SOUL SAYS: On Recent Poetry

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SOUL SAYS: On Recent Poetry.

By Helen Vendler. Harvard Univ. Press. 256 pp. $24.95

THE GIVEN AND THE MADE: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition.

By Helen Vendler. Harvard Univ. Press. 160 pp. $29.95 cloth; $14 paper

THE BREAKING OF STYLE: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham.

By Helen Vendler. Harvard Univ. Press. 160 pp. $29.95 cloth, $14 paper

When Helen Vendler describes the act of reading poetry, she makes it seem as straightforward as understanding the newspaper or humming a favorite tune: "The senses and the imagination together furnish rhymes for the poet. The rhythms of the poet translate themselves back, in the mind of the reader, into the senses and the imagination."

But nowadays the space between poet and reader is often too clouded for such clear passage. The contemporary reader at ease with Whitman but at sea with his successors may, in distress, look to the contemporary critic for a compass. Alas, most criticism written today in the academy, by critics whose proprietary interest in literature has yielded to a proprietary interest in self, will cause readers to jump ship and take their chances with the sharks.

Vendler’s criticism is a saving exception. A university professor at Harvard, she responds generously to the workings of the poetic imagination, in our time and across centuries: "The purpose of lyric, as a genre, is to represent an inner life in such a manner that it is assumable by others." Her singular talent as a reader is to assume the inner life of poet after poet, and to write precisely and eloquently about this merger of sensibilities.

When Vendler was 17, lyric poetry seemed to her "the voice of the soul itself." It still does, by the evidence of her three latest books: a volume of review essays and two volumes of thematic lectures. The essays on 20 contemporary poets in Soul Says date from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and generally mark the appearances of each author’s newest work. But time and again, a brief topical essay is a map to the larger world of the poet’s achievement.

The Given and the Made (the 1993 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent) considers how "an unasked-for donnée" shaped the work of four poets. Robert Lowell’s donnée, given by his famous family, was history. John Berryman’s, given by his alcoholic manic-depression, was the Freudian concept of the id. Rita Dove’s, given by birth, is her identity as a black American woman. Jorie Graham’s, given by her trilingual upbringing, is the arbitrary attachment of word to thing, and the corresponding relation of an invisible to a material world.

The Breaking of Style (the 1994 Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University) traces the process by which three poets—Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus Heaney, and (again) Jorie Graham—shed an old style for a new: the equivalent, for Vendler, of casting off a material body. These transformations permit Vendler to explore the essential connection between style and substance in poetry, and to argue (against interpretive fashion) for "the human perceptual, aesthetic, and moral signals such elements as prosody, grammar, and lineation." Hers is a method of steady engagement with the poetry—with line length, with images, with odd detail, and overarching argument. There is a soul in the body of a poet’s successful disposition of words.

Not every page of these books is equally persuasive, and there is some repetition among the volumes—especially when the same poets, and poems, are discussed. The books are best read not straight through but with time out to sample the poetry. Of living poets, Vendler’s favorites seem to be Heaney and Graham; you will no sooner finish her essays about them than make your way to a bookstore.

And that may be the great achievement of all Vendler’s criticism: its ease, assurance, and clarity, set in a bedrock of careful scholarship, persuade diffident readers to tease out the soul’s sense beneath a poem’s surface puzzle.

—James Morris


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