Helen Vendler


The Incomparable Critic

Charles Simic

The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry

by Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, 444 pp., $35.00
Bettmann/CorbisElizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, University of Oklahoma, 1976
“The critics always get everything wrong,” John Ashbery said. Well, some do and some don’t. They get on poets’ nerves, of course. Not just for the obvious reason that critics can find poems wanting, but even when they admire them, the way they read their poems often makes poets scratch their heads. Big deal, you may be thinking, who reads reviews of poetry books anyhow? If your name is Helen Vendler, thousands do, since her reviews have appeared regularly over the years in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic, reassuring readers that good poetry continues to be written despite frequent rumors of its demise. It’s likely that swept by her enthusiasm, now and then some of them even bought a book, demonstrating that an entrancing review can replicate poetry’s venerable use as an aid to seduction.
Her many books range from subjects like Shakespeare, Milton, and George Herbert to Yeats, Stevens, Heaney, and Ashbery, among other recent poets. For Vendler, critics “are evangelists, plucking the public by the sleeve, saying, ‘Look at this,’ or ‘Listen to this.’” Without them the beautiful, subversive, bracing, and demanding legacy of our poets would remain largely unknown.
In her marvelous introduction to The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, a collection of two decades’ worth of her essays, book reviews, and occasional prose, Vendler gives a brief, forthright account of her career as a critic and of her family background. She grew up in Boston, where her mother taught first grade for fourteen years before she married, and her father taught Spanish, French, and Italian in high school and also taught her and her sister these languages.
As strictly observant Catholics, the family never owned a TV or went to the movies, and when she was old enough, her parents refused their daughter’s pleas to attend the Boston’s Girls’ Latin School and later Radcliffe. They followed Cardinal Cushing’s decree forbidding, under pain of mortal sin, education at godless, atheistic, and secular colleges and universities. Instead, she went to a Catholic elementary school, high school, and college, where she majored in chemistry and where literature “was taught as a branch of faith and morals.” This experience, she says, inoculated her for life “against adopting any ‘ism’ as a single lens through which to interpret literature,” while her training in sciences taught her to make sure that anything a poet or a critic alleges is backed by evidence.
Vendler attributes becoming a critic to her discovery at the age of twenty-three of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. She had read dozens of poets before him and had memorized many poems, but reading him made her feel “as if my own naked spirit spoke to me from the page.” More germane to her future calling was the intuition that a style of such linguistic and structural idiosyncrasy is most likely a reflection of the poet’s inner being and personality. Thinking back over her long career, she describes herself as “a critic rather than a scholar, a reader and writer more taken by texts than by contexts.” Her own learning, she says modestly, tends to be as wide and unsystematic as that of the poets she discusses. She doesn’t care to be called a close reader and a formalist, though like thousands of others in colleges and universities in the 1950s and 1960s, when New Criticism was the dominant critical approach, Vendler was trained to do just that in her English classes.
I.A. Richards, one of the founding fathers of the movement and the author of The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), taught at Harvard, where she took his course and reports being influenced by his lectures, which showed her how to give full weight to every word in a poem and, with that kind of sustained attention, “open into further and further depths of perception.” Despite her background in detailed textual analysis (at which she excels), she prefers the classical label “commentary” or Walter Pater’s “aesthetic criticism,” in the belief that poems that are complex in thought and style deserve detailed intellectual and critical reflection. She also describes her own method as reading a poem from the point of view of the poet and forewarns her classes that she intends to teach them about the poetry of each poet separately, since poets are too idiosyncratic (that word again) to be compared under gross thematic rubrics that tend to undermine their linguistic originality.
This is an attractive idea, though I’m not clear how feasible it is in practice. There are a lot of things one can deduce about a poet by immersing oneself in his or her poems, except what in the work is a result of deliberation and what of fortuitous accidents, since even half the time they don’t know where their poems come from. I imagine what she is telling her students is that she will read the poets with sympathy and endeavor to see the world through their eyes. As she writes in the introduction to The Breaking of Style, her study of Hopkins, Heaney, and Jorie Graham, published in 1995:
It is distressing, to anyone who cares for and respects the concentrated intellectual and imaginative work that goes into a successful poem, to see how rarely that intense (if instinctive) labor is perceived, remarked on, and appreciated.
She is driven, she says, by the need to clarify to herself and to others, in a reasonable and explicit way, the imaginative individuality of a poem and to show its architectural and technical skill. This is not an easy task, as she readily acknowledges, mentioning how often she’s been “brought to mute frustration,” knowing “intuitively that something is present” in a poem that she hasn’t been able to isolate, name, and describe.
Vendler’s ideal critic is someone who not only possesses a solid knowledge of literature and an analytic ability, but whose imagination and sense of taste have been cultivated and refined from living with poetic images and metaphors all her life. Rereading some of her books over the last few months, I learned that this is not just idle talk. Even when I had disagreements with her, I found much of what she had to say about a poem or a poet credible and fresh. Her prose is free of jargon. She has had no interest in criticism that uses poems solely to demonstrate one of the many literary approaches that have been in fashion during her long academic career, from those centered on language like Structuralism and Deconstruction, to more recent ones based on gender, ethnicity, race, or some other criteria. “But, Helen, you’re so narrow,” she reports a colleague telling her. To which she replied, “What do you mean, Barbara? All of lyric from Shakespeare till now?” And the answer she got was, “Oh, you know what I mean”—implying that by eschewing lit crit, her work was not only lacking, but not to be taken seriously.
Not that Vendler had always been totally immune to theory. As she says in the introduction to her new book:
