Helen Vendler is a national treasure, and at least as deserving of a Kennedy Center Honor from the President as some of the actors and pop singers who so frequently receive it. The reason Vendler's fame is not commensurate with her accomplishment is quite simply because she is the doyenne of the minuscule world of serious readers of contemporary and modernist poetry.
"She is the most influential reviewer of contemporary poetry in English," claimed The New York Review of Books. "Vendler has done perhaps more than any other living critic to shape -- I might almost say 'create' -- our understanding of poetry in English," said a New York Times review. "Vendler is almost certainly the best poetry critic in America, and she's hit upon a great way of writing about poetry... It feels like you're in your own private poetry class," said The Boston Globe.
Vendler's most recent book, The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, is a collection of her latest reviews (for over a half century she has reviewed for the top periodicals and journals). This new book has as an introduction a short autobiographical essay that explains, in part, the origin of her x-ray vision into difficult poetry.
Vendler earned an A.B. in chemistry at Emmanuel College and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for mathematics. She then earned a PhD in English at Harvard, where she has been a professor since 1984. So, Vendler's secret is that she brings the sober clarity of science into the fuzzy nebulous world of lyric poetry.
She writes in that introduction, "In my classes in chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics, not only did I come upon a new way of looking at the world but I also learned a useful logic of sequence and evidential exposition... I'm a critic rather than a scholar... more taken by texts than contexts... I have no capacity for broad synthetic statements."
Though perhaps outdated today, there used to be a contrast between hard science, such as chemistry or physics, with its reproducible experiments and predictable results, and the soft science of the social sciences. However, there is also an in-between area of sciences, such as archeology and paleontology, in which knowledge is based solely on inference from evidence (artifacts and fossils in this case). Vendler's criticism with its ultra-close reading, scrupulous technical analysis, and inference from textual evidence is probably the closest poetry criticism can get to qualifying as an in-between science.
Vendler is 83 now, with most of her career behind her, and we can see that, like all critics in all art forms, she had her blind spots. Among the high modernists, William Carlos Williams is underestimated the few times she even mentions him. W. S. Merwin, in the opinion of many knowledgeable readers, is the best English language poet to emerge after World War II, and a very long list of honors and prizes, including two Pulitzers, is evidence for that claim. But when Vendler first wrote about Merwin in 1970, she was determined not to be impressed by the then rising star and attacked him. About forty years later, reviewing a late minor book, she gave him some grudging praise. Vendler has often been criticized for taking Allen Ginsberg too seriously.
Where she shines brightest is in the book-length studies of individual poets. The jewel in her crown is The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, where the greatest living poetry critic engages the greatest English language poet. She has also dedicated whole books to Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Keats, among others. But her latest, (Emily) Dickinson, Selected Poems and Commentaries, is the only one about a woman, and that draws something special from Vendler. As a feisty atheist herself, raised in a stiflingly conservative Catholic family, Vendler wrote, "I wanted to show her blasphemous and harsher moments as much as her well-known charm and despair." Evident in these interpretations, besides Vendler's renowned technique, is her vast knowledge of English language poetry in general. When she is finished with a poem, there is simply no significant aspect that has been missed.
Want "your own private poetry class" for understanding great difficult poetry? Enter through the door marked "Helen Vendler."