Poetry for a World of Unknown Listeners ; Scholar Helen Vendler Examines Poets Who Wrote Intimately to Readers They Would Never Meet

Article excerpt

We are all familiar with the notion of a poem written to someone you love, a lyric such as Shakespeare's sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" But, as the distinguished literary critic Helen Vendler reminds us, there are also many poems addressed to "invisible listeners" - persons the poet has not actually seen.

Think of William Blake's invocation:

Children of a future age,Reading this indignant page,Know that in a former timeLove, sweet love, was thought a crime.

Or Emily Dickinson's poignant address:

This is my letter to the WorldThat never wrote to Me.

In her new book, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery, Professor Vendler, long famed for her sensitive readings of poets from Shakespeare to Wallace Stevens, asks why a poet would seek to establish a deeply personal state of intimacy with an invisible, imaginary audience.

"Invisible Listeners" is a brief book, based on lectures this Harvard professor delivered at Princeton. The seekers of intimacy who come under Vendler's scrutiny are a colorfully diverse trio: the 17th- century devotional poet George Herbert, the great 19th- century American bard Walt Whitman, and a noted poet of our own time, John Ashbery.

Herbert's aim, evident to any reader, was to establish a relationship with his God. But, as Vendler argues, there is more to it than that: "I hope to describe here George Herbert's startling accomplishment in revising the conventional vertical address to God until it approaches the horizontal address to an intimate friend."

"Nobody else, for example, has imagined so well in verse what the invisible God might say back to a rebellious soul," Vendler feels - citing the reply Jesus gives Herbert in the poem "Dialogue":

What, Child, is the balance thine,Thine the poise and measure?If I say, Thou shalt be mine;Finger not my treasure.

Vendler theorizes that the need to address an invisible listener arises when poets find lacking in human relationships the kind and degree of intimacy they are seeking. By addressing an invisible, hypothesized listener or engaging in an imagined dialogue, Vendler believes, poets like Herbert work out models that point us toward "better forms of intimacy in the actual world. …