from The Hudson Review, Autumn 2015
As readers of contemporary poetry, Helen Vendler and David Lehman could not be more different or more necessary. In his Best American Poetry series, Lehman has demonstrated a big tent approach to poetry, open to the lively variety of the contemporary scene, and enlisted a range of poets as editors to address that variety and make choices for the yearly anthology. Helen Vendler, on the other hand, like other formidable critics before her, is engaged in constructing something less inclusive, for her job is to identify what will be worth reading in the future among all that is being written today. Thirty years ago my colleague at Vanderbilt University, Donald Davie, the English poet and critic, asked me what we were going to do with all the poetry currently being written in English. Davie had been a disciple of F. R. Leavis and a mentee of Yvor Winters. He also taught a class, based on the practical criticism of I. A. Richards, called "The Judgment of Poetry: How to Tell a Good Poem from One That Is Less Good." So it made sense that he would be interested in canon formation and anxious about poetry's flourishing, especially in England's former colonies. My response when he asked his question was to say, "Read it?" It seemed that this was possible to me 30 years ago. I know it is not possible to read it all now, but it is possible to be aware of the variety while making a selection of what you prefer. The tasks that Helen Vendler and David Lehman have set for themselves, shown in their recent collections of essays, reflect their difference as readers and judges of poetry. She must show us how she discriminates among poets and persuade us that her judgment about them is correct. He must show us that contemporary poetry continues to be as vital an art form as any other and persuade us to pay attention.
Helen Vendler is one of the best close readers of poetry today, and among the essays collected in her book, those on the work of Charles Wright, Amy Clampitt, Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery, and Robert Lowell, are especially valuable. But the most interesting part of her new collection is the autobiographical introduction. It is, she states, "an account of my life as a critic." The principal theme of her account is the difficulty of making her way as a literary critic, first as a woman in graduate studies, and when she did begin to teach, as a single mother. One might be surprised to learn that Helen Vendler of all people faced this sort of discrimination, but she apparently sees it as of a piece with her Roman Catholic upbringing, during the thirties, forties, and into the fifties, the years of Pope Pius XII, in which the proscriptions and prohibitions of the church fell most heavily on young women who were ambitious to be something besides wives and mothers or nuns. She overcame the claustrophobia of that experience and established her personal foundation as an atheist. It is perhaps the psychic injury of her growing up that makes her assume that anyone raised in a religious environment had the same experience. Leaving the church for the apparent freedom of academia, she actually encountered some of the same resistance, but she triumphed over that adversity. She points out such accomplishments as writing her book about George Herbert in order to demonstrate that an atheist could write a good book about the great devotional poet. I have read that book and would have to agree that it is a good book about the great devotional poet written by an atheist. Despite her disavowal of religious belief, some of her most moving revelations are described in religious terms. The first is her discovery of the poetry of Wallace Stevens: "It was as if my own naked spirit spoke to me from the page." Stevens, it becomes clear, gave her something to believe in. As he himself says in his Adagia: "After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." Stevens saw himself as an aesthetic philosopher in the mode of Pater and Santayana and expressed his aesthetic faith in his Adagia and essays, not to mention his poetry. Vendler, when she aspires to that level of thought in her title essay "The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar," subtitled "How the Arts Help Us to Live," is not quite so articulate and, in fact, offers another quasi-religious sentiment: "The arts, though not progressive, aim to be eternal." This is a recognition banal by comparison with Stevens' aphorism. Art was an ultimate good for Stevens, especially in the form of poetry. For Vendler, Stevens' poetry itself is the ultimate expression of aesthetic value, her own ultimate good.