I was influenced by Freud, as was natural to a member of my generation, and especially to one reading poets who had undergone psychotherapy: Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Plath, Sexton…. I learned from Freud’s seductive expository style as well as his provocative content. The second resource that influenced me in studying the poets’ development and the consequent changes in their style was the discipline of linguistics…. Stylistics is a relatively undefined field, sometimes practiced by linguists, sometimes by critics…. However, linguists and stylisticians too often separate the elements of style from the total imaginative practice of a poet and from the psychological and intellectual motivations of verse. In writing on poets, I have wanted to connect inseparably—as they are connected in the fluent progress of a poem—imagination, feeling, and stylistic originality.
Writing about Robert Lowell in the new book, she speaks of his “depressive style,” and sees the “repetitiveness and obstructiveness” in his poems as a symbol of his depression. This brings to mind what Yvor Winters called the “imitative fallacy,” a claim “that a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration,” which he characterized as “merely a sophistical excuse for bad poetry.” She doesn’t go as far, because Lowell is a fine poet, but neither her examples nor her argument seems convincing to me. She tends to assume that poems by and large are involuntary or deliberate expressions of their author’s traumas—and so they are at times—but they are also works of imagination and accounts of behavior observed in other people’s lives.
That poets make things up to make their poems sound more interesting was not news to contemporaries of Homer and Sappho, so it’s puzzling to me that we’ve lost sight of it today. Vendler is on more solid ground arguing that a frustrated erotic desire and the miseries of an unhappy marriage lie behind a number of Stevens’s poems. I agree. What she doesn’t address, however, is the likelihood that his lack of candor about sex weakened those poems, notwithstanding their stunning imagery and the enthralling verbal play he employed so as to conceal himself.
“The natural act of a critic is to compare, and I was always comparing,” Vendler says about herself, and the same is true of poets. They read and reread the poets of the past and imitate both the major figures and minor ones, and through that slow, laborious process, beset with danger, eventually form their own poetic identity. Every original poem is a critical act, since it involves a decision by the poet about what to keep and what to discard from the poetry of the past. In Harold Bloom’s provocative study The Anxiety of Influence (1973), “the poet in a poet” is at the mercy of his forerunners; either he can overcome them if he is a “strong poet,” or he’ll be destroyed by them.
When she started out as a critic, Vendler had her own version of poetic influence, arguing that American poets like Stevens and others were fixated on British poetry (Wordsworth and Keats particularly) and had continued to rewrite their poems long into this century. There is truth in that; many of our poets started as descendants of the Romantics, though this leaves out the influence of nineteenth-century French poetry, without which there would be no American modernism. Now happily Vendler is more willing to give Whitman and Dickinson and European poets their due.
Vendler says that she likes indolent and meditative poets who roam freely in their thinking about a subject, giving Stevens, Keats, and George Herbert as examples, and she is at her finest explicating intricate, many-layered, longer poems that require unraveling ambiguities and following every nuance of meaning, every delicate turn of the argument. For her, Emily Dickinson ends her poems too soon. Poems in the “rebellious Anglophobic strain of American literary primitivism,” in the manner of William Carlos Williams and his followers, do not attract her. She’s drawn to ideas in poems, conveys them well, but tends at times to devalue physical setting, “what the eye beholds,” as if it were only a prop and not the hook that draws the reader in. The “poet’s sense of the world,” “the savor of life,” “the vulgate of experience” as Stevens called it—she often doesn’t do justice to these in my view.
I have in mind her analysis of a poem like “The Idea of Order at Key West,” where she follows the poet’s thinking well enough, but doesn’t show how closely tied Stevens’s meditation is to the changes taking place in the sea and the sky as the tropical night descends and the unknown woman walking along the shore sings her song, and why the speaker in the poem not only comes to understand what he is experiencing, but once he does is overcome with emotion, and so are we as readers. We are moved because we had experienced something like that once and couldn’t find words for it, and now have them. It’s that recognition that links the reader to the poet, and its interdependence of reality and imagination that Stevens strives to sort out in the poem.
There are twenty-seven essays collected in The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. In them, Vendler writes about Whitman, Melville, T.S. Eliot, Stevens (twice), Langston Hughes, Bishop, Lowell, Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, A.R. Ammons (twice), Ashbery (three times), Merrill (twice), Amy Clampitt, Charles Wright, Seamus Heaney (twice), Mark Ford (twice), and Lucie Brock-Broido. It’s one of her finest books, an impressive summation of a long, distinguished career in which she revisits many of the poets she has venerated over a lifetime and written about previously. Reading it, one can feel her happiness in doing what she loves best. There is scarcely a page in the book where there isn’t a fresh insight about a poet or poetry. Here’s a small sampling. On Ammons:
The Snow Poems suggests that the weather, as the most complex of visible dynamic systems, is the best symbol for human moods. For Ammons, the weather plays the role that color plays in painting…. Just as each collocation of colors has for both painter and spectator its own emotional weight, and each collocation of words, for both writer and reader, has its own atmosphere, so the weather—down to its minutest aspects—determines the “feel” on our skin and our sense of any given day.
On Stevens:
Stevens is taken aback by the poverty of memory. When we summon up the past, it is usually, he says, in the form of a set of visual images. We cannot…hear the past or touch it or taste it or smell it. How odd it is that we can only see the past, that no other sense (in Stevens’s view here) has the capacity to return and reproduce itself in memory.
On Graham:
One form of suffering—seeing the day go by unregistered and unrecorded—is brought to an end.
On Whitman:
The value system of an original poet—and therefore of his or her poems—will be in part consonant with, in part in dispute with, the contemporary values of the society from which he, and they, issue. Were the poetry not intelligible with respect to those social values, it could not be read; were it not at a distance from them in some way, it would not be original.
