on The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar by Helen Vendler

The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar brings together twenty-seven essays, reviews, and occasional lectures, written over the past twenty years by the renowned poetry scholar Helen Vendler, the best known “close reader” of lyric poetry today. Almost all of the chapters focus on modern and contemporary American, English, and Irish poets—some of the poets alone and some in tandem. She devotes three chapters to Wallace Stevens, who (as she tells us at the beginning of her introduction) was the first poet to speak intimately and immediately to her sensibility—and on whom she is an expert; three to John Ashbery; and two each to A. R. Ammons, Jorie Graham, James Merrill, Seamus Heaney, and Mark Ford. Aside from Keats and Yeats, who are brought into extended discussion to illuminate Stevens and Graham respectively, other voices represented in the remaining eleven chapters include Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Charles Wright, Amy Clampitt, and Lucie Brock-Broido.

Vendler takes her title from the three symbols for the artist in Stevens’ 1943 poem “Somnambulisma,” as she tells us in her first chapter, subtitled How the Arts Help Us to Live. According to Vendler, Stevens sees the artist figure as made up of three parts: the “vulgar ocean,” which is the source of language and art; a mortal and evanescent “bird,” who attempts but fails to establish permanence; and “the scholar,” who “gives form and definition both to the physical world . . . and to the inchoate aesthetic world (as the quickened responder to the bird’s incomplete natural song).” Without the artist, and particularly that part of him represented by the scholar, we would merely sleepwalk through life, as is suggested by the poem’s title.

Vendler argues that, because we experience the arts immediately and profoundly, the humanities “should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: art, dance, music, literature, theater, architecture, and so on.” Those familiar with Vendler’s work know that she is attracted to poetry fraught with complications and ambiguities, and that she has little patience with or interest in glossing the transparent or the obvious. At the end of her essay, “Attention, Shoppers: Where Shall I Wander, by John Ashbery,” Vendler explicitly takes issue with the notion that poetry need be immediately approachable: “Whenever an undeniably original poet appears . . . no matter how alien the content, or how allusive the lines, readers flock to the poems. ‘Accessibility’ needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world.” 

Vendler’s criticism has always crossed boundaries, speaking to specialists, students, and educated general readers alike. This new collection may appeal to some members of all three groups, but reading Vendler can be a frustrating experience for some students and academics, because she remains obdurate in her resistance to trends in literary theory. Although she sometimes shows how particular poets emerge from their historical moments (for instance, when she examines the impact of the troubles in Northern Ireland on Seamus Heaney’s poetics), she eschews the context-based approaches of the New Historicism, dominant in the academy since the mid-1980s. And, although she at times focuses on the cultural identities of the poets under discussion (for example, in her third chapter, where she examines the consequences of racial and sexual “otherness” for Hughes), Vendler rejects most of the tenets of cultural studies. Instead, she embraces what (using a phrase from Walter Pater) she likes to call “aesthetic criticism,” which grows out of the New Criticism of the 1950s. Like the New Critics, and unlike the New Historicists, the “aesthetic critic” sees the poem as a closed system of mutually reinforcing meanings, rather than as a social and ideological construct riven with contradictions and uncertainties. 

Vendler is a controversial figure, but she’s also a presence in literary criticism who cannot be ignored. Indeed, one cannot take an educated stand on modern or contemporary poetry without at least implicitly situating oneself in relation to her. So, the publication of a new Vendler book is always a major event. Vendler’s critics might feel that her new book offers an insular view of modern and contemporary poetry; because her aesthetic standards and her principles for selecting which poets to discuss tend to exclude groups that have been traditionally marginalized and silenced, some readers will argue that she allows eloquent voices to fall by the wayside. 

Given her preference for the strange, the allusive, and the difficult, it seems natural that Vendler should devote a chapter to one of the most baffling poems in the English language. In “The Waste Land: Fragments and Montage,” Vendler gracefully glosses T. S. Eliot’s allusions and isolates the stylistic, thematic, tonal, and structural aspects of the poem, including its catalog of lyric genres and its “fluid antiphony of the beautiful and the sordid.” Although she guides the reader through the poem’s notorious complexities, her reading is in no way reductive. In fact, she concludes that “Eliot’s creating mind was set not on being ‘accessible,’ but on being true to his own sensibility,” and that he prized “authenticity” over “communication.”

Part of this “authenticity” is achieved when a poem’s themes and its structuring strategies dovetail. Vendler is adept at illustrating how a poem’s governing procedures, however alien they may at first appear to the reader, can be seen to emerge naturally from its content. Perhaps she makes her most eloquent case for this process in her chapter on A. R. Ammons’ The Snow Poems and Garbage. Vendler argues that the central theme of Garbage is the emptiness of life and poetry, given the certainty of our mortality, and she suggests how this is reflected in both larger and smaller aesthetic choices: “Since the whole [poem] is a hymn to the necessary principle of extinction . . . it is of the essence that the poem be engaged in constant change of both genre and diction.” This shifting of language and decorum can be very confusing to the reader accustomed to a different, more transparent kind of poetry. Vendler continues by revealing a deeper problem that all readers of Ammons must encounter: “Accustomed as we are to a narrative thread, or a temporal progression, or a hierarchical scheme, or a philosophical proposal . . . as the clue to a long poem’s labyrinth, we are surprised to find no such auxiliary pointers in Ammons.” Ammons jettisons the rules, and readers must navigate this labyrinth and trust that they will find the way. For Vendler, this is a source of the poem’s richness.

