Two Books from Helen Vendler

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Long time Rumpus Reviewer Barbara Berman examines the two latest offerings from critic Helen Vendler, one on Emily Dickinson and the other on the last books from five of the 20th century’s finest poetic voices.

All writers need elders who consistently provide nutritious pleasure and goading-by-example to go deeper, reach wider, refine more reliably in thought, art and craft. Helen Vendler is one of mine. I have never sat in her classrooms at Boston University or Harvard, or attended her talks, but since 1980, when I read Part of Nature, Part of Us —Modern American Poets, I have considered myself a privileged Vendler student.

“The preeminent question life asked of (Wallace) Stevens was whether the sublime was livable.” Vendler said that in Part of Nature, Part of Us and I ingested it like a strong dose of sulfa, the last-century miracle drug. I knew, with a conviction reinforced ever since, that I and every reader had a champion of fine poetry and intellectually sound, emotionally gratifying assessments of what it must accomplish. Her studies of Seamus Heaney, Keats, Yeats and others are devoted, erudite validation, and her shorter treatments of Rita Dove, Adrienne Rich, Jorie Graham, Charles Simic and many more contemporary poets are proof of her ability to approach fresh material with a superior-quality magnifying glass.

In her new, long examination, Emily Dickinson, Selected Poems and Commentary, she sensibly suggests early on that the book should not be read straight through, but should serve as a way to further appreciate and respect Dickinson , one poem at a time. “Respect” is key because, as Vendler reminds us, editors have supplied Dickinson with titles that say more about the editors themselves than they do about the beautifully tensile, daring poems.

Vendler is completely credible here, thanks to what she shares of the poet’s surroundings, relationships, and ideas circulating in the nineteenth century, and in her assumptions about Dickenson’s subversive originality and ultimate mystery. This credibility becomes a tribute to poet and critic as in:

These-are-Time’s Affair-
Death’s diviner Classifying
Does not know they are-

Vendler honors Dickinson’s dashes and capitals, which even recently have been mentioned cavalierly. The four lines above are the first quarter of a piece Vendler calls a “calm manifesto against discrimination by color, class, or sect,” adding that though it is not well known, “it deserves wider dissemination if only because Dickinson’s (early) class attitudes, and her accompanying youthful wit, have been thought to indicate in her a permanent insensitivity to the sufferings of others.” Vendler restores correct esteem and solidifies dazzle everywhere, as in her response to

The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings-
Like fallow Article-
And not a song pervade his Lips-
Or none perceptible.

His small Umbrella quaintly halved
Describing in the Air
An Arc alike inscrutable
Elate Philosopher.

Departed from what Firmament-
Of what Astute Abode-
Empowered with what malignity
Auspiciously withheld-

To his adroit Creator
Ascribe no less the praise-
Beneficent, believe me,
His eccentricities-

These few pages (467-69) contain my favorite instance of pure Vendler/pure Dickinson, with itemization about Dickinson’s use of letters, sounds, and tone particular to the subject and the poem, serving both . “Why does Dickinson suddenly become didactic?” Vendler asks reasonably, and gives an answer: “Probably because we have been lulled into thinking that this is a charming and tender picture of an unlikely natural being, the unclassifiable Bat. The leap into a lesson is a Dickinsonian self-defense: ‘Believe me, the Creator’s more eccentric productions, such as the Bat, are proof of his Beneficence, because they reveal to us an aspect of the Creator we might not otherwise have deduced—That he is an Eccentric, too.’ …..”This is in part a joke; but it is a serious joke, insisting on the value, to the more ordinary world, of its animate eccentrics, from Bat to Poet.”

Vendler offers reminders of Dickinson’s careful revisions, and nods to the King James Version of the Bible, as well as Shakespeare and other immortals. The point is well taken that without exposure to classics, understanding and enjoyment of Dickinson and so much that preceded and followed her, are robbed of vitalizing force.

Vendler is attached to the word “perhaps,” which would appear as a crutch without her many instances of a firmness so well-argued that ultimately the “perhaps” becomes the cue that Dickinson’s brilliance can confound with bedrock intent. Every genius deserves a Helen Vendler, as does every reader who ever hungered for a richer understanding of what poetry bestows.

