A Poetry Party

Part of Nature, Part Of Us By Helen Vendler Harvard University Press, $15.00.

THERE'S AN ALMOST MAGICAL land of the imagination where poets congregate, shutting out the rest of the world. Occasionally, a poet invites a critic to this metaphysical enclave; Wallace Stevens has requested Helen Vendler's presence.

Reading Vendler's Part Of Nature, Part Of Us, a collection of the author's essays and reviews spanning 12 years, makes you feel as though this critic has some unique insight into modern poets and their work. Sometimes, it seems as if she's perched on the edge of that part of Stevens' mind where poetry evolves, watching words become ideas, and ideas become words. Stevens is obviously a favorite of hers--she's included four pieces on him in this book, and written On Extended Wings, a well-received work on Stevens' longer poems.

Yet Vendler's intimacy with Stevens' mind does not prevent her from establishing highly personal and evocative relationships with many of the other poets in this collection. Reviews of such contemporary giants as Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, and James Merrill demonstrate her awesome sense of poetic familiarity. Part Of Nature, Part Of Us is a party which any reader interested in contemporary verse-making must attend, for Vendler has marshalled the collective talents of the most significant and well-known poets of the 20th century.

Vendler's book couldn't have surfaced at a better moment in American literary history. In the last two decades especially, many people have claimed everything from shopping lists to bathroom graffiti to be poetry. Only an authoritative voice like Vendler's can sort these facsimiles out. She does so with sensitivity and skill, always slightly wary of modern poetry in its historical context. In her foreword, she admits:

At times, my gratitude to the poets has been reluctant. To anyone brought up on Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson, the accommodation to the modern--in spite of the links which outnumber the discontinuities--must be sometimes a painful pleasure. Every commentator knows the simple obstinate resistance occasioned by a new style, and knows too that the best expositors of it will be the poets themselves, who, when they write criticism, create a prose so pressing in its self-justification that it lasts, with their poems, forever.


Still, it is her genuinely unabashed love for modern poets and their work that pours through her writing. Vendler understands better than any current critic that every good poem expresses the delight of its own creation. From reading this collection of reviews, it's easy to think that Vendler smiles every time a new book of poems arrives at her doorstep. This excitement fills Part Of Nature, Part Of Us, and is virtually unparalleled in the field. One critic has gone so far as to call her "the legitimate successor to R.P. Blackmur and Randall Jarrell."

Vendler's unique familiarity with modern poets and her excitement over their work combine to make Part Of Nature, Part Of Us an accessible collection of reviews--for both the neophyte and the connoisseur. However, the salient aspect of her work lies in its expression. Vendler has not only developed an almost singular rapport with many of these poets, attending to diverse structure and form, but she has learned how to cull her provocative thoughts from what Keats would call a "teeming brain."

Vendler serves as the link between poet and audience; she listens for voices that sound like no one else, and then transmits them to her readers. In an essay on Stevens, entitled "Apollo's Harsher Songs," she isolates the poet's moments of brutality toward himself and his life "because brutality, in Stevens, (and in other poets as well), is usually a sign of extreme discomfort, misery, and self-hatred." Vendler communicates the bitterness and catastrophe that underlie many of his poems to her reader in an educational but unintimidating fashion, quoting from him dexterously--as if Stevens advises her where to begin and where to end a passage. Moreover, Vendler avoids blatantly technical analysis which, she claims in her foreword, is reserved for essays and books about poets, not reviews. For her, there is a significant difference between a review, which is often the product of ten days, and a critical essay, which often follows ten months' work.

The author focuses on one poet at a time, though her occasional allusions to others are not disconcerting but enhancing, for the most part. One of the few unsettling references in all of these reviews emerges in her long evaluation of Adrienne Rich's Diving Into the Wreck. In it, she compares Rich's work to that of Stevens, and George Herbert. Knowing that Vendler has written books on both of these poets mars our impression of Rich, and of Vendler. It indicates that she has Stevens and Herbert constantly on the brain.

But Vendler's astute perceptions far outdistance such a minor preoccupation with the two poets she knows best. (As well as On Extended Wings, she's also written The Poetry of George Herbert.) Her absorption with Stevens is natural. After all, he is the "host" of Vendler's party, and he contributes the title of her book. Vendler has tucked it away in her review of John Berryman's Dream Songs in which Henry, Berryman's persona, is "as part of nature, a part of us." And in her foreword, Vendler expands upon this theme:

It is given to only a handful of people in each century, in any language, to invent a written voice that sounds like no one else's. All other poets of the century become part of a common music, but the voices of genius live vividly in their oddness and their intensity. Still, if they had had nothing in common with us--if they were not, as Stevens says, part of nature and part of us, their rarities would not be ours, and we could not hear them speak.

But Vendler hears all poets speak, and Part Of Nature, Part Of Us is her attempt to externalize her communion with these poets. She possesses a tremendous facility with words and ideas: she compares poets to artists (Stevens to Cezanne in their similar sense of modern, to name one example), and tosses out literary devices, like Eliot's "objective correlative" with unusual comfort.

Her prose is remarkably untortured, simply but elegantly stated. For her, Robert Lowell "learned to tame the apocalyptic to the eternal dailiness of life"; Sylvia Plath "would like, in distrust of mind, to trust nature, and yet she...refuses nature any honorable estate of its own"; of Frank O'Hara, "The wish not to impute significance has rarely been stronger in lyric poetry."

With Part Of Nature, Part Of Us, Helen Vendler confirms the idea that writing is as much a process of the critical faculties as the creative. Her reviews of Eliot, Lowell, Merrill, Penn Warren, Auden, Plath, O'Hara and many others are poems in themselves, or at least poetic testimonies to the major poets of our time. Vendler's collection ought to be enduring in the libraries of American literary criticism, not only for its intellectual depth, but its expression of excitement and comprehension.

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