Critically, Stevens is for Vendler the measure of most, if not quite all things. Shakespeare and particularly Keats are the measure of the rest. When, in her introduction, she mentions encountering deconstruction in a course by Paul de Man, she adds parenthetically that she had "already been implicitly tutored by Stevens' poetry." According to Vendler, John Ashbery, whom Harold Bloom has tied firmly to Stevens, has created "a gorgeousness of imagery rare since Stevens." When Jorie Graham puts a poem in an historical context, Vendler argues that she does not make a teleological choice as Yeats would have done, but "borrow[s] from Stevens an intermediate moment in the epic drama." In fact, poets who hew more to Yeats's historical vision than Stevens', like, say, Adrienne Rich, are said to take a "conventionally generalized prophetic position." When Seamus Heaney speaks of how he drilled into "the Oresteia bedrock" in writing "Mycenae Lookout," Vendler evokes Stevens' "The Rock." That is as fundamental as you can get if you see Stevens everywhere, for as she says, "poets cover the rock with the fresh leaves of the imagination." (As I recall, Heaney once used the metaphor of the drill to describe the form of his poems in North, which are concerned with the excavated remains of the bog people in Denmark. Previous to that book he described his poems as mats of sound.) In her discussion of Keats's "To Autumn," she hears the great ode in Stevens' poetry, especially in the final strophe of "Sunday Morning." Her argument is illuminating, and yet it seems as if no other modern poet read Keats as Stevens did. She believes the central problems of Keats's ode "became central to Stevens' poetry as well." But what about the fact that Frost's "After Apple-Picking" gathers together two of Keats's great odes, "To Autumn" and "Ode to a Nightingale" and links sleep, poetry, and imagination in similar ways? But Vendler sees "To Autumn" as "the most untranscendental of the great Romantic odes," and it is important that transcendence, with its religious connotations, like that ladder pointing to heaven in Frost's poem, be undermined in her eyes. Though there is only one essay about Stevens alone among the 27 collected for this book, I began to anticipate the instance in each essay when he would be invoked. Finally, I noted for myself, "It must be hard for her, in a way, not to bring him up."
And yet she does write about others without subjecting them to the Stevens gauge, though in two cases, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill, it is a curious omission. In her essay on Bishop, entitled "'Long Pig': The Interconnection of the Exotic, the Dead, and the Fantastic in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop," she looks closely at the image of cannibalism in "In the Waiting Room" and deflects the consideration of gender, which for many readers is the central issue of the poem. She sees a clear connection between the National Geographic picture of a dead man on a pole, referred to as "Long Pig," and World War I, which the poem reminds us is ongoing at the time. Her point is that Bishop has an "inveterate fascination with cultural difference." While she does admit that these images of the exotic, the fantastic, and death are 'Joined in one complex object," she also observes that many of Bishop's images, especially those that appear to be observations of a foreign scene, "are still in the realm of the guidebook cliché" and have "not yet been internalized within the poet's imagination." This seems odd since behind so much if not all of Bishop's poetry of travel I hear Stevens' "The Comedian as the Letter C" and his protagonist Crispin's Gulliver-like voyages in the imaginary. Vendler ends by noting Bishop's own embrace of Poe, as a way for Bishop to be exact about her compulsions. Of all of the Modern poets, Stevens owes the most to Poe. I am surprised she does not see this. But there is a reticence to her assessment which. perhaps, would not have been possible if she had acknowledged Stevens' importance to Bishop.
Something similar happens in her pair of essays about James Merrill, particularly the first, "Ardor and Artifice: Merrill's Mozartian Touch." She makes a distinction between his magnum opus, The Changing Light at Sandover, and his "exquisite body of lyrics." The latter she implies were composed in "most of the lyric forms invented by the Western tradition." While she prefers the lyrics, and at one point observes that Merrill's taste for puns was "shared with Keats," nowhere does she acknowledge Merrill's debt to the Stevens of Harmonium. She concludes with a list of those things which may please a potential reader of Merrill's poetry: heightened language, "wry refraction of contemporary institutions," "poetic invention," "a window into the pangs and pleasures of gay existence," and most importantly "lightness of touch." This was a place where I wondered about her claim that the gorgeous imagery she finds in Ashbery has been rare in contemporary poetry since Stevens. Merrill's imagery is conspicuously gorgeous. All of the things she mentions as attractive qualities of Merrill's poetry, except the reference to "gay existence," are values in Stevens—the Stevens of Harmonium. But that is just the thing. The Stevens Vendler most esteems and employs as her yardstick is the poet of the long philosophical poems, which she writes about in her most famous book, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems. But in Merrill as with Bishop you can hear not only "The Comedian as the Letter C," but all the dancing, gnomic, less than serious, fantastic exotica of Stevens' lyrics, with their own Mozartian lightness.
I think most readers know of Vendler's esteem for A. R. Ammons and John Ashbery. She remains for both of them the best reader they could hope for and is able to tease out form and meaning when they are at their most nearly incoherent and overblown. So, instead of considering her admiration for these poets who measure up very well to Vendler's Stevens, I want to talk about three essays in the book that I find most compelling: on Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Amy Clampitt.
