Poetry News

'We are eager to harbor the next Homer, the next Kant, or the next Dickinson': Helen Vendler on Accepting Future Poets and Painters to Harvard

By Harriet Staff

Helen Vendler wrote this essay as a proposal "that alumni interviewers receive some guidance on how to understand, attract, and evaluate applicants whose creative talents might otherwise be overlooked." Here it is, altered slightly, in Harvard Magazine.

She writes:

We are eager to harbor the next Homer, the next Kant, or the next Dickinson. There is no reason why we shouldn’t expect such a student to spend his or her university years with us. Emerson did; Wallace Stevens did; Robert Frost did; Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery and Fairfield Porter and Adrienne Rich did; and had universities harbored women in residence when Dickinson came of age, she might have been glad to be here. She and Woolf could be the writers they were because their fathers had extensive private libraries; women without such resources were deprived of the chance to be all they could be. Universities are the principal educators, now, of men and women alike, and they produce the makers of culture. Makers of culture last longer in public memory than members of Parliament, representatives, and senators; they modify the mind of their century more, in general, than elected officials. They make the reputation of a country. Michelangelo outlasts the Medici and the popes in our idea of Italy; and, as one French poet said, “le buste/ Survit à la cité”: art outlives the cities that gave it birth.

In the future, will the United States be remembered with admiration? Will we be thanked for our stock market and its investors? For our wars and their consequences? For our depletion of natural resources? For our failure at criminal rehabilitation? Certainly not. Future cultures will be grateful to us for many aspects of scientific discovery, and for our progress (such as it has been) toward more humane laws. We can be proud of our graduates who have gone out in the world as devoted investigators of the natural world, or as just judges, or as ministers to the marginalized. But science, the law, and even ethics are fields in motion, constantly surpassing themselves. To future generations our medicine will seem primitive, our laws backward, even our ethical convictions narrow.

“I tried each thing; only some were immortal and free,” wrote our graduate John Ashbery. He decided on the immortal and free things, art and thought, and became a writer who revolutionized the transcription of consciousness in contemporary poetry. Most art, past or present, does not have the stamina to endure; but many of our graduates, like the ones mentioned above, have produced a level of art above the transient. The critical question for us is not whether we are admitting a large number of future doctors and scientists and lawyers and businessmen (even future philanthropists): we are. The question is whether we can attract as many as possible of the future Emersons and Dickinsons. How would we identify them? What should we ask them in interviews? How would we make them want to come to us?

The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college. The arts through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning. Such unusual students may be, in the long run, the graduates of whom we will be most proud. Do we have room for the reflective introvert as well as for the future leader? Will we enjoy the student who manages to do respectably but not brilliantly in all her subjects but one—but at that one surpasses all her companions? Will we welcome eagerly the person who has in high school been completely uninterested in public service or sports—but who may be the next Wallace Stevens? Can we preach the doctrine of excellence in an art; the doctrine of intellectual absorption in a single field of study; even the doctrine of unsociability; even the doctrine of indifference to money? (Wittgenstein, who was rich, gave all his money away as a distraction; Emily Dickinson, who was rich, appears not to have spent money, personally, on anything except for an occasional dress, and paper and ink.) Can frugality seem as desirable to our undergraduates as affluence—provided it is a frugality that nonetheless allows them enough leisure to think and write? Can we preach a doctrine of vocation in lieu of the doctrine of competitiveness and worldly achievement?

Later, she discusses how to prepare such students for life outside of Harvard:

Once we have admitted our potential philosophers, writers, and composers, how will we prepare them for their passage into the wider society? Our excellent students are intensely recruited by business and finance in the fall of their senior year—sometimes even earlier than that. Humanities organizations (foundations, schools, government bureaus) do not have the resources to fly students around the world, or even around the United States, for interviews, nor do their budgets allow for recruiters and their travel expenses. Perhaps money could be found to pay for recruiting trips in the early fall for representatives of humanities organizations. Perhaps we can find a way to convey to our juniors that there are places to go other than Wall Street, and great satisfaction to be found when they follow their own passions, rather than a passion for a high salary. But if we are to be believed when we inform them of such opportunities, we need, I think, to mute our praise for achievement and leadership at least to the extent that we utter equal praise for inner happiness, reflectiveness, and creativity; and we need to invent ways in which our humanities students are actively recruited for jobs suited to their talents and desires.

Full essay here.

Originally Published: November 1st, 2012