Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery

Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery

Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery

Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery


When a poet addresses a living person--whether friend or enemy, lover or sister--we recognize the expression of intimacy. But what impels poets to leap across time and space to speak to invisible listeners, seeking an ideal intimacy--George Herbert with God, Walt Whitman with a reader in the future, John Ashbery with the Renaissance painter Francesco Parmigianino? In Invisible Listeners, Helen Vendler argues that such poets must invent the language that will enact, on the page, an intimacy they lack in life.

Through brilliantly insightful and gracefully written readings of these three great poets over three different centuries, Vendler maps out their relationships with their chosen listeners. For his part, Herbert revises the usual "vertical" address to God in favor of a "horizontal" one-addressing God as a friend. Whitman hovers in a sometimes erotic, sometimes quasi-religious language in conceiving the democratic camerado, who will, following Whitman's example, find his true self. And yet the camerado will be replaced, in Whitman's verse, by the ultimate invisible listener, Death. Ashbery, seeking a fellow artist who believes that art always distorts what it represents, finds he must travel to the remote past. In tones both tender and skeptical he addresses Parmigianino, whose extraordinary self-portrait in a convex mirror furnishes the poet with both a theory and a precedent for his own inventions.

By creating the forms and speech of ideal intimacy, these poets set forth the possibility of a more complete and satisfactory human interchange--an ethics of relation that is uncoerced, understanding, and free.


The chapters of this book investigate the odd practice by which certain poets address their poems, in whole or in part, to someone they do not know and cannot set eyes on, their invisible listener. George Herbert speaks to God; Walt Whitman to the reader in futurity; John Ashbery to a painter of the past. What are we to make of this choice of addressee? With many visible listeners presumably available—the beloved, the patron, the child, the friend—why does the poet feel he or she must hold a colloquy with an invisible other? and what is the ethical import of speaking to such a nonexistent being? To think about such a choice, we must look first at the more common sorts of address within the lyric.

In its usual form, the lyric offers us the representation of a single voice, alone, recording and analyzing and formulating and changing its mind. Although no one else is present in fact, the solitary poet is frequently addressing someone else, someone not in the room. It has even been claimed that apostrophe—literally, a turning away from one's strophe to address someone else—is the essence of the lyric (although there are many lyrics of solitary internal meditation that do not address another person; such a lyric is, as Arnold paradoxically said, a “dialogue of the mind with itself”). One possible absent addressee of lyric is a person whom the fictive speaker knows—a lover, a patron, a family member. the speaker of Shakespeare's sonnets may address the friend or the mistress; Donne may address his patron, Ben Jonson his dead son. This sort of human address could be called “horizontal”: although the poet may adopt a tone of formal . . .

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