Monday, December 03, 2007

Helen Vendler on W.B. Yeats

Helen Vendler is the most important poetry critic in this country, but no one outside of poetry knows who she is, which is sad. She is a devoted lover of poetry and has spent her life trying to help people understand poetry better. She can make or break a career with her reviews -- just ask Jorie Graham, who owes her career to Vendler in many ways.

Vendler has written a new book about W.B. Yeats, a look at his use of form. She talked about the book at a recent event at Harvard University. The Harvard Crimson covered her appearance.

Noted poetry critic and English professor Helen Vendler presented her latest book, “A Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form,” last night in a talk in which she read Yeats poems—at one point breaking into an Irish brogue—and told anecdotes from Yeats’ life to an audience of several hundred.

Vendler was introduced to the Sackler Auditorium crowd by Homi K. Bhabha—the head of the Humanities Center at Harvard—who said that Vendler’s “critical presence draws together rare moments of insight and instruction that renew the life of the poem.”

“She is a deep friend to the poets she writes about,” Bhabha said.

Vendler began by joking that, unsure what to focus on during her talk, she asked fellow English professor—and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet—Jorie Graham for advice.

“When I said, What should I do, [Graham] said, ‘Read them some poems and talk about them!’” Vendler said.

Vendler said that she decided to write the book, which is about the way Yeats employs form in poetry, because of a gap in the current literature.

“Often, we write these books because we go to the shelf and they’re not there,” she said. But in this case, “It was a long, long time before I went to a shelf and didn’t find this book there—I didn’t know to look for it.”

At first, Vendler said, she didn’t find it unusual that Yeats would adopt varying poetic forms, such as sonnets or ballads; indeed, she said, many poets do. But in the end she found his use of varied poetic forms was too important to pass over.

“So finally I got tired of my ignorance, and I felt ignoble standing up and teaching a sequence when I didn’t know why it had the rhyme scheme it had, or why it had the shape it did,” she said.

Through her readings, Vendler—who is also a contributor to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and the New Republic—provided engaging summaries of the poems before reading them aloud.

At one point, she imitated Yeats’s reading with an Irish accent.

“When you read [his poems] as a female, in the wrong tenor, you feel you are betraying [their] sonic quality,” she said.

The audience, however, appeared to disagree. At the event’s end, when Bhabha asked the crowd if they would like to ask a last question or hear Vendler read a short poem, audience members shouted, “read a poem.”

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