Helen Vendler’s Idolatry

Originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of Books and Culture.

The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry
Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, 2015
464 pp., $35.00

Conspicuously missing from Helen Vendler’s new essay collection is her notorious savaging of the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, which appeared in The New York Review of Books in 2011. Vendler accused editor Rita Dove, the first black woman to be appointed poet laureate of the United States, of skewing her selection too much toward the accessible, the sociologically representative, and the politically correct—too much Amiri Baraka, too little James Merrill. Dove’s 1,700-word reply, which the NYRB printed in full in its Letters section, accused Vendler of “barely veiled racism.” Veterans of the Canon Wars felt a throbbing in their battle scars. Even those corners of the media that generally pay very little attention to poetry flagged the controversy as a clash of the titans or, less charitably, a highbrow catfight.

Vendler’s broadside really ought to have been included in The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, not only because it was the cause of a noteworthy cultural episode—how often does poetry intrude, in however small a way, upon the national consciousness?—but also because it was a piece that only Vendler would have written. In the chummy, backscratching, relentlessly nurturing world of the American poetry industry, Vendler is known as the critic who still believes in standards—a mama bear among mother hens. Frank Lentricchia has derided her as the “Queen of Formalism,” and although in her introduction Vendler faults this epithet for being “two neo-Marxist denunciations in one,” she does not call it inaccurate. Whatever else it may have been, her panning of the Penguin Anthology was representative.

Thankfully the lively spirit that animated the Dove review is in evidence in the essays here, even if the review itself is absent. More important, we are given a clue to the motivation behind that spirit, an explanation for why Vendler guards the integrity of poetry so zealously. In her previous work, Vendler has shown a laudable aversion to meta talk about the nature of literary criticism, preferring simply to get down to the business of doing it, but in the first two chapters of this collection she permits herself a rare excursion into memoir and manifesto. It turns out that the reason Vendler is so protective of poetry is that for her it is quite literally the most important thing in the world, without which life would not be worth living.

We might have expected such an attitude from an acknowledged disciple of Wallace Stevens, the man who believed that poetry was destined to take the place of religion in the modern world (“After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place in life’s redemption”). Then again, we might equally have expected Vendler to hurry past such ludicrous pronouncements from her hero with indulgent but embarrassed haste, as disciples of Ezra Pound so frequently must do. After all, the most ardent Stevens devotee might hesitate to endorse the master’s response to a questionnaire that asked him, “As a poet, what distinguishes you, do you think, from an ordinary man?” Stevens wrote back: “Inability to see much point to the life of an ordinary man.”

But no, this elevation of poetry to God-like status is precisely what makes Stevens so compelling to Vendler—possibly because Stevens included critics as full members of his poetic pantheon and not just as votaries. Summarizing the meaning of the Stevens poem “Somnambulisma,” Vender writes: “Imagine being psychically dead during the very life you have lived. That, says Stevens, would be the fate of the generations were it not for the scholar.” In other words: You’re welcome. “Somnambulisma” (a reference to the non-scholar’s fate?) is the source of this book’s title, which gives an idea of how dearly Vendler cherishes this particular message.

This idolatrous exaltation of her profession leads Vendler into serious errors, not only moral but intellectual. She writes:

The arts confer a patina on the natural world. A vacant stretch of grass becomes humanly important when one reads the sign “Gettysburg.” Over the grass hangs an extended canopy of meaning—struggle, corpses, tears, glory—shadowed by a canopy of American words and works, from the Gettysburg Address to the Shaw Memorial.

It is uncomfortable to feel the need to quote the Gettysburg Address to a Harvard professor. But how else to respond to the assertion that it is “the arts” that confer meaning on that site in Pennsylvania, when three out of the ten sentences in Lincoln’s short speech explicitly proclaim the impotence of mere words? “In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” Vendler’s own example rebuts her, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Undoubtedly this word-worship is related to the second keynote of Vendler’s development as a critic, her disillusionment with religion. Vendler (maiden name Hennessy) is a bitter ex-Catholic of the Boston variety. Her “literally medieval” upbringing constituted an “unwilling incarceration in religious environments,” by her lights, though she seems to mean by this only that her mother went to daily Mass and her teachers were nuns. Her father was a teacher of Romance languages and fluent in Spanish, French, and Italian, and her mother “was the fount of poetry in the house, quoting it frequently in conversation”—not exactly Angela’s Ashes. Nevertheless, the experience left a mark. She was aghast when Robert Lowell told her that he planned to be buried at the (Episcopal) Church of the Advent after a solemn high mass: “I was really shocked that he would do that, and he was immensely amused at my anticlericalism.”

If Vendler is beginning to sound like more of a trendy lefty than her Penguin Anthology review would have suggested, that may not be entirely unfair. In an otherwise sensitive essay on The Waste Land, she asserts that Eliot quotes Baudelaire’s “Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère” in order “to double the force of his anger at social hypocrisy,” which is a bit like saying that Eliot quotes “Mistah Kurtz, he dead” in “The Hollow Men” in order to magnify his condemnation of Western imperialism. Vendler’s essay on John Berryman, which laudably avoids both the hype and the counter-hype to which Berryman has lately been subjected, includes this jarring passage:

The maladies from which Berryman suffered—bipolar illness and severe alcoholism—ruined his abused body and shook his excellent mind. Since the medicine of his era could do little for these illnesses, his life became marred by successive hospitalizations, attempts at rehabilitation, divorces, the loss of at least one job, and desperate remedies.

Centuries of debate over whether madness and self-destruction have any connection with artistic genius, flattened by the bland observation that modern science had not yet found their cure. Not even the Beats escape the deflating language of modern liberalism. Vendler describes their agenda as “frankness and … commitment to social and erotic reform.”

The truly regrettable thing about these gaffes is not their politics—a great critic can have whatever politics she wants—but what politics does to the author’s language. Whenever Vendler shifts into PC mode, she descends into cliché (or hilarious oxymoron in the case of “erotic reform”). Lowell’s fellow mental hospital inmates become “the marginalized,” Boston University becomes a place where “students of all ages, races, sexes, classes, and religions could learn together,” the arts become “our children’s patrimony” that “can be offered in the community.” When language starts to be corrupted like this, it is a sign that something deeper is wrong—something that Vendler herself, as American criticism’s preeminent close reader, surely does not need to be told.