The essay called “Poetry and the Mediation of Value,” on Whitman’s great poem on the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” is one of the most moving Vendler has ever written. She describes his elegy as having “Roman succinctness and taciturnity” in that it never mentions the assassination or the assassin, the Emancipation Proclamation or other famous acts of Lincoln’s presidency. Instead, like a movie camera, the poem renders the very scenes of mourning, making them unroll before our eyes in what seems real time as the coffin travels on a train from town to town, from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, with the poet remaining discreetly in the background throughout the poem and, as she says, speaking calmly like a recording angel. Vendler’s inspired commentary not only does justice to Whitman’s poem, but ends up being as wise and poignant.
Unlike other reviewers (William Logan comes to mind) who range widely and write trenchantly about many more poets, Vendler has devoted herself to a small group of favorites who in her opinion have demonstrated staying power, and has written about them almost exclusively with affection. We understand only what we admire, appears to be how she defines the art of criticism. That is most likely true, even though, by not telling us what works and what doesn’t in their poetry, she leaves us frequently irritated and in the dark about her criteria, since withholding judgment while reading is not how we normally go through a book of poems. As her recent essay on John Berryman in these pages demonstrates, she is perfectly capable of making such distinctions when she chooses.* (The piece is included in her new book.)
Setting that aside, there are obvious benefits to concentrating on few poets and deepening one’s knowledge and understanding of their work over many years. Still, by leaving out of her deliberations so many American poets of the last hundred years and not considering the likelihood that some of them may have played a part in the development of the poets she favors, one gets an odd, ahistorical picture that every poet and devoted reader of our poetry, and even fans of her criticism—among whom I count myself—would have trouble accepting, since it excludes many beautiful and occasionally great poems that are a part of our literature.
It’s not that Vendler never changes her mind. Unless I’m greatly mistaken, Lowell and Bishop are diminished figures in the new book, while others like Graham, Ashbery, and Ammons, with their ability to continuously reinvent themselves, appear unequaled among their contemporaries. “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess,” she quotes Keats approvingly. This is the quality her poets all share. Vendler describes the ambition of Graham’s poems as a desire for aesthetic possession of everything that goes on around us and inside our minds, a kind of “total coverage,” as it was for Whitman.
When it comes to “opening up new possibilities for the American lyric,” Ashbery, more than anyone else, according to her, has led the way. He has done that
by enlivening the page with diction of a startling heterogeneity; by being more broadly allusive than any other modern poet, including Eliot; by being boyish and amusing while maintaining emotional depth; by finding a gorgeousness of imagery rare since Stevens; and by taking headstrong risks that have endangered whole books (notably The Tennis Court Oath), but which have paid off in original forms of narrative and fable.
I agree with much of this, but again question the omission (for the sake of comparison) of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Tate, and a number of other poets, going back to Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Rexroth, and Robert Creeley, who also tinkered interestingly with the lyric. “There is in [Ashbery’s] poetry,” Vendler observes,
a persistent sense of plot aborted, of journeys on circular tracks, of aspiration engaged in and mocked, of synapses of allusion constantly making electrical sparks and then fizzling out. Human meaning is made and exploded, and no larger backdrop of sustained systematic thought or belief guarantees either its fittingness or its permanence.
This is a brilliant summary of his practice, but as a universal recipe for lyric poetry, it is not likely to work if some cook other than Ashbery is stirring the pot.
What about Ammons? Are he and Ashbery as different as night and day? Not so, according to Vendler. Theirs is a poetry that acknowledges the fragmentation and contradictions of our contemporary lives, in which we find ourselves bombarded verbally and visually from all sides in an information-laden, secular, and baffling world, in what feels like a continuous present where various distractions and surprises following one another constitute our day. Despite one being a poet of small-town rural America and the other being a city slicker, they both write poems that are either tightly constructed or sprawling, use elevated or colloquial language, mix tragedy and comedy, and are fond of adopting tentative, provisional, or irreverent attitudes.
And yet Ammons’s literary antecedents are very different from Ashbery’s. Vendler finds them “in Williams’s experiments in disjunction, in Stein’s experiments with childish aspects of language, in Thoreau’s wood watching, in Whitman’s broad democratic vistas, in Frost’s shapeliness of form, even in the Beats.” However none of these had the audacity, she points out, to switch back and forth between the sublime and the ignobly ridiculous as Ammons did. While Williams, most notably in Paterson, distinguishes the flute of the solo lyric from the clamor of the communal, she notes that for Ammons there is a “continuo of the personal—the ‘noise’ of the everyday mind—from which the lyric rises and into which it subsides.” This setting “of the lyric moment within its non-lyric ‘surround,’” Vendler writes, “is the fundamental device” of modern poetry, from The Waste Land to this day.
I find her discussion of these two poets’ poems cogent and her high regard for them justified. Ashbery’s reputation is firmly established with his Collected Poems 1956–1987, published by the Library of America, and with the rest of his opus to follow, but I’m afraid that Ammons, who died in 2001 and left a body of work as varied and inventive as Ashbery’s, is no longer read very much and somewhat forgotten. If there’s a revived interest in him in the future, it will be due to Vendler and some young critic or poet who picks up The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar and reads her immensely entertaining and stimulating account of his poems, especially the book-length poem Garbage. He wrote it after seeing a gigantic pyramid of rubble in Florida that made him feel that this is “the sacred image of our time.”
I went and reread Ammons and other poets Vendler writes about and thought better of them and enjoyed myself immensely doing so. Arguing with her from time to time, I thought this is what a great critic does, makes us read, either for the first time, or once again, a book or a poem we either ought to have known or thought we knew and understood well, and then find our lives enriched when we discover we were wrong about it.
  1. * See her “Berryman: Tragedy & Comedy Together,” The New York Review, June 4, 2015. 


