Helen Vendler: Reading and Riffing on W. B. Yeats

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Helen Vendler here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3)


Helen Vendler: A Poem’s Best Friend

Helen Vendler — the poet’s best friend and the reader’s too — helps you hear a poem by showing you first how to see it.

Look, for example, at Yeats’s famous World War I memorial for Major Robert Gregory, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” The difference between reading this elegy not as a speech, but as a poem is as simple and striking as realizing that the poem has the form of a perfect cube:


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 country 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 man, 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.

From THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE (1919) in William Butler Yeats, Collected Poems

That is, the shape of it is 4 x 4 x 4. Four beats in each line. Four lines in each of the “quatrains” (each in the “perfect” rhyming order a b a b, in this case). And four quatrains (not separated here into four stanzas) in the poem.

So the one-off form of the thing is as elegantly, decisively squared away as the soldierly beat of the marching monosyllables: “fate,” “hate,” “love,” “cross,” “loss,” and the rest. Form makes a tight fit with the cool, collected thought the poem voices. The form itself is a statement of the sad but settled order in Major Gregory’s mind. So the original shape of this poem becomes virtually inseparable from its “message.” Or as Helen Vendler puts it in her new account of Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, “By such formal means Yeats confirms that the airman’s choice is the correct one for his soul.”

vendler yeats2

Yeats is labeled the “last Romantic” by some, the “first Modernist” by others. It’s not the sort of argument Helen Vendler is impelled to settle. The thrust of her much-admired “close reading” is rather that Yeats was the Compleat Formalist: a hard-working, endlessly original genius when it came to variation and invention in the size, shape and settings of his staggering phrases, a master of all the poetic tricks of “rhythm, balance, pattern,” as he said, and the imagery of passion.

There’s an informal conversation here — and not specially about form, either. When you ask Helen Vendler about a Yeats poem, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard has an endearing, unaffected habit of reaching for her trusty Collected Poems and then introducing, reciting and riffing on the work with barely a look at the text.

I asked her to sit by the hearth for Open Source and show us how to see and hear a few of the great Yeats poems we think we half-know… and to break through the surface familiarity of lines like “That is no country for old men,” or “A terrible beauty is born,” and “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The poems are: “Sailing to Byzantium”, “Never Give All The Heart”, “Easter 1916”, and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

Pull up a comfortable chair, please…

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  • Potter

    Thank you for the inspiring Helen Vendler! I can’t wait to listen.

    Somewhere in our old suggestions threads here on ROS I had asked for her after I read her excellent article in The New Republic (2004): “The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: How the Arts Help us to Live”. As well how I remember her from the old Connection days when she spoke of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

  • Funny, Potter, that you should mention the Old Connection Days…

    I was astonished in Googling “Vendler Yeats” yesterday to come very quickly to a Connection conversation I’d had with Helen Vendler about Yeats when her book was in gestation in February, 2000. It’s less than 8 years ago, and I’d almost entirely forgotten it. What I’d remembered better was a program shortly before with Christopher Ricks of Boston University and the new Oxford Book of English Verse. I teased Ricks some about having as many pages and poems in the new Oxford from Kipling as from Yeats — a mismatch, no? But Ricks came back with a vengeance. He dismissed the great Yeats as “the most overrated great name in 1000 years of English literature… all voice, no heart… all rhetoric, no poetry.”

    I must have put out the call to Helen Vendler to say a word of encouragement to those who thrill to so much Yeats (I long ago memorized his “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and can’t imagine a more brilliant lyric) and hear a certain tin-horn racist-imperialist nonsense in the war ditties from great novelist of Kim.

    In any event, Helen Vendler joined us again on The Connection to talk about Yeats and this book project just underway. We began with the recorded voice of Yeats himself reciting “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and closed with a great variety of terrific callers. Listen in here:


  • nother

    This conversation reminds me how much more there is to great poetry, then that of which I first glimpse. To dare to dig and discover.

    On more then one occation I’ve come across Seamus Heaney quoting the Yeats line and challenge, “to hold in a single thought reality and justice.”

    Heaney says we can look to our poets to help with this challenge – and I believe him.

  • Potter

    Chris-Thank you for all these presents you are showering on us!!

    To hear the old wobbly real player sound from that era makes me think of how much better the podcasts are technically. Not everything gets worse.

    We do very well here focussing on music and poetry to uplift ourselves and then the general vibration in this season. Thank you for leading the way Chris.

    To all my cyber pals here wishing you a good holiday season and sending also a big thank you for all your wonderful posts and the good company.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    What nother and Potter said above … and superb work Chris and Helen. Thank you so much for the balm and illumination … best wishes to all for the season and beyond …

  • tannerbrockwell

    wonderful show, enjoyed the podcast immensely, couldn’t help but think of


    it comes from the unaware

    simple evolution cortex expanding

    to word objects not real

    but describing the real

    and then beyond when words became

    the description of events

    or words described the arrangement of words


    look forward to many more programs to come!


  • VeritasRox

    Thank you Chris and Helen!

    This was a wonderful piece, and perfect for the podcast audio format. I often wish I could be more poetry-literate, but I find it very difficult to casually read literary criticism (although Prof. Vendler’s books come highly recommended, of course). What a treat, then, to have her “teach us a poem” in a format we can chew on in highly digestible sound bites. I like learning this way!

    I read and analyzed “Sailing to Byzantium” in high school, but had not revisited it since then. Even recently having seen “No Country for Old Men,” I didn’t give the poem a second thought or really even notice the reference to the poem in the title. Listening to Prof. Vendler’s analysis gave me a whole new appreciation for the movie as well as the poem. The Coen Brothers invite us to interpret Yeat’s journey to another shore through the lens of a violent psychopath who terrorizes the Texas border, searching for drug money in a race against a trashy-but-upstanding drifter and a contemplative cop. The camera ultimately settles its lens on the cop (played brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones), who soliloquizes about his life and its meaning after he retires from work (the criminal, disturbingly, still at large). This “country”–the time, the place, the polity, the culture–is no longer for him. It perhaps is only “for” those younger men able to dance to the absurd and pointless “sensual music” without disengaging in quizzical disgust. But Jones’ character has arrived at this literal and metaphoric border, and with him we see a point of no return.

    After thinking thoroughly about Yeats, my imagination can better continue this character’s story, past the blackness of the final credits, to the places he may reach through buoyant verse. I wonder what shape in “gold enamelling” he would take? That of an Oscar statuette, perhaps?

  • Potter

    Chris links, in his post above, an interview with Helen Vendler on Yeats from “The Connection”. I highly recommend it. She is just terrific. I love to listen to her. And her enthusiasm and insight from being so deeply into poetry, and here Yeats, is just infectious. I love her voice too- the quality of it, the way she reads. As well- the callers are amazingly good. This was Lydon at his very best- allowing Vendler to shine, facilitating, and “hmmmm-ing” in the background. Helen Vendler transmits for me so well her interest in and love of the various poetic forms. What an inspiring teacher! ( Pardon my gushing.)

    I link here her essay:

    The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar

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