VOICES AND VISIONS The Poet in America Edited by Helen Vendler Random House. 528 pp. $29.95 THE MUSIC OF WHAT HAPPENS Poems, Poets, Critics By Helen Vendler Harvard University Press. 473 pp. $29.50
HELEN VENDLER has been called, by a writer in The New Republic, "the best poetry reviewer in America." Barbara Everett (who has been called by her publisher "England's most sensitive reader of poetry") in an extended review of Vendler's book The Odes of John Keats, contrarily held the view that her terms and distinctions "are guilty of the great vice of the Academy -- that of applying systematic method in contempt of the true nature of the subject."
There is, I think, a morsel of truth in Everett's charge. But in Voices and Visions, published as a companion to a 13-part PBS television series (which began in Washington this past Wednesday), Vendler as editor has presumably had to take into account a broader audience than she usually addresses, an audience which goes beyond even the "college credit course" at which the series was avowedly targeted. "The Poet in America" (the book's sub-title) is presented as "our most precious national treasure": 13 poets, from Whitman to Sylvia Plath, have their work "described and documented by 12 of our most distinguished literary critics," among them Hugh Kenner, Richard Poirier, Marjorie Perloff, Frank Kermode and Vendler herself. Moreover, these are literary critics "whose voices are as distinct and rich as their subjects'."
I don't suppose for a moment that Helen Vendler is responsible for that final encomiastic remark: she is well aware, at any rate in what she calls "philosophic criticism," of a dangerous "tendency to make itself more important than the text occasioning it." Her attitude to such contemporary American critics as Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom, critics who claim criticism "as a creative product, indistinguishable in its aim, means, and end from novels, poems, or plays," is one of polite disagreement. In The Music of What Happens, a collection of her essays and reviews, she gives only one-fifth of the book to pieces she puts under the heading "On Criticism," and the rest to contributions assembled as "On Poetry" and "On Poets." On the face of it, she may seem to be on the same side as Randall Jarrell who, in his rightly famous essay of the early 1950s, "The Age of Criticism," jested to the reader-critic that "if a pig wandered up to you during a bacon-judging contest, you would say impatiently, 'Go away, pig! What do you know about bacon?' "
But Helen Vendler is, after all, a critic, not (so far as I know) a poet-critic like Jarrell. "Aesthetic criticism" is her term for what she writes. Her aim, she says, "is to describe the art work in such a way that it cannot be confused with any other art work (not an easy task), and to infer from its elements the aesthetic that might generate this unique configuration." This is opposed to "interpretative" or "ideological" (and "philosophic") criticism: these, she says, concentrate on some propositional "meaning," in which the work of art has something to "say"; but "who except believing Christians could now read George Herbert with delight if truth of doctrine and ideological relevance were the chief basis of aesthetic response?"
These introductory remarks by Vendler, taken by themselves, might lull one into supposing that she is an old-fashioned impressionist, a sort of late 20th-century Gosse browsing through "Books on My Table." But of course she isn't. Too much turbulent water has flowed under the critical bridges during the past 60 years for that to be possible in the William R. Kenan Professor of English and American Literature and Language, Harvard University. And yet . . . The premises from which she says she works sound strangely familiar:
"Both ideological and hermeneutic (or interpretation-centered) critics want to place the literary art work principally within the sphere of history and philosophy, while an aesthetic critic would rather place it in the mimetic, expressive, and constructivist sphere of the fine arts -- theater, painting, music, sculpture, dance -- where it may more properly belong."
These are recognizably the terms which Isaiah Berlin, in a recent obituary of Lord David Cecil (perhaps the last of Gosse's heirs), uses to describe -- and praise -- his subject:
"He thought that the task of a critic, and of a teacher of literature, was to make clear to himself and convey to others the creative process of the writer, the process of the particular imaginative act of composition, whether it obeyed rules or parted from them, or derived from examples, or was directed against other modes of expression, or created its own. He thought that this task resembled that of a teacher of composition in a musical conservatoire who describes the process of the evolution of successive drafts of a Beethoven sonata, or of Wagner's development of the organization of orchestral forces and the relationship of this to his mythological invention."
Cecil, for all his gentle, sometimes foppish, even slightly epicene facade, worked from a position of considerable self-confidence: he was not for nothing the descendant and kin of legions of aristocratic leaders. Vendler, lacking such a background, and without either the theory-laden scriptural imperialism of Hartman and Bloom, or the often laboriously "playful" lunacies of such as Roland Barthes (to whom she is surprisingly respectful), has nevertheless built herself into a position of comparable self-confidence, even dogmatism.
FOR ALL HER feints towards tentativeness (writing of a poem by Rita Dove, she says that when she first read it and some of its companions she "experienced the best of all poetic delights -- feeling that something was very beautiful and not knowing why"), she is usually, sometimes absurdly, sure of herself. Of what she describes as a "sublime poem" ("Easter Morning") by A.R. Ammons, she writes: "These lines, I am certain, will be as familiar in a hundred years as Wordsworth's 'There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight,/ To me did seem /Apparelled in celestial light/ The glory and the freshness of a dream.' " Elsewhere, she writes: "As a historian of the phases of sensuality, Merrill is unequalled in our century." Of Amy Clampitt's The Kingfisher, she claims: "A century from now, this volume will still offer a rare window into a rare mind, it will still offer beautiful objects of delectation." And so on.
What these quotations show (and they could be copiously added to) is, on the credit side, a generous willingness to praise new, or recent, work: as poetry reviewer of The New Yorker, Vendler ventures out of Academe into Upper Grub Street -- something which university people are sometimes reluctant to do, preferring to write another critical paper disagreeing with Lionel Trilling on Wordsworth (which Vendler, incidentally, is also capable of doing, and does). But on the debit side, such writing is also perilously close to blurbishness. Any student of the history of literary taste (which is partly what a critic ought to be) should be chary of the "in a hundred years/in our century" formula. Remember -- or don't remember -- Abraham Cowley, or Stephen Phillips.
Such blurbishness extends to Vendler's introduction to Voices and Visions, in which -- at least to my non-American eyes -- there is much too much reiteration of "the reflexive American imagination," "American culture," "the American language," "American consciousness," "American beauty," "the American imagination," "the complication, depth, and grandeur of American poetry," etc. It was ridiculous and offensive, of course, for the late Dame Helen Gardner, on being introduced to a young woman described as being a university lecturer in American Literature, to respond: "Oh, is there enough of it to teach?" But there is a sense in which Donald Davie's remark that American poetry is "very chauvinistic" and "reflects the imperious rapacity that created the banana republics" is equally true of American criticism. Interestingly, some of Vendler's most incisive, balanced, and sometimes astringent pieces are on poets who are not Americans: Ted Hughes, Stephen Spender, Davie himself. And on Seamus Heaney (from one of whose poems she take her title The Music of What Happens) she writes with considerable penetration, along with the praise.
I can recognize Helen Vendler's earnest attempts at scrupulousness in her "aesthetic" descriptions and inferences, but I much prefer her only partly systematized approaches to a great deal of what passes for literary criticism in both America and Europe today. What she lacks can be found in Jarrell, whom she mentions briefly four times, and in Heaney's critical prose, which she rightly admires. She may well be, at present, "the best poetry reviewer in America." :: Anthony Thwaite's books include "Letter from Tokyo" and "Six Centuries of Verse," a companion volume to a British television series. He is currently editing Philip Larkin's collected poems.