Newark, New Jersey — Helen Vendler meshes the fingers of her hands and pulls them tight. "Words have to fit in a wonderful way, have to interlock, before I will go on to examine the meaning of them," she says. "I don't think everyone reads poetry that way."
Words and the "possibilities of words" mean much to this woman who has lived with literature since her childhood, when her mother used to quote English poetry by heart "in lieu of conversation."
Today she echoes her mother. "It annoys my friends -- a quotation for all occasions," Ms. Vendler says. "I can't help it."
A clear, sun-flooded spring day makes her think of Wordsworth -- "One of those heavenly days that cannot die," she recalls. "You cannot think of it comin g to an end, this beautiful pristine weather. But I'm not an outdoor person," she adds, gazing out the window.
What about the title of her latest collection of poetry reviews -- "Part of Nature, Part of Us," a line borrowed from the American poet Wallace Stevens?
"That's nature in the widest sense," Ms. Vendler says. "Just as you encounter the landscpae, you encounter preexisting works of literature. They simply are around you in the world, like works of architecture. It is part of the world you inherit and you go on to make something of that world."
As poetry critic of the New Yorker magazine and author of books on the poets W. B. Yeats, George Herbert, and Wallace Stevens, Ms. Vendler makes something wondrous of this "nature," enabling others to see and feel the words available to all. She has been called the best reviewer of poetry in America by several of her fellow critics.
She much prefers writing books to reviews, although "no critical book has ever been adequate to a poet; it is adequate to one aspect of the poet."
As for reviews, which she has written for 12 years, she says no one can possibly match overnight or in a week the poet who writes out of the depth of his being.
Ms. Vendler, who rarely grants interviews, spends at least ten years studying a poet before ariting a book about him. The poems "accrete things onto themselves that way," she says. For her next book, she says, she has been thinking about Keats for 30 years.
While teaching a course in lyrics and one in modern poetry at Boston University, Ms. Vendler is always rereading eight or ten modern poets and, at the same time, poets from the 16th through the 19th centuries.
It is no wonder that poets like to be studied by her. robert Lowell, whom she calls our greatest contemporary poet, once asked her if she was going to write a book on his vast and varied work.
"I said no, and he said 'Why not?' because he liked some of the things I had written on him."
She explained that she could not write on Lowell because her "inner life" was not analogous to his.
"I think the person who will best write about Lowell will be on ewhose main interest goes into the relations of aggressiveness, power, subjection. It will be someone whose major phantasmagoria, imaginative phantasmagoria, will center around those fascinating figures in history -- Napoleon, the Roman emperors, presidents -- that Lowell was obsessed by."
The poets of today whom Ms. Vendler watches closely, those she thinks of as mid-life poets and whose books she eagerly awaits, are Gary Snyder, John Ashbery , James Merrill, A.R. Ammons, Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich.
She has many other thoughts about what poetry can mean to all of us:
You have said that you were surprised that other people didn't have this appetite, this need, that you have for poetry. Where did you get it?
I think it's like any other early fixation. That is to say, it manifest itself always early as the children who are picking out tunes on a piano, or the children who are looking for something to paint. It seems to me that it turns up in you and you don't know early on why you are so satisfied by it.
My father, who was bilingual in spanish and English, taught us Spanish and then French and then Italian. So that I grew up from my earliest memory knowing that the meaning of words and the sound of words have no connection with each other, tht the same thing -- a horse -- had two or three names for it. I think that gives you a very strange relation to words. That is, they are not transparent; they are opaque, as they are for poets.
Does the study of poems or of any particular poem change your life or the way you live?
No, they help you. Stevens says they help us live our lives. I don't think people's lives are determined by art. I think there are much stronger determining forces. For me it would be extremely hard to go through life as if for the first time, as though nobody had been there before you. Poetry reconciles us to ourselves, as Stevens says, in that it can't be peculiar to you if someone else has had it before. It is kind of a prophecy of what is to come, so that if you are reading something about being 50 or being 70 when you are 30, it doesn't come as quite such a shock when you get there. I think it must be enormously hard to go through life without any sense of being companied by other voices that have been along the same road.
Have you written poetry yourself?
I did it when I was a girl like everybody else in school. I think that most literary people have an episode in their lives in late adolescence when they write. I feel that helped me understand what a different activity it is from criticism, engaging wholly different spheres of the soul or the mind or whatever. Always, when I write about poems, I write them out in longhand so that I feel as though I've written them.
What does that do to you?
It makes me feel what it feels like to write that poem, thinking what will I put down next or how will I make this line connect with the next one.That seems to me to be the single most helpful way to feel [the lines] through. You also find that from having written them, so to speak, you know them by heart. There's something goes through the muscles that comes back to the brain and you know them in a different way than just reading them.
