How Helen Vendler Pressed Meaning Into Poetry


I TOOK HELEN VENDLER’S course on major British poets at Harvard, but I didn’t become her student until after I left college.

I was devoted to her. She was already a giant, “the ‘Colossus’ of poetry criticism,” by the time I met her well over 20 years ago: the first woman to be made a “University Professor,” Harvard’s highest academic honor.

The headlines announcing her death last month rightly described her reputation as fearsome. But the only thing that drew me, a Black religious kid from the South who was struggling emotionally during his first year at Harvard (I was still in the closet; my dad would die that year), to this tiny, soft-spoken woman, in person so unlike her reputation, was that she radiated two things I scarcely knew I needed: clarity and warmth. When I first made my way to her office hours all those years ago, I had no real interest in the British or the poetry they had written. I just wanted to be around her.

When I matriculated at Harvard to study history and literature as well as Afro-American studies, literary theory, particularly deconstruction, still had a grip on the humanities. It was anathema to me. For thinkers, intellectual and artistic crises are emotional crises, and the obfuscation and density of writing and of thought that dominated the academy then made me feel as though I was being bamboozled. Why did these people write and talk in such confusing ways? A critic once described Paul de Man’s theory as “digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water.” It felt like my mind was collapsing. Coming across Helen’s clear and convincing written work (first in her 1988 collection of essays, The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, and then other books after, none of which I read in earnest until I left Cambridge) shored up my mind. It was like being thrown a lifeline.

After graduating, I moved west to pursue a career in TV and film. While being handsomely paid as a creative executive for a Hollywood film studio, I hungered for more serious fare, secretly harboring intellectual ambitions of my own. But I was still unclear about what type of “thinker” I wanted to be, unsure, still, of how to see into things and how to write and think about the things I saw. A class on French literary theory during my junior year had put the nail in the coffin. If being an intellectual meant having to think and write in the obfuscated manner of de Man or Derrida, I wanted no part. Helen pointed a way forward. Her work, in contrast to the theorists, was often motivated by very simple, very straightforward questions, the central one being Why would an artist write a poem about death or divorce or loneliness when they could’ve written a novel or a play about it instead? King Lear was about betrayal but so too was Sonnet 151. What did a poem allow Shakespeare to do that another genre didn’t?

I was not a poet nor was I interested in becoming one, so I had no artistic stake in the question, but as a thinker, it turns out, I had an intellectual stake in the answer. It was simple and straightforward too, and I needed it to be. Helen insisted that it was the poem’s shape—its form, the thing that made it look unlike any other type of utterance—that gave it meaning. In clear and elegant language, Helen proved this time and again across her 60-year career. “Write so your mother can understand,” she once told me. Despite her mastery of languages and traditions, her deep learnedness, Helen practiced a type of commonsense criticism, and I welcomed it without reservation as it seemed to welcome me. Her mixture of sophistication and simplicity was truly moving, and it could be startling, as a reader, to see it unfold.

Take her treatment, from the 2002 anthology Poems, Poets, Poetry (derived from her popular Harvard course of the same name, the book is now shamefully out of print), of William Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” about the poet speaker’s heartbreak at the death of his beloved. Helen showed that even the tiniest feature of a poem can be a profound carrier of meaning, arguing that the stanza break that separates the two halves of that brief lyric also binds the speaker and beloved together through time. The first stanza begins hauntingly when the beloved is vibrant and alive; in the second part, she is dead, “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks, and stones, and trees.” But more than just a gap in time, the blank white space of the stanza break represents the moment of the beloved’s death, which is too painful for the speaker to remember or address consciously in language. So, instead, he enacts the traumatic moment by suppressing it with a wordless and wounded blank. This was “close reading” under Helen’s watchful gaze.

Many critics before her had, of course, explored the importance of poetic form, but none of them had Helen’s profoundly instinctive understanding of it, the ability to extend that understanding deep into the many constitutive parts of a poem, or the skill to translate for a common reader—writing authoritatively throughout her career on everyone from William Shakespeare to Wallace Stevens—how those variegated parts collaborated to create a convincing, cohesive, and permanent piece of art.

Against this simple, subtle, deeply felt brilliance, repeated time and time again in her work, the arid claims of literary theory stood no chance with me. So much of what Helen wrote seemed so plainly and palpably true that she quickly became a guidepost in my own intellectual and creative efforts. After feeling adrift in Los Angeles for some years, and deciding I wanted to think and write about art too, I tracked down her phone number through 411 and called her at home. She was surprised and delighted. The brain and heart were still available to me. From that moment, through a hundred phone calls and emails—about literature, about life—as I slowly made my way through her nearly every written word, she helped train me to become the type of thinker I wanted to be: What did the sublime mean? What translation of Dante to read? Should I study Latin? How to outwit a cruel boss? It was a relationship that lasted throughout my adult life. From the time I entered her office all those years ago, I knew I had her affection: she loved her students. But I wanted more than that. My great life goal was to become a writer she admired too.

