January 7, 2007

Poetry should be hard work

She has a soft voice and a disarming manner and we begin our conversation by chatting about the upcoming holiday break and plans for family get-togethers.  Still, meeting with Helen Vendler is daunting.  She is, after all, "Dame Helen," the nation's preeminent poetry critic.  The A. Kingsley Porter University Professor of English  at Harvard,.  Author of 19 books, recipient of 23 honorary degrees, and the owner of a string of other equally impressive academic accomplishments listed on her curriculum vitae--and that's just the "brief" one.  Able to leap tall concepts  in a single bound and dismiss others, like "accessible" poetry, with one withering raise of eyebrow.

"You don't expect to understand quantum physics or an algebraic equation, or even Beethoven's late quartets without studying," she says by way of addressing my opening comment about how readers often feel intimidated by poetry.  Vendler, whose undergraduate degree was in chemistry, would like to see the whole system of teaching literature overhauled to bring it closer to the structure of teaching sciences.

"There used to be things that prepared people for poetry--choral singing at school, study of syntactic forms and rhythmic language with and without rhyme.  Today we lack all those things people used to know.  They used to memorize poems in school, so they had a template for understanding what a ballad is, a sonnet.  They had experience with rhyme and meter."

She also faults what she says is America's distrust and dismissal of the arts.

"The arts have been deeply suspect here.  From the Puritans the educational system was geared to "useful' learning, preparing  for business, not "wasted' in "leisure activities' like the arts.  But art is about life, not something marginal." 

Her words remind me of a recent feature I heard on National Public Radio in which Lloyd Schwartz talked about a program of music education in Venezuela that has produced a generation of world class musicians as well as a nation of people who take pleasure in listening to great music. 

"Most of the human race is equipped to respond to art," Vendler continues.  "Every tribe in the world has produced an esthetic sense that supports and enriches its people and brings the whole person into play, the whole soul.  It's the only way to make a well-rounded person, to develop human sympathy."

She points to the poems of Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel prize in literature, as examples of art that can elicit that kind of deep response. 

"Something in the power of his work gets through to people.  We sense the power.  If the poem is good enough, people will be willing to work to understand it."

And work they should, according to Vendler, since the best poetry does not offer itself easily.  Our conversation circles back to the idea of accessibility and how readers can approach poetry. 

"They need to do the work themselves," says Vendler. "You need to read anthologies because in an anthology each poem tells you about all the others; it's related to all the others.  You need to  read all the work of a poet, and see the ambition, the topics of intense interest."

This is a fierce protector of  the art and no one is going to take it casually if she can help it.  She wants us to bring ourselves fully to poetry.  She prods us to ask more of ourselves, to be ambitious readers, unafraid, demanding, and inquisitive.  That's the way Helen Vendler wants us to read poetry--the way she believes it demands to be read.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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