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Fronds and Tenrils

Helen Vendler: Mark Ford, 29 November 2001

Soft Sift 
by Mark Ford.
Faber, 42 pp., £7.99, May 2001, 0 571 20781 2
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... Suppose, having been betrayed – ‘hooked/then thrown back’ – you decide to let your instant reflex, a desire for revenge, cool off overnight; then suppose you wake up the next morning and your anger takes on a no less pervasive, if different, configuration. Is this how you might be feeling? even after dawn has tightened still further the angle between reflex and use, a sort of sunken tide pushes open my ducts, washes through or else over uncertain crumbling defences, dissolves into itself whatever floats, like quicklime, filters the air through fluids thicker, heavier than water ...

All Her Nomads

Helen Vendler: Amy Clampitt, 5 February 1998

Collected Poems 
by Amy Clampitt.
Faber, 496 pp., £25, May 1998, 0 571 19349 8
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... Amy Clampitt died in 1994, at the age of 74; Knopf had published her first book of poems, The Kingfisher, in 1983. It was followed by What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), Westward (1990) and A Silence Opens (1994) – five books in 11 years. These are the books that make up this Collected (which does not include Clampitt’s chapbook, Multitudes, Multitudes, privately printed in 1973 ...

The Three Acts of Criticism

Helen Vendler, 26 May 1994

The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Poetry in English 
edited by Ian Hamilton.
Oxford, 602 pp., £25, February 1994, 0 19 866147 9
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... This handy compilation (to which I myself contributed a couple of notices) covers, according to the jacket copy, ‘some 1500’ poets and ‘charts the shift from “poetry” to “poetries” – from primarily British and American traditions to a rich diversity of younger poetic identities elsewhere’. It may be doubted whether ‘poetry’ is so easily dislodged in favour of ‘poetries’, but no editor is responsible for his jacket copy ...

Can we conceive of Beatrice ‘snapping’ like a shrew?

Helen Vendler: How not to do Dante, 1 September 2005

Dante in English 
edited by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds.
Penguin, 479 pp., £16.99, May 2005, 0 14 042388 5
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... Dante in English’ is an anthology of English translations of passages from Dante (most of them from the Commedia); it also includes poetry in English by authors who have been influenced by Dante. The authors and translators range from Chaucer and other English writers to non-British poets such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and W.S. Merwin ...
Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-17 
by T.S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks.
Faber, 428 pp., £30, September 1996, 0 571 17895 2
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... When Emerson wrote to Whitman that there must have been ‘a long foreground’ preceding the composition of Leaves of Grass, he expressed the curiosity every reader feels when coming upon a fully accomplished poem. ‘How did this art develop?’ – this question accounts for the fascination exerted on us by juvenilia and by manuscript drafts such as the 1971 facsimile of the manuscript of The Waste Land, edited by Valerie Eliot ...

The Numinous Moose

Helen Vendler, 11 March 1993

Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It 
by Brett Millier.
California, 602 pp., £18.50, April 1993, 0 520 07978 7
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... thoughts against thoughts in groans grind. For too long, Bishop had lived these moral choices of life/death, right/wrong, male/female: but at last, the early happy years with Lota had made them seem irrelevant, and Bishop, longing for Paradise since her blighted childhood, felt she had found it at Santarém: That golden evening I really wanted to go no farther; more than anything else I wanted to stay awhile in that conflux of two great rivers ...

Inspiration, Accident, Genius

Helen Vendler, 16 October 1997

Keats 
by Andrew Motion.
Faber, 612 pp., £25, October 1997, 9780571172276
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... In the sixties, three scholarly biographies of Keats appeared within a short time: W.J. Bate’s and Aileen Ward’s in 1963, Robert Gittings’s in 1968. Each is still very useful; all were admirable, if in different ways. W.J. Bate, who had been interested in Keats ever since he wrote his undergraduate thesis on the poet in 1939, paid special attention to Keats’s stylistic development in a discussion that has never been bettered; Aileen Ward brought to the study of Keats an almost clairvoyant psychological understanding (drawing on, but by no means limited to, Freudian insights); and Robert Gittings (who, before he wrote the biography, had published three short books on Keats) displayed an unexampled mastery of the facts of Keats’s life and its English context ...

