In the 1960s Andy Warhol predicted that soon "everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." In the literary academic world of the 1980s--a realm of proliferating theoretical perspectives (Freudianism, Marxism, structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, Marxist deconstruction, Marxist feminist deconstruction)--it now seems that everyone will believe something for 15 minutes.
To such state-of-the-art critics, someone like Helen Vendler, who actually cares about poetry, who has thoughtfully absorbed a great deal of it, who can write eloquently about her pleasures in reading and who is willing to assess the successes and failures of new poetry--someone like Vendler must be patronized as a remnant of what is now deemed the Stone Age of literary criticism--the 1950s.
Collecting Vendler's essays of the past several years, "The Music of What Happens" contains a few mildly theoretical essays and some pieces dealing with canonical figures (Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Stevens); but most of the essays review a range of contemporary poets from John Ashbery to A. R. Ammons, from Seamus Heaney to Allen Ginsberg.
Individually, these essays confirm Vendler's authority as a subtle, shrewd and demanding critic of recent American poetry and as a writer who possesses a confident, weighty, ruminative prose style, one that is richly allusive without being pedantic, and elevated without being stuffy. Concluding her review of Ammons' "Collected Poems," she writes with a characteristically moving intelligence: "Some of us have found, in these poems, a home for our own spirits, words for intimations we were unable to articulate alone. In this way, language becomes a habitable place, and place finds a home in language." Familiarizing us with both new and traditional work, Vendler's essays aim not to display the cleverness of the critic but to make poetry a habitable place.
Collected in book form, however, these essays also ask us to identify and assess the critical ground which Vendler herself inhabits. Strongly held, her values are not hard to find. Vendler is suspicious of "plain style" poetic realists who attempt to render physical or historical actuality--just as, at the other rhetorical extreme, she distrusts the oratory of romantic visionaries or prophets of social protest. In particular, angry women--Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich--disturb Vendler, though she has perceptive things to say about all three of them. Radically experimental poets she does not suspect, she mainly ignores, with innovators like W. C. Williams, Ezra Pound and Charles Olson occupying very marginal places in her canon.
Instead, Vendler prefers an inwardly reflective lyric, tragic in its sense of human limits and written in a dense, allusive language whose relation to the social, historical world is allegorical or emblematic. Keats, Stevens and Ashbery emerge as the pre-eminent figures in her poetic line. But Vendler's emphases, not just subjective "taste," define a particular critical position. Ammons, Vendler says, articulates what his readers have already felt. Similarly, Vendler holds that "to clothe common perceptions in striking language, not to enunciate striking perceptions, is the function of poetry." This combination of familiar experience with unique language--which oddly separates form from content--establishes Vendler's perspective as one linking traditional humanism with New Critical aestheticism.
The dynamic interaction between the two sides of this humanist/aesthete opposition works both to strengthen and to limit her work. The New Critic in Vendler enjoys the intricate verbal surface of poetry and the movements of a language freed from any proposition commitments; a lyric poem, she says, keeps "circling" or "doubling back" on "its own logic" rather than making positive or negative assertions . Such pleasures, however, are available only to a cultural elite; thus Vendler's humanism works to ground them in shared, "common" experience and to provide her with the base for her confident statements of what "we" think or feel.
At the same time, Vendler's humanism works to defend her against the danger she feels in being carried away by the potentially ceaseless circulations of language. Humanism is a principle of limit, stability, closure--depending not upon a stated ideology but upon a pluralism that has real but unspoken limits. Vendler admires the bold, free-wheeling writings of someone like Roland Barthes, for whom, as she puts it, "the irreducible plurality of signifying is set against ideological consistency." Yet "if there is a flaw in the Barthesian aesthetic," she later warns, "it is the overvaluing of the hunger for innumerable new objects." As a principle of limit Vendler can only vaguely appeal to--the principle of limits; "we" may or may not follow her here.
The problem is not that Helen Vendler has limits. Who doesn't? The trouble is that the limits, because they are vaguely defined, sometimes seem social, a code of poetic good manners. Moreover, just as Vendler's tone doesn't permit much self-questioning or playfulness, her limits are not severely tested against work that is radically alien and disruptive of the more traditional means about which she writes so well.