Charmed Quarantine

James Wood

  • Soul Says: On Recent Poetry by Helen Vendler
    Harvard, 266 pp, £15.95, June 1995, ISBN 0 674 82146 7
  • The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham by Helen Vendler
    Harvard, 100 pp, £18.95, January 1996, ISBN 0 674 08121 8
  • The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition by Helen Vendler
    Faber, 137 pp, £7.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 571 17078 1

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 writing departments poets denounce her ‘tyranny’, her ‘narrow aesthetic’, her ‘conservatism’. That both writers and academics complain about her is testament to her influence and gentle longevity – she is the most powerful poetry critic in America since Randall Jarrell. She started reviewing in 1966, a year after Jarrell’s death, when the Massachusetts Review asked her to write a journal of the year’s work in poetry. Like Jarrell, she has a large historical reach while seeming to prefer the present to all other ages. Like Jarrell, she seems to have some kind of generative magic. The poets she celebrates prosper, as if they do not want to obstruct her predictions. For Jarrell, these poets were his contemporaries – Lowell, Moore, Bishop, Berryman and Stevens. When Jarrell writes that he is living in a time of great poetry, it is as if he is not merely describing but claiming something. Vendler’s belief in her contemporaries – that, as she has put it, ‘American poetry remains in good hands’ – is more modest. But as with Jarrell, these hands are hers as well as the hands of ‘her’ poets. She has created the taste by which many of these poets are enjoyed, returning repeatedly, as in these three books, to polish a group of them with her calm, uncreased prose – John Ashbery, James Merrill, A.R. Ammons, Amy Clampitt, Charles Simic, Dave Smith, Seamus Heaney, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham and Rita Dove.

Vendler is in love with the lyric, indeed so in love with it that she befriends strangers who appear to resemble it: in her collection of review-essays, Soul Says, she converts all her chosen subjects into writers of lyric poetry even when some of them, as in the case of Charles Simic’s jagged narratives or Donald Davie’s complaints, refuse the lyric. In her Introduction to Soul Says, she celebrates the lyric as a kind of charmed quarantine. It is a place where ‘the details associated with a socially specified self’ are stripped away. The ‘all-purpose pronouns “I” and “You” ’, which are the counters of the traditional lyric, are spaces for immediate free occupation. Readers go to novels, Vendler suggests, to inhabit socially-specific selves; but lyric is the home of the soul, ‘the self when it is alone with itself’. The characteristics of the lyric she defines as ‘spontaneity, intensity, circumstantiality; a sudden freeze-frame of disturbance, awakening, pang; an urgent and inviting rhythm ... compression’. The lyric, for Vendler, functions as a place where incompatibilities are smoothed into mystery. Her notion of it is Romantic, and much of her taste in poetry is Romantic. Coleridge’s formula for the ‘Imagination’ proposes a similarly privileged daze, a state of arrest in which there will be ‘a balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference ... a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order.’ The lyric also stands as an emblem of the mystery of aesthetic success itself.

Vendler’s belief that aesthetic success is mysterious but knowable infuriates those theorists for whom it is neither. In her last collection of journalism, The Music of What Happens, she argued that criticism was not chiefly concerned with interpretation or ideology, but with ‘the question of aesthetic success’:

It is impossible, of course, to name a single set of defining characteristics that will discriminate an aesthetic object from one that does not exert aesthetic power, but that is no reason to deny the existence of aesthetic power and aesthetic response ... And no other category (‘the rhetorically complex’, ‘the philosophically interesting’, ‘the overdetermined’, ‘the well structured’ and so on) can be usefully substituted for the category ‘the aesthetic’.

