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Strategies of Poetic Redefinition

by Helen Vendler

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-674-35431-1
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

A brief but stimulating meditation on four significant American poets by an indispensable critic. Vendler's (English/Harvard Univ.) dismissive June 18 New York Times Book Review assessment of Bill Moyers's The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets caused a stir among writers who took issue with her negative appraisal of the populist and mutlicultural literary mission. Here she returns with four cool-headed, serenely selfless essays that originated as the T.S. Eliot Lectures given at the University of Kent. Her subject is the characteristic obsessions guiding the work of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Rita Dove, and Jorie Graham, each of whom, in Vendler's view, has transformed obsession into art. Vendler guides us as she follows the course of the obsession through the transformation. Berryman's ``given'' obsession, in her judgment, was manic-depression and alcohol addiction, leading the poet to construct in his work a ``phantasmagoria'' of the id. Lowell's was history, reconfigured from the burden and the honor of the writer's distinguished public ancestry. Dove's ``rethinking of the lyric poet's relation to the history of blackness'' sprang from her identity as an African- American, while Graham's ``given'' is her trilingualism, leading to a complex metaphysics embodied in language. The particular virtue of Vendler is to write with the authority of a scholar and the alertness of a contemporary about a form of art too often deluged by arcana, professional jargon, literary back-patting, or neglect. Encountering clarity in analytical writing that fulfills clarity of thought is a rare event; even Vendler's detractors, who assail her conservative aesthetic, should acknowledge her ongoing accomplishment. A literary challenge and a companion for the common reader, whoever that may be, of 20th-century poetry.