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"On Helen Vendler" ("she's good on subjunctives") [by David Shapiro]

David Shapiro 2In the spirited commentary inspired by Katha Pollitt's post, "Complain, Complain: Poems About Writing Poetry" [when we posted it in 2009],  David Shapiro wrote, "Since I almost never agree with her, I want to say I utterly agreed with Helen V once when she said poets when they write about poetry aren't doing something strange or self-reflexive, because for them poetry is their life."

To which Judy Prince asked: "Has Helen Vendler said anything else that you liked?" David considered saying nothing but then dashed off this appraisal of the venerable Harvard professor:
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On Helen Vendler

I could take the fifth. I'm tilted -- she reviewed Ron P[adgett's] and my anthology of New York Poets and announced that we were cheerful Chaucerians. Pas mal.

She somewhere wrote, and I heard in a lecture, that Howard Nemerov, old friend and poor poet, was more philosophical than Frank O'Hara, who was a child when he thought ("like Byron," one of the great wits of his century.)  Anyway, she thought my book "To an Idea" about my mother's early death was just words connected to other words and forthrightly remarked that she had a hard time with comedy, satire, surrealism.

Koch said to me: What's left? Rational Tragedy? Cato by Addison?

I don't believe that Shakespeare's sonnets have the key words that she finds.

Paranomasia, yes, but no secret rules.

Yes, I do like a sentence in her long poems of Stevens where she says something like: the blackbirds are forms of language. And she's good on subjunctives.

Her contemporary taste is that of an amateur.

I told my class once that if they simply turned every negative to a positive in her [writing] and vice versa they would come up with some interesting assertions.

Almost every poet she likes today is mediocre. She is best on Herbert and Keats.

"A Wall" is a poem of mine about her or around. She deposed Delmore S[chwartz] in a crank's way. And said his best poems were only one page long. She should stick to the one page Odes of Keats. She is a decent "reader" when the material is not so fresh as to be difficult or new (she doesn't seem to have the French tradition at her fingertips, unfortunately) or even revolutionary. She told me she was always liking Ashbery's poetry, but he himself used to say to me how wonderful it was that she changed her mind [from her initial disapproval]. She also has no sense of Joyce, Lawrence, Hardy and the prose tradition. No sense of the Chinese, Russian, German or other traditions. Not a professional musician, she can't discriminate  the "science of sound." She has discovered no one and she is not a great "scholar" in the line of Jakobson.

I also believe she has no sense of the theater and the poetics of Shakespeare or Chekhov or the Greeks. She IS enthusiastic about well-known poets and Jorie G. and Heaney, a Nobel Prize winner, and other honored poets. She may have a vivid politics, but I have heard nothing publicly about that. She is not a "public intellectual." Like the crank Logan, she is too proud of her style and opinions. She is, I would add, nothing but opinions and a smooth stylist of the old school. No sense of social thickness, except in some early essays on A. Rich. Still hasn't written on Koch or any of the more radical poets. She does smooth out Ashbery and sees his topoi, but she probably doesn't read Roussel fluently or Rimbaud, great influences on John A. Imagine her thoughts on the late Merce Cunningham or on John Cage!

-- David Shapiro
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from the archive; August 9, 2009


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