Indigo, Cyanine, Beryl

Helen Vendler: Jorie Graham’s Daring, 23 January 2003

Never 
by Jorie Graham.
Carcanet, 112 pp., £9.95, September 2002, 1 85754 621 0
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... The new volume of poems by my Harvard colleague Jorie Graham, in its US edition, bears on its jacket a detail from Vermeer’s The Astronomer, showing the hand of the astronomer as it touches, almost affectionately, the zodiacal globe it is about to spin. Although the star-gazer cannot make physical contact with his remote field of vision, the caressing way his finger lies on the surface of the globe suggests his intense intimacy with the sky ...

Dark and Deep

Helen Vendler, 4 July 1996

Robert Frost: A Biography 
by Jeffrey Meyers.
Constable, 424 pp., £20, May 1996, 0 09 476130 2
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Collected Poems, Prose and Plays 
by Robert Frost, edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson.
Library of America, 1036 pp., $35, October 1995, 9781883011062
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... It would be hard,’ Robert Frost wrote, ‘to gather biography from poems of mine except as they were all written by the same person, out of the same general region north of Boston, and out of the same books.’ Frost’s biographers, who began their collective labours well before he died, were not to be put off by such a statement, and the early collections of memoirs and reminiscences culminated in Lawrance Thompson’s three-volume biography published between 1966 and 1976 ...

Why aren’t they screaming?

Helen Vendler: Philip Larkin, 6 November 2014

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love 
by James Booth.
Bloomsbury, 532 pp., £25, August 2014, 978 1 4088 5166 1
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... Twenty​ years ago, Andrew Motion, one of Philip Larkin’s literary executors, wrote a scholarly and comprehensive authorised biography of the poet, whom he had known well; it was subtitled ‘A Writer’s Life’. Motion informed his readers that some important ingredients of Larkin’s life were still unavailable, especially most of the letters written to Monica Jones, a lecturer at the University of Leicester, who was his closest companion and lover, but never wife ...

Somebody reading

Barbara Everett, 21 June 1984

The Odes of Keats 
by Helen Vendler.
Harvard, 330 pp., £15.70, February 1984, 0 674 63075 0
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... it is a poetry of losing (‘perhaps I have’) maintained with unshakable control and reticence. Helen Vendler’s more-than-sixty-page chapter on ‘To Autumn’ is the culmination of her exercise in the close reading of Keats’s Odes; and she follows many modern critics in seeing the poem as itself the culmination of Keats’s own writing ...

Two Sonnets

Anne Carson, 3 February 2011

... class="highlight-term">Helen,    today’s visitor,    comes a legendary remark:    ‘So light,    like the mind,’ she says,  with her hand on the waist ...

Charmed Quarantine

James Wood, 21 March 1996

Soul Says: On Recent Poetry 
by Helen Vendler.
Harvard, 266 pp., £15.95, June 1995, 0 674 82146 7
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The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham 
by Helen Vendler.
Harvard, 100 pp., £18.95, January 1996, 0 674 08121 8
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The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition 
by Helen Vendler.
Faber, 137 pp., £7.99, April 1995, 0 571 17078 1
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... Helen Vendler has the power to steal poets and enslave them in her personal canon. For this she is squeezed between rival condescensions: theorists pity her comprehensibility, while in creative writing departments poets denounce her ‘tyranny’, her ‘narrow aesthetic’, her ‘conservatism’. That both writers and academics complain about her is testament to her influence and gentle longevity – she is the most powerful poetry critic in America since Randall Jarrell ...

Saved for Jazz

David Trotter, 5 October 1995

Modernist Quartet 
by Frank Lentricchia.
Cambridge, 305 pp., £35, November 1994, 0 521 47004 8
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... to spurn new emphases. In a previous book about Stevens, Lentricchia upbraided Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler for ‘proceeding as if they had never read the poet’s letters and journals, or as if, having read them, they had come to the conclusion that the worldly life they found portrayed therein pertained to somebody else.’ But he sometimes ...

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