She celebrates the ‘aesthetic’, like the ‘lyric’, as a garden of magical combinations. It is cherished for its tormenting spells, and its power to mystify is delighted in. This is the opposite impulse to the deconstructionist or the reader-against-the-grain. Such a critic wants to pull apart these combinations. Vendler’s task, by contrast, is to describe their sublime entanglement. In these books – one of journalism, and two books of academic lectures – she searches for words of divination and bashful approximation. She speaks of a poem’s sense of ‘completion’, of being ‘convinced’ by a poem; ‘It is because I am struck, always, by a naive wonder at the convincingness of a poem that I feel driven to ask how that memorable persuasive power has been gained.’ Elsewhere, she writes of poetic language succeeding when it delivers ‘not a jolt but a confirmation of rightness’. She applauds Rita Dove for the way her poems ‘work’ (a verb she puts in quotation marks). In a fine essay on Charles Simic, she notices that although his poems deal with childhood traumas, they are not confessional; ‘the material, we may say, remains psychologically unanalysed while being thoroughly poetically analysed (by image, by placement, by narrative).’ By ‘analysed’, Vendler hardly means analysed into existence, in the Freudian sense; she means analysed into invisibility – disciplined, calmed.

This is a language of heightened implication, in which implication is both the subject and the procedure. It is negative capability. Vendler has described herself as a ‘critic incorrigibly unhappy without a text to dwell on’, and such a language feeds on the specificities it will repress and contain. Vendler’s criticism hangs very doggedly to its texts. This is why her sense of what constitutes ‘rightness’ in a lyric poem looks insufficient or just banal when plucked into visibility; for this ‘rightness’ is only truly confirmed or breached by encountering each new poem.

It is possible to summarise Vendler’s preferences and prejudices, of course, but the effort of doing so only reveals the flexibilities of her empiricism. Her greatest influence has been Keats. Like him, she relishes a ‘fine excess’ and singularity of voice; the 20th-century poets she most admires – in particular, Lowell and Stevens and, increasingly, Seamus Heaney – are darers of metaphor rather than monitors of strictness. She seems enlivened by verbal abundance rather than by reduction, for poets whose figures ‘yeast’ and grow (the verb is from one of Keats’s letters). She seems to have no special affinity for Eliot or Auden or William Carlos Williams, although she has written well about the first two. (But then she will surprise, as she should, by praising Donald Davie, or attending to Allen Ginsberg.) If the lyric poem is self-contained and in some sense self-adjusting, then it follows that poets tear this membrane when they press too hard. Such forcing can be almost anything; it will be defined post hoc, by the size of the rent it has left in the ideal lyric. Thus Vendler has censured Adrienne Rich for political lecturing, and Anne Sexton for sentimentality. In Soul Says, she chastises Robinson Jeffers for affectation and bombast.

Vendler’s detractors call this a narrow aesthetic. They are right, but for the wrong reasons. It is narrow only as a code or theory, because it is a collection of largely unarguable truths; but as a practice it is as wide as instinct itself. We do not need Helen Vendler to tell us that in poetry, ‘just as the personal is always in danger of becoming petty, so of course the grand is always in danger of becoming grandiose’. We know this, and ask instead to see Vendler’s instinctual enactment of this prejudice. The critic’s business is then to work back from the instinct to the now modified theory, to ask ‘how that memorable persuasive power has been gained’. We do not have a theory of pain; we have experiences of pains. Jarrell, who was obsessed with critical ‘mistakes’ (would we have recognised Moby-Dick’s greatness? was his rhetorical question), called the critic ‘the personification of empiricism’, an easy phrase only if one does not bother to obey it. Such a critic must be wantonly open to correction and quickening, greedy to enlarge her defencelessness. All aesthetic judgment like Vendler’s flows from a kind of impregnable bafflement, a triumphalism at the unanalysable nature of aesthetic assertion and its disobedience to theory. An example of necessary flexibility occurs at the end of Vendler’s essay on Louise Glück, in Soul Says. Vendler appends a note about affectation in poetry, something that one would assume her to dislike in lyric poetry. And she does, except when it is the ‘right’ kind of affectation; when it is manipulated by a great poet. Glück’s volume, The Wild Iris, she writes,

is pre-Raphaelite, theatrical, staged and posed. It is even affected. But then, poetry has a right to these postures. When someone asked Wallace Stevens’s wife whether she liked his poems, she answered: ‘I like Mr Stevens’s poems when they are not affected. But they are so often affected.’ And so they were. The trouble lay, rather, in Elsie Stevens’s mistrust of affectation. It is one of the indispensable gestures in the poet’s repertory.