    Totemic Sifting: Charles Simic's The Book of Gods and Devils, Hotel Insomnia, and Dime-Store Alchemy

    Charles Simic's riddling poems, for all that they reproduce many things about his century (its wars, its cities, its eccentrics, and so on) in the end chiefly reproduce the Simic sieve-a sorting ma- chine that selects phenomena that suit Simic's totemic desire. There is no escape-hatch in a Simic poem: You enter it and are a prisoner within its uncompromising and irremediable world:

    The trembling finger of a woman
    Goes down the list of casualties
    On the evening of the first snow.

    The house is cold and the list is long.

    All our names are included.

    This short poem, entitled "War," exhibits all the hallmarks of the Simic style: an apparently speakerless scene; an indefinite article establishing the vagueness of place and time-" a woman" some- where, anywhere, in a wintry evening; then a menacing definite article focusing our gaze, in this instance on "the" list; then a late entrance of the personal pronoun engaging the speaker's life and ours. This coercive poem of war excludes everything else that might be going on in "real" wartime-people eating, drinking, going to school, manufacturing guns, etc.-in favor of a single emblem, the domestic Muse enumerating the many war dead, followed (as in emblem books) by a motto underneath: "All our
    From "Totemic Sifting: Charles Simic's The Book of Gods and Devils, Hotel Insomnia, and Dime-Store Alchemy" by Helen Vendler, Parnassus: Poetry in Review 18, no. 2 and 19, no. I (1993).


    Poetry is the scholar's art."
    Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous
    Thơ là nghệ thuật khoa bảng

    Cole: You said you don’t often do negative reviews. What do you do with a book you don’t like? How do you handle it?
    Vendler: I forget it-you mean if I have to write about it?
    Cole: Yes.
    Vendler: I tell the truth as I see it. I was reading a biography of Mary McCarthy, and it turns out she was hurt by a review that I did of her Birds of America. But she also believed it to be true, which hurt her more.
    Cole: As a writer and a professor, I guess I understand both sides of the equation. This has been interesting. Thank you for taking time out from your academic schedule.
    Vendler: Thank you.
    [Bà nói, bà không viết nhiều, cái thứ điểm sách tiêu cực - tức chê bai, mạ lị, miệt thị… như GCC thường viết – Bà làm gì với cuốn bà không thích? Làm thế nào bà “handle” nó?
    Bạn tính nói, nếu tôi phải viết về nó?
    Thì cứ nói thẳng ra ở đây. Tôi đọc tiểu sử của Mary McCarthy, hóa ra là bà bị tui, chính tui, phạng cho 1 cú đau điếng, khi điểm cuốn "Chim Mẽo" của bà. Nhưng bà cũng nói thêm, tui phạng đúng, và cái đó làm bà còn đau hơn nhiều!]
    Ui chao, GCC đã từng gặp đúng như thế, khi phạng nhà thơ NS. Ông đau tới chết,  như 1 bạn văn nhận xét, “anh đâm trúng tim của ông ta, nhà văn nhà thơ dễ dãi và sung sướng và hạnh phúc”!

    Cú đánh NTH mà chẳng thú sao!
    “Văn chương khủng khiếp”!
    Hà, hà!
    Đúng là 1 tên “sa đích văn nghệ”, như NS gọi GCC!


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

    Charles Simic đọc nữ phê bình gia số 1, một thứ Thụy Khê của Mẽo. Bà Thụy Khê Yankee mũi lõ này bảnh lắm, đúng là 1 chuyên gia về thơ.
    Tin Văn sẽ đi bài này, thì cũng 1 cách giới thiệu cho những nhà phê bình Mít, phê bình là gì, và phê bình thơ ghê gớm cỡ nào.
    Tuy nhiên, cái tít hình như chôm của NXH, phê bình gia không thể so sánh vs phê bình gia không phải thời nào cũng có được.

    Helen Vendler khám phá ra tài phê bình thơ của bà năm 23 tuổi, khi đọc thơ Wallace Stevens. Trước đó bà cũng đã đọc thơ, và nhớ khá nhiều bài, nhưng đọc Stevens, là, như thi sĩ Mít hải ngoại Nguyễn Đức Tùng, hòa tan vô liền - chôm từ của Thanh Thảo, hay dùng từ của chính bà:  tôi cảm thấy cái tinh anh khoả thân của chính tôi nói với tôi từ trang giấy, “as if my own naked spirit spoke to me from the page”!
    Bài viết này tuyệt lắm. Mít ta chưa có tay nào phê bình thơ bảnh như bà này.
    Có Đặng Tiến, nhưng với riêng Gấu, Đặng Tiến phê bình thơ có cái bẩm sinh, nghĩa là ít…  đọc, còn bà này, đọc kinh người, khác hẳn.

