IT IS CURIOUS that no woman so far has become a major literary critic. True, major critics are at least as rare as major poets or novelists; but at least a few women have been numbered in the later categories for 200 years. It is true, too, that we have had excellent women journalist-critics and scholar-critics. But in the whole galaxy of modern criticism no female star has yet appeared.
Helen Vendler's Part of Nature, Part of Us may well mark the advent of our first major woman critic. Vendler has published three excellent historical books, each of more than specialized interest: a study of Yeats' A Vision and its relation to his later plays, an analysis of Wallace Stevens' longer poems and a reading of George Herbert's poems. This new volume, collecting her essays and reviews dealing with modern American poetry, will go far toward establishing her reputation as a critic of the contemporary. Some of these pieces were written for the larger audience of The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, or The Atlantic , others for the smaller and more specialized one of the literary quarterlies. Vendler writes in a manner well calculated to satisfy both audiences: her style is lively, entertaining and humane, with the boldness in generalization, the exactness of metaphor, the conciseness in summing up a poet and the deadly accuracy in locating defects, that delight both the common reader and the expert.
In a time when much criticism seems increasingly academic and autotelic, self-generating and self-absorbed and perhaps self-destructive, it is a relief to find a critic who conceives of her work as having a definite and humane purpose. This is the old-fashioned middleman (middle-person?) function of introducing and explaining poets to readers who might otherwise find them difficult, intimidating or unsympathetic. These pieces, Vendler observes, "urge the simplicity, naturalness, and accessibility of the poems they consider, to the neglect, perhaps, of the difficulty, peculiarity, and density of those same poems." Whatever its limitations, the happy result of this strategy is to make the reader want to go immediately and read, or reread, the poets for himself -- a result not contemplated by much currently fashionable criticism. Rather than describe poetry from any regional, historical or ideological perspective, she prefers "to focus on poets one by one, to find in each the idiosyncratic voice wonderfully different from any other." But these voices are also, as her title says, echoing Stevens, "part of nature and part of us," and she tries to explain "what common note they strike and how they make it new." She is the same kind of critic as Randall Jarrell, who said the critic should be "an extremely good reader -- one who has learned to show to others what he saw in what he read" -- and her discussion of Jarrell is one of her most brilliant.
In accord with her denial of theoretical pretension or any systematic framework, the arrangement of the volume is based entirely on chronology. The pieces are presented in the order of the birth dates of the poets they discuss, from Stevens (1879) to Dave Smith and Louise Gluck (both 1943). The longest chapters (each made up of several separately published pieces) are those dealing with Stevens, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich and James Merrill; two omnibus reviews conclude the volume.
Obviously, a volume so made up is affected by the luck of the reviewer's draw and other random factors, and it would be foolish to expect balanced coverage of "modern American poets." Nevertheless, some preferences are clear from the choice of poets as well as from what is said about them. First, she does not like poets who are relatively traditional in form and diction. Theodore Weiss she responds to tepidly, trying to decide what is the matter with him; Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Daniel Hoffman, William Meredith -- for example -- are never mentioned. Second, she does not like religious poets. (This may seem odd in one who has written an excellent book on George Herbert; but that book attempted to demonstrate that no religious beliefs or sympathies were required to appreciate Herbert.) As she sees it, Eliot's career after The Waste Land was all downhill, and so was Auden's after the 1930s; once they succumbed to religious belief, their poetic development was subverted (or, as the Scrutiny critics used to say, inverted). Later poets are praised for not subscribing to these "falser poetic consolations." Lowell, on the other hand, developed in the right direction, away from religion: "Reading the complete Lowell is rather like seeing Dostoevsky grow up to be Chekhov."
These preferences do not amount to deliberate literary politics: the reader does not feel that Vendler is trying to make him enlist under the banner of Stevens against Eliot or to convince him that the only strong poets are those who strike their poetic and heavenly fathers dead. But a definite position does emerge: that the dominant poetry of our time is the "poetry of deprivation." This poetic tradition (or anti-poetic anti-tradition) appears most fully in Stevens and Lowell, and Vendler's chapters on these two poets (constituting almost a third of the book) are certainly among her best. The previously unpublished "Stevens and Keats's 'To Autumn'" is perhaps the most brilliant single piece, though it follows the unpromising model of reading the poems in relation to the poet's psychology -- a model generally producing dismal results, but handled by Vendler with such tact, insight and sensitivity that it works beautifully. In another essay, "The False and True Sublime," she traces Stevens' "slow lifetime's acquaintance with the human less" after his beginning with "rapturous praise of the inhuman more"; though he wondered in his last months whether he had lived a skeleton's life, "Better a skeleton's life than a deity's, we could answer, the skeleton being at least a part of the human less."
In discussing Lowell she similarly relates the poetry to human feeling: she quotes Lowell as saying that he would like critics to describe him not as violent or comic but as "heartbreaking." Though her approach remains biographical, she protests oversimplifications of the relation between life and art: "We cannot go behind the art: the illusion that we can is art's most compelling hallucination." Lowell's late poetry is better than his earlier not because it is closer to experience but because it is better written. Lowell, she argues, is "in no sense a religious poet as the phrase is commonly used; those who dislike him find, above all in the later verse, a relentless trivializing of life . . . which seems to rob existence of ardor, transcendence, and devotion." She follows Lowell unflinchingly into his final nihilism and concludes by paralleling him with Stevens: "'Not to console or sanctify,' says Stevens, speaking of the aim of modern poetry, 'but plainly to propound.' The plain propounding -- of things thrown in the air, alive in flight, and rusting in change to the color of dust -- if too severe, for some tastes, is to others profoundly assuaging. We are lucky in America in our poetry of old age: Whitman's, Stevens's, and now Lowell's." (It is noteworthy that Eliot and Auden are not included in this honorific list.)
Vendler finds the elegiac line of poetry of deprivation, of loss and poverty, in most of the poets she writes about, including the only two Southerners discussed at length, Robert Penn Warren and Randall Jarrell. I would argue, however, that this "bleak cheatedness" is not a central aspect of Warren, and that, though she denies any regional perspective, the poetry of loss seems to flourish chiefly in the Northeast. A. R. Ammons (whose poetic world is northern despite his southern origins) she praises as the latest exemplar of the tradition: his poetry is "'deprived of almost everything other poets have used, notably people and adjectives." "It is a severe poetry, attempting the particularity of Hopkins with none of what Hopkins' schoolmates called his 'gush,' trying for the abstraction of Stevens without Stevens' inhuman remove from the world of fact, aiming at Williams' affectionateness toward the quotidian without Williams' romantic drift." If he can succeed he "will have written the first twentieth-century poetry wholly purged of the romantic." "The voice reasonable in loss is one Ammons; the eviscerated Ammons, doggedly writing down the weather day after day, is something else, Beckett-like, hard on himself as ice." "He has changed the 'we' of poetry from the high philosophical mode ('We live in an old chaos of the sun') to the mode of the refugees caught together in a bad time."
There are, of course, other ways of seeing the contemporary scene in poetry than in these terms of a "poetry of deprivation." For many of us, Eliot and Auden loom as central figures, Lowell's progress seems more complex and dubious, and less impoverished poets seem more interesting now. But all of us are glad to have this view of the ruins, this presentation of the chroniclers of loss and this demonstration of their common humanity.