Helen Vendler Believed Poetry Matters

Defenses of poetry by modern poets tend to accentuate the negative. “I too, dislike it,” says Marianne Moore, taking for granted that you feel the same way. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden admits. “A mug’s game,” T.S. Eliot calls it. William Carlos Williams observes that “it is difficult to get the news from poems.” The bad news about poetry is that it’s obscure, difficult, marginal — a trivial pursuit in a culture preoccupied with other fancies.

The good news is that nobody told Helen Vendler. Vendler, who died this week at 90, was an admired professor and a tireless, sometimes combative critic. In both those roles she was, above all, a reader of poems. Not an ideal reader (every writer knows there’s no such thing), but an exemplary everyday reader. She read poetry because she liked it, because it stirred her to thought and feeling, because she believed it mattered in the world.

“To know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life,” she wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1972, “makes you long for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things, as Wordsworth called them, that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry.” This was by way of saluting James Merrill as “one of our indispensable poets,” but Vendler was also making a case for the indispensability of poetry itself, in the most direct and personal terms. Poetry matters insofar as it matters to you.

If it does — if, like me, you have spent at least some of your life over the past half century or so looking at poems — you are likely to find yourself in Vendler’s debt. And also, sometimes, in what can feel like a personal quarrel with her.

She was such a ubiquitous presence — the go-to poetry reviewer for serious, nonspecialist publications like The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and this one — and wrote with such calm, rigorous authority, that some resentment was inevitable. The breadth of her knowledge was formidable, but her taste could seem narrow, her enthusiasm a form of establishment-friendly gatekeeping.

She upheld a canon of the English lyric, of first-person poems grounded in strong feeling, passed down from Shakespeare and George Herbert (she wrote books about both) through the Romantics to moderns like Yeats, Auden and, above all, Wallace Stevens. Many of the contemporary poets she praised, like Merrill and Robert Lowell, could be assimilated to that lineage. She was suspicious of more experimental or avant-garde tendencies, and skeptical of poetry overtly political or overly personal. Her criticism, too, avoided the theoretical leaps and sweeping cultural statements that animated literary discourse in and out of the academy.

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