HELEN VENDLER AS DR. PHIL: THE CRITICISM OF EMPATHY AND SUCK-UP

THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW!

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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.

Deutsch continues:

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?

 

6 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    October 24, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    The joke of ‘sympathy’ invoked here by Deutsch, as she blithely champions Vendler and her suck-up colleague, Burt, is that critics are invariably ‘sympathetic’ to their favorites, and to those who are not their favorites–not.

    So to say one is giving a ‘sympathetic’ reading to a favorite: Vendler on Stevens, for instance, is the most cynical sort of posturing, never mind the fact that Stevens as he actually existed in the foetic universe–a student of Santayana, for instance–and otherwise, will never be fathomed by a pollyanna cheerleader like Ms. V.

  2. poetryandporse said,

    October 25, 2009 at 1:46 am

    I think it’s par for the course, and a reflection of human nature, that cliques and cabals clap each other on the back for being marvelous and wonderful and all the rest of it.

    The overwhelming, sincere effect it has on me, is to make one titter: they give me a laugh more than anything. They are merely trying to make repuations for themselves, and that involves being positive about the poetry and critics one rates.

    There is only one name in the Famous poet world, who needs not naming because at any one time, there seems to be a protaganist, usually Irish, who the players in po-biz elevate and look to as the oracle of contemporary poetic expression. Yeats and Heaney, and in between them the Famous poet with the contemporary riches and reputation, shifted away from Ireland, but after Kavanagh’s death, his reputation rose as the Reader realised it was his lot to be the unrecognized genius and prophet who went unacknowledged because the forces of greed and jealousy conspired into what is effectively, Fate, and so his example is the succor for us who rate ourselves but have no peer acknowledgment, because – we imagine – others are too awed by our ability that we are like Kavanagh and our lot in life is not to draw the marvelous dahlinks of those on the luvvie luvvie team with less poetic nous that translates into them aping the gosh! brigade who get by on satying gosh a lot, and are frightfully polite, trying to speak in the universal one that is we and ‘I’ of contemporary letters, perhaps chaps – non?.

    Being out of Harriet and reading how things are there now, I have dwindling interest in the tame status-quo going on there. The campaign is over, the war run and the winners in that little summer of love, i think we all know who they are. The rest are now reacting to how the winners behave, and Terreson is operating in a holding pattern, acting, as we all do, pretending in language to try and sound the one true universal cosmic greatness of the Prophet, John Olive is doing his shtick and the newb cohort are doing their 50 bucks worth.

    Following the other playas, Share and Johnston, the daily routine is locked into a happy enough splurge of spam and go, and of interest today for me, was a piece by Johnston on the digital whatsiblog, about the Foetry Poundations prez John Barr, doing what Johnston calls ‘blackface’ – in a book in which Barr’s narrator speaks in a demotic patois our millionaire banker tries to nail into poetry about sex and basically, a very interesting bit of intelligence, vis a vis, the politics of it all seeping out and coming across as – well, plastic: virtually no genuine Poet voices because everyone is so concerned about what other poets think; if their utterances on such and such will be strategically damaging to their ‘careers’.

    As i say, highly comedic, and driven by money in the sense that..i dunno, it’s been a busy week on the barricades, imagining oneself a rebel and not very lucky human. The closest I got to feeling uplifted with Harriet this week was O’Connor who stated what I believe to know is poetic truth: ‘praise’ and flower basically; in relation to Raymond Carver’s noption that the best advice one can give another with the same dream as our own: ‘great stuff, keep writing..’

    That’s it, we are free to ignore and what we think is foetry and concentrate on the good gear:

    ‘As a student I suffered through the bleeders (teachers whose pens leaked so much red ink that the page looked like a crime scene) and the teachers who wrote short pithy judgments like “Awk!” that sat atop lines the like the murder of crows on telephone wires in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. (Communication channels are always the first to go in horror movies). These teachers never motivated me to write more. Rather they made me afraid to speak and encouraged me to take fewer risks in order to avoid the harsh and cryptic marginal “notes.”

    O’Connor –

  3. thomasbrady said,

    October 25, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    poetry&porse,

    There’s a middle ground, I think.

    Colin Ward–Kaltica, prosody king of Poets.org–came on that Harriet thread and told O’Connor, look, there is a CRAFT WHICH IS REAL THAT MUST BE LEARNED and teaching isn’t self-esteem stroking. Colin Ward’s point is: Poetry has become dribbly boring prose because people would rather pay fees to be stroked than do hard work and learn how to write.

    As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘God cures us and the doctor takes the fee.’

    We don’t need a teacher to ‘inspire’ us.

    If a writer isn’t inspired by poetry and life, and needs a teacher to inspire them, in 999 cases out of a thousand, they won’t be much of a writer in any case.

    The exception is: when you’re a pimpled 15 year old, or even a curious 9 year old, confused by everything and everyone, and a teacher goes, ‘nice poem, there, you’ve done it, you’ve made a poem,’ that’s certainly welcome. And there should always be the unspoken attitude towards everyone: yea, you CAN be a poet…

    But systematically speaking, teaching is not stroking.

