Helen Vendler was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to schoolteachers. Raised in a devout Roman Catholic family, Vendler attended Emmanuel College, a Catholic school for women in Boston, where she studied chemistry. Awarded a Fulbright to complete post-graduate work at the University of Louvain in Belgium, Vendler switched her area of interest from math to literature. Upon returning to the United States, she enrolled at Harvard, where she studied with Perry Miller, John Kelleher, and I.A. Richards. Vendler earned her PhD in English and American literature from Harvard in 1960 and began teaching at Cornell. She later held appointments at Swarthmore, Haverford, Smith, and Boston University. She has been teaching at Harvard since the early 1980s; in 1990, she was named the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor.
Vendler's many books of criticism on poets and poetry include Part of Nature, Part of Us (1980), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism; Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (1984); The Music of What Happens (1988); The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1999), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats (2004); Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery (2005); Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (2007); Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill (2010); and The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry (2015).
Vendler is regarded as among the finest and most acute of contemporary poetry critics. Trained in “practical” reading by Richards and others, Vendler’s own critical work pays close, almost scientific attention to individual poems and poets’ bodies of work. In the Paris Review, she explained how her early training as a scientist shaped her critical practices: “What science did for me was to train me to look for evidence,” Vendler told Henri Cole. “You have to write up evidence for your hypothesis in a very clear way; your equations have to come out even; the left side has to be balanced by the right side. One thing has to lead to the next, things have to add up to a total picture. I think that’s a natural thing to do with literature too. I feel very strongly that anything you say should be backed by evidence from the text, so that you follow a constant loop between generalizations and evidence. I don’t like criticism that is simply rhetorically assertive at a very high level without much reference to evidence in the text.”
Vendler regularly reviews contemporary poetry for publications, including the New York Times, the New Republic, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books. She was the poetry critic of the New Yorker during the late 1970s and 1980s. Vendler has received numerous honors and awards for her criticism, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy of Berlin, Yaddo, the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities, the Centro Studi Ligure, and many, many others. From 2007 to 2010, Vendler was vice-president of literature for the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.