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Helen Vendler, ‘Colossus’ of Poetry Criticism, Dies at 90



Helen Vendler, one of the leading poetry critics in the United States, with a reputation-making power that derived from her fine-grained, impassioned readings, expressed in crystalline prose in The New Yorker and other publications, died on Tuesday at her home in Laguna Niguel, Calif. She was 90.

The cause was cancer, said her son, David Vendler.

In an era dominated by poststructuralist and politically influenced literary criticism, Ms. Vendler, who taught at Harvard for more than 30 years, adhered to the old-fashioned method of close reading, going methodically line by line, word by word, to expose a poem’s inner workings and emotional roots.

“Vendler has done perhaps more than any other living critic to shape — I might almost say ‘create’ — our understanding of poetry in English,” the poet and critic Joel Brouwer wrote in 2015 in The New York Times Book Review, adding, “Were it not for Harold Bloom, the ‘perhaps’ would be unnecessary.”

Mr. Bloom, the literary scholar, himself said of Ms. Vendler: “She is a remarkably agile and gifted close reader. I think there isn’t anyone in the country who can read syntax in poems as well as she can.”

The writer and critic Bruce Bawer called her simply “the colossus of contemporary American poetry criticism.”

In important scholarly studies of classic authors, Ms. Vendler offered fresh interpretations of the 17th-century metaphysical poet George Herbert, Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, the Keats of the odes and the Shakespeare of the sonnets — all 154 of them, analyzed in a thick volume, “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (1997), which the poet Richard Howard called “the most intricately inquiring and ingeniously responding study of these poems yet to be undertaken.”

“The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” was described as “the most intricately inquiring and ingeniously responding study of these poems yet.”Credit…‎ Belknap Press

Her voracious appetite for contemporary poetry, and a clear, forceful prose style that allowed her to address nonacademic audiences in her reviews, made Ms. Vendler a powerful figure in the poetry marketplace, with enormous influence on artistic reputations, publishers’ decisions and the awarding of teaching positions and grants. She was the poetry critic for The New Yorker from 1978 to 1996, a frequent judge for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and a nominator for the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” awards.

Her praise was golden. Favorites like Jorie Graham, Mr. Heaney or Rita Dove, buoyed by her exuberance, floated upward in the pantheon. Her disapproval, more rarely expressed, could be withering. “Levine’s notion of a poem is an anecdote with a flush of reflexive emotion gushing up at the end,” she once wrote of Philip Levine, a poet laureate of the United States and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

Her scathing reviews of Ms. Dove’s “Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry” and an edition of unpublished poems by Elizabeth Bishop, “Edgar Allan Poe & the Jukebox,” edited by The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Alice Quinn, touched off the kind of skirmishes rarely seen in the genteel world of poetry.

As a rule, however, Ms. Vendler devoted her attention to the poets she loved, in a lifelong engagement with the branch of literature she called, in the introduction to her 1980 essay collection “Part of Nature, Part of Us,” “the one form of writing that is to me the most immediate, natural and accessible.”

Helen Hennessy was born on April 30, 1933, in Boston, into what she described as “an exaggeratedly observant Catholic household.” Her father, George, who before his marriage had been a paymaster for United Fruit in Cuba and a teacher of English in Puerto Rico, taught Romance languages in high schools and also to his three children. Her mother, Helen (Conway) Hennessy, left her career as an elementary schoolteacher when she married, as required by Massachusetts law at the time.

Her parents insisted on a Catholic education, overruling her desire to attend Boston Latin School for Girls and, later, Radcliffe College. Instead, she enrolled in Emmanuel College, an all-women’s Catholic school in Boston, where she majored in chemistry. Although she had been an avid reader and writer of poetry from an early age, English literature, she found to her dismay, was taught as a collection of moral texts. And French literature classes omitted the philosophes of the Enlightenment, Émile Zola, Marcel Proust and other writers on the Catholic Church’s list of proscribed authors.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1954 she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study mathematics at the University of Louvain in Belgium but changed her concentration to French and Italian literature. On returning to the United States, she took English courses at Boston University to qualify for the doctoral program at Harvard.

At Harvard she met Zeno Vendler, a philosopher of language and Jesuit priest completing work for his doctorate, whom she married in 1960 after he left the priesthood. The marriage ended in divorce after four years, and Mr. Vendler died in 2004. In addition to their son, David, she is survived by two grandchildren.

Ms. Vendler’s first week at Harvard was daunting. She was informed by the chairman of the English department, as he signed her program card, “You know we don’t want you here, Miss Hennessy: we don’t want any women here.” In 1959, she became the first woman to be offered an instructorship in Harvard’s English department, a year before she received her doctorate, having submitted a dissertation on William Butler Yeats that was published in 1963 as “Yeats’s ‘Vision’ and the Later Plays.”

After leaving Harvard she taught at Cornell, Haverford, Swarthmore and Smith. She began teaching at Boston University in 1966 and joined the English department at Harvard as a full professor in 1985, after dividing her time between Boston and Harvard for the previous four years.

As a critical reader of poetry, Ms. Vendler found her bearings early, while still a graduate student. “The base of poetry in the emotions was tacitly ignored in scholarship and criticism: and yet I felt one couldn’t understand the way a poem evolves without acknowledging that base,” she wrote in her introduction to the essay collection “The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar” (2015). “If there was any conscious drive in me to alter the field of criticism as I encountered it, it was to insert into the analysis of lyric an analysis of its motivating emotions and convictions, and to demonstrate their stylistic results.”

The term “close reading,” almost automatically applied to her method, she could not abide. It sounds, she told The Paris Review in 1996, “as if you’re looking at the text with a microscope from outside, but I would rather think of a close reader as someone who goes inside a room and describes the architecture.” She proposed an alternative: “reading from the point of view of a writer.”

“On Extended Wings,” one of Ms. Vendler’s early books, made the case for a set of difficult works that many critics dismissed as overlong and ponderous.Credit…Harvard University Press

Two early books established Ms. Vendler as an important critical voice. In “On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems” (1969), she made the case for a set of difficult works that many critics, notably Randall Jarrell, had dismissed as overlong and ponderous. J. Hillis Miller, writing in The Yale Review, predicted that anyone reading Ms. Vendler’s account “will find it impossible ever to see Stevens in the same way again.”

“The Poetry of George Herbert” (1975) turned the spotlight on a quiet, meditative poet overshadowed by his contemporary John Donne. With typical aplomb, Ms. Vendler declared Donne to be his inferior.

Her parallel career as a reviewer began when, divorced with a young child, she scrambled for any chance to earn extra money. In 1966, The Massachusetts Review asked her to take on its annual survey of the year’s work in poetry. She went on to review regularly for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review (where, in the early 1970s, she advised the editor, John Leonard, on what poetry books to review), and, after she left her critic’s post at The New Yorker in 1996, The New Republic.

More recently she was a regular contributor to Liberties, a journal of culture and politics edited by Leon Wieseltier.

Ms. Vendler devoted her attention to the poets she loved, and described her affinity for the genre in the introduction to her essay collection “Part of Nature, Part of Us.”Credit…Harvard University Press

Her essays and reviews were gathered in “Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets” (1980), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism; “The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics” (1988); “Soul Says: On Recent Poetry” (1996); and other collections.

Her many studies include “The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham” (1995), “The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition” (1995) and “Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill” (2010).

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Humanities named her a Jefferson Lecturer, the highest honor the federal government bestows on a scholar of the humanities. According to her wishes, she was to be buried on “Harvard Hill” in Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Mass.

In her interview with The Paris Review, Ms. Vendler compressed her critical method into seven words: “I write to explain things to myself.”

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