Reading Poetry

The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar
By Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, May 2015


Helen Vendler, A. Kingsley Porter Professor at Harvard University, begins her new book with what she calls an “account of [her] life as a critic” – a reasonable subject for an introduction, given that, at the time this review is published, Vendler will have just passed her 82nd birthday. More relevant, though, is that The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar is the latest of nearly 30 books authored or edited by Vendler since the 1960’s, over the course of which, in addition to hundreds of reviews and essays, she has become known as perhaps the finest living critic of poetry in America. Her style, at once elegant and trenchant, witty and sincere, translates well between academic theory and more general insights meant for her readers at such magazines as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic.

Most striking about her distinguished career is that she seems to have had no supreme theory, no particular axe to grind, other than simply trying to read and discuss poetry to the best of her ability. She explains in her personal introduction that criticism as she understands it is distinct from both philosophy, which deals in overarching abstractions, and from scholarship, which should not be taken to mean that the “critic” is simply a naïve reader. It is rather that

Her “learning” resembles the “learning” of poets, which, though deeply etymological and architectonic, is often unsystematic and idiosyncratic. She often fails at the most elementary undertakings of “scholarly” life, such as remembering facts, entering polemical debates, and relating works to the political and philosophical history of their era. She has—at least I have—no capacity for broad synthetic statements.

If this is true, and I suspect that it is, then Vendler has at times in her most recent writings, extended beyond her role as a critic to become something else. She ends her introduction by claiming that America is yet too young to love its own poetry and its own poets, but that this will change the more our culture asserts itself as distinct from its European heritage and our homegrown artists are accepted as part of our national patrimony. For the time being, she suggests, the obligation of critics and poets to sustain the life of art is as binding as ever. In speaking for critics, she makes quite a sweeping claim, thereby becoming something other than a critic, but it is nevertheless that role which informs all of her writing, from the synthetic to the minute, the range of which is represented here.

The collection’s title essay is a version of the speech Vendler gave for the 2004 Jefferson Lecture. The three figures of the ocean, the bird, and the scholar refer to the central images of Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Somnambulisma,” which, characteristically of Stevens, is a work of strong rhythm and fecundity, if one penetrates its initial difficulty. First, the poem:

On an old shore, the vulgar ocean rolls
Noiselessly, noiselessly, resembling a thin bird,
That thinks of settling, yet never settles, on a nest.

The wings keep spreading and yet are never wings.
The claws keep scratching on the shale, the shallow shale,
The sounding shallow, until by water washed away.

The generations of the bird are all
By water washed away. They follow after.
They follow, follow, follow, in water washed away.

Without this bird that never settles, without
Its generations that follow in their universe,
The ocean, falling and falling on the hollow shore,

Would be a geography of the dead: not of that land
To which they may have gone, but of the place in which
They lived, in which they lacked a pervasive being,

In which no scholar, separately dwelling,
Poured forth the fine fins, the gawky beaks, the personalia,
Which, as a man feeling everything, were his.

Now, Vendler:

The poem rests on three images, of which the first is the incessantly variable sea, the vulgar reservoir from which the vulgate— the common discourse of language and art—is drawn. The second image is that of a mortal bird, whose motions resemble those of the water but who is ultimately washed away by the ocean. The subsequent generations of the bird, too, are always washed away. The third image is that of the scholar, without whom ocean and bird alike would be incomplete […] Imagine being physically dead during the very life you have lived. That, says Stevens, would be the fate of the generations were it not for the scholar. Stevens does not locate his scholar in the ocean or on the shale, the haunts of the bird; the scholar, says the poet, dwells separately. But he dwells in immense fertility […] He is analogous to the God of Genesis; as he observes and feels finniness, he says, “Let there be fine fins,” and fine fins appear.

Wallace Stevens Words Chosen Out of Desire by Helen Vendler.jpg

This brief excerpt is characteristic of Vendler’s criticism in both her academic and popular modes. She moves as swiftly or as slowly as the material demands, locates the poet within a concrete tradition (elsewhere she compares Stevens’ bird to Keats’ nightingale), and touches always on what she refers to as the “base of poetry,” that is, emotion. Her request that the reader imagine herself living out a poem’s metaphor succinctly illustrates Vendler’s commitment to the belief that poetry, and art in general, spring forth from life, not as a political or even educational exercise, but as part of human experience, and that indispensable to enduring art is the reflection of life’s central concerns.

This kind of reflection, I think, is as broad as Vendler can go and continue to fall within her own definition of the critic. She will have to be something else—‘professor’ won’t quite do, either—to argue for the major thesis of the essay, which is that a) philosophy and history have traditionally been the center of the study of the humanities and b) we would do better to replace those disciplines with the various arts. And yet, as her definition of the critic points out, she commits a fundamental error in making this case, which, not incidentally, is a result of her being such a fine critic. Namely, she is simply too reliant on the categories and definitions of her (that is, our) own time. When she characterizes philosophy and history, she makes them much closer to sciences than to literature, though she also stresses the connection:

The arts would justify a broad philosophical interest in ontology, phenomenology, and ethics; they would bring in their train a richer history than one which, in its treatment of mass phenomena, can lose sight of individual human uniqueness—the quality most prized in artists and most salient, and most valued in the arts.

But the implied description of philosophy and history here are extremely narrow, and reflect only one portion of the recent past, which in certain places takes itself for orthodoxy. The hard-and-fast division of history, philosophy, and literature has been at best a functional one, and at worst an obfuscation of the natural interdependence of these fields. You need only consider Pericles’ Funeral Oration in Thucydides, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, or War and Peace, to name a few (we might also cite Emerson’s Representative Men), to cast serious doubt on the idea of philosophy as merely the pursuit of metaphysical “truth” (as though it accompanied the “facts” of the physical sciences), or history as only the record of nations’ rising and crumbling, both of them sharply divided from the more “humanistic” literature.