    Curriculum Vitae

    Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, where she received her Ph.D. in English and American literature, after completing an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Emmanuel College. She has written books on Yeats, Herbert, Keats, Stevens, Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney, and Emily Dickinson. Her most recent books are The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar; Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries; Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill; and Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. She is a frequent reviewer of poetry in such journals as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Republic. Her avocational interests include music, painting, and medicine.

    Helen Vendler Lecture
    Poetry is the scholar's art."
    Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous
    When it became useful in educational circles in the United States to group various university disciplines under the name "The Humanities," it seems to have been tacitly decided that philosophy and history would be cast as the core of this grouping, and that other forms of learning--the study of languages, literatures, religion, and the arts--would be relegated to subordinate positions. Philosophy, conceived of as embodying truth, and history, conceived of as a factual record of the past, were proposed as the principal embodiments of Western culture, and given pride of place in general education programs. Confidence in a reliable factual record, not to speak of faith in a reliable philosophical synthesis, has undergone considerable erosion. Historical and philosophical assertions issue, it seems, from particular vantage points, and are no less contestable than the assertions of other disciplines. The day of limiting cultural education to Western culture alone is over. There are losses here, of course--losses in depth of learning, losses in coherence--but these very changes have thrown open the question of how the humanities should now be conceived, and how the study of the humanities should, in this moment, be encouraged. I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on. After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered. For every person who has read a Platonic dialogue, there are probably ten who have seen a Greek marble in a museum, or if not a Greek marble, at least a Roman copy, or if not a Roman copy, at least a photograph. Around the arts there exist, in orbit, the commentaries on art produced by scholars: musicology and music criticism, art history and art criticism, literary and linguistic studies. At the periphery we might set the other humanistic disciplines--philosophy, history, the study of religion. The arts would justify a broad philosophical interest in ontology, phenomenology, and ethics; they would bring in their train a richer history than one which, in its treatment of mass phenomena, can lose sight of individual human uniqueness--the quality most prized in artists, and most salient, and most valued, in the arts. What would be the advantage of centering humanistic study on the arts? The arts present the whole uncensored human person--in emotional, physical, and intellectual being, and in single and collective form--as no other branch of human accomplishment does. In the arts we see both the nature of human predicaments--in Job, in Lear, in Isabel Archer--and the evolution of representation over long spans of time (as the taste for the Gothic replaces the taste for the Romanesque, as the composition of opera replaces the composition of plainchant). The arts bring into play historical and philosophical questions without implying the prevalence of a single system or of universal solutions. Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion. The arts are true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived--as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms. The case histories developed within the arts are in part idiosyncratic, but in part applicable by analogy to a class larger than the individual entities they depict. Hamlet is a very specific figure--a Danish prince who has been to school in Germany--but when Prufrock says, "I am not Prince Hamlet," he is in a way testifying to the fact that Hamlet means something to every one who knows about the play. If the arts are so satisfactory an embodiment of human experience, why do we need studies commenting on them? Why not merely take our young people to museums, to concerts, to libraries? There is certainly no substitute for hearing Mozart, reading Dickinson, or looking at the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Why should we support a brokering of the arts; why not rely on their direct impact? The simplest answer is that reminders of art's presence are constantly necessary. As art goes in and out of fashion, some scholar is always necessarily reviving Melville, or editing Monteverdi, or recommending Jane Austen. Critics and scholars are evangelists, plucking the public by the sleeve, saying "Look at this," or "Listen to this," or "See how this works." It may seem hard to believe, but there was a time when almost no one valued Gothic art, or, to come closer to our own time, Moby-Dick and Billy Budd. A second reason to encourage scholarly studies of the arts is that such studies establish in human beings a sense of cultural patrimony. We in the United States are the heirs of several cultural patrimonies: a world patrimony (of which we are becoming increasingly conscious); a Western patrimony (from which we derive our institutions, civic and aesthetic); and a specifically American patrimony (which, though great and influential, has, bafflingly, yet to be established securely in our schools). In Europe, although the specifically national patrimony was likely to be urged as preeminent--Italian pupils studied Dante, French pupils studied Racine--most nations felt obliged to give their students an idea of the Western inheritance extending beyond native production. As time passed, colonized nations, although instructed in the culture of the colonizer, found great energy in creating a national literature and culture of their own with and against the colonial model (as we can see, for instance, in the example of nineteenth-- and twentieth--century Ireland). For a long time, American schooling paid homage, culturally speaking, to Europe and to England; but increasingly we began to cast off European and English influence in arts and letters, without, unfortunately, filling the consequent cultural gap in the schools with our own worthy creations in art and literature. Our students leave high school knowing almost nothing about American art, music, architecture, and sculpture, and having only a superficial acquaintance with a few American authors. We will ultimately want to teach, with justifiable pride, our national patrimony in arts and letters--by which, if by anything, we will be remembered--and we hope, of course, to foster young readers and writers, artists and museum--goers, composers and music enthusiasts. But these patriotic and cultural aims alone are not enough to justify putting the arts and the studies of the arts at the center of our