Helen Vendler was born in 1933, and her title, Last Looks, Last Books—Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill, suggests, dismayingly, a valedictory lap. Originally conceived as an A. W. Mellon lecture in the fine arts for the National Gallery of Art, it is a rigorously loving look at five masters as their lives on earth approached endings. In the case of Wallace Stevens, the subject of her first “last look,” Vendler points to a heartening gratitude as he gathered what she calls “the unexpected and solacing sensual warmth of memory.’’

It is no secret that Sylvia Plath had a love affair with death that began with her educated father’s refusal to accept a procedure that could have saved his life. She was eight, and was from then on battered by the tragedy, incapable of escaping it as it fed her poems. Here Plath receives tender, scrutiny : “How was Plath—without ruining her poems—to retain authentic features of her imagination, such as the symbols of melodrama and violence absorbed in her childhood literary matrix of legends, fairy tales, and catastrophic myths from Bluebeard to Dracula?” Answer this –which Vendler comfortably does, and the warped, stuck cabinet of Plath misunderstanding audibly opens.

“As an artist, Plath explicitly desired four things : honesty of perception, clarity of analysis, discipline of expression, and moral strength.” The excerpt below, from “Ariel” is a well chosen snapshot of Vendler’s and Plath’s concerns :

Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Vendler acknowledges Plath’s need for the “ostentatiously lurid,” and ends this section of the book with a perfect summing-up : “She was always a posthumous person, but it took her years to acquire a posthumous style.”

Then we get to Robert Lowell, publicly ill with manic depression before the condition was truly treatable. Day By Day, explored here, was published in 1977, just before a heart attack killed him.

Lowell’s gifts were as immense as his mood swings and as he earned recognition, his marital life and love life became exhaustingly complicated. Again, Vender finds the right question, especially when one recalls Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” : “Can a poet of history in motion invent a style incorporating inertia and death? “ She continues : “Lowell’s resources in this predicament are many, but a central and successful one—and my topic here—is his unfailing gift for images of his present paradoxical state, of being wildly alive and yet certain of death.” Lowell’s interior speed was dizzying, as one a brief quote shows :

How quickly I run through my little set
of favored pictures…pictures starved for words.
My memory economizes so prodigally
I know I have suffered death.

Lowell’s tools are failing him, he feels, but Vendler, true to form, does not fail Lowell.

Vendler’s relationship to Elizabeth Bishop was permanently changed when she courageously said it was wrong for Bishop’s discarded work to be published posthumously. In a 2006 essay in The New Republic, she claimed that Bishop would have said a horrified “no” to the collection of repudiated poems. Here , with neat brilliance, she dissects “Breakfast Poem, “ a failure in that volume: “The two elements, life and death, can muster no arc of resemblance bringing them together as elements of a single sensibility.” This sentence reinforces that “no, ” just as this chapter is an announcement that Vendler is still not afraid of firestorms if they are the price of defending the legacy of Bishop, who, like any driven master, was more often than not her own best judge.

The last poem in this chapter begins, “I’m old.” It receives credit for “Bishop’s late binocular capacity at its strongest,” displaying Vendler’s hard-won, age-burnished courage.

Vendler closes Last Looks, Last Books, with James Merrill’s A Scattering of Salts. Though he, too, died of a heart attack, he had AIDS and was realistic about it. His wit became increasingly shadowed, and, as Vendler notes, it took on a “harrowing” edge as he imagined a slice of his flesh set aside earlier and then seen through a microscope :

a tissue-thin
Section of self lay on a lighted slide,
And a voice breathed in your ear,
“Yes, ah yes. That red oxide
Stain is where your iron, Lady Hera,
Entered him.

“Form is so important to Merrill,” Vendler observes, “That he cannot imagine becoming formless.” This common dilemma is made less ordinary by Merrill’s industrious gifts, and he receives a worthy look back.

It is no surprise that Helen Vendler and these five poets have extracted memorable meanings from their vocations. Readers who don’t write and readers who write in any form, are hugely indebted to every poet Helen Vendler explores. And the world of letters is hugely indebted to her.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →