The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry by Helen Vendler review

Vendler is the perfect guide to help you love poetry and to remember why you do, writes Theo Dorgan

Sat, Sep 19, 2015, 00:59


Book Title:
THE OCEAN, THE BIRD AND THE SCHOLAR: Essays on Poets and Poetry


Helen Vendler

Harvard University Press

Guideline Price:

Helen Vendler is one of the most respected commentators on English-language poetry in our time. Readers coming to this book hoping for wise, well-found instruction will not be disappointed; they will find new ways into the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Amy Clampitt, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell, to name but a few of the poets to whose work she directs a schooled intelligence and an informed, loving heart and mind.

Vendler brings to her studies a lively attention, a profound and wide-ranging depth of learning, the daring to trust her own leaps of insight and a steady prose style that recruits the reader to her unfolding analysis with persuasive ease. She is, in short, a good companion, a good person to walk through a poem with, a tactful guide, a canny and patient teacher.

All this, of course, one should be able to say about any trained scholar critic, so it was with a mounting sense of unease that I found myself, time and again, pausing in my reading to reflect that, in fact, the depth and quality of attention Vendler brings to a poem have become unusual. We live in an age of opinion, where all opinions are thought equally valid, where often the only thing that usefully distinguishes one opinion from another is its attempt at singularity, its vivid, particular squawk for attention.

The tendency towards phrasemaking for its own sake, towards the partial or skimped reading, towards recruiting a text to exterior purpose, all these things have accumulated to the point where one now hesitates before trusting that the critic has put herself or himself fully and consciously – I want to say also humbly – at the service of the text as it fully intends itself.

“Look at this” is constantly in danger of being trumped by “Look at me”. The insidious effects of this are many, but of the damage done by such low ambition two principal effects should be noted: the reader, crossing new ground, cannot be sure of the guide’s integrity, and the ancient, necessary, compact between poet and scholar, between creation and reflective attention, breaks down in an atmosphere of recrimination and sullen suspicion. So many now come to bury, not to praise.

Unswerving dedication

Against all this, against sloppiness and bad faith, against glibness and unexamined bias, we can set the moral and learned weight of Vendler’s unswerving dedication to scholarship and to the poetry it companions. She believes passionately in what, quoting Wallace Stevens, she calls “the radiant and productive atmosphere” of poetry. She believes in transmitting “in books and in the classroom, the beautiful, subversive, sustaining, bracing and demanding legacy of the poets”.

She sets out as the motive force in writing these essays “the belief that poetry belongs to all”, and her warrant is the further belief “that its audience often needs – as I do still – paths into its inexhaustible precincts”. That note of modesty tempered by ever-renewed curiosity is typical.

As an epigraph to his collection Responsibilities (1914) Yeats used the phrase “In dreams begins responsibility”. The word (with “response” resting comfortably inside it) calls up, among its other shades of meaning, the expectation of trustworthiness. The scholar critic, responding to the dream that is the poem, must above all else be trustworthy. Vendler is the most honest of responders, not just because of her schooled, acute and self-examining sensibility but also because of the moral imperative that governs her reading and teaching: nowhere in this luminous collection of essays does she permit herself an insight, judgment or reflection that is not supported and underpinned by profound (and probably exhausting) contextual reading.

Only a passionate love for the work – her own and that of the poets she guides us to and through – can explain and sustain such a voluntarily assumed burden of responsibility.

In themselves, then, and in their accumulating authority, the essays in this book offer vivid and sustaining examples of how enlightened and enlightening scholarly criticism can be done. In their individual instances, each essay offers particular pleasures and provocations, fresh insight and spurs to thought, so much so that in cases where I knew the work of the poet (or thought I did) I found myself taking down the poems again, animated by fresh insight, curiosity and excitement.


I would not have thought it likely that I would again read, for instance, The Waste Land as if it were fresh and new, but that happened. I have never felt any particular affinity with John Ashbery, the work far too willed, dry and Apollonian for my taste, but at least now I understand better what might be attractive and accomplished in the poems for those to whom he appeals.

I had only read AR Ammons in passing, but Vendler has persuaded me to pursue him in his entirety. Stevens is a great passion of hers, and she reads and explicates him very well, perhaps drawn too deep, sometimes, into the arcana and minutiae, but always, and so forgivably, with an afficionado’s ardour.

Her rereading of Heaney’s Sweeney Redivivus, the 1998 version, is breathtaking and sent me hungering back into the sequence with entirely fresh eyes – and ears, because Vendler is very good on the sonics of poetry, just as she is persuasive in her arguments for the relationship between poetry and the body.

She is even more illuminating and challenging in Seamus Heaney and the Oresteia, where she examines in great depth the conversation between Aeschylus and Heaney that stands like a shadow armature in the background to Heaney’s Mycenae Lookout. Rereading the poem in the light of her deep-delved analysis, I see now – what I got wrong in my own long-ago review – the “perennial parable” Heaney was making from the plight of Cassandra.

It is not the least of her virtues as a reader that Vendler can prompt us not to be stubborn in our own views but to revisit them with an open mind, in the dispassionate hope of gaining deeper insight, more enduring pleasure.

She quotes Heaney on “the moment of poetry”, “the moment when all those complications and contradictions of history, politics, culture, fidelity, hostility, inner division, challenge and change get themselves gathered in words and become available to writer and reader as a mode of self-knowledge”.

In these wise, weighty and illuminating essays, Vendler shows herself a true and bracing friend to the moment of poetry, its charge and value, its heart-place in the difficult struggle to be fully and joyously human.

Theo Dorgan’s latest book, Nine Bright Shiners (Dedalus Press), was awarded The Irish Times Poetry Now Prize for best collection of 2014