Then they come up in your mind very frequently when you don't have the book around, as a line might rise in the mind of a poet, unbidden and against your will, as [Gerard Manley] Hopkins said of some of these lines. all that helps to feed into a sense of how the poem gathers itself together. It's only a device like any other.
Does meeting the poets you write about change anything at all, a feeling?
I think what's helpful is not to meet them but to hear them read. I like having heard the voice attach itself to the poems, but it' not indispensible.
Do you think some poets read badly?
I think that there are so many styles of reading poetry, everything from that incantatory style that Yeats used, for instance, or that Robert Bly now uses, where poets want to chant their poetry, that Dylan Thomas in some sense used, all the way down to the deadpan or restrained reading.
Stevens is one of the musing reader rather than a performing reader.I like the way Stevens reds. Sometimes it's an emphasis of the voice that you haven't quite realized from the page.
Why did you lean toward poetry instead of prose? What is the difference to you?
For information retrieval purposes, all literature is equal. for aesthetic purposes, all literature is not equal. There is some literature that is aesthetically uninteresting, conventional, and derivative. And there is other literature that is original and unusual and beautiful. Novels have an enormous density of observed detail, so that you learn much about what people are wearing , or what time the carriage draws up or how many people were at the party.
Denser than poetry?
I'm saying there is the density of social detail, a density of population. In poetry there is only one voice speaking, but there are many voices in novels. It's the density of the chorus of voices -- polyphonic density -- that lyric poetry doesn't have.
In poetry you have a single voice -- a least in lyric poetry. You usually have a barely sketched scene, if you have any scene at all. There is no plot as such; that is to say there are no events. The poem is an event, as Lowell said, not a record of an event. You are enacting an event in the mind of someone else with a single voice. That admission to a single other mind is comparable to a soliloquy in drama, the moment where the mind stops and thinks. somehow that suits me. I like the single voice. I like the private intensity. The intensity of novels and plays, in which the feeling is diffused through several characters, strikes me as far less gripping than the single intensity of the single voice absolutely excluding eveverything else.
How can more people come to have the appetite that you have for poetry?
I wish that there were a way that great poetry could be given to children from the very beginning in school. But that presupposes teachers who like poetry, which, on the whole, most teachers don't, not having been taught well themselves.
And it presupposes a different economic organization of our texts. I was shocked, when I taught high school teachers, to discover the poems that are included in high school texts. I discovered that it costs so much money for the permissions for good poets that the anthology publishers would rather have second-rate poets because they are much cheaper.
Also, there is a combination of a misguided notion that 20th-century children in the schools can read only 20th-century poetry and an equally misguided notion that poetry in translation is as good for training the ear as poetry of the native language, which is certainly not true.
Thirdly, all religious poetry is banned because of the separation of church and state. It doesn't seem to be recognized that you can teach the history of religion or the literature of religions without teaching religion.
The textbooks themselves are a reflection of a culture which wants to train its children to be citizens, in a way, rather than to be artists.
When you collected your reviews into "Part of Nature, Part of Us," did you change them?
I don't think you can rewrite your opinions after ten years even though they change, and I have some things in the book that certainly I have changed my mind about now. People remark on them, as for instance, my notion that I didn't like very much the Four Quartets of [T.S] Eliot. I still don't think the 'Four Quartets' are equal to 'The Waste Land,' but I've gotten to like them a lot better over the last ten years. And I would certainly write about them differently and, in fact, have lectured on them differently.
You seem to watch the poetry as writers mature, and comment on poets who don't fulfill their early promise -- such as W. H. auden. He "tailed off," you said. He never stopped writing great poems, I mean, there were great poems in the very last collection, but if you take the whole of the career, I think that the greatest imaginative possession of the world is taken by Auden in the earlier part of his career, but he never lost the power to write individual great poems, as some people do.
Whereas with Stevens. . . .
He got better and better.
Have you dealt with anthologies?
No, I don't teach with anthologies and I can't make anthologies. I don't like anthologies, though I learned from them myself. Obviously they are very useful. But poems look very ugly in anthologies. They have footnotes to words and glosses on the side of the line and little circles over words and head notes that really are rather irrelevant, though not always. And the poems are crowded on the page and the page isn't a beautiful page.
Where would you say poetry is strong besides in the US? I wonder about Latin American poetry.
It was nice when Whitman said the muse had left Europe and she's here, installed amid the kitchenware, and had taken up residence in North America. And he was quite right. certainly Whitman and Dickinson and Emerson ushered in a whole new era of American poetry that is quite different from what had preceded it.
