We are all familiar with the notion of a poem written to someone you love, a lyric such as Shakespeare's sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" But, as the distinguished literary critic Helen Vendler reminds us, there are also many poems addressed to "invisible listeners" - persons the poet has not actually seen.
Think of William Blake's invocation:
Children of a future age,
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time
Love, sweet love, was thought a crime.
Or Emily Dickinson's poignant address:
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me.
In her new book, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery, Professor Vendler, long famed for her sensitive readings of poets from Shakespeare to Wallace Stevens, asks why a poet would seek to establish a deeply personal state of intimacy with an invisible, imaginary audience.
"Invisible Listeners" is a brief book, based on lectures this Harvard professor delivered at Princeton. The seekers of intimacy who come under Vendler's scrutiny are a colorfully diverse trio: the 17th- century devotional poet George Herbert, the great 19th-century American bard Walt Whitman, and a noted poet of our own time, John Ashbery.
Herbert's aim, evident to any reader, was to establish a relationship with his God. But, as Vendler argues, there is more to it than that: "I hope to describe here George Herbert's startling accomplishment in revising the conventional vertical address to God until it approaches the horizontal address to an intimate friend."
"Nobody else, for example, has imagined so well in verse what the invisible God might say back to a rebellious soul," Vendler feels - citing the reply Jesus gives Herbert in the poem "Dialogue":
What, Child, is the balance thine,
Thine the poise and measure?
If I say, Thou shalt be mine;
Finger not my treasure.
Vendler theorizes that the need to address an invisible listener arises when poets find lacking in human relationships the kind and degree of intimacy they are seeking. By addressing an invisible, hypothesized listener or engaging in an imagined dialogue, Vendler believes, poets like Herbert work out models that point us toward "better forms of intimacy in the actual world."
Whitman's desire for greater intimacy included the sexual form, Vendler notes: "Among the causes of Whitman's invention of a comrade-in-futurity, one was ... [his] love-disappointments in life. ... But his messianic tendencies," she goes on to suggest, "also played a part in drawing his eyes toward the future, as did his belief in scientific and evolutionary progress."
Vendler's reading of Whitman helps us appreciate the unique way he used his intensely personal lyric voice to envision large-scale ethical and social ideals. He writes in "Song of Myself":
This hour I tell things in confidence;
I might not tell everybody but I will tell you....
Listener up there! Here, you!
What have you to confide to me?...
Talk honestly--no one else hears you...
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop some where, waiting for you.
Throughout her book, Vendler takes issue with those who criticize lyric poetry as an emotional genre unconcerned with ethical or social matters. Since Herbert's religious concerns and Whitman's democratic ideals are widely acknowledged, her argument becomes particularly relevant in her discussion of Ashbery, whose work has been called arty, over-ingenious, and narrowly self-absorbed.
Focusing on "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," Ashbery's colloquy with 16th-century Italian painter Francesco Parmigianino, Vendler makes a good - albeit slightly strained - argument for its ethical content.
"The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot be," writes Ashbery in another poem, touchingly explicated here by Vendler. Whether or not invisible listeners of the future judge Ashbery as great a poet as Whitman or Herbert, Vendler deserves credit for examining his work in the light of their examples, and in the process, illuminating us about all of them.
• Merle Rubin is a freelance writer in Pasadena, Calif.