by Helen Vendler ‧ RELEASE DATE: Nov. 15, 1998
Quiet virtuosity sustains this work from one of our leading literary critics. Vendler's last book, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1997), was a tour de force, the appropriate grand summary of one mind's lifetime reading of Shakespeare. Here she moves several centuries forward to the contemporary poetry of Nobel laureate Heaney. Vendler traces the evolution of the Irish poet's style and his ideas, emphasizing how underlying concerns have recurred even though Heaney's use of language and reenvisioning of poetic prospects have shifted. One of her own parallel critical inventions, meant to address his: Each chapter, which considers a looming thematic or technical aspect of Heaney's accomplishment, also includes a closing section, ""Second Thoughts,"" which assesses how Heaney treats the same thematic or technical concern later on--how he varies, adapts, or translates it. All critics aren't so shrewd or flexible. In one of her best chapters, ""Archaeologies,"" about Heaney's North (1975), Vendler surprisingly presents him as ""the curator of undoing"" for ""the resonance he gives to the frayed, the hacked, the incomplete"" in his poem ""Bog Queen,"" about a 2,000-year-old corpse unearthed from bog land south of Belfast in 1781. While steadfastly attentive to the words before her, Vendler shows herself to be agreeably imaginative; also, remarkably, she's a critic whose powers sometimes seem akin to those of her subjects. But she serves, too, as a loyal and true intermediary between poetry and its potential readers, offering a concise, plainspoken companion volume to Heaney's oeuvre without making the work seem more--or less--difficult than it really is. Her unusual fairness in an age when criticism is often either politically motivated or too arcane in its language and concepts to be read widely should be noted (and noted again). Would that there were more Vendlers writing criticism--and not about poetry alone.
Pub Date: Nov. 15, 1998
Page Count: 224
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1998
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