Vendlerising

John Kerrigan

  • The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by Helen Vendler
    Faber, 440 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 13945 0
  • Selected Poems by John Ashbery
    Carcanet, 348 pp, £16.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 85635 666 2
  • The Poetry Book Society Anthology 1986/87 edited by Jonathan Barker
    Hutchinson, 94 pp, £4.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 09 165961 2
  • Two Horse Wagon Going By by Christopher Middleton
    Carcanet, 143 pp, £5.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 85635 661 1

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 jamming them together and running them into one another.’ Yet here is her Faber Book, a self-confessed anthology which, attempting to present 35 poets ‘whole’, aspires to be a collection of Collecteds. Probably we should leave the editor alone with her conscience and just be grateful to have the poems. But a hostile finger must be pointed at the publishers, who have produced a tome so stoutly handsome that it’s hard to tear the pages out to read the texts as broadsides. An unsewn paperback would ease this problem.

That aside, Vendler’s difficulties are ponderable. Though anthologies have a long history, no principles for ordering them have ever been settled. Whether arranged alphabetically by first line, like The ‘Garland’ of Philip, or by subject and date, like Verse and Worse and The Stuffed Owl, the Anthology has always seemed less than the sum of its parts. Indeed its Byzantine title concedes a pleasing serendipity: anthoi, logia, ‘a gathering of flowers’. The Elizabethans may have been more inventive, with their Handful of Pleasant Delights and Paradise of Dainty Devices, but an apologetic impulse remains apparent in the way they name miscellanies. How much has changed? We read The Golden Treasury or, as indicatively, The Rattle Bag. Our inherited conviction that good poems are individual, and that the best make up Virgilian careers or figures in carpets, militates against compilation.

Not every culture has inherited this prejudice. In Japan, the anthologist draws on a cogent aesthetic reaching back a millennium. From the first imperial collection, Kokinshu (905), through classical renga to late Edo miscellanies, integrated disjunction obtained. A code of dis/continuity constrained and enabled authors as well as anthologists. By subduing themselves to laws governing, e.g., tai and yu (‘essence’ and ‘attribute’) and the arrangement of loaded words (‘pine’, ‘rose’, ‘late cherry blossom’), renga poets such as Basho developed skills inseparable from compilation. What held between poems became intrinsic. The renga recently written by Paz, Roubaud, Sanguineti and Charles Tomlinson are thus suggestive. They explore an aspect of our lyric tradition which the tradition has not taught us to notice. Such exercises will eventually make it possible to see that Shakespeare in his Sonnets is, like Basho, both creator and artful compiler. Which is to say, we need a Grammar of compilation. In the meantime, Vendler’s sinfulness raises interesting issues.

So does her selection. Defiantly, she begins with ‘Sunday Morning’ – a poem which casts doubt on her title not just because it was published as long ago as 1915 but because it puts a tap-root deep into Romanticism. Including a dozen Stevens texts pre-dating the Pisan Cantos and Paterson, while excluding Pound and Williams, the book seems more atavistic than Contemporary, and slanted into bias. Nothing in the objectivist or projective line is included. Olson is rejected, along with Dorn. A tradition of strong poetry, leading back through Stevens to Coleridge, Keats and Wordsworth is implied. Up to a point this will help the anthology appeal to English readers. It certainly makes a better Faber Book than its American manifestation does a Harvard Book. But anyone looking for the full range of post-war US poetry will have to turn elsewhere.

Sharing Harold Bloom’s commitment to ‘the transcendental strain’, Vendler differs over how we should read it. What she values is less the Sublime than its epistemology. While Bloom cries up the heroic Emersonian in Stevens, Vendler attends to the Kantism of his final phase. Strong poetry, for her, unfolds at the disjunction between creative mind and intransigent world, exploring a realm of Stevensian ‘poverty’ in the hope of its transcendence. This is not a model which denies poetic development. Yet, by arguing that ‘when a new reality is born and exerts its pressure on poets, their resisting pressure of language and imagination generates a new poetic,’ Vendler limits the development of ‘poetry’ (steadily elided with ‘lyric’) to a re-negotiation of the self’s relationship with shifting ‘reality’. Because she is interested in the nature of renegotiation rather than in the terms arrived at, she is a more literate critic than Bloom. But the same impulse makes her overvalue texts in ‘the transcendental strain’ which, foregrounding their procedures, allegorise epistemology and become reflexive – poems, that is, which pre-empt the reader and encode as accounts of themselves the response they require.

Hence this choice from Ammons:

‘Reflective’

I found a
weed
that had a

mirror in it
and that
mirror

looked in at
a mirror
in

me that
had a
weed in it

Language is bent so decisively towards realising solipsism here that its energies are lost in scription. What the Dainty Device requires is blank assent; and if someone answers ‘no’ they precipitate a philosophical rather than poetic quarrel. The argument would revolve around the question: does ‘the transcendental strain’ logically end in a solipsistic play of surfaces? And it could only be resolved in the irresolutions Ashbery rehearses in his ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’. A classic extension of late Stevens, and vivid excursus through the realm of ‘poverty’, that poem is in some ways the centrepiece of Vendler’s book.

The trouble is there’s more to John Ashbery than ‘The Painter’, ‘Drunken Americans’ and his other disquisitions on the Reflective Sublime. To compare Vendler’s choice with Ashbery’s, in the invaluable Selected Poems, is to find a troubling divergence. She gives us nothing, for instance, from The Tennis Court Oath, bafflingly exquisite though much of it is. Her instinct is to bring rangy authors to heel, perhaps because form represents for her the ‘maturity’ (favoured term) of a mind coming to terms with itself. For Vendler, it appears, structure reminds us that what is said has been overseen, that thought has enjoyed reflection. Certainly, many of her chosen texts present reflective selves coherently coping with loss. It cannot simply be the tendency of American poets to drop dead in taxis, jump off bridges and gas themselves which makes so many pages in this anthology death-haunted. ‘Elegy,’ declares Coleridge, ‘is the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind.’

Even so consistent a writer as Mark Strand suffers from this bent. Half his pages are lavished on ‘Elegy for My Father’, a text so ‘responsibly’ self-observant as to wince into narcissism. Strand is at his best in surreal lyrics about sex and murder in suburbia. But Vendler prefers his seminar-room sublimity:

You are not logged in

[*] Ten Sonnets from the School of Eloquence (Anvil, 12 pp., £1.95, May 1987,0 85646 1814). The Fire Gap: A Poet with Two Tails (Bloodaxe, 1 p., £1.95, October 1985, 0 906 427 81 5).

[†] Edited by John Alexander, Alison Rimmer, Peter Robinson, Clive Wilmer. 96 pp., £3.95 (plus 60p p+p), 0950 2858. 6 Kingston Street, Cambridge.