Book review

‘The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar’ by Helen Vendler

Anew book by Helen Vendler is always occasion for gratitude, since for more than 50 years she has provided us with the most exacting writing about poetry of any American critic. Even more welcome than the 27 essays on poets — all of them, except for Herman Melville, from the past century — is a 14-page introduction in which she accounts for her life as a critic. The principles under which she has operated are unqualifiedly stated, THE MAJOR ONE BEING the “compulsion to explain the direct power of idiosyncratic style in conveying the import of poetry.” This means a distaste for considering poems “under gross thematic rubrics,” and a belief that, one poet, one poem, is superior to another, the critic’s job being among other things to demonstrate these distinctions in value.

Vendler’s learning has shown itself in books on Yeats, Wallace Stevens, George Herbert, Keats, Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson. As with the poets she writes about, that learning is less traditional and scholarly than, in her words, “deeply etymological and architectonic.” She notes that historically, the academic profession of English as she knew it, while “not unfriendly” to literary criticism (the old battles between literary history and close reading having ended), was unfriendly to reviewing, considering it to be mere journalism. For Vendler, reviewing poetry — and with a single exception all her writing has been about poetry — was rather a chance to speak forcefully and originally about a contemporary poet, or to see an older one, like Melville, in a new perspective.


Her introduction contains intriguing bits of self-portraiture, brief as they are. There is her girlhood as a student in Catholic elementary schools; her father’s knowledge of different languages; her mother’s belief in memorizing poems; her failed attempt to attend Radcliffe, since it was a secular school, off-limits to Roman Catholics; her eventual settling into graduate study of English at Harvard, where she was made to feel unwelcome and told by the department chairman that, as a woman, she was not wanted. These events, both hindering and enabling, were confronted with a willful strength that has resulted in a great critical achievement.

That achievement will mainly be found in her books on older writers; but this volume concerns itself PRIMARILY with late-20th-century poets. She is at her best in commentaries on Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and John Berryman, all of whom have at least one essay devoted to them. (Her collected writings about Lowell and Merrill would make a small book.) A single example from the Lowell essay may serve to bring out the pointed energy of her style, always informed by a concept or idea she will explore in the poems. As elements of Lowell’s “depressive style” in “For the Union Dead,’’ she cites “negative decorum: its rhythm and sound must be obstructive, repetitive, paralyzed; it must appear to come from an ego that lacks continuity, duration, and coherence; it must, if it allows itself remembrance at all, find that the flash of remembrance vanishes as fast as it appears, extinguished by its proximity to the soul’s grimness.” In Merrill’s “Mozartean touch,” by contrast, she feels its “intricate task” is “to enfold love’s worser moments . . . in a light and gauzy texture, to lift them by sheer style to the essentially comic realm of the seen and seen-through.”

Some of the CONTEMPORARY styles she most admires — those of John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, each of whom she has written about numerous times — seem unappealing to me. And for someone who is so perceptive and convincing about “sheer style” in Merrill, I regret she has never felt the need to explicate and admire the styles of his great formalist contemporaries, Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht. But tastes differ, so it is said, and I owe to this book a convincing introduction to the poems of Mark Ford, as well as a renewed sense of A.R. Ammons’s long poem, “Garbage,’’ which she calls, persuasively, “a sustained tragic and comic meditation on the Heraclitean conversion of matter into energy.”

In the book’s title essay, Vendler argues for the centrality of the arts in a humanities curriculum, since their demand for “subtlety of response” can’t be duplicated. Her own essays are a vivid proof of what such response can look like.


Essays on Poets and Poetry

By Helen Vendler

Harvard, 464 pp., $35

William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College.