Helen Vendler 1933-2024

‘It is Vendler’s supreme critical virtue,’ Tom Paulin wrote in the LRB in 1998, reviewing Helen Vendler’s book The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘that she can write from inside a poem, as if she is in the workshop witnessing its making.’ A professor of English at Harvard for several decades, Vendler, who died yesterday at the age of ninety, also wrote books on Herbert, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens and Heaney, among other poets, as well as editing several critical editions and anthologies. James Wood called her ‘the most powerful poetry critic in America since Randall Jarrell’. She wrote a dozen pieces for the LRB. The first, in 1993, was on Elizabeth Bishop:

Each of the late poems holds to the light another facet of writing. If it is true from one point of view that a poem is a wasps’ nest (suggesting the human capacity to admire a perfectly beautiful, perfectly useless, petrified and eviscerated structure), it is equally true, from another point of view, that a poem is a voice participating in a very long and very old conversation about life.

The last, in 2014, was on Philip Larkin:

With great ingenuity he framed and reframed his bafflement with life. Therefore his style had to be impeccable: the reiterated intuition had to be renewed from within whenever it was uttered.

In between she wrote on Dante, Keats, Hopkins, Frost and Eliot, as well as Amy Clampitt, Mark Ford and Jorie Graham. And in a review of the Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Poetry in English, edited by Ian Hamilton, she wrote:

The third act of criticism – which comes after a consideration of themes and imagery, and after a glance at external and internal forms – is an investigation into how the poet’s imagination works to redefine the topics common to lyric (family, love, memory etc) in symbolic form. It may be that the family has been seen as a gulag, or love as a game, or memory as a treadmill – no matter what. In short, theme untransformed is theme unimagined. If I recommend the first act of identifying theme and imagery, the second act of describing form, and the third act of analysing imaginative transumption, it is so that an author’s originality can be at least partially represented. This recommendation is perhaps what used to be called a counsel of perfection, but it would improve the reviewing of poetry as well as the contents of handbooks if the intrinsic nature of lyric – its powers and its peculiarities – were more widely understood.