But these reflections, as she says over and over again, are not really Vendler’s concern. What she is interested in is reading poetry, and in that she is nearly without equal. She pays little attention to doctrines of taste, and rather follows quality where it leads her. She’s primarily engaged with modern and contemporary American poets, beginning from roughly Whitman and Dickinson to the present. Her key poets along the way are Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, and Jorie Graham, though she demonstrates deep engagement and even ardor for a range much more inclusive than this brief gloss, incorporating into her poetic cosmos such diverse figures as Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, A.R. Ammons, and Mark Ford.

She is at once willing to follow merit into poets whose work is, as she has said elsewhere, “uneven,” and also to rave, as an ostensibly “objective” critic or scholar (or even reviewer) might not. Where a Harold Bloom or a George Steiner (her most famous contemporaries and certainly her equals as readers of poetry, if not, in some cases, slight inferiors) might not devote much time to say, Hughes or Ginsberg, given the much bigger poetic fish to fry, Vendler digs in and finds worth where she can. It takes an unusually gifted reader, having once established Hughes as “not a major poet,” to go on to claim that his is a “poetics of announced reciprocity,” and spend pages on the several short, gnomic poems that exemplify this quality, which is so often passed over by the poet’s political disciples. It also takes an unusually enthusiastic and confident critic to engage in a long discussion of titles and their import, as she does for A.R. Ammons, whose canon, she writes, “to our grief, has now closed.” The heart wants what it wants, and what reader has not fallen in love with a poet?

Our Sweet Discipline Yeats and Lyric Form by Helen Vendler.jpg

Vendler is also willing to expand chronologically and geographically, and also thematically when the spirit moves her. In “Fin-De-Siècle Lyric,” a characteristically brilliant essay, she compares the alternate approaches to compressing the expansiveness of history, and particularly the end of history, into the lyric of W.B. Yeats and Jorie Graham. In Vendler’s estimation, Yeats is hindered by the various theories of history in which invests himself in order to deal with the unshakeable feeling of being in “end-times,” the exact meaning of that phrase being dependent on whether it is the Christian, Celtic, Classical, or Nietzschean Yeats under discussion. (I would include also the Golden Dawn Yeats, but this may border on ad hominem.) Graham, by contrast, is content (for lack of a better word) to explore history and its possible culmination exclusively through her verse, taking the universal themes of fear and trembling before death and rendering them personal, which, though not more palatable, is less hubristic.

Vendler discusses Graham’s “The Phase After History,” a marvelous poem in which, among other arresting figures, a student’s attempted (then successful) suicide, Macbeth, and a bird lost in the poet’s house, blend to form a reckoning with the totality of human experience. A tall order, but Vendler takes it up as lightly as Graham does, and concludes that though the weight of intention is similar to Yeats, the unwillingness, or, better, the willing recognition of her incapacity to pin down the vicissitudes of time makes the later poet the wiser one:

We may pause for a moment to deduce, from this poem, that Graham thinks any account of the “phase after history” incomplete without some reference to her three simultaneities—natural event, personal complicity, and archetypal literary patterning. Her jump cuts among these, and especially her concern with middleness rather than with inception, conclusion, or repetition, suggest that the fin-de-siècle, as we now imagine it, is something we actively will—as Graham’s student willed his suicide—in an attempt to shake off an irredeemable past; or that it is something we hesitate over—like Lady Macbeth in her dream-reprise of the murder—as we seek to find something to justify our murder of the past, as we try to coordinate our executive hand and our intentional gaze; or that it is something we head blindly into—like the bird crashing into the invisible window pane.

Vendler is at her best when she discusses those poets she loves best, and it seems clear that from her encyclopedic poetic knowledge Wallace Stevens emerges as the poet of supreme value. She devotes four long essays to his work and mentions him in nearly every other essay in the collection. Her first introduction to his work, which she describes as the moment of “eeriest intensity” (itself a Stevensian phrase), was electric. “It was as is,” she writes in the introduction, “my own naked spirit spoke to me from the page”:

I’d read dozens of poets by the time I came across Stevens, and I’d memorized scores of poems, but it was through him that I understood style as personality, style as the actual material body of inner being. Before I could make out, in any paraphrasable way, Stevens’s poems, I knew, as by telepathy, what they meant emotionally. This experience was so peculiar that I was overcome by a desire to know how that perfusion, which somehow bypassed intellectual translation, was accomplished. All my later work has stemmed from the compulsion to explain the direct power of idiosyncratic style in conveying the import of poetry.

Against such emotional, psychological, and spiritual power, what worth have the various over-politicized theories of literature? Many have come and gone in Vendler’s time, and were from time to time the source of insults against her and other “formalist” critics. But she herself never internalized such distinctions, and, apart from her continued engagement in what might be called post-modern literature, she even recalls auditing Paul de Man’s courses at Cornell and gaining immensely from them. But the essential point here is, if a reader cannot approach a poem, a novel, a play, on her own and, at least once, be electrified in something like this way, what can all the deconstruction or Marxist analysis in the world (to say nothing of our own plot-shape graphs and metadata aggregation) do to pass on the knowledge of the great books, and with them, our cultural patrimony? If no one can feel, why would anyone bother to think?

Jack Hanson is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Yale University and the author of the poetry chapbook Monica Moody and Other Poems (Pen & Anvil, 2017). His poetry, essays, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in Berfrois, Full Stop, Kenyon Review Online, The New Criterion, PN Review, Salamander, The Scofield, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere.