The Generous Mind of Helen Vendler | The New Yorker

Happiness and art are most evident in hindsight. I arrived at Harvard like most eighteen-year-olds at Harvard: with a grandiose sense of aspiration and a subpar understanding of how most things worked. Helen Vendler was one of the few people in the English faculty whose name I recognized. I signed up to take her first seminar on Walt Whitman and got in—the first real coup (I thought) of my adulthood. The class met once a week for two hours at a long oval table with a water fountain halfway up, and when the group moved out of this break one day, I returned to my seat to find the student’s feet sticking out across the floor. under the table. I leaned down and heard a soft snore. “Uhhh, Professor. Vendor . . . ” shouted another student. Vendler looked down. «Oh—let him sleep,» she said, then added, «Students never get enough sleep.» In time, our classmate shyly reappeared, but by then Vendler had already begun her lesson on «Crossing Brooklyn Ferry» and delivered an essential message: studying poetry and living life were not separate, but one way of being.

Vendler, who died last week at the age of ninety, served as New Yorker’s poetry criticism between 1978 and 1996, and the temptation, as always in the wake of extraordinary lives, is to immediately install it in a pantheon with an effigy made of cold stone. Without exaggeration, we call her the most influential American researcher of poetry in the last fifty years. She was as great at illuminating the old as she was at promoting the new; it is unusual for an academic to produce a definitive contemporary account of Shakespeare’s verse (such asThe Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets«) or about Wallace Stevens’s strange, uninviting long poems (in «On extended wings”) to be the same writer who notices poets as diverse as Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove and Ocean Vuong. Vendler did not follow literary or academic fashions. Nor did it operate, as some critics claim, by intuition or «taste.» What she had was an almost tactile understanding of the ancient practice of poem-making as art, and—running her hands like a seamstress over the back of their stitching, watching them drape and move and catch the light—she saw not only what the poets did but how they did it. In 2009, when prominent poets (including Dove, who in an infamous exchange of letters and columns later took issue with Vendler’s negative review of an anthology she edited) contributed to a collection celebrating Vendler’s criticism, the volume was titled «Something understood.”

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Vendler is said to have worked on the model of IA Richards, the British critic associated with the founding of the so-called New Criticism and one of its most valuable teachers in graduate school at Harvard. She actively resisted the tendency to psychologize, politicize or historicize textual interpretation. The poem was a work of art standing on its own and as in the marvelous an early magazine article about Marianne Moore or its authoritative book study of Heaney, traced a sensitive path between the poet’s biography and the corpus, focusing on the page, the line, the word. Reading Vendler often brought the thrill of seeing someone solve a puzzle. She concluded her exposition of Shakespeare’s sonnet «A Summer’s Day,» one of the most quoted in all of English literature, by pointing out an ingenious hidden pun created by turning one letter upside down.

So it was perhaps ironic that Vendler’s presence on the page seemed incomplete; I’ve always felt that her defining characteristics came through most strongly in the human bonds she created. («It’s a very hard thing to be an exhibit when you’re a person” she remarked about Yeats teaching “Among school children,” an observation that may have backfired on her.) She spoke in what used to be called a Harvard accent—the voice of Leonard Bernstein and George Plimpton, with the «I can’t» pronounced like a philosopher and the «R»s melting away—and dressed like a New Englander (or my Californian idea of ​​a New Englander), all jackets and sensible pants. She was a fascinating lecturer, precise, witty, in love with the work, and her long-running introductory poetry survey at Harvard, Poets, Poems, Poetry, was famously huge in interest. (Fortunately in least AND little from her lectures can still be seen online.)

However, Vendler appeared nearby – just like by the bed – to enjoy taking people as they come. In seminary, she tackled every awful piece of writing we submitted, her tiny, spidery bullet course crawling along the edges of our papers and continuing on the back of the last page. She asked us to visit her during office hours. When I first showed up, she opened a can of Diet Coke from the small fridge she had, offered me the same, and started talking about the End of the Parade tetralogy and other novels, assuming that fiction was a subject she knew no more about than we did. (This, of course, was not true, although she once told our class that when she was a young English professor raising a child after her marriage ended, she reviewed some novels «for money» and still felt guilty about what she thought was a fraud. ) It was good to be an expert, but to be a complete person, with a complete mind, also meant passionate inexpertness. He seemed to see the writers and thinkers we might one day become.

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I remember most vividly how Vendler once spoke when one of us pointed out that some poets had troubled and unhappy lives. «Yes, but there’s no need to feel sorry for them,» she almost retorted. «Because they have a much deeper fulfillment in creating lasting works of art.» In an environment that increasingly seemed to measure success in terms of resume, lifestyle, and market share—we were the class that created Facebook—the statement was a check. Vendler took seriously those who are often patronized, such as students and artists, and if she was ever patronized, it was toward those who were usually given attention. («You should never let editors rush you, Nathan,» she told me years later when I started publishing. «They always try, but it’s just because they don’t know any better.»)

She spent the first third of her career being brushed off by those who thought they knew better. Having grown up with a love of poetry in a devout Catholic household in middle-class Boston, she majored in chemistry at Emmanuel College because the books seemed to be taught as moral statements about Christian ideals. When she was a graduate student in English at Harvard, the head of the department refused to let her enroll in Richards’ course. «You know we don’t want you,» he told her. “We don’t want any women here. By the time Boston University granted her tenure in 1969, she was teaching at half a dozen places; she was fifty and established at this magazine when Harvard hired her—after an exam. She knew what it was like to be underestimated and overworked. She was one of the world’s biggest reworking enthusiasts. When our class came back from Thanksgiving break, we asked about hers. «Well, it wasn’t much of a break,» she grumbled. «I baked a casserole, cleaned the house, and wrote forty-five thousand words of reviews.» Or it’s me thought she said. In the end, one of my roommates convinced me that Vendler had probably said «four to five thousand words of reviews,» but it speaks to my faith in her ability that it seemed entirely plausible that she had produced half of a critical collection between vacuums.

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Vendler, as she clearly said, was with each of us not only at our seminar, but also in the future. When I started posting more regularly, she was full of suggestions and delight. He seemed to want to show us that it was possible to be a great mind – an “exhibit” – and a human being not only at the same time, but together. That, if anything, was what poetry was about.

The last time I saw Vendler was a few years ago, before the pandemic, during her visit to New York to read at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery at an event organized in part by Arion Press. I had before published an essay about Vendler and her decades of work with the publisher’s founder, master printer Andrew Hoyem. Vendler read that evening with Frank Bidart and Jonathan Galassi. At dinner, I then sat next to Vendler, who, with the sense of freedom of an octogenarian, ordered a huge pot of cheese fondue for dinner. She was herself: passionate, engaged, eager to talk about my writing and reading outside of poetry. Work drove her to old age, she lamented. Her beloved son was beginning to retire. «A son who retires before his mother—have you ever had one.» heard something like that?” she asked with barely concealed pleasure.

However, I remember most vividly the walk from the gallery to the restaurant. It was a cold May evening. Vendler was suffering from a flare-up of bronchitis and Bidart was having back problems and the two fell a block behind the group, I was at the back. «People always say something is ‘a few minutes away’ — they forget that the exact distance matters,» Vendler said. She paused for a few moments to catch her breath; Bidart would wait. Then he would rest and she would do the same for him. The view I had behind them is one I will always carry: poet and critic moving slowly forward together, each pausing to wait for the other to catch up. ♦


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