Vendler’s delicate rhetoric of completion tends towards that branch of criticism written by writers rather than scholars. Like Keats, when she defines aesthetic success she produces a kind of intoxicated tautology. In his letters, Keats, writing as both a poet and a critic, seeks to define how successful lyric poetry ‘works’: ‘Its touches of Beauty should never be halfway thereby making the reader breathless instead of content; the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the sun come natural to him.’ In a later letter, he announces: ‘the marvellous is the most enticing and the surest guarantee of harmonious numbers.’ In other words, the marvellous is the proof of poetic harmony; the marvellous guarantees the marvellous! Sliding around for definition, Keats slides in metaphor: the successful poem breathes; it is like the sun, it is as natural as the trees. Metaphor is the very emblem of the organic balance of the successful work of art, the emblem of unprovable rightness. Metaphor mimics, at the local level, the challenging finality that successful art has. Each metaphor dared is an unknown step into wrongness or rightness. Criticism by artists is overpoweringly metaphorical, because metaphor allows art to be spoken to in its own language, rather than bullied with adult simplicities. It is seen by writer-critics as the means by which one thinks through art as well as about it. Metaphor respects the art work’s untouchability and protects criticism’s unspeakability. It makes emblematic the bond which connects subject and critic: that they swim in the same medium. Writers have always felt this Siamese twinhood: it is what Henry James refers to when he writes of the literary critic’s ‘immense vicariousness’; or what R.P. Blackmur, one of Vendler’s teachers, means by criticism’s need to produce ‘parallels of appreciation’.

Vendler, one suspects, cannot quite decide between using this full-blooded Keatsian language of metaphor, and the explicator’s quieter murmur. Nor should she, because out of a confusion of the two she makes her own language – sometimes plain, sometimes metaphorical and cascading, often borrowing metaphor from the poetic tradition and adding it to her associative flow; always sternly lucid. In her essay ‘The Function of Criticism’, she argues that criticism belongs to artists. She goes on to distinguish between analysts, who are ‘the scientists of literature’, and the ‘rhapsodes of literature’, who are ‘the explorers of the bliss of writing.’ Though she nowhere claims it, she is both scientist and rhapsode, and her work moves between these two selves.

As scientist-scholar, she marks the distance carefully between her prose and her subject – as it were, she encourages her students to knock before entering. In this mode, she often reminds us that she has taken the liberty of metaphor, with a quiet cough: ‘to continue the metaphor,’ she writes at one point; at another she says of Jorie Graham: ‘Step by step, accreting perceptions, the verse – to invoke a different metaphor – descended the page.’ She checks her appropriateness, even primly. Writing about Rita Dove, she notices that the ‘lines and stanzas are carefully aligned into dovetailed wholes. (The pun, unintended, seems legitimate.)’ The scholar-scientist takes no pleasure in polemics, or even in negativity. Explaining that Soul Says contains only admirations, she writes that ‘there is really nothing to say about an inept poem except to enumerate its absences ... It is not interesting for a critic to compile a list of lacks.’ In this respect, of course, she is nothing like Randall Jarrell, and is exactly half a critic. For it is in a bad work’s absences that you sense the ghosts of forgotten presences, and there is no reason why aesthetic success should be a greater mystery than aesthetic failure. Turgenev said that Belinsky was ‘an idealist: he negated in the name of an ideal.’ The polemical impulse hardly exists in Vendler, and may explain her occasional soapiness when she should be abrasive, towards weak poets such as Stephen Spender, or towards some of Amy Clampitt’s invalid-like delicacy. Besides, bad work does not merely lack good properties, like a man who has forgotten to put on socks or a tie, it may promote bad properties as if they were good. The Vendler who is not a rhapsode is not a rhapsodic punisher. This is fair enough, but the chamois of adoration is also a poor cleanser.

