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

Elizabeth Greene lauds an eminent critic’s fine close reading of Wallace Stevens and others

June 18, 2015
The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry, by Helen Vendler

A generous collection of essays spanning 35 years from 1980 (“Stevens and Keats’ ‘To autumn’: Reworking the past”) to the present (“Pried open for all the world to see: Berryman the poet”), by one of our best critics, is an event worth celebrating.

Helen Vendler takes this book’s beautiful title from Wallace Stevens’ poem Somnambulisma:

On an old shore, the vulgar ocean rolls
Noiselessly, noiselessly, resembling a thin bird,
That thinks of settling, yet never settles, on a nest.

The wings keep spreading and yet are never wings.
The claws keep scratching on the shale, the shallow shale,
The sounding shallow, until by water washed away.

She reads this passage, a scene witnessed by a scholar who makes an appearance four stanzas later, as a justification for the scholar/poet/critic who makes experience real through his eye and through his account. The paradox is that the poem is titled Somnambulisma, which suggests that the scene takes place in a sleepwalk or in the imagination: the ocean rolls “noiselessly” and the bird also seems of the imagination, coming out of the ocean, with wings that keep spreading but are never wings – the ocean resembles a thin bird that comes from the sea and returns to it, washing away generation after generation. The scholar/poet/critic catches the image and makes sense of it – the imagination resolves the paradox. The bird reappears in another of the essays Vendler includes here, on Stevens’ late poetry: a scrawny bird outside his window offers assurance of spring, even in March, especially welcome to a poet in the last full year of his life. Readers may want to compare birds and oceans from their own poetic experience, particularly from the work of W. B. Yeats.

These essays are almost textbook examples of fine close reading – and the research on which close reading rests. In writing on Walt Whitman’s four poems on Abraham Lincoln, Vendler first sets out the historical context, including the fact of Lincoln’s being shot on Good Friday, and shows that each of Whitman’s four poems are written from a different point of view, a different voice. O Captain, My Captain is written in the voice of a young soldier – and is not Whitman’s at all. In When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, which is in Whitman’s voice, the current events drop away and Lincoln, iconic now, is set in imagery of the bird, the star, the lilacs. The last of the four poems is an epitaph, and careful stylistic analysis shows how effective it is. I can’t imagine a better reading of these four poems.

Because Vendler focuses in the main on poets who owe something to Stevens, and because she writes on poets such as Seamus Heaney, A. R. Ammons, John Ashbery, James Merrill, Jorie Graham and Mark Ford in at least two essays, this book assembles a poetic circle, mostly American, mostly contemporary, mostly poets who spent time at Harvard University. It creates a conversation among the poets and hints at larger ideas of imagery and the imagination. Thus Vendler’s brilliant observation about the ecstatic quality of long lines in Graham’s poetry echoes back to her discussions of the long lines of Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, and outward to the Canadian poet Sue Goyette, whose lines are so long that her collection Undone had to be printed sideways.

One of the joys of this book is Vendler’s account, in the introduction, of how she got started. It is a feminist fairy tale, with emphasis on the quest rather than the marriage plot, of overcoming adversity and, thanks to great intelligence, extremely hard work, talent and courage – and assistance from the Fulbright Foundation – winning her way to a happy ending. Brought up in a strictly Roman Catholic home, Vendler was forbidden to attend either Boston Girls’ Latin School or Radcliffe College. On entering Emmanuel College, a Catholic institution that was then women-only, she discovered that literature was taught there as a branch of faith and morals – not the education she wanted. She considered turning to the study of French, but too many French authors were forbidden.

