Weigel Room: Listen Up! Whitman Wants To Talk

Hey, you. Yes, you, reader.

Ye that still goest on to Lamont/ though darknesse closest wearie eyes.

Crowds of men and women,/ Who rise in dorm rooms,/ Who prowl two-footed to the dining hall,/ Who sit in broods over the latent mine of print, slurping, yawning, absorbing.

As if to get on with it, as the littered tray gets/ on, but when Bob from the Grille arrives you aren’t there/ or have adopted a different attitude.

Whoever you are, listen up.

In her newest book, “Invisible Listeners,” Porter University Professor Helen Vendler sets out to describe a kind of address not entirely unlike these (parodies of) addresses: the call for intimacy, empathy, or attention a poet makes to a listener whom he cannot physically reach.

Based on the Farnum Lectures she delivered at Princeton in 2003, “Invisible Listeners” is built around three essays on three very different poets—George Herbert, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbery—who, Vendler argues, share a common desire to find companionship or hold colloquy with some fundamentally inaccessible “other.”

As Vendler points out early in the book, apostrophe—turning away from the verse or “strophe” to someone else reading or hearing it—has long been considered one of the fundamental gestures of lyric poetry.

But the particular character of the apostrophe with which Professor Vendler is concerned—the turn to the “invisible”—has a particular set of implications that cannot be reduced to this level of generality. (And which distinguishes it from the baiting of the “lede graph” of this column.)

There is a fundamental difference, Vendler suggests, between the kind of claim a writer makes on others, who are present and contemporary with her, and her attempt to access hypothetical or potential readers, removed in space and time.

Vendler distinguishes between these two modes of speech as “horizontal” and “vertical.”

Though I might like to think otherwise, each time I wince to see one of you mulling over the article adjacent to this one, I will be reminded that this is a mode of horizontal address. If, tipped off by the Pippi-red, prehensile locks of my writer’s photo, you should recognize me on Mass. Ave, you could very well talk back.

I might come closer to the vertical if I attempted to offer the apologies I owe the poets whose voices I so hideously distorted in my attempts at ventriloquism above. (On which: sorry, George. Sorry, Walt. Ashbery technically does not belong, as I could look him up in the New York phone book. But, for the record, I’m sorry to him too.)

I make these jokes only to demonstrate what Vendler is talking about, as well as to point out, however fancifully, that writing is a kind of discourse that yearns for and implies a certain degree of reciprocity.

As always, the essays are based upon detailed and sustained close readings of individual poems—the kind of readings for which students who have taken Professor Vendler’s Literature and Arts A-22, “Poems, Poets, Poetry,” core class, or one of her courses in the English department, will remember her.

Vendler describes how Herbert, through various formal inventions and the creation of unique dramatic situations—for instance, in which the speaker is placed in dialogue, with Jesus himself—is able to create a hypothetical space of intimacy with God, without the distances imposed by contemporary social life or the conventional constraints of the Catholic church.

Then, she moves on to how Whitman is able to fantasize a radically democratic future in which new forms of social and erotic relations, including male-male, will be possible, and to Ashbery’s discovery of a kindred aesthetic sensibility in a long-dead Renaissance painter.

Each of these essays suggests that the pay-off of the creation of imaginary intimacy is the opportunity to rethink, and attempt to improve, what is available in the “real” world. Vendler describes how these poets produce a kind of “Utopia, in which possible models of human relations are produced, scrutinized, revised, and consolidated.”

The book is ultimately attuned to this broader task of poetry: the imperative and impetus it can provide for change, and the new possibilities for moral relation to others that lyrics can intimate, even with the slightest shifts in tone or mode of speech.

In an interview with a representative for the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2004, Vendler defended the role of art and literary critics as supporters and promoters of cultural patrimony.

“Critics are evangelists,” she said.

The readings should be of interest to the non-specialist not only because they show how art can forge connections across time, reinforcing senses of our heritage and cultural continuity, but because they indicate how imagination can be restorative and even revolutionary.

These poets “aim to establish in the reader’s imagination a more admirable ethics of relation, one more desirable than can be found at present on the earth,” Vendler writes in her concluding remarks. “Intimacy with the invisible is an intimacy with hope.”

—Staff writer Moira G. Weigel can be reached at weigel@fas.harvard.edu.

Invisible Listeners
By Helen Vendler
Princeton University Press
Out Now