Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler, a professor of English at Harvard for several decades, died on 23 April 2024 at the age of ninety. She wrote books on Herbert, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens and Heaney, among other poets, as well as editing several critical editions and anthologies. ‘It is Vendler’s supreme critical virtue,’ Tom Paulin wrote in the LRB in 1998, reviewing The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘that she can write from inside a poem, as if she is in the workshop witnessing its making.’ James Wood called her ‘the most powerful poetry critic in America since Randall Jarrell’.

Why aren’t they screaming? Philip Larkin

Helen Vendler, 6 November 2014

Twenty​ years ago, Andrew Motion, one of Philip Larkin’s literary executors, wrote a scholarly and comprehensive authorised biography of the poet, whom he had known well; it was subtitled ‘A Writer’s Life’. Motion informed his readers that some important ingredients of Larkin’s life were still unavailable, especially most of the letters written to Monica Jones,...

Hopkins felt himself called to praise ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’. He himself embodied – in every community in which he lived, beginning with his family – each of these adjectives: he was (especially to the Irish) ‘counter, original, spare, strange’; and if common taste ran to the monotony of uniformity, he would prize, even if he was alone in prizing them, ‘dappled things’. Like some other early poems, ‘Pied Beauty’ – intended to be a poem about the reconciliation of the Many in the One – skirted danger.

But I feel a deeper falsity to Dante and his mentality in certain observations by Griffiths about both the poem and the world from which it issued. Some of them stem from a wish to bring Dante into contemporary intellectual trendiness, some from a patronising attitude towards religion and its accoutrements. Trendiness: ‘The Commedia has some title to be considered the first masterpiece by a postcolonial writer, for most Europeans were once Roman subjects’; and ‘some readers may find it helpful to compare the “now you see it, now you don’t” oscillations of the poem with Derrida’s employment of concepts sous rature’; and ‘the Commedia is a foray into self-consciously “virtual reality”.’ On religion: after the invention of printing, ‘it became easier to feel that you had “finished” the Bible as you might finish an Agatha Christie, and correspondingly easier to think of the sacred writings as like a . . . spiritual “miracle diet” with a defined set of unambiguous recommendations and vetoes.’

The new volume of poems by my Harvard colleague Jorie Graham, in its US edition, bears on its jacket a detail from Vermeer’s The Astronomer, showing the hand of the astronomer as it touches, almost affectionately, the zodiacal globe it is about to spin. Although the star-gazer cannot make physical contact with his remote field of vision, the caressing way his finger lies on the surface...

Fronds and Tenrils: Mark Ford

Helen Vendler, 29 November 2001

Suppose, having been betrayed – ‘hooked/then thrown back’ – you decide to let your instant reflex, a desire for revenge, cool off overnight; then suppose you wake up the next morning and your anger takes on a no less pervasive, if different, configuration. Is this how you might be feeling?

even after dawn

has tightened still further the angle between reflex and use,...

Emily v. Mabel: Emily Dickinson

Susan Eilenberg, 30 June 2011

One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – One need not be a House – The Brain has Corridors – surpassing Material Place – ‘All men say “What”...

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Hand and Foot: Seamus Heaney

John Kerrigan, 27 May 1999

When Seamus Heaney left Belfast in 1972, to work as a freelance writer in the relative safety of the Republic, Northern Ireland was a war zone. Internment and Bloody Sunday had recruited so many...

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Recently I was teaching a poem by Yeats that has always reminded me of a stretched sonnet. ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ has an octave of 20 lines and a sestet of...

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Charmed Quarantine

James Wood, 21 March 1996

Helen Vendler has the power to steal poets and enslave them in her personal canon. For this she is squeezed between rival condescensions: theorists pity her comprehensibility, while in creative...

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John Kerrigan, 2 April 1987

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...

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Somebody reading

Barbara Everett, 21 June 1984

Perhaps as a result of the lingering Symbolist inheritance, the aesthetic notion of most potency at present is the idea that the work of art is in some sense about itself. Even in the fine arts,...

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