I remember reading a theory that the lithium he took for his manic depression so flattened out Robert Lowell psychologically that the result was a sense of enervation in the unrhymed sonnets of Notebook published in the late 1960s. The enormous labor of revision that created out of Notebook the separate sonnet collections History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin seems to belie that critical observation. But Vendler's very interesting theory about Lowell's poetry after Life Studies is that it is not so much a sign but a product of depression. The title of the essay "Lowell's Persistence: The Forms Depression Makes" reflects Vendler's admiration for Lowell's heroic struggle against his mental illness. But it also reveals her to be a formalist critic. In her introduction she takes issue with the term "formalist" since she believes it has been applied to her as a pejorative by Marxist critics. But that is, thankfully, what she is. What sets her apart from such formalists as the New Critics is that, for her, the form a poem takes reflects a poet's psychology. Though she says brilliantly in her introduction "Form is content deployed," her thinking generally is not that different from Robert Creeley's "Form is never more than an extension of content." This may be why her reference to Merrill and the forms of the Western tradition has its air of condescension. For Vendler, style is the poet, and idiosyncratic form—the less received the better—is what she can most readily explicate and recognize as original. With Lowell she notes in For the Union Dead a style both "obstructive and repetitive." It is replete with the plosive "k" sound and images of "curtailed time" which offers "no possible future." When she turns to a poem like "The Mouth of the Hudson," she offers a superb reading of the imagery as an allegory of Lowell's sense of self. She manages, finally, to show the development of form in the poet from the first to the last books and concludes by referring to Lowell's "power as an artist of the inner life, not flinching before its deserts of drought and paralysis." "His persistence," she writes, "won through ... into a poetry of strange aesthetic ambergris." The word "strange" may be unnecessary, but she seems to be exactly right about the entire career.
She is less generous with regard to John Berryman, but no less revealing. In response to new editions of his Selected Poems, The Dream Songs, and Sonnets, all issued to commemorate his centenary, she makes it plain that The Dream Songs alone are his major accomplishment and their Shakespearean triumph is "to perform tragedy and comedy simultaneously." It is hard to argue that we would be reading Berryman today without The Dream Songs. But Vendler shows her own prejudice against any poetry, since George Herbert's, which attempts to express a relationship with God. Referring to the devotional poems that form a part of Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc., his post Dream Song collections, she states that they fall short of "the subtle and fine-grained Herbert." Though this is probably true of any devotional poetry after Herbert, still Vendler rubs it in: "Berryman's life as a poet ends unhappily in bathos and aesthetic uncertainty, awkwardly imitating devotional predecessors at the close just as he had awkwardly imitated predecessor-poets at the beginning." Even Berryman's first great accomplishment as a poet, "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet," she finds to be "stiff' and "willed," an "historical pastiche." These are not uncommon opinions, though I do not think they are shared by genuine lovers of the poet. But Vendler must make it clear that The Dream Songs alone are of value. There is a telling moment when she misquotes one of the greatest of them, number 29. (She also refers to the page numbers of The Dream Songs, rather than their sequential numbers, which is confusing.) Referring to the opening of the poem, "There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart / só heavy," she writes, "There sat down once on Henry's heart a thing / só heavy." Leaving out the commas around "once" and inverting the word order is not a small error and apparently not merely a typo, though it would not be the first time a reviewer or critic relied too much on his or her memory. Following shortly after, in her conclusion, she singles out the Dream Song entitled "So Long? Stevens" (number 219) and zeroes in on Henry's sense of her master, Wallace Stevens: " ... something ... something ... not there in his flourishing art." Although Henry, Berryman's persona, ends by suggesting that his own judgment "sticks / in [his] throat" and that Stevens was "better than us; less wide," Berryman has made an error for which he will not be forgiven. Vendler notes that "Berryman knows very well the cost of relinquishing a Stevensian stoicism in favor of the world's broad social comedy ... " He has flouted "Stevensian sublimity." And his punishment? To have his masterpiece The Dream Songs referred to as "flawed" though "infinitely quotable."