In the end, Vendler majored in chemistry, and then won a Fulbright scholarship to study mathematics in Belgium. While there, she obtained permission to study English literature instead, free at last of the influence of Catholic doctrine. After an unsuccessful application to Harvard for graduate study, she prepared for a second attempt by taking six courses in English a term at Boston University, and was finally admitted to Harvard’s PhD programme. When she arrived to register, the chairman of the department told her, “You know we don’t want you here, Miss Hennessy: we don’t want any women here.” She was shaken, but continued. She found mentors, like John Kelleher, who were encouraging to women, and she was lucky enough to study with some of the greats – Douglas Bush, Reuben Brower, Rosemond Tuve, I. A. Richards, Northrop Frye – on her way to becoming a major critic herself.

One final threshold test remained: balancing teaching and motherhood. When Vendler’s son was born in 1963, the chair of her department at Cornell University took her off the teaching list because “those who had had babies know that people with babies couldn’t teach”. A colleague intervened and she was given just one course, at 8am – hardly the best time for the mother of a newborn. She got her full-time job back the next year. By 1967, she was a single mother, scrambling to juggle teaching, writing and motherhood. She could manage teaching and motherhood, but not writing. Again, the Fulbright Foundation came to the rescue and granted her a year at the University of Bordeaux, with light teaching duties and time to write. When she returned, she got tenure; by then her son was school age. She became a professor at Harvard in 1984 and is the first woman to hold its A. Kingsley Porter chair.

Her gift for condensation is nowhere more apparent than in the stunning way these essays include just enough of a poet’s life to give a foundation to the work. Stevens, increasingly unhappily married, went upstairs to his study/bedroom every night after dinner to read, write letters, listen to music, compose poetry. “It was an intensely lonely life,” she observes, shedding light on Stevens’ poetic imagination and gorgeous visual, all-in-the-mind imagery. John Berryman’s “excruciating life” takes longer to relate, with its mixture of brilliance, excessive drinking, failure, success and pull towards suicide, but it, too, is extremely condensed, and helps us to understand the alternation between mania and depression in the work of this one-of-a-kind poet.

Vendler claims, modestly, that readers including herself will always need a path into some poems and poets, and suggests that the function of criticism is to provide such a path. She does this splendidly, and creating such paths for contemporary poets who have not yet accumulated a body of interpretation for their work is a very special gift.

Whether she succeeds as well in her other hope for her book, that it will be a defence of the humanities, especially of the arts, is a more open question. Is this the book to convince a hard-nosed dean not to cut “useless” positions in a provincial English department? Or to sway the board members of New York City’s public library system from their nefarious projects of library shrinkage? I’m not sure. But these essays will be a pleasure for readers of poetry and a service to the poets Vendler chooses for her close readings.

Elizabeth Greene is professor emerita of English, Queen’s University Canada, and found it hard to balance motherhood and teaching. She is author of the poetry collections The Iron Shoes (2007), Moving (2010) and Understories (2014).

The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry
By Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, 464pp, £25.95
ISBN 9780674736566

Published 28 May 2015

The author

Author Helen VendlerAuthor, scholar and eminent literary critic Helen Vendler was born and raised in Boston. The city, she says, “encouraged my intellectual and aesthetic self via the Public Library, the Opera House, and a repertory theatre regularly producing Shakespeare’s plays. The Metropolitan Opera’s touring company visited for a week every spring. 

“My first puzzle as an adolescent was how could one know, if one had never seen a ballet before, that one dancer just hadn’t done a certain movement adequately? How could one perceive that something was wrong in the phrasing of a musical moment, if one had never heard that aria before? The presence of an invisible contour of the perfect inhabiting the mind and testing all performances against itself was amazing to me.”

She was, she agrees, a studious child, but because she was in “inadequate” Catholic schools through college, she “had no influential teachers until after college”.

When studying in Leuven as a Fulbright scholar, Vendler recalls, she was “for the first time free and independent, able to do what I liked with money of my own. I lived with a delightful Belgian student, Hélène (who became a college teacher in Canada and was a lifelong friend).

“I had been to Europe before, so Leuven was not a revelation to me. But I loved ‘owning’ the exquisite Grand Place, around the corner from the little Flemish house where I lived. And I loved being with a group of people my own age, since I ‘inherited’ my room-mate’s friends. I was having the first happy period of my life.”