    On the other hand, the ‘bleeders’ who are anxious to whip their students into an understanding of language and writing are most likely bad teachers, unable to give a student the necessary insights upon which to build–and instead make thousands of corrections in a fit of ‘dutiful ignorance’ which eventually does become detrimental to real learning. Teachers who are bad writers themselves are legion–and do more harm than good.

    Colin Ward’s insight into prosody and his taste in poetry is abominable, and so what good is his plea for learning and rigor? Ward’s rigor is a straightjacket.

    On the other hand, O’Connor sounds too soft–he hates a multitude of marks AND pithy remarks–well, what does he want, then?

    We must avoid both the rocks of Mr. Ward and the sweet siren call of Mr. O’Connor.

    Good teachers enable students to see the underlying rationale for things; the bad ones are either nastily indifferent or overwhelm with superficial rule and category. So the bottom line is: if a teacher doesn’t make you happy, he’s bad, and if a teacher does make you happy, he’s bad. Insights which have nothing to do with the teacher, per se, should make you happy.

    Ben Franklin said, “Art is long, but Time is short,” and so education should concentrate on what is “most useful” and what is “most ornamental.” No poet himself, it is quaint that Franklin breaks it down thus: the useful and the ornamental. But sometimes it is best to see it simply as Franklin does.

    Modern poets, if we reduce it to one thing, are after one thing: to ‘mirror the human condition.’ And think of the Three Writing Workshop mantras, ‘write what you know,’ ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘find your voice’ which are really ways of articulating this one modernist goal: you, the writer must be immersed in reality and reflect that reality.’ But this often leads to a lot of unhappy, pretentious muck that is neither useful nor ornamental.

    Tell me an interesting story, or please me with beauty. If we stray from these two as artists, we are probably not artists.

    Letters has become a hall of mirrors: the vanity of showing what cheaply presents itself.

    Thomas

  4. poetryandporse said,

    October 25, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    I’ve always thought that if you meet a poet/teacher who leaves you wanting to write more, that is as good as it gets and they are doing something right: whereas if you meet someone who leaves you wanting to write less, these are the people you want to avoid.

    As regards measuring the ‘quality’ in the work of others, my approach has always been, who cares if others write rubbish poems? There are people who think what I write is rubbish, and at the end of the day, as long as people get pleasure from writing, that is all that counts.

    Look at all the online gaffes like eratosphere and other places where perfectly happy people huddle in groups and get themselves pecking orders and structures and heirarchies on the go: nothing wrong with that if it makes ’em happy. Let them be happy, and take pride in your own work.

    As i say, now Harriet is history, i’ve moved on and am happy spamming elsewhere. I view it that the spats and scraps are great, as long as I see them as light relief and essentially, comedy. I am secure with my own hard won poetic that took eight years of writing about 10,000 hours to nail, and am approaching the ollamh zone.

    When i first started in 2001, all i wanted was no one to be able to poo poo my dream of being a poet, and i thought

    ‘what’s the one sure fire way of achieving that: when the bores gather to blather and talk importantly on what is but hot cerebral air, however clever we dress it up? Bardic. Imagine knowing that tradition, i thought, and when i looked into it, seeing it was a 12 year course and having the rest of my life to achieve the goal of becoming a top bore who no middle class English plummy crusty upper could make feel shit with the la dee dah treatment – t’was but a mad dream, as it became immediately apparent that learning the truth of the bardic tradition was not a quick fifty bucks to Joan and drinks at the Hamptons with Freddie S. To get into the inner realm of light and learning was a hard slog, and it was five years before i even had the bones of it, and now the fun is asking your Joans and Freddie S’s – hey, poetry, groovy – what d’yer reckon of the bardic lore. All innocent and butter wouldn’t melt, playing a game, having a giggle, living the dream bro..

  5. thomasbrady said,

    October 26, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Porsey,

    Interesting test this: If they leave you wanting to write, good. If they leave you not wanting to write, bad.

    Combined with: Who cares if others’ stuff is rubbish, a person wanting to write is all that matters.

    My response to this is: We are not allowed to assume that mere writing is good. At least not without some further reflection on the matter.

    Upon further reflection, I think you may be correct. Your formula has merit.

    There does seem to be a correlation between genius and fecundity, prolificacy, fertility, productivity, etc.

    Struck by the spell of hearing Bach preludes recently, I had the distinct feeling that the beauty of the music was directly linked to its ease of invention, its ease of reproduction, as if beauty were pouring forth in more abundance than was humanly possible, and it was this abundance coming so easily that was the secret of its very beauty and interest.

    Obviously one can have streams of junk, but quantity is being, whereas the tongue-tied is nothing.

    So you may be right.

    Thomas

  6. November 21, 2009 at 4:04 am

    […] and Harvard and now is trying to be the next Helen Vendler (see Scarriet’s piece on the Dr. Phil of Criticism)  defends his rosy view that a criticism is not a criticism—that critics should ignore the […]