I don't think [the muse] has gone, but she has gone further south as well and installed herself in South America. I know this partly from reading some of the poets and partly from hearsay. But I don't keep up with Spanish poetry. I read some of it sometimes when people hand it to me and I hear of it. There's Octavio Paz and there's a beautiful poet called Carlos Drummond de Andrade. But life doesn't permit you to keep up with foreign poetry as well as native poetry, and to teach full time and all the rest of it.
You have said there may be one or two trully great poetic voices each century. Who would you say they are this century?
I don't think we ever know. Nobody ever knew that Whitman and Dickinson would be the voices of the 19th-century America. The fireside Poets -- Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, Holmes, so forth -- were the ones with the claim to literary attention.
But there were Whitman and Dickinson -- Whitman uneducated, Dickinson, autodidacts both -- off in their rooms doing their great poetry. So who knows who's off in what room while other people are celebrated in the literary period? I think that posterity is the only judge.
I mean, Keats saying, 'I shall be among the English poets after my death,' when nobody thought so when he was alive. And Emily Dickinson saying, 'If fame belongs to me, I cannot escape her.' Somebody is saying that now.
I would assume that, having spent so much of your time with Wallace Stevens, you would think he might be one.
Well, I don't think he's as great as Eliot, for instance. It's just that I think you spend your energy with the people whom you feel closest to or understand the best. You aren't necessarily judging them to be a greater poet just because you spend a lot of time with them.
Why should't you want to spend it with Eliot then?
I can't say exactly. I grew up with Wliot the way everybody does. So it's part of your blood and you can't quite detach yourself from it enough to say why. It's like your friends. It has to do with a deep congeniality and you can't quite explain that.
What did you think of Lawrence Ferlinghetti saying at a conference on literature at Rutgers University that today, poetry is prose?
He's one of the poets who wants to take in a lot of sociological detail and a lot of historical and political detail into his poetry. His was a polemic statement about 'Why should prose writers have all of these goodies?' so to speak. Why should we be denied them? We are obserbers, too. And the poets ought to be able to speak for social and political reality just as much as the novelists can. It's part of that reclaiming of the terrain of the novel for poetry. It has to do with the reclamation of epic, which has always been the kind of poetry that speaks of national exploits, heroes, wars. It's not the domain of lyric, particularly.
There's the real motion into longer forms -- the fact that Ginsberg is doing a long poem. He wants to write a poem of all the fifty states, something with that epic ambition, geographical ambition, historical ambition, that traditionally is the prerogative of epic.
How do you look at the women's voice?Can you summarize the effect of it?
The great rise of women's voices in English literature comes in the 19th century, the women novelists. With the increasing education of women and emancipation of women and the ability of women to be economically independent, obviously there will be an increase in women's writing. Most writing in any century, by men and women alike, is not of lasting interest. So you wait for the work of lasting interest form women as you wait for men.
You never know what they will be written about. A woman doesn't necessarily write subject matter determined by her sex, any more than men do. I think that there are subjects that haven't been adequately treated in literature because they are subjects that are experienced chiefly by women, just as the poetry or the novels of war have been written obviously by men since women didn't go to war. So I suppose eventually the poetry of domesticity, the poetry of childbirth, the poetry of one half of marriage, the half experienced by a woman, will have to be written by women.
Elizabeth Bishop is an example of a woman who writes about lost of things that are nor necessarily conceived of as part of female experience -- a journey in a bus, or a servant in Brazil, or a sea voyage or catching a fish. All these things are mediated through her sensibility and you would immediately recognize a Bishop. In one of the poems she speaks in the voice of Robinson Crusoe, the male voice, as male poets have spoken in female voices. She did not write about marriage or motherhood.
The same is true about Marianne Moore whose topics often were epical topics. The virtues and the vices -- that's a topic equally open to a male writer or a female writer and Marianne Moore made a wonderful thing out of the virtues and vices observed from her own angle.
Moore did write about marriage, in a wonderful poem about the temptation to be married -- that it takes all one's criminal ingenuity to avoid.
Is there something final you would like to say?
I do wish people though of poetry as more natural. It is one of the immemorial expressive forms. That is, every culture has had its poetry. Therefore, it seems something that recurs all the time, in every culture, absolutely natural to human beings, male and female alike, absolutely irrepressible. There don't seem to be cultures that don't have it, from the earliest oral poetry all the way down to the complicated modern written poetry.
So it seems to met it shouldn't seem something remote or difficult. It is absolutely a natural form of human expression, as natural as building houses or as natural as dancing.