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Vendler, vidi, vici
In his introduction to Something Understood—the recent volume of poems and essays honoring critic Helen Vendler—Stephen Burt notes how her readings of poetry lead her back to the poets themselves. In Vendler’s aesthetics of sympathy, “the effort to understand how a form works as it does, why it moves us, why a poet chose to use it, is also an effort to imagine what that poet might have been thinking and feeling.” From Vendler’s work on Wallace Stevens, Burt writes, “Not just a body of poetry but a person emerges.”
Stevens uses a remarkable “I.” (Also a remarkable ear. As the man on the dump might say, “ho-ho.”) His “I” is confident, mysterious, prophetic, singular without being personal. On the other hand, Burt writes, “When Stevens says ‘he’ or ‘one,’ he can often mean ‘I,’ and we might occasionally ask whether, when [Vendler] says ‘Stevens,’ she means ‘I.’” If she had been a poet, she has written, she would have been Stevens, and Burt’s description of her writing could as easily apply to Stevens’ poetry: “An insistence on ideas amid passions, on the arrangements and abstractions of art amid the mess and sensory detail of life, and vice versa.”
That sentence could also illuminate the work of Robert Lowell, whom Vendler will speak about tonight at the Art Institute of Chicago. Unlike Stevens, Lowell emerges naturally from his body of poetry, without a critic’s assistance. His Life Studies heralded the rise of Confessionalism, a newly (or newishly) open poetry of experience.
Yet Lowell’s “I” was as complex as Stevens’s; it could introduce and reduce the poet in a single gesture. “Home after Three Months Away” chronicles his return from McLean Hospital, where he had been recuperating from an attack of bipolar disorder. Relying on shifting rhymes and rhythms, the poem takes instability as its subject: Lowell’s daughter “changes to a boy,” he stands “in lather like a polar bear”; tulips turn to weed. He ends with this chilling couplet, whose adjectives threaten to transform him into, of all things, food: “I keep no rank nor station. / Cured, I am frizzled, stale, and small.”
Such unguarded poetry seems both to honor and nearly destroy his “I”—to honor it by destroying it, perhaps, or vice-versa. Lowell stages the same complicated act in his later poem “Skunk Hour,” writing, in an echo of Milton, “I myself am hell, / Nobody’s here.” Lowell declares his presence (“I am”) only to assert his absence (“Nobody’s here”), and his “I” flicks on and off like a faulty lightbulb.
I look forward to hearing Vendler apply her sympathetic criticism to such a complexly personal poet.