Vendler and her sister were taught foreign languages from an early age by their father. “I believe that being exposed to four languages (Spanish, French, Italian, and Latin) in my childhood changed my whole perception of how languages differ; it’s both peculiar and intriguing to have three words for ‘horse’ in one’s mind, with their different sounds,” she suggests.

“The poet Jorie Graham (who grew up trilingual in English, Italian, and French) has a poem beginning ‘I was taught three names for the tree facing my window.../with squirrels, memory banks, homes.’ The poetic potential of each language is different, depending on both form and sound. I think anyone made sensitive to several languages becomes interested in language itself as a phenomenon. But not all human beings who like languages like poetry. Most people prefer fiction and non-fiction to poetry: when they encounter lyric it seems denuded next to the busy world of the novel. ‘Where are the people, where are the surroundings, where are the social interactions?’ they wonder.”

Over the years, Vendler’s travels have taken her to many places associated with the poets about whom she has written with such feeling and perception. She does not dismiss the insights offered by such experiences.

“I like visiting any places that appear in poetry: Yeats’ Ireland and England, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Hopkins’ North Wales, Baudelaire’s Paris, Dante’s Florence. I’ve often gone to see a poet’s surroundings: Dove Cottage, the Keats House. I’ve been to Hardy’s grave (where only his heart is buried): Seamus Heaney took me to the Hardy sites and several places reachable comfortably only by automobile: East Coker, Little Gidding, Nether Stowey, and others.” 

She adds: “In my youth, I thought it was fine to teach Yeats without ever having seen Ireland, but it wasn’t; I am glad to have seen all the places near Sligo associated with Yeats’s poetry. In the US, I have visited Stevens’ house in Hartford and all the usual New England places associated with the Transcendentalists and others.

“Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst first made me realise that she was rich, and Walt Whitman’s house in Camden made me realise he was poor. These things are all valuable to a young literary mind trying to sense the environments in which poetry was composed.  I went to King’s Cross, near Winchester, on the date corresponding to the date of Keats’ letter describing the stubble fields on the day he wrote his great ode To Autumn: I wanted to know how England’s atmosphere felt on the skin at that season; the weather cooperated.”  

She has observed that her own temperament has much in common with that of Wallace Stevens, the lodestone of her new book. 

Stevens was, she says, “a solitary, facing all the deprivations that life inflicts with stoic courage, never indulging in sentimentality or denial. He was also capable of joy. A brave man. His great poem The Snow Man articulates that refusal of sentimentality even while he shows himself still nostalgic for his personal past. ‘One must have a mind of winter/...And have been cold a long time/...And not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind...” The Snow Man, at the end, sees ‘Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’”

Vendler has said that she wished more poets would write critically about the work of other poets. Which poets would she wish to recruit as critics, and about whom would she wish them to write?

“Calvin Bedient is a remarkable critic and poet: if only there were more like him. Jorie Graham has expressed herself wonderfully in interviews, but those pieces reflect the scattered questions put by interviewers: I’d like to see a book on Dickinson by Graham, or for that matter a book on Shakespeare. It’s the quality of her attention that would render arresting any critical book she would write. I’d also like to read essays on literature by August Kleinzahler, who has written such memorable prose about his brother. I wouldn’t care which writers the poets chose: they have inner instruments of poetic insight that the rest of us don’t possess.”

Does she mind that poetry is a minority interest, even among the literary-minded? And does she believe that as much good poetry is being written now as, say, in the time of Keats or Yeats?  

“Nobody knows,” she replies, “which poets will be judged great by posterity: Milton wanted to write works which the world ‘would not willingly let die’, and that’s the test. Very few people had read Keats, or Hopkins, or Dickinson, during their lifetime. There may be a hidden poet we are not aware of.”