humanistic and educational enterprise. What, then, might lead us to recommend the arts and their commentaries as the center of the humanities? Art, said Wallace Stevens, helps us to live our lives. I'm not sure we are greatly helped to live our lives by history (since whether or not we remember it we seem doomed to repeat it), or by philosophy (the consolations of philosophy have never been very widely received). Stevens's assertion is a large one, and we have a right to ask how he would defend it. How do the arts, and the scholarly studies attendant on them, help us to live our lives? Stevens was a democratic author, and expected his experience, and his reflections on it, to apply widely. For him, as for any other artist, "to live our lives" means to live in the body as well as in the mind, on the sensual earth as well as in the celestial clouds. The arts exist to relocate us in the body by means of the work of the mind in aesthetic creation; they situate us on the earth, paradoxically, by means of a mental paradigm of experience embodied, with symbolic concision, in a physical medium. It distressed Stevens that most of the human beings he saw walked about blankly, scarcely seeing the earth on which they lived, filtering it out from their pragmatic urban consciousness. Even when he was only in his twenties, Stevens was perplexed by the narrowness of the way in which people inhabit the earth: I thought, on the train, how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds. It still dwarfs & terrifies & crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless.
    [Souvenirs and Prophecies, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1977), note of April 18, 1904, p. 134] The arts and their attendant disciplines restore human awareness by releasing it into the ambience of the felt world, giving a habitation to the tongue in newly coined language, to the eyes and ears in remarkable recreations of the physical world, to the animal body in the kinesthetic flex and resistance of the artistic medium. Without an alert sense of such things, one is only half alive. Stevens reflected on this function of the arts--and on the results of its absence--in three poems that I will take up as proof--texts for what follows. Although Stevens speaks in particular about poetry, he extends the concept to poesis--the Greek term for making, widely applicable to all creative effort. Like geography and history, the arts confer a patina on the natural world. A vacant stretch of grass becomes humanly important when one reads the sign "Gettysburg." Over the grass hangs an extended canopy of meaning--struggle, corpses, tears, glory--shadowed by a canopy of American words and works, from the Gettysburg Address to the Shaw Memorial. The vacant plain of the sea becomes human when it is populated by the ghosts of Ahab and Moby--Dick. An unremarkable town becomes "Winesburg, Ohio"; a rustic bridge becomes "the rude bridge that arched the flood" where Minutemen fired "the shot heard round the world." One after the other, cultural images suspend themselves, invisibly, in the American air, as--when we extend our glance--the Elgin marbles, wherever they may be housed, hover over the Parthenon, once their home; as Michelangelo's Adam has become, to the Western eye, the Adam of Genesis. The patina of culture has been laid down over centuries, so that in an English field one can find a Roman coin, in an Asian excavation an Emperor's stone army, in our Western desert the signs of the mound--builders. Over Stevens's giant earth, with its tumultuous motions, there floats every myth, every text, every picture, every system, that creators--artistic, religious, philosophical--have conferred upon it. The Delphic oracle hovers there next to Sappho, Luther's theses hang next to the Grunewald altar, China's Cold Mountain neighbors Sinai, the B--minor Mass shares space with Rabelais. If there did not exist, floating over us, all the symbolic representations that art and music, religion, philosophy, and history, have invented, and all the interpretations and explanations of them that scholarly effort has produced, what sort of people would we be? We would, says Stevens, be sleepwalkers, going about like automata, unconscious of the very life we were living: this is the import of Stevens's 1943 poem "Somnambulisma." The poem rests on three images, of which the first is the incessantly variable sea, the vulgar reservoir from which the vulgate--the common discourse of language and art alike--is drawn. The second image is that of a mortal bird, whose motions resemble those of the water but who is ultimately washed away by the ocean. The subsequent generations of the bird, too, are always washed away. The third image is that of a scholar, without whom ocean and bird alike would be incomplete: Somnambulisma On an old shore, the vulgar ocean rolls
    Noiselessly, noiselessly, resembling a thin bird,
    That thinks of settling, yet never settles, on a nest. The wings keep spreading and yet are never wings.
    The claws keep scratching on the shale, the shallow shale,
    The sounding shallow, until by water washed away. The generations of the bird are all
    By water washed away. They follow after.
    They follow, follow, follow, in water washed away. Without this bird that never settles, without
    Its generations that follow in their universe,
    The ocean, falling and falling on the hollow shore, Would be a geography of the dead: not of that land
    To which they may have gone, but of the place in which
    They lived, in which they lacked a pervasive being, In which no scholar, separately dwelling,
    Poured forth the fine fins, the gawky beaks, the personalia,
    Which, as a man feeling everything, were his.
    Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America) Without the bird and its generations, the ocean, says the poet, would be a geography of the dead-- not in the sense of their having gone to some other world, but in the sense of their being persons who were emotionally and intellectually dead while alive, who lacked "a pervasive being." To lack a pervasive being is to fail to live fully. A pervasive being is one that extends through the brain, the body, the senses, and the will, a being that spreads to every moment, so that one not only feels what Keats called "the poetry of earth" but responds to it with creative motions of one's own. Unlike Keats's nightingale, Stevens's bird does not sing; its chief functions are to generate generations of birds, to attempt to sprout wings, and to try to leave behind some painstakingly scratched record of its presence. The water restlessly moves, sometimes noiselessly, sometimes in "sounding shallow[s]"; the bird never settles. The bird tries to generate wings, but never quite succeeds; it tries to inscribe itself on the shale, but its scratchings are washed away. The ocean is falling and falling, the mortal generations are following and following. Time obliterates birds and inscriptions alike. Imagine being psychically dead during the very life you have lived. That, says Stevens, would be the fate of the generations were it not for the scholar. Stevens does not locate his scholar in the ocean or on the shale, the haunts of the bird; the scholar, says the poet, dwells