'The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poetry and Poets', by Helen Vendler - Review

By Swift, Daniel | The Spectator, July 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poetry and Poets', by Helen Vendler - Review


Swift, Daniel, The Spectator


The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poetry and Poets Helen Vendler

Harvard, pp.464, £25.95, ISBN: 9780674736566

Is it possible to tell a good poem from a bad one? To put the question another way: are there objective, even scientific, standards for evaluating literature? Helen Vendler has no doubts. Her spiky new collection of essays begins with the insistence that it is possible to prove how one poem is 'superior' to another, and 'those who suppose there are no criteria for such judgments merely expose their own incapacity'.

That's a bold claim, but in her hands, literary criticism is a science, and anyone who disagrees with her judgments is put sharply in their place. I should know: my observation, in a book I recently edited, that the late religious poetry by the great American poet John Berryman reminds me of the 17th-century English poet George Herbert is here quoted and then smacked down ('never in them does the histrionic Berryman sound at all like the subtle and fine-grained Herbert'). If Vendler doesn't hear the echo, then the echo doesn't exist.

Apologies for making this personal, but this in miniature is the precise problem that has always bedevilled literary critics: the problem of how to balance feeling and fact, and how to translate subjective response (I love this poem) into informed judgment (this is a great poem). Look again at Vendler's dismissal: see how the adjectives 'histrionic', 'subtle' and 'fine-grained' are pretending to be descriptive while really operating as subjective judgments? This challenge is at the heart of literary criticism, and it is what divides academic critics (who tend to avoid the language of good and bad) from book reviewers (who make those kinds of calls all the time).

Vendler is a formalist critic -- she announces here that someone once called her 'the Queen of Formalism', and it's unclear whether that's a compliment or an insult -- and describes herself as driven by 'the compulsion to explain the direct power of idiosyncratic style in conveying the import of poetry'. What this means is that she measures a poem by all the tricks that mark it off from daily speech: rhyme, meter, rhetorical patterns. This focus causes her to sound highly technical: she mentions in passing 'a Miltonic volta', '19th-century ligatures of plot coherence' and 'mass synecdoche, if one may call it that' (indeed, one may).

This is a collection of essays and reviews from various magazines and occasions, and they apparently have not been edited for republication, so the tone varies considerably. Occasionally, Vendler sounds as though she is addressing postgraduates; occasionally, her claims are so bland that she might be composing a Wikipedia entry (on The Waste Land by T. …

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