Posts Tagged ‘Helen Vendler’

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Poet of the Month: Robert Lowell

posted: 3.2.10 by archived

Born in Boston on March 1, 1917, Robert Lowell was the son of prominent New England parents. Lowell attended Harvard, Kenyon College, and Louisiana State University, where he studied with literary and critical giants like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate. In his twenties, Lowell converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism. Though he later left the Church, his strong religious beliefs during this period deeply influenced his early work.

From 1947-1948 he served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the precursor position to the Poet Laureate). Lowell maintained a lifelong interest in history and politics—an interest that shows up in his work—and was a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War. (During World War II, he had been jailed for conscientious objection.) His life was also dominated by emotional and marital instability—Lowell married three times—and he struggled with alcoholism. Lowell died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 60.

Lowell’s work is famously varied. His early books, Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle, were written under the influence of the New Critics with whom Lowell had studied. They display Lowell’s considerable skill in writing in traditional forms. He is most famous, however, for his 1959 book Life Studies, which was a departure from his earlier writing, and from the sort of writing that was most prominent in the world of poetry at the time. Lowell wrote loosely, without adherence to conventions, and incorporated autobiographical events heavily into his poetry. This volume is considered to have begun “confessional poetry” and altered the course of modern poetry.

A. O. Scott argues for Lowell’s enduring importance in his review of Lowell’s recently published Collected Poems:

Lowell’s story, of heretical, Promethean ambition dragged to earth and chastened, has struck a number of critics over the      years as overly melodramatic, and Lowell, since his death, has been somewhat overshadowed by less self-aggrandizing contemporaries like Elizabeth Bishop or Frank O’Hara, who neither made inordinate claims for the authority of poetry nor a big fuss when those claims proved to be untenable.

They left behind bodies of work, whereas Lowell, like Yeats and Milton and very few others, left behind the monumental narrative of a career, which may well, curiously enough, be remembered longer than any single poem he wrote. It is the entirety of that story—the saga of an audacious maker struggling with the raw materials of history, personality, and language—that gives so many of the poems their aura of courage and pathos.

Curious readers can find numerous online resources on Lowell’s life and poetry. The American Academy of Poets features a brief bio, along with a guide to confessional poetry, an overview of Lowell’s Life Studies, and numerous poems by Lowell, including recordings of Lowell reading “Skunk Hour” and “The Public Garden.” The Poetry Foundation features an extensive bio and bibliography, along with numerous poems by Lowell, as well as articles discussing his work. Recordings on the site include one of Helen Vendler discussing Lowell, one of Troy Jollimore talking about “Skunk Hour,” and one focused on “July in Washington” and politics. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux recently published Words in the Air, the complete letters between Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. (Readers interested in the relationship between these two major twentieth-century poets can read Helen Vendler’s incisive review of the volume in The New York Review of Books.) Lowell’s Paris Review interview, conducted by Frederick Seidel, is available online.

Happy Birthday, Robert Lowell!

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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.

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Wallace Stevens, Poet of the Month

posted: 10.5.09 by archived

Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879—130 years ago—and led what seemed, on the surface, a rather ordinary life.

Educated at Harvard, he became a lawyer and spent his life practicing law, eventually becoming vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co.  While leading the daily life of a lawyer, Stevens produced some of the most important American poetry written in the twentieth century—composing lines in his head while walking to work in the morning and writing them down at night. Like composer Charles Ives, Wallace Stevens happily joined work and art, turning down a professorship at Harvard to remain at his firm. Widespread recognition came late, just a year before Stevens’s death in 1955, when his Collected Poems was published.

The Poetry Foundation’s biography summarizes Stevens’s talents: “an extraordinary vocabulary, a flair for memorable phrasing, an accomplished sense of imagery, and the ability to both lampoon and philosophize.” Stevens is frequently regarded as a difficult poet—his poems are opaque and philosophical, his images whimsical, his language complex—but the visceral power of his words is on display in his recordings of his poems, like this one of “To the One of Fictive Music” (with some creative animation):

(See also recordings of Stevens’s poems here and here, as well as these two clips from a documentary.)

Though appreciation of Stevens’s poetry was a long time coming, it is now near universal. Stevens’s Selected Poems, recently published by Knopf, has garnered a lot of attention and occasioned reassertions of Stevens’s place in the pantheon of modern poetry.  “[W]hen we hear the sound of Stevens in poems by subsequent poets,” James Longenbach writes in The Nation, “it is most often the music of austerity, at once worldly and otherworldly, that we hear.”

Reviewing the book in the Times, Helen Vendler makes the case for Stevens as the poet of our age:

Stevens’s conscience made him confront the chief issues of his era: the waning of religion, the indifferent nature of the  physical universe, the theories of Marxism and socialist realism, the effects of the Depression, the uncertainties of    philosophical knowledge, and the possibility of a profound American culture, present and future. Others treated those issues, but very few of them possessed Stevens’s intuitive sense of both the intimate and the sublime, articulated in verse of unprecedented invention, phrased in a marked style we now call “Stevensian” (as we would say “Keatsian” or “Yeatsian”). In the end, he arrived at a firm sense of a universe dignified by human endeavor but surrounded always—as in the magnificent sequence “The Auroras of Autumn”—by the “innocent” creations and destructions within the universe of which he is part.

Happy 130th, Wallace Stevens!

Activity

1. As noted above, Stevens was unique in his ability write great poems while achieving success in the legal world. Why is this so rare? Are poets opposed to work? Consider some poems that deal with the mundane world of work—perhaps “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Gray or “The Unknown Citizen” by Auden—and discuss how the poets conceive of this work as related to their craft.

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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.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature
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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?

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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.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Critical Reading, Discussion, Genre, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature
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Memorization and its Discontents

posted: 7.14.09 by archived

By Andrew Flynn

Memorizing poetry is the bugbear of students everywhere. Or, at least that is how I remember things. I felt hatred mixed with ironic bemusement at being forced to memorize Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy in my senior English class, and I was not alone. As with many similar tasks, I stuffed the text down on a Tuesday night and regurgitated it Wednesday afternoon for the test, never having properly digested it at all. So things went.

I have no doubt that high school and college students across the nation have similar stories about the tribulations of rote memorization. So, it may come as a surprise to many to learn that our teachers were not just sadists, as we had long supposed. In the teacher’s notes to her Poems, Poets, Poetry, esteemed critic Helen Vendler explains the value of memorization: [read more]

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