separately. But he dwells in immense fertility: things pour forth from him. He makes up for the wings that are never wings, for the impotent claws; he generates fine fins, the essence of the ocean's fish; he creates gawky beaks, opening in fledglings waiting to be fed so that they may rise into their element, the air; and he produces new garments for the earth, called not "regalia" (suitable for a monarchy) but "personalia," suitable for the members of a democracy. How is the scholar capable of such profusion? He is fertile both because he is a man who "feels everything," and because every thing that he feels reifies itself in a creation. He gives form and definition both to the physical world (as its scientific observer) and to the inchoate aesthetic world (as the quickened responder to the bird's incomplete natural song). He is analogous to the God of Genesis; as he observes and feels finniness, he says, "Let there be fine fins," and fine fins appear. Why does Stevens name this indispensable figure a "scholar"? (Elsewhere he calls him a "rabbi"--each is a word connoting learning.) What does learning have to do with creation? Why are study and learning indispensable in reifying and systematizing the world of phenomena and their aesthetic representations? Just as the soldier is poor without the poet's lines (as Stevens says elsewhere)[1], so the poet is poor without the scholar's cultural memory, his taxonomies and his histories. Our systems of thought--legal, philosophical, scientific, religious--have all been devised by "scholars" without whose aid widespread complex thinking could not take place and be debated, intricate texts and scores could not be accurately established and interpreted. The restless emotions of aesthetic desire, the wing--wish and inscription--yearning of the bird, perish without the arranging and creative powers of intellectual endeavor. The arts and the studies of the arts are for Stevens a symbiotic pair, each dependent on the other. Nobody is born understanding string quartets or reading Latin or creating poems; without the scholar and his libraries, there would be no perpetuation and transmission of culture. The mutual support of art and learning, the mutual delight each ideally takes in each, can be taken as a paradigm of how the humanities might be integrally conceived and educationally conveyed as inextricably linked to the arts. "Somnambulisma" is the illustration of Stevens's adage that "Poetry is the scholar's art." What is necessary, asks "Somnambulisma," for creative effort? Emotion, desire, generative energy, and learned invention--these, replies the poem, are indispensable in the artist. But there is another way of thinking about art, focusing less on the creator of art than on those of us who make up art's audience. What do we gain in being the audience for the arts and their attendant disciplines? Let us, says Stevens, imagine ourselves deprived of all the products of aesthetic and humanistic effort, living in a world with no music, no art, no architecture, no books, no films, no choreography, no theater, no histories, no songs, no prayers, no images floating above the earth to keep it from being a geography of the dead. Stevens creates the desolation of that deprivation in a poem--the second of my three texts--called "Large Red Man Reading." The poem is like a painting by Matisse, showing us an earthly giant the color of the sun, reading aloud from great sky--sized tabulae which, as the day declines, darken from blue to purple. The poem also summons up the people of the giant's audience: they are ghosts, no longer alive, who now inhabit, unhappily (having expected more from the afterlife) the remote "wilderness of stars." What does the giant describe to the ghosts as he reads from his blue tabulae? Nothing extraordinary--merely the normal furniture of life, the common and the beautiful, the banal, the ugly, and even the painful. But to the ghosts these are things achingly familiar from life and yet disregarded within it. Now they are achingly lost, things they never sufficiently prized when alive, but which they miss devastatingly in the vacancy of space among the foreign stars: Large Red Man Reading There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
    As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
    They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more. There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
    Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
    They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality, They would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
    And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
    And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
    The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
    Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines, Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
    Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
    And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked. The ghosts, while they were alive, had lacked feeling, because they had not registered in their memory "the outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law." It is a triple assertion that Stevens makes here: that being possesses not only outlines (as all bodies do) and expressings (in all languages) but also a law, which is stricter than mere "expressings." Expressings by themselves cannot exemplify the law of being: only poesis--the creator's act of replicating in symbolic form the structures of life--pervades being sufficiently to intuit and embody its law. Poesis not only reproduces the content of life (its daily phenomena) but finds a manner (inspired, vatic) for that content, and in the means of its medium--here, the literal characters of its language--embodies the structural laws that shape being to our understanding. Stevens's anecdote--of--audience in "Large Red Man Reading" suggests how ardently we would want to come back, as ghosts, in order to recognize and relish the parts of life we had insufficiently noticed and hardly valued when alive. But we cannot--according to the poem--accomplish this by ourselves: it is only when the earthly giant of vital being begins to read, using poetic and prophetic syllables to express the reality, and the law, of being, that the experiences of life can be reconstituted and made available as beauty and solace, to help us live our lives. How could our life be different if we reconstituted the humanities around the arts and the studies of the arts? Past civilizations are recalled in part, of course, for their philosophy and their history, but for most of us it is the arts of the past that preserve Egypt and Greece and Rome, India and Africa and Japan. The names of the artists may be lost, the arts themselves in fragments, the scrolls incomplete, the manuscripts partial--but Anubis and the Buddha and The Canterbury Tales still populate our imaginative world. They come trailing their interpretations, which follow them and are like water washed away. Scholarly and critical interpretations may not outlast the generation to which they are relevant; as intellectual concepts flourish and wither, so interpretations are proposed and discarded. But we would