These three books offer, however, many examples of the critic as rhapsodic explicator, and the critic in formidable command of an artistic language of metaphor. Vendler’s wisdom is always heaped onto the side of the artists. ‘Artists know the pitfalls of their chosen style at least as well as their critics do, and Merrill is no exception,’ she writes of Merrill’s pampered Parnassianism. Vendler lives in the poetic tradition, and hears its cadences around her, like simultaneous translation. Often her own metaphor will modulate into one of Stevens’s or Keats’s, as when she sees Ashbery as a poet who has ‘swallowed the entire range of the spoken and written language of his time and then like a mother hen, regurgitated it (delicately arranged) as food for readers’. Two pages later, she sees Ashbery as a different kind of conserver; ‘the labour of the Keatsian harvester – to shelter, in the “rich garners” of poems, himself, his readers, and their culture before the rains and rats get them – is never-ending.’ This movement may be reversed. In her superb chapter on John Berryman’s Dream Songs in The Given and the Made, she threads analogies between Berryman’s experience of psychoanalysis and the form of each Dream Song, between ‘the identical length of each therapeutic session’ and the ‘strict 18-line armature’ of each poem. But her prompting for this association is partly metaphorical, a cue from the word ‘session’: ‘Successive sessions of psychiatric therapy may be seen as another form of the “sessions of ... silent thought” which generated Shakespeare’s sonnets and other such sequences.’

Vendler’s recent work has been dominated by Seamus Heaney’s poetry. The piece on ‘The Grauballe Man’ in The Breaking of Style, for example, is one of her finest tracings of metaphorical shift. Her excited coursing turns the poem into a drama of grammar, and one realises suddenly that for all her quarantining of the lyric, her genius as a critic is to turn lyrics into narratives, to give worldly body to the unworldly, to people lyrics with verbs and nouns; to make a saga out of punctuation.

Heaney’s celebrated poem disinters a murdered body that had been fossilised by acids during the lengthy time it had spent in a Jutland bog:

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

The black river of himself.

Heaney animates this tarred man – ‘The head lifts, / the chin is a visor / raised above the vent / of his slashed throat’ – and then challenges the reader to see the man as both re-animated and still frozen:

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

With delicacy, Vendler traces a progression in the poem from rest to anguish (the poem ends by hinting at Ulster violence in the form of new Grauballe Men in the making, ‘each hooded victim, / slashed and dumped’), and from noun to ‘adjectival sublime’. She sees the poem as an assertion of poetry’s power to awaken the dead: literally, for Heaney’s list of likenesses (‘bruised like a forceps baby’) blows life into the lungs of his corpse so that it sits up – ‘The head lifts.’ Vendler is characteristically tactful with Heaney’s metaphors. She notes that his use of the word ‘cast’ turns the corpse ‘into a bronze statue’. Then she slyly appropriates this word ‘cast’, noting that each of the poem’s ‘adjectival descriptions is another casting of the corpse in the bronze of art’. A little later, she hands the word back to Heaney, anointing it in quotation marks; but later still, it is hers again, as she refers to the poem’s ‘successive adjectival casts’, finally enriching it thus: ‘The nature of adjectival poems is to be radial. All of Heaney’s hazarding adjectival casts, radiating out from a central baffling subject, are the means of seeing by facets a subject too imaginatively overwhelming to be grasped as a whole.’

Vendler’s reading is a lesson in critical borrowing, in the art of making exegetical fire from all the available kindling. The word ‘cast’, by the end of her chapter, has become a joint-stock, held by both poet and critic. For we have witnessed her repeated critical castings as well as Heaney’s poetical castings, her descriptions and redescriptions of Heaney’s poem. And as both poet and critic have mysteriously blended, so Vendler’s language is here both poetic and critical. This is the redescription of literature through metaphor. It is, if not immense, then large ‘vicariousness’. As she once put it, using the same word, ‘no art work describes itself. Only by repeated casts of the critical imagination is the world around us, including the world of literature, finally described and thereby made known, familiar and integral.’ If she sounds like both poet and critic at this moment, it is probably intentional. Her liquid summaries do not merely describe poems, but add fresh water to poetry’s larger flow.