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The Thing Itself

The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: essays on poets and poetry, by Helen Vendler, Harvard University Press, 444 pp. £25.95, ISBN: 978-0674736566

 Poets and critics sometimes inhabit the same body. Think Eliot, Pound, Randall Jarrell, Donald Davie, Robert Pinsky, Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert or, from these shores, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Dennis O’Driscoll, David Wheatley, Peter McDonald, Justin Quinn. But poet-critics are an increasingly rare and imperilled breed, and most critical response and reputation-making or -shredding is left to vocational critics, often based in the universities. In the United States Helen Vendler is a force to be reckoned with. Through her regular appearances in The New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, her editorship of the Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry (1985) and her many books on the likes of Wallace Stevens, Yeats, Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney, she has become, in terms of recognition and influence, the pre-eminent American poetry critic. This is not say that she is universally admired, even – or rather, especially – in the crowded pond of contemporary poetry. But her eminence can hardly be denied and it’s partly explained by and coincides with the shrinking prestige of poetry in American culture during her writing career. Attention to the details of lyric poetry, or what Vendler herself calls “aesthetic criticism”, is an activity deeply suspect in many universities, wedded as they are to their highly politicised and theoretical discourses. The wider culture too hardly falls over itself to celebrate or evaluate the mysterious arts of the lyric imagination.

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