Helen Vendler is our great biographer of the poem; she has met its parent, listened to its table talk and backroom confessions, searched its hidden rooms of meaning, and gauged its career against those of other poems. Are such skills in close reading still relevant to us? The days when Vendler's stringent reviews dominated the conversation, or shaped the taste for poets such as Rita Dove or Jorie Graham, have passed. The new generation includes poet-critics, who show us the poem's birth-room from inside and out; and cultural critics who apply a poultice from a poem to reify their discourse. Thus, poetry talk has grown more resonant, and quite murky: a circle of midwives gabbling, or a rough beast of prose moving its slow theories.
Vendler keeps to her course, vividly dramatising the life of the poem. Her lucid, plain-spoken narratives make the poem seem as engrossing as any "life of the poet" tale or cluster of cultural verities - indeed, by comparison, they may look sallow and derivative. In a burst of publication, Vendler's recent books combine canonical poets and crucial moments of artistic making: Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath (2003); Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats (2004); Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashbery (2007); and Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (2007). Now nearing 80, Vendler has turned to her familiar poets once more, via an elegantly spare meditation on Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill, who are "taking the last look" at their territory, "as you contemplate the places and things that have constituted your life".
The book is based on her Mellon lectures given at Washington's National Gallery of Art, and takes a visual approach: these five poets employ a "binocular vision that holds death and life in some active relation within a single sensibility". The simple template "binocular" shows Vendler to be efficient rather than "undertheorised". Yet it misleads slightly: how does the one eye focus on an absence?
Last Looks, knowing that time is short, presents its thesis early: "With traditional religious consolations no longer available to them, these poets must invent new ways to express the crisis of death, as well as the paradoxical coexistence of a declining body and an undiminished consciousness." Modern poets face oblivion without the comforts of what Philip Larkin called "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade". But Vendler's razor-sharp readings are hardly the "Arid interrogation" Larkin complained of. "In The Rock, Wallace Stevens writes simultaneous narratives of winter and spring; in Ariel, Sylvia Plath sustains melodrama in cool formality; and in Day by Day, Robert Lowell subtracts from plenitude. In Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop is both caught and freed, while James Merrill, in A Scattering of Salts, creates a series of self-portraits as he dies, representing himself by such things as a Christmas tree, human tissue on a laboratory slide, and the evening/morning star."
Vendler names the poets' responses "stylistic", as though one could try on different artistic wardrobes for one's funeral. The plight she details - that poets, despite the "declining body" and imminent oblivion, are still thinking, still writing - curiously answers that old black magic of French theory, the "death of the author". For Vendler understands, as does American poet Stanley Plumly in his monumental study Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (2008), that a presentiment of death empowers a poet's voice - what John of Gaunt in Shakespeare's Richard II calls "deep harmony" - and that a poet's voice will likewise resonate after death. The author is always slightly dead, and is never completely dead. Or, as Stevens put it, "what is dead lives with an intensity that is beyond any experience of life".
Vendler's work more fully counters "the death of the author" by unapologetically seeking out the author's intention. A poet may write on death by using what Roland Barthes called "a tissue of quotations" drawn from "innumerable centers of culture"; but he still makes the poem's defining, local arrangements. Otherwise, a death-of-the-author syllogism could read:
1. James Merrill is linked to Merrill Lynch Investments
2. His poem Self-Portrait in TyvekTM Windbreaker uses a corporate logo
3. Therefore, the role of American corporate power on contemporary death is ...
Close reading matters because it uses present material, and needs to prove its case on the spot, not on credit. Success or failure is quite visible. Alan Marshall's book American Experimental Poetry and Democratic Thought (2009) struggles to link Stevens' insurance work and poetry through his "favourite terms, poverty for instance - a great favourite this, and only a letter away from poetry - a distinct pecuniary resonance". Perhaps. Still, we don't send our tumour biopsies to the ontologist.
Vendler is immensely well read, and prefers well-read formalist East Coast Brahmin poets: buttoned and boiled name-droppers, sceptical but with trust funds, and altogether sickly. Of the five poets, Plath seems a difficult fit: she did not mature late in the shadow of death, but sought it even as a child. Yet Vendler's writing here is inspired: "She was always a posthumous person, but it took her years to acquire a posthumous style."
Every day, every action, every look, is our last ... until the next one happens. Aren't we always at the ready? Federal workers in Washington carry potassium iodide pills "in case of nuclear incident". Some authors have dressed for their last date: Henry James, as he fell from stroke, heard the words, "So here it is at last, the distinguished thing." And others? D.H. Lawrence last said, "I am better now."
As biographer of the poem, Vendler stoutly defends it against other graveside attendants. She admonishes one critic for basing an interpretation on passages "which Plath excised from the poem", calling his views "indefensible". She calls the recent volume of Bishop's Uncollected Poems "misnamed", since "Bishop chose never to publish these drafts of poems at all". Yet Vendler herself finishes these three fragmentary lines of Merrill's "broken deathbed words":
Meanwhile ***** if you or I've ex-
ceeded our (?) *** [more than time]
To fit a text airless and ** as Tyvek
Vendler calls the following a "metrical reconstruction":
Meanwhile, dear heart, recall, if
you or I've ex-
ceeded our powers, more than
time was needed
To fit a text airless and taut as
Maybe Merrill wanted to say this, but it is no "reconstruction" - unless that means "restoring crossed-out words". Has Vendler exceeded her powers here? Merrill's poem earlier talks of "The eloquence to come"; but it can't have meant this. Oscar Wilde reminds us that "biography lends death a new terror" - and the subtitle to his essay The Critic as Artist mentions "The Importance of Doing Nothing".
A critic of Vendler's calibre is no mere "attendant lord" to poets or poems. But even Hamlet, jumping into Ophelia's grave, couldn't squeeze more songs from the body. We remember that Richard Bentley, finding the end of Milton's Paradise Lost "Very improper", rewrote it. Readers can judge the results. Last Looks makes no apologies for looking into graves, and for voicing grave-minded poets. But the pamphlet handed out at Vendler's National Gallery lecture does note: "Merrill's last stanza, a reconstruction by HV (with apologies to JM)".
Helen Vendler, who is A. Kingsley Porter university professor at Harvard University, specialises in the study of poetry. She was born in Boston in 1933, and at an early age her parents introduced her to poetry - and not just in English.
She holds the distinction of being the first woman to be elevated to the rank of university professor at Harvard. But she has not always been so celebrated at the institution, she recalled. "When I went to have my programme card signed on my first day at Harvard as a graduate student, the chairman said to me: 'We don't want you here, Miss Hennessy. We don't want any women here.' That was my welcome to Harvard."
Although passionate about poetry and reading, Vendler said she also enjoys music: "I'm attracted to vocal music, so it's lieder and opera I listen to most."
Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill
By Helen Vendler
Princeton University Press, 176pp, £13.95
Published 3 May 2010