Once I started to publish work I was proud of (it took some time), I would send it to her. I had been striving to find a language to speak about art and race in a way that felt spiritually similar to how Helen wrote about poetry. I wanted a language that never downplayed the artistry of Black people in favor of our political needs. I wanted to show how the greatest of the racially minded artists avoided agitprop to wed the often competing demands of politics and art seamlessly and convincingly in their work. I would inevitably find a quotation from Helen to deepen or illuminate whatever I was writing. Explaining how Whitney Houston’s singing of the word “free” in her 1991 version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” reinvented the meaning and performance of that song, I quoted Helen on Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish.” On Aretha Franklin’s radical blending of sexual and spiritual longing in her music, I referenced Helen’s memorial tribute to Ginsberg. On scholar Danielle Allen’s memoir, describing the tragic death of a beloved cousin, I quoted Helen on Gerard Manley Hopkins. And her description of racism, of which I am permanently envious (“the inescapable accusation” of race) provided the nugget of an idea for a novel I’m writing.

The role of the critic, as Helen embodied it in her 30 books, was not to put herself in front of the poet but to excite her reader to seek out the poet’s work, so it felt like a signal achievement when she wrote me enthusiastically to say that she had gone to relisten to Houston’s version of the national anthem after reading my essay on it. I once sent her a hastily written email, about “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” in which W. B. Yeats has his artistic and political say, and about which Helen had written in her 2007 book Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, wondering if his choice of the word “happier” in the eighth line had an uninvestigated layer of meaning. She wrote me back at length, as she always did, in perfectly arranged and grammatical paragraphs, concluding gratefully, “Your instinct is right.” She added that I reminded her of something she missed in another Yeats poem: “Thanks for instructing me about two poems at once.” I had taught Helen Vendler something about a poem she had known all her life. I cooed with delight.

That she was always eagerly learning, even from her students, was one of Helen’s singular charms. In an early interview I recall her giving, she mentioned she wasn’t especially fond of Emily Dickinson’s work, preferring writers like John Keats who luxuriated in language (her rich enjoyment of Jorie Graham’s work, a contemporary example of this affinity). She suggested that Dickinson cut off emotions too abruptly for her taste. Yet in 2010, Helen published Dickinson, a 500-page treatment of Dickinson’s poems. (If you own none of her work, and can’t find the anthology, this is the one you should get.) I was so surprised that I called to find out what had brought her around. “I found the key to understanding her,” she said. She pointed to an ars poetica in poem 1097, “Ashes denote that Fire was,” which explained why Dickinson adhered so obsessively to the miniature form. It seemed remarkable to me that Helen, late in life, could go from casual distaste, even irritation, over a poet’s work to championing them as an “unforgettable” master of language and writing the definitive book on their poems. It was a testament to how intellectually and emotionally alive she remained throughout her career, how contrary to her reputation for stodginess or intellectual rigidity. She, like the poets she loved, was constantly revising, constantly updating, in response to the world around her and to the lyric as it enacted the mind of an original poet. It is no surprise that so many giants of poetry across the generations—Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Graham—felt such deep kinship with her.

When Heaney died, Helen withdrew for a while. She had first championed the great Irishman after attending a reading of his most emblematic work North (1975) when it was still in galley form, bringing him to the attention of American audiences. They became lifelong friends. Perhaps surprisingly, the friendships, the human bonds, mattered more to her than the poems. In her dispute with Alice Quinn, over publishing the discarded poems of Elizabeth Bishop, it was what she saw as a betrayal of friendship that so unnerved her. In an interview with The Boston Globe, Helen’s son said, “[S]he never worked while I was awake. […] She was a mom first.” Her deep humanity is what the headlines declaring her power and fearsomeness have largely missed.

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It is my eternal regret that I perhaps learned this too late. In 2021, Helen had been ill for some time, not with the cancer that ultimately took her life but with a nonfatal disorder that left her unaccountably fatigued. “I can usually get a second wind late in the day but not anymore,” she’d told me. The feeling that her body was slowly giving out on her is what ultimately led to her retirement in 2018. Our calls and emails were less frequent but still heartfelt. She had begun to write for the arts and ideas journal Liberties, and a copy of an essay she was writing on the poet Robert Hayden appeared in my inbox. I was deeply touched—and terrified. Why had she sent me this?

Helen never sent drafts of her work to people before they were published. She’d told me that once before and I’d seen her say it in print. Was it just a kind gesture? She had never sent me any other work of hers. She had obviously come to respect my work: did she want my feedback? I ultimately wrote a long response praising what she’d written, but wondering whether she had missed certain aspects of the poem. She didn’t respond immediately, and I panicked. I sent an apology for my exuberance, anxious that I had maybe overstepped. She eventually wrote back, briefly but politely, standing up for her views.

Though I called her after that, she didn’t respond. I wrote messages but they went unanswered, and I feared that I had insulted her. We never spoke again. She had been both good for me and good to me, as she said of one of her own mentors, and I mourned the loss of contact. I’ve since learned, reading the tributes, that she had been diagnosed with cancer around the time of that final email exchange between us and had moved to Laguna Niguel, California, to live with her son. It is possible that I had hurt her, but it’s far more likely that life—and in this case, death—took over. I suppose there is a strange solace in that.

Despite her rich legacy, Helen’s loss to American letters, to the poets and scholars and students who cherished her work, is quite real. Even now, there are questions that only she could answer for me. What she wrote in her review of the letters of Hopkins in 2014, about the friends of the poet who mourned him after his untimely death in 1889, has always seemed true of her: Helen was, brilliantly, “the most unusual person” I’ve ever known. She, dead at 90, as the hapless nostrum of grieving has it, lived a full life, but her death leaves a profound absence in the culture, in my life, and in the life of the mind that is unlikely to be filled. That absence merits mourning.



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