not achieve our own grasp on Vermeer or Horace, generation after generation, without the scholars' outpourings. If we are prepared to recognize the centrality of artists and their interpreters to every past culture, we might begin to reflect on what our own American culture has produced that will be held dear centuries from now. Which are the paintings, the buildings, the novels, the musical compositions, the poems, through which we will be remembered? What set of representations of life will float above the American soil, rendering each part of it as memorable as Marin's Maine or Langston Hughes's Harlem, as Cather's Nebraska or Lincoln's Gettysburg? How will the outlines and the expressings and the syllables of American being glow above our vast geography? How will our citizens be made aware of their cultural inheritance; how will they become proud of their patrimony? How will they pass it on to their children as their own generation is by water washed away? How will their children become capable of "feeling everything," of gaining "a pervasive being," capable of helping the bird to spread its wings and the fish to grow their fine fins and the scholar to pour forth his personalia? To link, by language, feeling to phenomena has always been the poet's aim. "Poetry," said Wordsworth in his 1798 Preface, "is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science."[2] Our culture cannot afford to neglect the thirst of human beings for the representations of life offered by the arts, the hunger of human beings for commentary on those arts as they appear on the cultural stage. The training in subtlety of response (which used to be accomplished in large part by religion and the arts) cannot be responsibly left to commercial movies and television. Within education, scientific training, which necessarily brackets emotion, needs to be complemented by the direct mediation--through the arts and their interpretations--of feeling, vicarious experience, and interpersonal imagination. Art can often be trusted--once it is unobtrusively but ubiquitously present--to make its own impact felt. A set of Rembrandt self--portraits in a shopping mall, a group of still lifes in a subway, sonatas played in the lunch--room, spirituals sung chorally from kindergarten on--all such things, appearing entirely without commentary, can be offered in the community and the schools as a natural part of living. Students can be gently led, by teachers and books, from passive reception to active reflection. The arts are too profound and far--reaching to be left out of our children's patrimony: the arts have a right, within our schools, to be as serious an object of study as molecular biology or mathematics. Like other complex products of the mind, they ask for reiterated exposure, sympathetic exposition, and sustained attention. The arts have the advantage, once presented, of making people curious not only about aesthetic matters, but also about history, philosophy, and other cultures. How is it that pre--Columbian statues look so different from Roman ones? Why do some painters concentrate on portraits, others on landscapes? Why did great ages of drama arise in England and Spain and then collapse? Who first found a place for jazz in classical music, and why? Why do some writers become national heroes, and others not? Who evaluates art, and how? Are we to believe what a piece of art says? Why does Picasso represent a full face and a profile at the same time? How small can art be and still be art? Why have we needed to invent so many subsets within each art--within literature, the epic, drama, lyric, novel, dialogue, essay; within music everything from the solo partita to the chorales of Bach? Why do cultures use different musical instruments and scales? Who has the right to be an artist? How does one claim that right? The questions are endless, and the answers provocative; and both questions and answers require, and indeed generate, sensuous responsiveness, a trained eye, fine discrimination, and a hunger for learning, all qualities we would like to see in ourselves and in our children. Best of all, the arts are enjoyable. The "grand elementary principle of pleasure" (as Wordsworth called it), might be invoked more urgently than it now is to make the humanities, both past and present, mean something relevant to Americans. Once the appetite for an art has been awakened by pleasure, the nursery rhyme and the cartoon lead by degrees to Stevens and Eakins. A curriculum relying on the ocean, the bird, and the scholar, on the red man and his blue tabulae, would produce a love of the arts and humanities that we have not yet succeeded in generating in the population at large. When reality is freshly seen, through the artists and their commentators, something happens to the felt essence of life. As Stevens wrote in the third of my texts, "Angel Surrounded by Paysans," the angel of reality then briefly appears at our door, saying: . . . I am the necessary angel of earth,
    Since, in my sight, you see the earth again, Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man--locked set,
    And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
    Like watery words awash; like meanings said By repetitions of half meanings. Am I not,
    Myself, only half of a figure of a sort, A figure half seen, or seen for a moment, a man
    Of the mind, an apparition apparelled in Apparels of such lightest look that a turn
    Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?
    ["Angel Surrounded by Paysans"] That art--angel of the earth, renewing our sense of life and of ourselves, is only half meaning, because we provide the other half. Among us are the scholars who interpret those half--meanings into full ones, apparelling us anew in their personalia. In the apparels of his messenger, Stevens is recalling Wordsworth's great ode: There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
    The earth, and every common sight
    To me did seem
    Apparelled in celestial light,
    The glory and the freshness of a dream. The secular angel refreshing our sense of the world, apparelled in Wordsworthian light, stays only for a moment, our moment of attention. But that moment of mental acutiy recalls us to being, the body, and the emotions, which are, peculiarly, so easy for us to put to one side as we engage in purely intellectual or physical work. Just as art is only half itself without us--its audience, its analysts, its scholars--so we are only half ourselves without it. When, in this country, we become fully ourselves, we will have balanced our great accomplishments in progressive abstraction--in mathematics and the natural sciences--with an equally great absorption in art, and in the disciplines ancillary to art. The arts, though not progressive, aim to be eternal, and sometimes are. And why should the United States not have as much eternity as any other nation? As Marianne Moore said of excellence, "It has never been confined to one locality."[3] Notes: 1. Epilogue, "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction." 2. Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802) 3. "England," the Complete Poems (New York: Macmillan and Viking, 1967) © Helen Vendler, 2004


Popular posts from this blog


Nguyễn Ngọc Tư