THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW!
In her latest Harriet post, Abigail Deutsch writes:
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.
So professor Vendler finds ‘the poet’ in ‘the poem’—was this the point of the poem? And once we find the poet—what do we do then? Circle back to the poem? The thesis here is not clear. Stephen Burt—as Deutsch is explaining him—is merely blurbing. Burt is inflating a truism.
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.”
“Aesthetics of sympathy” sounds dubious. How is this better than aesthetics? Is “an effort to imagine what that poet might have been thinking…” something no critic before Helen Vendler has done?
Abigail Deutsch continues with her aesthetics of suck-up:
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.”
Here’s the aesthetics of sympathy run amuck: Helen Vendler is Wallace Stevens.
Deutsch then announces Vendler’s Robert Lowell talk (which took place in Chicago, October 22).
Moldy celebrates the manic.
Old Dame celebrates Old Name.
Lowell is a great old name, but does anyone ever ask why we should care about the life in Robert Lowell’s poetry? Is it because he’s a Lowell? I wouldn’t ask this, but somebody ought to say it: Lowell’s a minor poet, and Lowell didn’t have a very interesting life. The biggest decision Lowell ever made was: should I let mommy and daddy put me in the nuthouse, or should I go study with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon?
Deutsch anticipates the ‘big talk:’
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.
Deutsch quotes a just home from the mental hospital verse of Lowell’s:
“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.
I have a big confession to make.
I couldn’t care less about Lowell’s “I.”
Deutsch ends her post with:
I look forward to hearing Vendler apply her sympathetic criticism to such a complexly personal poet.
Again, with the “sympathetic criticism.”
Is Vendler Dr. Phil?
Isn’t criticism good enough?