Helen Vendler: The Poem Unfolded

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An Appreciation by Henri Cole

WHEN I THINK OF HELEN VENDLER, I think of her listening-listening to a seminar student explicate "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"; listening to Wagner's opera of immolation and love, The Ring Cycle; listening to new poems by Lucie Brock-Broido or Seamus Heaney at Harvard's Lamont Library; listening to the somber green water splash in the Giudecca canal; listening to the carnal and bloody acts of Hamlet; and listening to me-on the other end of the telephone line-report the latest treachery of my mother's body.

Long before I was Helen's colleague, I met her on the pages of Part of Nature, Part of Us, a collection of criticism which takes its title from Wallace Stevens (her titles are often borrowed from poets). I was a first-year graduate student at Columbia University and bought her book at the beautiful old Scribner's bookshop, now gone, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It was 1980, when bookstores still put poetry criticism on their front shelves beside bestselling fiction.

A friend calls Helen Vendler an "institution," because her voice as a critic carries so much authority, but that seems too imposing for the person who drives a Honda, is capable of sewing her own formal dresses, and, for the first decade of her academic career, moved nearly every other year, a single mother, frightened and worried about her prospects. And "institution" seems too grand for the person who at twenty-two hitch-hiked from Belgium to Bayreuth, Germany, for the opera festival, because she had no money left after buying her tickets. Or for the stranger who once drove a young family, asking for directions in Harvard Square, to the Kennedy Library for the day. Or for the woman undertaking endless ordinary academic labors out of a sense of duty (and protectiveness of the decent whose lives are often at issue).

Born Helen Hennessy in Boston, the middle child of three siblings, she was a daughter of teachers: her father taught Romance languages in high school and her mother taught primary school until she married and was forbidden to continue. So teaching always seemed to Helen like the great happy thing to do, the thing her own mother had been robbed of. Unhappy with the way literature was taught at the Roman Catholic school for women she attended, she majored in chemistry; later, she decided to get a PhD in English, and, after a year as a special student at Boston University, was admitted to the Harvard English department, where she wrote her dissertation on Yeats. Helen married the late Zeno Vendler, a philosopher, with whom she had a son, today a Los Angeles attorney; but she continued teaching, too, moving from Cornell to Swarthmore, to Haverford, to Smith, to Boston University, and finally to Harvard, where she joined the faculty in 1981, and in 1990 was given the title of A. Kingsley Porter University Professor. Along the way, she has taught many NEH summer seminars for college and high school teachers, and since 1972, has often lectured at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland.

Helen writes to explain things to herself, she says. And she has been writing books for forty years. They include Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays (1963); On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems (1969), which was awarded the James Russell Lowell Prize of the MLA; The Poetry of George Herbert (1975); The Odes of John Keats (1983); Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (1984); The Given and the Made (1995); The Breaking of Style (1995); The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1997); Seamus Heaney (1998); and Coming of Age as a Poet (2003). Her essays have been collected in three volumes: Pan of Nature, Part of Us (1980), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism in 1981; The Music of What Happens (1988); and Soul Says (1995); and she has written a textbook and anthology, Poems, Poets, Poetry (1995).

In the domain of literary criticism, the pendulum is always swinging between text (with an emphasis on language and aesthetics) and context (with an emphasis on race, class, gender, etc. …