POETRY CRITIC HELEN VENDLER is this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. She spoke recently with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the power of words-spoken, sung, and written-and how a poem can be a companion through life. Vendler, whom the poet Seamus Heaney calls "the best close reader of poems to be found on the literary pages," is the author of nineteen books, among them studies of Yeats, Herbert, Keats, Stevens, and Shakespeare. She is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University.
BRUCE COLE: Let me start off asking you about the path that you took to poetry criticism. I understand you were pretty young when you embarked on this.
HELEN VENDLER: My mother read poetry very intensely to us. She had been a primary school teacher. My father also read poems to us in foreign languages. He was teaching us Spanish, French, and Italian, which is what he taught in high school. He was himself bilingual in Spanish. He had lived for fourteen years in Puerto Rico and Cuba before he married my mother.
So around me there were languages and lots of poetry, as well as anthologies, all the way from children's ones up through grownup ones, and ones of foreign poetry in translation, too-Mark Van Doren's Anthology of World Poetry was where I first ran across Baudelaire in translation, for instance. There was a home library that was basic to me. As was my mother's habit of quoting poetry in conversation. I didn't often know until much later-when I came across a line-that it was Wordsworth's and not hers.
COLE: That's great.
VENDLER: So poetry was around me. I began writing verse when I was six, went on until I was twenty-six, and gave it up in favor of my thesis. I was happier with what I was writing in prose than with what I had written in poetry.
COLE: You haven't written any poetry since then?
COLE: You talked about Baudelaire, but do you remember any of the very, very earliest memories?
VENDLER: The earliest were, of course, hymns, because I was brought up a Roman Catholic. We sang the Psalms in antiphonal chorus, in Latin, when I was in high school. These were lyrics that were in my blood, together with the whole Latin liturgy, all the Latin hymns, the Tantum ergo and Adoro te devote and all that. We sang all that-and the mass. My mother took us to mass every morning, always in a large parish a requiem mass, and so I heard the Dies Irae every morning sung in Latin.
COLE: So, while we talked about growing up with poetry, you really grew up with languages and hymns.
VENDLER: Yes. Yes.
COLE: This is an auspicious launching pad for someone who has spent her whole life dealing with language in many forms.
VENDLER: Yes, because you feel it in the body and not only in the eye, especially when you sing it, or do choral recitations. It enters into a kinetic frame.
COLE: Let's talk about the art of teaching poetry. What were your influences? You have written about the influence of I. A. Richards. Could you tell me what the influences were and then maybe tell me a little bit about I. A. Richards?
VENDLER: As I say, my mother was my first teacher. I don't remember anything extraordinary going on in elementary school or high school except that in high school they made us write a senior thesis of sorts. I did that on Hopkins. My mother had brought home a new biography of Hopkins from the Bookmobile and, as I was reading that for the first time-I was fifteen -I became enamored of all his sounds and new structures. I memorized Hopkins practically whole, all the mature poems, when I was fifteen, and then when I was sixteen, wrote my senior thesis, forty pages on Hopkins. I think we were supposed to write seventeen and I ended up writing forty, which is still my trouble (laughter).
For years afterwards I thought I should really write a book on Hopkins, but I didn't, and couldn't understand why. …