Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar opens with a twelve-page account of her life as a critic, of a life well-lived with strong inner imperatives. At issue is her claim that she is less what a typical scholar is thought to be: “I’m a critic rather than a scholar, a reader and writer more taken by texts than by contexts.” The typical scholar is more likely to be taken up with a single field of expertise, classifying one’s self as a “scholar of a certain historical period.” She notes that when “forced to do so,” she calls herself “a Victorian.”
It is a fine and reverent beginning to this gathering of two decades worth of book reviews, essays, and occasional prose—all with an “ocean” of vistas and depths. This is Helen Vendler at her best, a virtuoso with a voice harmonizing her words with the human and cosmic drama found in great poems.
Had Vendler, a professor of English at Harvard University, been more taken by contexts, likely her “criticism” would “conform” to whatever vagrant theory abounds in scholarly circles. She notes the influence of I. A. Richards during her graduate student years: “… I found in his lectures how meditation on a poem could open into further and further depths of perception.” That influence does not develop into hyperbolic emphasis on single particulars over the general. Rather, her approach is to nurture and identify potential philosophers, writers, and composers.
Vendler does not spend eighty pages on a single word. The critical writing is less a staking out of positions and more her own intellectual sense of working out ideas while avoiding classification and polemics. One does not find in her essay on Eliot’s “The Waste Land: Fragments and Montage” the mediocrity one finds in Rita Dove’s introduction to The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Vendler’s review of that collection—which does not appear in her own retrospective—ignited some controversy a few years back. Her review was not meant to be cheeky or to backhand political correctness; it was meant to be professional. She notes that multiculturalism prevails among the 175 poets represented. No century, however, “in the evolution of poetry in English has ever had 175 poets worth reading.” Why, then, are we being asked “to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?”
A “critic of my sort is, I suppose, ‘learned’ in a way—that is, she has a memory for stories, styles, and structures she has seen before, and she understands the expressive possibilities latent in writing.… Her ‘learning’ resembles the ‘learning’ of poets, which though deeply etymological and architectonic, is often unsystematic and idiosyncratic. She often fails at the most elementary undertakings of ‘scholarly’ life, such as remembering facts, entering polemical debates, and relating works to political or philosophical history of their era. She has—at least I have—no capacity for broad synthetic statements.”
She prefers, rather, what she calls “the classical label of ‘commentary’ or Pater’s label, ‘aesthetic criticism.’” Such a notion needs clarification. It would be improper to suggest Vendler is advocating Pater’s charming art for art’s sake. The introduction and first chapter make clear that Vendler is concerned with the transmission of culture, a major portion of which is the “bracing, and demanding legacy of the poets.” What she terms “cultural education” has suffered erosion, resulting in “losses in depth of learning, losses in coherence.” One wonders what howls around the edges, speculations souring in the sun.
One’s day-to-day busy spirit might wilt at such thoughts, but as Vendler makes clear, the arts are public in their orientation even if predicated on the existence of an inner life. She’s assuming a transaction, a communal gesture between the life of a culture and the life of an individual, the two enlivened by meanings and associations accrued over time. The human consciousness in Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” is consistent with Romanticism, but its poetic impulse has a consistency with our own time as well. The “aurora-like” mysterious phenomena ethereal in Keats have not devolved into anachronistic museum-like artifacts but should be understood as common experiences, enlivened by all that has accrued to the poem, which is something much larger than information assimilation. Keats’s poems remain living things, still adequate to contemporary experience.
Vendler’s own “auroras,” those critical bright dancing lights, display her sense of what true cultural consciousness is like, its relevance, its deep memory, and why we retain a need for sharing it.
There’s a smallish sidebar here: the “auroras” may be harmoniumsbut are not magisteriums. If the poet is “maker,” whatever paradise is made is less the thought of heaven’s bliss and permanence but more a harmonious paradise of impermanence; god is dew and cold wind and bare rock and, yes, credences of summer and winter’s northern lights’ crescendos. Vendler is not one divinely appointed or self-appointed to defend a charism of infallibility. She aligns herself with those who are at home in this world.
The first of the twenty-seven chapters in this compendium illustrates the point. In 2004 Vendler was invited to give the Forty-fourth Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her thesis is that various “university disciplines under the name ‘The Humanities’ … tacitly decided that philosophy and history would be cast as the core of this grouping.” Those disciplines were given “pride of place in general education programs.” There are consequences, however, to that law of unforeseen consequences; this particular general education effort has made us “unconscious of the very life we [are] living.” She supports this argument with evidence drawn from Wallace Stevens and his 1943 poem “Somnambulisma,” a poem resting upon three images: the vulgar ocean, a thin bird, neither of which would own “a pervasive being” or completeness without the third image of the scholar.
