years for Berryman to admit a central component of his personality – his humour – into his art. For some strange reason this is often the case with poets, as if the pull towards stylistic propriety dampens the impulse to mischief. Berryman’s humour extended to grammatical as well as emotional disruption. “Berryman adopted grammatical and syntactic illiteracy as his stylistic signature, wronging syntax in a mode beyond even that of Hopkins.” And all in the service of dramatising “a history of indignities and humiliations”. It’s hard to disagree with her conclusion:
The Dream Songs, flawed as they are, remain infinitely quotable – the witty lament of a singular man with the courage to exhibit himself in shame, indignity, and exuberant speech. Nothing else in Berryman equals them.
To which we might add: nothing much in contemporary poetry equals them either.
Vendler has always championed Seamus Heaney, and her advocacy of his work had a large impact on his American reputation. The two essays here look at the sideways shift or displacement that he cultivated through his relationship with the Oresteia in “Mycenae Lookout” from The Spirit Level (1996) and Middle Irish poetry as reinvented and reconfigured in “Sweeney Redivivus”, originally published in Station Island (1984). The emphasis in her Sweeney piece is on the freedom his inhabiting of Sweeney afforded him. Second time around, the borders between Sweeney and Heaney are permeable enough for the speaker to be a kind of diverted self, moving within the skeleton of the Sweeney narrative of displacement, exile, self-discovery but really using the framework to survey himself and his origins and ultimate ambitions. Heaney allows himself to be diverted enough to poke fun at his own idealisation of his Mossbawn childhood:
The royal roads were cow paths.
The queen mother hunkered on a stool
and played the harpstrings of milk
into a wooden pail.
With seasoned sticks the nobles
lorded it over the hindquarters of cattle.
(“The First Kingdom”)
There’s also the keen sense of his own artistic positioning at the margin of certain kinds of public expectation –
I was mired in attachment
until they began to pronounce me
a feeder off battlefields
so I mastered new rungs of the air
to survey out of reach
their bonfires on hills, their hosting
and fasting …
(“The First Flight”)
– and of his own reaching for what is essential in art:
Tell the truth. Do not be afraid.
Durable, obstinate notions,
like quarrymen’s hammers and wedges
proofed by intransigent service.
Vendler’s careful analysis of the fifteen poems of the sequence (in the slimmed down version in Opened Ground) is exemplary, breaking the set down into three sections – retrospective weighing of the past, the alienation of the artist leaving his native ground, and thirdly, the aesthetic principles underlying art. These last are the most urgent, yet of all of them the most powerful is the one which has least designs on us, “Holly”:
It rained when it should have snowed.
When we went to gather holly
the ditches were swimming, we were wet
to the knees, our hands were all jags
and water ran up our sleeves.
There should have been berries
but the sprigs we brought into the house
gleamed like smashed bottle-glass.
Now here I am, in a room that is decked
with the red-berried, waxy-leafed stuff,
and I almost forget what it’s like
to be wet to the skin or longing for snow.
I reach for a book like a doubter
and want it to flare round my hand,
a black-letter bush, a glittering shield-wall
cutting as holly and ice.
The essay on “Mycenae Lookout” from The Spirit Level charts what she sees as a more radical transformation, Heaney releasing himself from his disinclination to write directly about the violence of Northern Ireland. After the ceasefire, she argues, Heaney felt the need to confront the human cost of the Troubles, quoting an interview with Henri Cole:
Instead of being able just to bask in the turn of (ceasefire) events, I found myself getting angrier and angrier at the waste of lives and friendships and possibilities in the years that had preceded it … And I kept thinking that a version of the Oresteia would be one way of getting all that out of the system …
Two things are interesting and significant here: the anger and the indirection. Heaney’s anger is filtered through the recourse to classical myth and theatre. Rather than being a radical departure the procedure is surely well-established, hearkening back to Sweeney but also to the bog poems of Wintering Out and North. What’s different perhaps is the level of verbal violence within the distancing framework, particularly in the summoning of Cassandra:
… she looked
trueness in them
in her dropped-wing,
No such thing
But it would be hard, not to say pointless, to map any of “Mycenae Lookout” onto the specific realities of the Troubles; it is too embedded in its Greek framework, in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, too universalising in its gesture, its angers concentrated on the aesthetic challenge of deploying the Oresteian “bedrock” (Heaney’s word). Vendler comments:
If Heaney was the most subtle, apt, and exacting interpreter of events in the North of Ireland, it is not least because he could bring, to the characterising of those turbulent events, a set of powerful traditional resources – classical, Christian, and secular.
I think this overstates the case: it’s hard to see Heaney as an “interpreter” of events in Northern Ireland precisely because his natural tendency was to reach for those powerful resources, to dwell in the difficult, troublesome but confirming sentry space, “balanced between destiny and dread”.
Other fine essays here include the careful considerations of AR Ammons, (another poet whose reputations dips and rises unpredictably) the “Mozartian” James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Wright.
Inevitably, not all the cases she makes for her chosen poets are as convincing as these. John Ashbery features, as he does in her earlier collections.
Ashbury’s importance, to my mind, lies in his being the first notable American poet to free himself, stylistically and thematically, from nostalgia for religious, philosophical, and ideological systems.
In a tradition often given, in her own words, to the homiletic, that freedom might well be welcome, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Ashbery has been writing pretty much the same poem with the same interchangeable lines in the same manner for several decades. Jorie Graham, on the other hand, despite the brilliance of her early work, seems almost too willed and philosophically driven, too readily accommodating to the kind of exegesis Vendler excels in. And needless to say there is a vast world of poetry beyond the scope or taste of this assembly of reviews and essays. What it offers, though, is always challenging, and always cogently argued, and you don’t have to be swayed by everything in it to relish its intelligent advocacy of the art of poetry and painstaking explorations of the “paths into its inexhaustible precincts”.
Peter Sirr lives in Dublin. He is a poet freelance writer, teacher and translator. He is a member of Aosdána