Vendler continues: “Yes, the audience for poetry has diminished, at least in the US, because poetry is scarcely taught at all in the schools, and no other institution instils it.  People used to be exposed to religious poetry – the Psalms, the liturgy, hymns – before they knew it was poetry, and it gave them an ear for the music of language. There’s nothing to be done about the loss of religious poetry: the churches themselves have destroyed it with their dreadful modern replacements of the older hymns and the Latin liturgy and their modern rewritings of the Bible.”

In The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar, she touches on some of the hurdles she encountered as a female scholar. Does she believe that the barriers, lack of support and even hostility she faced as a young academic have now been swept away?

“Things are undoubtedly easier on the surface for women now in the various professions.  And yet I feel that prejudice simply moves its attention to another set of unacceptables.  The hostility to ‘the other’ is always with us, even if the definition of ‘the other’ changes over time. (And I think children are the objects of a great deal of prejudice from parents and teachers alike.)"

Vendler is not the only scholar to have spoken up forcefully for the value of the arts and humanities in higher education and in society more generally. Rather less common, however, is her argument – made recently with great eloquence in Harvard Magazine – about the shortcomings of the unshakeable faith that excellence in young people necessarily involves well-roundedness and “leadership”, and that universities admissions departments must find Baudelaires who have an interest in public service and Mozarts who come equipped with skills in mathematics. 

Does she believe that Harvard University looks beyond that view, and identifies talent that may be deep but not broad? 

“If you put enough talented young people together there is a synergy that fosters creative work, at Harvard or anywhere else," Vendler observes. "But our American weakness in admiring unintelligent and prejudiced people as ‘leaders’ (whether in commerce or in government) makes ‘leadership’ a very dubious concept, and not one, I think, that should be important in university admission.

“The young have to make a living, and a writer of genius will usually find a way to write in spite of the obligations of salaried labour: only a few of our modern poets were able to exist without a salary, and so we find T. S. Eliot in the bank, Wallace Stevens at the insurance office, William Carlos Williams in the delivery room, Marianne Moore in the library. The training of the mind is important to us all, and that some of that training leans more to the practical than to the philosophical is to be expected. But to denigrate thinking that is unattached to an immediately practical result is short-sighted and foolish.”

These days, Vendler lives alone in Cambridge, Massachusetts, "near my Harvard office, in a condominium in an old house. I am lucky to have friends nearby, and although my beloved son David lives and works in Los Angeles, we see each other at least every few months, visiting back and forth. I have two grandchildren, one in college and one going into her senior year of high school. I had always had cats until David moved to LA; my last cat was so unhappy at being left during my times in LA and abroad that I resolved not to get another – but I still miss having a cat.”

What gives her hope?

Vendler replies: “Any human being – regarding the cruelties inflicted throughout our world – would not have hope that anything will change. Contemplating human wrongs on a large scale always furnishes more food for despair than for hope. Who could maintain any large hope with public beheadings on TV (or the concentration camps during the war)? 

“It is only in the private sphere, where we have a specific interest in a specific outcome, that there is room to entertain hope: hope that a sick friend will survive, hope that a child will emerge into a decent adulthood.”  

Karen Shook


Review originally published as: Shedding light on the way in (18 June 2015)

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Reader's comments (1)

Elizabeth Greene asks indeed if Helen Vendler's book might be "a defence [sic] of the humanities." If so, Greene herself might have included in her review some accounting of how, and why, almost all those currently tenured in, say, the social sciences, ignore same humanities. Wonk speak has driven out all references to poems, novels, films, songs, plays, and other arts. Does Vendler have views on this mass shrinkage of literacy? And the poets themselves. So many in the MFA programs -- over 300 of them at American universities -- keep their own diction tuned only to two ranges: self therapy and fine arts. As if to honor the dictum that says departmentalism must make ghettoes of all, the poetry programs show almost no referencing to what's going on in the social sciences, or to the physical sciences. Does Vendler wonder at the closed world the MFAs have made of theirs, of themselves?

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