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. She started reviewing in 1966, a year after Jarrell's death, when the Massachusetts Review asked her to write a journal of the year's work in poetry. Like Jarrell, she has a large historical reach while seeming to prefer the present to all other ages. Like Jarrell, she seems to have some kind of generative magic. The poets she celebrates prosper, as if they do not want to obstruct her predictions. For Jarrell, these poets were his contemporaries - Lowell, Moore, Bishop, Berryman and Stevens. When Jarrell writes that he is living in a time of great poetry, it is as if he is not merely describing but claiming something. Vendler's belief in her contemporaries - that, as she has put it, 'American poetry remains in good hands' - is more modest. But as with Jarrell, these hands are hers as well as the hands of 'her' poets. She has created the taste by which many of these poets are enjoyed, returning repeatedly, as in these three books, to polish a group of them with her calm, uncreased prose - John Ashbery, James Merrill, A.R. Ammons, Amy Clampitt, Charles Simic, Dave Smith, Seamus Heaney, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham and Rita Dove.
LRB 21 March 1996 | PDF Download