Helen Vendler: The Art of Seeing Well

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I prefer, for what I do, the classical label of “commentary” or Pater’s label, “aesthetic criticism.”
………– Helen Vendler

Been reading Helen Vendler’s new book of essays The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar and came across a passage that struck me as true to my own way of thinking and being. The notion of commentary and aesthetic criticism is something I’ve been doing for a long while. Harold Bloom calls it the “art of appreciation”. I’ve always felt a good literary critic should awaken in you a curiosity to seek out more, to know more, to challenge yourself to read and think through the specific poet, novelist, artist, etc. that has been presented by the critics essay. A critic’s task to instruct and delight, to make the work before her both interesting and alive in the reader’s mind. If she has done that she has accomplished her task, giving us a commentary and appreciation of the poet’s work and life in such a way that we walk away with more than we came with.

Vendler in the preface discusses her childhood as one of Catholic upbringing that led to its opposite through the power of questioning dogma. Again, for me – although raised Protestant, there was this early questioning of those ‘articles of faith’; those notions that one should not question, discuss, ask; as if to question the dogmas of one’s faith were to suddenly plunge one into the depths of irrationalism (i.e., “one must just accept,” “one must not question God’s veracity,”; or, “those who question are close to being won over to the devil,” – implying, for me that I was on a short leash to hell. Vendler in her personal struggle out of religion discusses how her freedom at the university gave her a change to move past her parents iron-willed Catholicism, to read those who have in literature, philosophy, poetry, etc. questioned the dogmas and found them wanting.

She discovered early on that the only place she could be alone with her self was in writing poetry. Yet, as she discovered later on in college, after escaping a Catholic schooling which left her escaping the rigid world of catechisms and morals into science she once again became enamored with literature, and especially poetry. Yet, it was until much later that she realized poetry she wrote just didn’t have that unique spark:

I much later realized that I don’t possess the Coleridgean “continual reverie” of imagination; I don’t live life on two planes at once as imaginative people do.1

What struck me was just this double-vision, this seeming strange relation we as poets have of living on two planes at once. As if we were in touch with a continuous reverie between mind and things, a dialectical relationship that flowed in-between, never resting, always moving back and forth, inside and outside, round and round through the dead traces of thought and the living truth of the moment as thought and being suddenly come together in-between the mind and thing, never quite resolved but rather proving the crack in our mind between thing and thought that is always full of contradictions. It is in that restless interval of contraction and time that the poem is born and enters that necessary movement or happening that sets the mind to work and allows for the ineffable communication to occur that is the poem. A tension between mind and thing, both paradoxical and without resolution; only the power to awaken imagination and weave the trace of life and things into a knot of energy.

I like to think of the poem as a small machine whose purpose is to awaken desire. The moment you plug-in to its power grid it gives you a jolt and sends you reeling under its dark enchantments. If it doesn’t then the poem is a dead engine in your hands. Seek out those poems that awaken you from your lethargic boredom, that send you after the lost powers of your own being, that bring you those deep reveries that empower you to live life with gusto and pleasure. Even in the difficult art of sorrow one entertains the elegiac power of one’s being revealed. Turn the key, light the fire of that poem that delivers to you your self in movement and majesty.

As Vendler says,

To understand a poem it’s necessary above all to understand its functional stylistic elements; when a scholar— without a profound knowledge of the poet’s work— swoops in on a single poem to illustrate an ideological point, he or she tends to falsify both the poem and the poet in question. There is no ready and easy way to take the measure of a lyric: it must be seen in itself and as part of an individual oeuvre and as part of a literary tradition before it can be used to support any scholarly point at all.

A critic of my sort is, I suppose, “learned” in a way— that is, she has a memory for stories, styles, and structures she has seen before, and she understands the expressive possibilities latent in writing (from the larger forms of myth and narrative to the almost invisible arrangements of prepositions and articles). She remembers the combinations and permutations of words and syntax that she has come across, and is curious about the power of new assemblages. Against the background of known structures, she recognizes and defines original ones, finding names for them and inventing taxonomies in which they might be arranged. Her “learning” resembles the “learning” of poets, which, though deeply etymological and architectonic, is often unsystematic and idiosyncratic. She often fails at the most elementary undertakings of “scholarly” life, such as remembering facts, entering polemical debates, and relating works to the political or philosophical history of their era. She has— at least I have— no capacity for broad synthetic statements.

What I’ve enjoyed about Vendler is her honesty and intellectual capacity, saying what she has to say in clear and distinct prose that has all the earmarks of the great literary critic. A tradition that stems from Longinus and Aristotle to Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde on thru the moderns, New Criticism on to I.A. Richards, Harry Levin, R.P. Blackmur, Northrop Frye, Kenneth Burke, Harold Bloom to our day with the cross-wise poet-critics taking the stage.

When I read philosophers like Badiou who use variations on criticism of literature and poetry I’m always happy to come back to actual practicing critics who’ve learned their trade in the trenches. Nothing against Badiou, but as a philosopher he has little grasp of the wide range of tools critics have gathered over the years, and his ideological and philosophical lens cast a narrow net upon both poetry and literature leaving little for the imagination. Vendler on the other hand is not out to beat you over the head with an ideological hammer like Badiou. Hers is a fine art of reading well, one that comes with years of close and intensive appreciation of the details rather than some surface tension seeking the conceptual strategies. Philosophers focus on conceptuality leaves one dry after a while wanting more, wanting a richer and more varied form of writing and reading. What little philosophers of today read outside the discipline of philosophy proper seems to be narrowly focused on a specific range of literature and poetry, honing in on those writers that convey thought rather than image and feelings. Vendler appreciates concepts, but not at the expense of reading a poet-as-poet. There is a difference that makes a difference in poetry as in philosophy, yet the two forms approach life and thought from different needs and capacities.

Poetry brings thought and imagination into play, while philosophy attunes us to the pure conceptuality of reason, intellect, and will sharpened and distinct from imaginative literature and its poetic cousin. What a critic like Vendler sees in poetry and poets is the visible darkness latent in the structure of the poem itself, its gatherings and absorptions from life and other poetry revealed, teased out of its knotted mire. She opens the poem to desire, and thereby lets us enter its imaginative poverty. Instead of context and facts she gives us the ineffable and intransitive dispositions that shape us to those meanings we otherwise would never have known to exist. She does not give us those meanings, but rather allows us to tease them out for ourselves through that negative capacity of imagination which is poetry’s charm and eloquence.


  1. Vendler, Helen (2015-04-20). The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar (Kindle Locations 203-204). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

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