“An Original Sensibility” Helen Vendler Visits Dickinson
By Laura Harbold '07
“The rarest thing of all is an original sensibility,” said Helen Vendler during her March 2007 visit to Dickinson College. “Where will the muse settle next? I can’t survey all of America, certainly not all of the world. I don’t know where she is. I’m not certain she’s here; I’m not certain she’s not here.”
One thing is certain: Vendler herself is an original sensibility. The foremost poetry critic in America, she has written authoritative volumes on Wallace Stevens, John Keats, and William Shakespeare. As an influential contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, she is often the first to discover and promote new poetic talents.
Vendler is revered not only as a writer but as a teacher. After receiving her Ph.D. in English from Harvard, she taught at Cornell and Smith before accepting a position at Boston University, where she remained for twenty years. In 1980, she was named the first female president of the Modern Language Association, the premier professional organization for teachers of language and literature. In 1990, Vendler accomplished another first, becoming Harvard’s first female full University Professor.
Perhaps what is most original about Vendler’s sensibility is the unusual path by which she arrived at her vocation. During her undergraduate years, her favorite subject was organic chemistry. When she graduated, she received a Fulbright fellowship to study mathematics in Belgium. Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, however, she had a revelation: poetry, not math, was her calling.
Although Vendler traded numbers for words, she never abandoned her pristine, scientific perspective. “I suddenly realized that poetry is a 3D structure,” she says. “It has the beautiful logic of mathematics. I never would have seen what I see in poetry without math and science. Everyone should study both.”
Vendler’s criticism is always methodical and precise, often branching into charts, diagrams, even equations. She calls poetry “an aesthetic package to be opened” and believes that everyone, with some effort, may acquire the tools necessary to understand and enjoy it.
“Work is the only answer to everything,” she says. “Literature looks deceptively easy. It can be arduous. Knowing the words doesn’t mean you always understand the stanza. It can lead you to enormous frustration.”
That Vendler herself is sometimes frustrated should be comfort to poetry readers everywhere. During her two-day stay at Dickinson, she endeavored to impart to students a few of the lessons she has learned in her decades of study.
As a guest lecturer at Professor Carol Ann Johnston’s “Revolutionary Milton” class, Vendler defended Milton’s “L’Allegro” as superior to “Il Pensoroso,” its partner poem. “L’Allegro’s” levity in contrast to “Il Pensoroso’s” grim seriousness often prompts critics to dismiss its literary weight. Vendler, however, argued that “L’Allegro’s” lightheartedness and musicality is the seat of its beauty.
“I first read it when I was twelve years old,” she said. “It made me want to dance.” Vendler then quoted a long passage of “L’Allegro” from memory, emphasizing its skipping rhythm.
“A seductive rhythm is the first way into a poem,” she said.
Vendler believes that rhythm, structure, and pattern are the keys to unlocking any poem, even those which are overtly political. In her lecture at Dickinson’s Clarke Center, entitled “Yeats: Writing the Political Poem,” she explained the complex design and universal sentiments of “The Irish Airman” and “Easter 1916,” two poems which are often read solely in the context of Irish nationalism.
“Yeats was a nationalist,” Vendler said, “but propaganda is not the way to write a poem. Yeats uses unseen forms to guide his poems; recognition of these structural forms is essential to understanding his thoughts about politics.”
With characteristic scientist’s vision, Vendler explained that the structure of “The Irish Airman” is a “perfect square”—four stanzas of four lines each. “The perfect square is a symbol of impregnable, unchangeable rightness,” she said, which reflects Yeats’ politics without stating them directly.
“Easter 1916,” likewise, steps away from overt political posturing. “It’s the most famous of Yeats’ political poems, but there is a lack of historical detail,” Vendler explained. “The action is at the human level of event rather than the newspaper or journalism level.”
As Vendler spoke, it was often difficult to distinguish between her own words and the poetry she was quoting. But more compelling than her eloquent explications was her willingness to engage with students individually. Those who met her were touched by her approachability, friendliness, and sincere desire to share her reverence for poetry. The English Department is grateful for her time and wisdom.