There is no denying Helen Vendler's seriousness, her willingness to approach modern poetry's mass with a critical density of...


PART OF NATURE, PART OF US: Modern American Poets

There is no denying Helen Vendler's seriousness, her willingness to approach modern poetry's mass with a critical density of equal proportion. Her style and her sympathy are rich, her preferences plain: for late Stevens (""the elegiac sublime of ruins. . . the celebratory sublime of inception""), for Robert Lowell (""History and its companion volumes. . . contain the first legitimate continuance of Shakespeare's sonnets since Keats. . . the quin essential beauty of the appalling exactly drawn. . .""). But in these collected essays (most of which previously appeared in periodicals), her blindspots also merge. Poetry that does not, in Stevens' phrase, move from an ""ever-early candor to its late plural,"" that does not offer as its terminal a metaphysical or contemplative or philosophical Taj Mahal, that does not enlarge of its own consummated thought--poetry like this she simply does not see. When she says that Howard Nemerov's poems rise from contemplation of ""the will's rebellion against necessity, history's repetitions, the pitfalls of the literary life, and the perpetual discrepancy between hope and event,"" she really means it; she believes that poetry fills eidetic shapes preexistent in the mind of the poet, So she'll chide Frank O'Hara for resisting abstraction, for never tying up his poetry with the twine of reflection (yet will call James Merrill's ""espousal of the conversational as the ultimate in linguistic achievement"" a ""moral choice, one which locates value in the human and everyday rather than in the transcendental""--the difference presumably being that Merrill's ""plural"" credentials are more in order than O'Hara's). Past Lowell, Stevens, and Merrill, then, she is mostly lost. She waves approval toward only the very safest of the new (the congested, chalky poetry of Dave Smith, the cloissonÉ-work of Louise GlÜck); and when she reviews Black poetry, you feel she's slumming, over-eager. Her phrase-making can be sharply satisfying (A. R. Ammons is ""like a guitarist presented every day with a different senorita in the balcony"") but, overall, it seems used as a defensive whip that flicks away the hoi-polloi, the unwashed who will not summarize, deduce, or walk stately among the sepulchres of the examined life. The total effect? She makes poetry--and this is all the more a pity, since she's so energetic and giving--into an elephant's graveyard.

Pub Date: March 1, 1980

ISBN: 0674654765

Page Count: -

Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1980