‘The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar’ by Helen Vendler

VendlerWilliam H. Pritchard at The Boston Globe:

A new book by Helen Vendler is always occasion for gratitude, since for more than 50 years she has provided us with the most exacting writing about poetry of any American critic. Even more welcome than the 27 essays on poets — all of them, except for Herman Melville, from the past century — is a 14-page introduction in which she accounts for her life as a critic. The principles under which she has operated are unqualifiedly stated, the major one being the “compulsion to explain the direct power of idiosyncratic style in conveying the import of poetry.” This means a distaste for considering poems “under gross thematic rubrics,” and a belief that, one poet, one poem, is superior to another, the critic’s job being among other things to demonstrate these distinctions in value.

Vendler’s learning has shown itself in books on Yeats, Wallace Stevens, George Herbert, Keats, Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson. As with the poets she writes about, that learning is less traditional and scholarly than, in her words, “deeply etymological and architectonic.” She notes that historically, the academic profession of English as she knew it, while “not unfriendly” to literary criticism (the old battles between literary history and close reading having ended), was unfriendly to reviewing, considering it to be mere journalism. For Vendler, reviewing poetry — and with a single exception all her writing has been about poetry — was rather a chance to speak forcefully and originally about a contemporary poet, or to see an older one, like Melville, in a new perspective.

more here.

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