Unfortunately, space constraints prevent me from showing Vendler with all her various tools at work on even a single poem. But I hope one brief example will convey her command of structure and style as well as her sensitivity to allusion. In her last chapter, she identifies three iconic poets who have influenced Berryman’s The Dream Songs and succinctly explains what each contributed to his style. She mentions the irony of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the “bold stylistic inclusiveness” of Whitman’s Song of Myself, and the syntactic innovations of Hopkins: “Influenced by Hopkins’s wrenching of syntax, Berryman adopted grammatical and syntactic illiteracy as his stylistic signature, wronging syntax in a mode beyond even that of Hopkins.” Vendler’s brilliant observations about Berryman’s assaults on literate speech, linear syntax, and normative grammar once again show her to be a critic whose skills must be acknowledged, even by those who disagree with her approaches. 

The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar offers more than the insights we’ve come to expect from Vendler; it also presents some unexpected and fascinating personal reflections and statements—made mostly in her introduction—about her vocation as a critic. At times this reader senses a disparity between Vendler’s modest self-descriptors and the respect and esteem that one feels for her after years of immersion in her writing. Vendler brings an immense learning to bear on all the poets she studies, and has delivered papers and lectures to scholarly societies around the world, yet she prefers to be called a critic rather than a scholar. She resists being called a Formalist, seeing that label as pejorative, and she finds the term “close reading” unnecessary and “rather absurd.” Although she has repeatedly claimed her field of expertise to be “lyric poetry,” she brings to her discussion of the lyric a knowledge of many genres, across all periods and fields of literature. And, despite proclaiming herself uncomfortable as a theorist, she grounds her critiques in a particular theory of what constitutes a lyric and of what differentiates the best lyric poems and poets from lesser ones. 

Certain consistent theoretical tenets that have their seeds in Vendler’s early work become explicit and foundational in her later writing. Perhaps the most prominent is her theory of the lyric poem itself, first fully advanced in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1997). There she suggests that, because all lyric poems are “scripted for repeated personal recitation,” and, “one is to utter them as one’s own words,” the lyric voice must issue from a real mind like our own. Therefore, ideally, the reader should participate in each lyric persona’s emotional fluctuations by attending to stylistic changes in the text: “the crucial rule of thumb in understanding any lyric is that every significant change of linguistic pattern represents a motivated change in feeling in the speaker.” This leads to her most telling (if not her most original) statement: “I do hope that I will have shown Shakespeare as a poet constantly inventing new permutations of internal form, designed to match what he was recording—the permutations of emotional response.” 

Vendler’s close analyses are almost always convincing, but sometimes her more sweeping generalizations can feel forced. In the first of the two chapters on Ammons, Vendler makes one of the most problematic statements in the whole collection. She begins by contrasting Ammons with William Carlos Williams, who stresses the “continuo of the social.” Ammons “insists in both The Snow Poems and Garbage that there is a continuo of the personal—the ‘noise’ of the everyday mind—from which the lyric rises and into which it subsides.” The reader is familiar with this background noise, as it appears in many of the poems studied in the collection, most notably The Waste Land. But when Vendler proceeds to generalize that “This contextualizing of the lyric moment within its nonlyric ‘surround’ is the fundamental device of the modern long lyric poem, from The Waste Land on,” we may hesitate to follow. It is a provocative statement, and a potentially interesting way of looking at the modern long poem. But it is not an insight that she convincingly supports with anything that precedes or follows. If only Vendler could have foregrounded the idea, or elaborated on it, she might have reached some very fruitful conclusions.

Another potential problem arises from a conflict between Vendler’s demanding aesthetic standards and the inclusiveness valued by proponents of cultural studies. Her adamant preference for what she considers the “best” or the most “complex” poets may be too easily equated, in our current climate, with narrow-mindedness and elitism. And sometimes the backgrounds of the poets represented raise potentially deeper issues of the author’s sensitivity to race and ethnicity. Although Vendler devotes eighteen pages to Langston Hughes (the longest chapter in the book), her essay implicitly raises questions of why so few minority poets are represented and of why she sometimes feels the need to temper her praise for Hughes. “He is not a major poet,” she writes, “but he is a fascinating, original, and disturbing one.” 

Is Vendler apologizing for Hughes, or damning his work with faint praise? Some contemporary readers might take the sentence this way. However, Vendler continues, “It is a rare one, among his better poems, that does not carry a scorpion sting in its tail or a spiritual insight in its epigrammatic close. If we do not ‘fill in the blanks,’ we miss the point.” Vendler demonstrates how the “simplicity” of Hughes’s work is deceptive, and how his poetry demands an attentive reader who can draw out his implications and fill in the interstices. Thus, Hughes has many of the hallmarks of a “difficult” poet. And, although some could reasonably expect to see more minority authors in her table of contents, one might make the argument that, because she does not intend her book to be an anthology of current voices, or to propose a literary canon, she has the right to choose her own subject matter. 

As noted earlier, The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar is Vendler’s most personal book and, because of that, her most moving. Just as she believes that the speaker’s and reader’s emotions are the locus of meaning in a lyric poem, Vendler stresses the importance of human feeling in all works of art, and therefore the centrality of the arts to the humanities: “The arts are true . . . to the way we actually live and have lived—as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms.” For Vendler, the difficult or best or ideal poem is one complex enough to challenge the reader to participate in the lyric speaker’s emotional vicissitudes through attending intently to the poem’s surface. Indeed, she has an ability to enter into the lyric personae of even the most difficult poems with such facility that she makes the process look almost effortless. Perhaps her greatest achievement, and her most generous gift to readers, is to invite us into the experience of a poem, guiding us through its stylistic prompts so we can share her exhilaration born from the sheer power of language. 


Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 420 pp. $35.00.


Robert Schnall lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and has been reviewing poetry books for many years. His work has appeared in Boston Review, Harvard Review, and the Missouri Review.