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’.

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