Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Lyndon’

Horizontal divider

Helen Vendler: Close Reader In Action

posted: 9.28.09 by archived

by Andrew Flynn

Helen Vendler is famous for reading poems closely. Her skills are certainly on display in this discussion with master interviewer Christopher Lydon a couple of years ago. It appeared on his Internet radio show Open Source.

Vendler talks about her then-new book on W. B. Yeats, Our Secret Discipline, offering thought-provoking analysis of a number of poems, including the famous “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death”:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My county is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Vendler makes many illuminating observations (the discussion of the poem begins at minute 5:12)—about the poem’s history, its form, and its content—but I was particularly struck by her analysis of time and place. Vendler notes:

The thing that Yeats does that to me is astonishing in this poem is that he makes the airplane take off. When the Irish airman begins speaking, he’s on the ground, saying “I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above”—so he’s looking up to the clouds in the sky, the clouds are above. Later, he says, “A lonely impulse of delight/ Drove to this tumult in the clouds”—this tumult that he is now experiencing in the clouds, where he is surrounded by the clouds and is up in the air. And, somehow between line two and line twelve the plane has gone up into the air and he is speaking from the air, where he began speaking from the ground. And that seems to me one of the sort of amazing things Yeats could do in a poem, without telegraphing it, without saying, “First I will show him speaking on the ground, then I will show him aloft in his plane.” He doesn’t say a word. He just makes it happen. It’s all show and no tell with Yeats.

I’d read this poem a dozen or so times before, but I’d never noticed this major shift in time and place. Her analysis makes for fresh reading of this well-read poem, though I’m still trying to figure out what happens between lines two and twelve.

The quality of Vendler’s reading is that it reveals both subtleties that benefit academic debates on interpretation and also make the act of reading more pleasurable.

In her Poems, Poets, Poetry text, Vendler includes “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death” in chapter 6 on “Constructing a Self.” The chapter focuses on space and time, testimony, typicality, and motivations—considerations that help readers understand how poets create their speakers. Vendler advises:

As you read a poem, ask yourself question about the speaker constructed within the poem. Where is he or she in time and space? Over how long a period? With what motivations? How typical? Speaking in what tones of voice? Imagining life how? Resembling the author or different from the author? The more you can deduce about the speaker, the better you understand the poem. If you think about what has been happening to the speaker before the poem begins (if that is implied by the poem), you will understand the speaker better.

Helpful advice—and the entire Open Source interview with Christopher Lydon is well worth a listen.

Activity:
Take a favorite poem that you think you know well. Then consider Vendler’s advice quoted above. How do these considerations about the poem’s speaker change the way you read? How does it change your understanding of the poem’s meaning?

…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

Comments Off on Helen Vendler: Close Reader In Action
Categories: Assignment Idea, Critical Reading, Discussion, Genre, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature
Read All archived