Without the scholar the poet would be poor, as a symphony orchestra would be poor without violins, or cognitive loss in words absent the letter “e.” Without the “scholar’s cultural memory,” the arts and the studies of the arts would never become—for Stevens—a “symbiotic pair.” Imagine, then, not a waste land, but hollow shores and the ocean’s waters falling and falling on “a geography of the dead.” Poets renew our “sense of life and of ourselves,” she notes near the conclusion to this magnificent lecture; but these necessary “art angels” offer only half-meanings; scholars, those other necessary angels among us, enable the “bird to spread its wings” and pass on to each generation “direct mediation … active reflection lest “words” become by “water washed away.”
When the critic spreads her own wings, then, across this rolling ocean, the aesthetic criticism is wide and never settling: Stevens twice, Yeats, Jorie Graham, Ammons twice, Clampitt, Heaney, Melville, Lowell, Whitman on Lincoln, Bishop, Ashberry, Merrill, Berryman, Langston Hughes, and Ginsberg among others.
The thematic recourse is something like this: How do we examine poetry’s mediation of value, a question she asks in chapter fifteen, discussing Whitman on Lincoln. Vendler is careful in suggesting that when she writes she does so to explain things to herself. But with this provision, which she once noted in a 1996 Paris Review interview: “I think of my audience in part as being the poet. What I would hope would be that if Keats read what I had written about the ode ‘To Autumn,’ he would say, Yes that is the way I wanted it to be thought of. And, Yes, you have unfolded what I had implied, or something like that.”
The recourse, then, in thinking about poetry and value is to believe that the imagination of the scholar operates not on the level of history or philosophy but on the level of what the imagination has left out. The difficulty? What the scholar writes should not strike the poet that there’s a discrepancy between the scholar’s description of the work and the poet’s own conception of the work.
Such would seem to suggest Vendler judges a poem by assuming the poet’s intent, or attitude, or feeling. If this were the case, her approach would reveal her understanding of the design or plan in the poet’s imagination, and give the scholar the upper hand, a position superlative to the poet. The standard would become her critical view as to whether or not the poet’s intention resulted in a “successful” poem. If this were the case, the logical terminus would argue that successful criticism is akin to some kind of psychological discipline.
But Vendler’s “auroras” are not invocations to what the poet intended. The indebtedness is, of course, to Stevens and by extension his indebtedness to Keats and Wordsworth. A pair of stanzas from Stevens’s own “Auroras” are worth a moment’s attention:
Contriving balance to contrive a whole,
The vital, the never-failing genius,
Fulfilling his meditations, great and small.
In these unhappy he meditates a whole,
The full of fortune and the full of fate
As if he lived all lives, that he might know.…
If we assume for a moment that there are limits to both the imagination and reason—and likely what the poet confronts in this masterpiece—the “auroras” then stand for that which is beyond existence but can be understood as an experience that occurs when creative imagination and objective reality achieve a supreme fusion, or fiction. It’s a fluttering kind of thing, an “aurora,” existing in nature and then in memory; it dies but leaves behind an ensuing satisfaction that becomes whole when the poet’s perception gives order to the “aurora” by his command of language.
Vendler brings, then, her own aesthetic criticism to what the poet confronts, which is as much creation as it is criticism. For Stevens she owns a preference, of course, which is likely more than a personal taste. She writes in ways characteristic, that she “might know,” making her an intrinsic reader of poetry while remarking that the voice of the poet is also the voice deeply to be found in all of us. If the “essence” of the poem is to give us pleasure, after all, the means by which the critic illuminates the poems should also give us pleasure.
Here’s Vendler on James Merrill, his “Mozartian Touch”: “Merrill was unafraid of swathing in a sinuous syntax all the words and languages that he knew … persisting in his path.”
And on Jorie Graham, “The Moment of Excess”: “She has shown … that she possesses self-irony and historical irony, both of them useful balances to the vaulting mind and the universalizing voice that impels her approach to the edge of perception …”
On Melville and “The Lyric of History”: “Melville’s gaze … is pitched downward, to the drowned under the sea, or to the fiery hell at the core of the earth.”
And on Langston Hughes, “The Unweary Blues”: “… he remained sanguine about the persistence of his song, even though he knew that the topical and propagandistic side of it would be wasted by time. True poems … withstand historical vicissitude and are ‘blown along’ …”
There are two decades of aesthetic criticism in The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. Vendler delightfully leads us to understand what is original about contemporary poets or to see older poets with a new perspective. It’s like a cliche to use the word “transformative”; one might hope, however, to return at the end here to a point she makes in the Jefferson Lecture: “Among us are the scholars who interpret … half-meanings into full ones, appareling us anew in their personalia … refreshing our sense of the world” and always with aurora-like moments of “mental acuity” recalling “us to being” and “… so we are only half ourselves without it.”
Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.