Podcast • October 5, 2010

Whose Words These Are: Helen Vendler’s Emily Dickinson

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Helen Vendler (64 minutes, 30 mb mp3) Helen Vendler, our tutor in W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, is showing us here how to swim the chilly depths ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Helen Vendler (64 minutes, 30 mb mp3)

Helen Vendler, our tutor in W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, is showing us here how to swim the chilly depths of Emily Dickinson.

The poem that taught Vendler how to read Dickinson is “Ashes denote that fire was…” The bleak miniaturist “Belle of Amherst” imagined her tiny poems as the burnt residue of a life. Reading her becomes a sort of forensic analysis. The literary critic becomes a sort of reconstructive chemist — a natural move for Vendler who learned as a college chemistry major to study and marvel at organic structures and patterns.

For me the Dickinson poem that cracks the central mystery of her theology — her devotion to King James language, her preoccupations with Jesus’ suffering and Christian ideas of resurrection and immortality, and finally her staunch unbelief — is this three-line stanza:

In the name of the bee

And of the butterfly

And of the breeze, Amen!

It’s a parody, of course, of Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to baptize all nations “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The three-B Dickinson version is the first fragment in Vendler’s grand selection of Emily Dickinson. It marked for me, as I volunteered to Professor Vendler, the first of Dickinson’s endless bouts — some playful, some pitiless — with the Big Guy:

HV: She’s wrestling with her society, I would rather say, that insists that she believe in what you just referred to as the Big Guy — that she thought of as an eclipse that the family prayers were addressed to every evening.

But when she baptizes her poems as she sends them into the world, she is taking up the sacred formula… She is ushering her poems into the world, as newborn children, you might say — being baptized in the elements of nature: bee for being; the butterfly is psyche, the soul; and the breeze is the breeze of the holy spirit — ‘the spirit bloweth where it listeth.’ All of these are translations from the religious substructure, but wittily, playfully, beautifully lifted into a summer afternoon with a bee, a butterfly and a breeze. And they all alliterate so that they’re a trinity — again a parody of the three equal persons of the Trinity.

All of this is so lightly touched and so sweetly done that you don’t think of this at first as a blasphemy. But if you took a child to church to be baptized and heard this, you’d be a little surprised.

CL: You’d know you’d arrived at a hippie wedding, or something.

HV: Yes, exactly.

In pursuit of Vendler’s Dickinson, we are talking about just a dozen poems out of some 1800.

Aurora: beginning: Of Bronze — and Blaze —

Ashes denote that fire was

This is my letter to the world

I died for Beauty

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

The fascinating chill that music leaves

The gentian weaves her fringes

Safe in their alabaster chambers

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —

God is a distant — stately Lover

A Spider sewed at Night

I know that He exists

In our unplotted conversation of 90 minutes or so, these were the poems that popped into the mind that’s studied them all.

Podcast • October 5, 2009

Whose Words These Are (7): Vendler’s Stevens

What is it about Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955), that such a variety of our contemporaries speak of an attachment that does not hang on “meaning”? Ask who or what drew them to poetry and, ...

What is it about Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955), that such a variety of our contemporaries speak of an attachment that does not hang on “meaning”?

Ask who or what drew them to poetry and, over and over, the answer is: Wallace Stevens. Typically it was long before they quite knew what he was up to.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Helen Vendler. (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Helen Vendler, the eminent “close reader,” gifts us here in her Harvard office with a short course on her “closest” poet. Her cool sage of Hartford was a Harvard-educated lawyer and vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He was an aloof patrician and sometimes pugnacious martini drinker. In private life he was a discreetly, resolutely unhappy husband; he was a post-religious modernist who seems to have reversed field and chosen a Catholic baptism on his deathbed.

It’s a big clue, I think, that Wallace Stevens was a museum goer who loved the formal near-abstractions of the Swiss painter Paul Klee (1879 – 1940). Stevens was himself a “cubist” inventor of his own forms in poetry, as in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” He was a fine jeweler in immortal phrases: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” “Death is the mother of beauty.” “We say God and the imagination are one.”

And he was a genius not least in his unforgettable titles, like “The Auroras of Autumn” and “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” He was a poet of ideas who, according to his friend the composer John Gruen, “told me that he didn’t know what his poetry meant at times, that he really had to think hard as to what he meant by that image or that phrase or that word, even.”

I asked Professor Vendler to do as she did with William Butler Yeats last year: take a few of the Stevens poems she loves and talk about them, as the spirit led her. The poems turned out to be “Sunday Morning,” “The Snow Man,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” and “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.”

Helen Vendler makes it all clear, but not too clear. Shouldn’t Stevens be taken as proof of the wisdom that poetry can communicate before it is understood? Or, as he wrote in many different ways: that imagination goes ahead of reason. And still, the great Vendler has answered our question:

HV: He is a great poet of Modernity and of American-ness. Eliot and Pound tried to turn themselves into European poets. Even Frost had to go to London to be published. I mean nobody was going to publish him in this country. They felt repudiated by the indifference to poetry that this country has always shown. It was connected, with the other arts, to an elite tradition and seemed to be the decadent occupation of aristocrats instead of something practical Americans should engage in. That was true of music, of course, as well. I was told it took a full vote of the board of trustees at Swarthmore in 1879 or something to allow a piano on campus. It was that severe.


CL: It’s true of jazz, too. Duke Ellington was not taken seriously until he went to London in the 30s.


HV: You couldn’t get an audience for native American productions, except at the popular level, but not at the reflective level, which Stevens is occupying. It was true of novelists too… Like Faulkner, Stevens stayed home, and thought of it as part of his duty to become a poet of America and not to give up on America and go over to London or Paris or wherever else there was to go, Sao Paolo. So that I think that’s one reason why he seems so attractive to contemporary poets, because he took on what they’re taking on. You really can’t be an Anglophile poet any longer, or go and live in Paris and think you can write from there as an American. Of course it could be done; anyone can go anywhere and do wonderful work. But the impulse now is to try to create an American art that can be viable on its own terms. He and Faulkner are the two big examples of that.

Helen Vendler with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, October 1, 2009.