In 1963 we published Helen Vendler’s first book, a study of Yeats based on her Harvard dissertation. We’ve since published nearly two dozen more of her 31 books, a corpus to which we’ll soon add The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, a collection of two decades’ worth of her essays, book reviews, and prose.
Vendler begins The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar with an account of her life as a critic, from childhood enthusiasm to sharpened focus and an urge to write, and from early-career impediments to the “free rein, unlimited space, and genial encouragement” of William Shawn’s New Yorker.
Her life and work are further fleshed out in a recent Harvard Gazette interview, part of a series of discussions with Harvard faculty on their personal paths to becoming teachers and scholars.
With the Gazette Vendler touched on such topics as her early dissatisfaction with the teaching of poetry:
In my student days, it was common to assume that the poem makes a statement — that it’s protesting war, or is grieving a death. My teachers, on the whole, didn’t see a poem as an evolving thing that might be saying something completely new at the end because it had changed its mind from whatever it had proposed at the beginning. I was sure you couldn’t sum it up propositionally: You couldn’t say, as it was common to say, “What is the meaning of this poem?”
Her fascination with the development of individual poets:
My mother had brought back from the bookmobile a biography of Hopkins which quoted many of his poems. I began to read Hopkins with great elation and memorized much of what I read. I wrote what was supposed to be a 17-page high school senior paper, only it turned into a 40-page essay. [Laughter.] I think it was my first book. And it gave me my first taste of critical competence: by then I knew everything Hopkins had written — the letters, the sermons, the devotional writings, the biography. It’s not a big corpus.
It was exhilarating to write at length from knowledge of a single poet’s complete works, since anthologies offer only little snippets. I very soon grasped how rewarding it was to write on a single poet. I’ve never written on themes except as elements in the changing explorations of a poet, the evolution of the author’s poetics from the early juvenilia all the way up to the end.
And sustained need to consider the work of each alone:
I can understand poets only one by one: They are too idiosyncratic to be lumped together.
Each book had a polemical purpose: to declare that Yeats’ “system” had powerful poetic implications; to argue that Stevens’ long poems were not “ponderous and elephantine”; to contest the belief that Herbert could be appreciated adequately only by a faithful son of the church; to show that Keats’ odes had been insufficiently well read, and were in fact interconnected as a series; to assert that Shakespeare’s sonnets, all 154 of them, not merely the famous ones, deserved individual commentaries; to offer an alternative to the Irish political criticism that had neglected Heaney as a poet; and to suggest that Dickinson’s harsher and more difficult poems could, and should, be read by a wider public.
It’s a hallmark much evidenced in The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, which includes readings of longtime Vendler subjects Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery, and Jorie Graham, along with consideration of Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Ford, and more.