One wonders if Berryman's transgression is trying to take on Stevens in a Dream Song or his return to faith in the years before his suicide, which Vendler notes as one of the desperate remedies he sought for his alcoholism and mental illness. The engaging of religious belief, even language that suggests it, is one thing Vendler will not abide in the poets who interest her. The most questionable manifestation of this prejudice is when, in her otherwise splendid meditation on Whitman's four elegies for Lincoln, "Poetry and the Mediation of Value," she insists that in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Whitman "does not put Lincoln in a Judeo-Christian frame at all." Thus she ignores the "trinity sure to me you bring," a phrase which appears in the first section of the poem and an image that appears again and again, binding the poem together, if not framing it. As for Whitman's vision of the Civil War dead, in section 15 of "Lilacs," though she recognizes that it echoes a scene from Revelation, she claims "the passage is his most blasphemous transvaluation of Christian value." It is hard not to wonder at the vehemence with which Vendler must make this assertion. Whitman was large and included multitudes, but her attitude here is small and excludes much.
Exclusion is a necessary evil of canon formation, but its more virtuous role is inclusion, and we can be grateful to Helen Vendler for drawing our attention to the poetry of the late Amy Clampitt. Much of what she praises in the poet's work has to do with Clampitt's "intense delight in nature" and determined individualism. Since her work first became known to the poetry reading public in Clampitt's fifties, there is also about it a maturity, without, Vendler notes, "the erotic drive" one finds in a younger poet, like Keats. But I would say the "unlimited vocabulary," which Vendler also praises, is lavished erotically in many of Clampitt's descriptions of the natural world. There are times when Vendler in praising Clampitt makes her sound more like the poet Vendler believes A. R. Ammons to be. She claims that Clampitt will be remembered "not so much for the imaginative gesturing toward past lives as for the registering of her own." Also, on a formal note again, she makes a convincing argument for the way Clampitt propels her poems down the page, representing but breaking through stanza groupings and strophes. For Vendler, Clampitt is an antidote to the poetry of identity politics that so bedevils and angers her. Therefore in Vendler's eyes, Clampitt's "Quaker anger against war ... is also tinged with her feminism, which indicts male violence without averting its eyes from its female counterpart." And reading her, Vendler argues, "is to enter into the mind of a woman too intelligent not to see both sides of the gender question, too indignant not to want to change a hardhearted social system." It may be that Clampitt embodies many things Vendler thinks she sees in other poets she values, like Ammons, Graham, even Ashbery. "Feelings swarmed in her heart, words swam to her pen ... ," Vendler movingly concludes. "If she had died at fifty, we should never have known about her." From what I can tell, we owe knowledge of Amy Clampitt in part to Vendler herself.
It is refreshing but somewhat disorienting to turn from the exclusionary and occasionally tendentious criticism of Helen Vendler to the inclusive vision of David Lehman. She is a partisan of a few poets. He is a champion of poetry itself. His The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014 is a collection of the forewords he has written for editions of The Best American Poetry anthology which he began thirty years ago and now publishes under the rubric of Scribner Poetry, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. The thread of argument running through these forewords, which sometimes read like dispatches from the poetry front, is that poetry is alive, evolving, on the march, even commercially viable, and present and accounted for in one way or another throughout contemporary American society. Ultimately Lehman's QED is the series itself. Early on he addresses the aspects of the anthology series which are exclusive and inclusive. He admits, "The anthology is frankly elitist in that we hope to honor the poems of our moment that are worthiest of attention and acclaim. At the same time there is a decidedly populist cast to our enterprise since we who collaborate on it try to make the book as inclusive as possible." He achieves the latter by choosing editors from year to year who often differ widely in their tastes. One knows what to expect with John Hollander's edition of the anthology, just as one knows what to expect from Lyn Hejinian's. But there are surprises more often than not. And while there are poets who turn up in edition after edition, there are also those whose work is clearly worthy of attention and acclaim who have never enjoyed the favor of an editor's inclusion. In one foreword Lehman writes a tantalizing description of several poems that sound marvelous, which were considered for the anthology but had to be put aside—simply not enough room.
One of the most interesting things to watch as Lehman's forewords fare forward through a quarter of a century is the increasing recognition of the Internet as a valid site for publication. The first full acknowledgment of this reality is in his foreword to the 2009 anthology. in which he states, "The Internet has multiplied the number of places in which a poem may appear." Following that is the announcement that in 2008, Best American Poetry launched its own blog. And that blog, I have to say, has become one of the liveliest expressions of the originating principle of the anthology. It is a daily sign, dispatched by David Lehman and the host of bloggers he has invited to join him, that poetry all its forms is alive.
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The Hudson Review
Editor: Paula Deitz
Founding Editor: Frederick Morgan (1922-2004)
Managing Editor: Ronald Koury
Associate Editor: Zachary Wood
Assistant Editor: Eileen Talone