Helen Vendler

Because she’s one of my favorite critics, I just read Vendler’s new book, Coming of Age as a Poet (Harvard, 2003). It’s a study of the first mature and fully successful verse of four major poets: Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath. Vendler argues that poets change their themes, topics, and messages during their careers, but they often achieve a stable poetic personality in their twenties. From their first “perfect” poem to the end of their careers, they retain a hard-won combination of: certain formal and stylistic habits (including characteristic diction); physical and historical milieux that they typically describe; major symbolic references; characters or types of characters whom they include in their verse; and some sort of (at least implicit) cosmology.

Vendler touches on problems of “existential” importance: for example, whether Sylvia Plath’s extreme pessimism can be valid, and whether Plath is morally blameworthy for it. She defends strong aesthetic judgments on the basis of an implicit theory of poetry. She treats any excellent poem as the difficult and worthy achievement of a deliberate artist, which means that she links her aesthetic judgments to judgments about character (and an implied theory of the good life). Vendler’s own writing is dense, careful, perceptive, and concerned with vital matters–not just poems, but the topics that they wrestle with. She works with the even more concentrated, complex, and passionate words of four major poets. The combination of her acuity and theirs is very challenging. I kept thinking, “Why don’t I have a coherent style and world-view? Why can’t I read with this degree of care and accuracy?” Like a good sermon, Coming of Age as a Poet is an exhortation to try harder, be tougher, do better–not necessarily as a poet, but as a person.