Monday, July 5, 2010

Helen Vendler, the Godhead, how connected ARE poets

Aren't poets even a little closer to the Godhead than civilians? Freud's famous "Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me" which in my life translates to--Where I go, there I am--has become a truism. The poet as prophet. I love that idea. It's aloe on my extreme sensitivity. Helen Vendler, writing of Charles Simic ("A World of Foreboding" in Soul Says), not Freud, disagrees.

"I am wary of vaguely mystical claims made for poetry and the other arts--as wary as I am of ethical claims and civic claims, and of truth claims."

Okay. That serves as a refutation of the "moral" majority or ugly right-wing claims of closeness to God (as if bigots and haters are close to any form of divinity). She further writes, "Poems, like all human fabrications from straw huts to theology, are made to our measure and by our measure, and are not above or beyond us."

I'm not going to refute her with claims of channeling or a sure insight into God's/Goddess's hand touching Yeats' brow. So very much goes into genius, as into good fortune. There has to be some opportunity; or or or: wealthy parents, a patron, a good school system, a kindly neighbor with a huge library or paints to lend out, an apprenticeship with a master artist, receptiveness, historical timing, race-class-gender good fortune, nature, nurture. (Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers is a book-length description of fate, although he doesn't use that word.)

More Vendler: "Artists make us see many aspects of being, but none of them seem either spectral or metaphysical, nor do I feel admitted to a form of 'clairvoyance,' in the usual occult sense of the word."

Sometimes, when I'm in a poem of my own, I find myself trying to describe a sense of "presence," a sureness I have at least sometimes, and sometimes have to have to continue, of connection. When I posted (here) my poem "Incorporeal" (pub. in I explained why I put "divine" in lower case. In my one and only poetry workshop, the Pulitzer-prize winning poet opened my little fifteen minutes of attention with a joke--I thought you meant the 300-pound transsexual--and waited for his laugh; then spent the rest of my time sheepishly asking about references. I was too terrified to use upper case; that kind of comment reverberates.

My point in the above, other than ax-grinding which grinds me down more than anyone else, is that even a poet's use of divine-y words can be called into question. Back to Vendler. I'm not sure why a critic needs to explain to an audience of poets and deep readers her belief that poets aren't Supremely Keyed-in, just fabricators, though I appreciate many of her insights, such as writing that James Schuyler is a pastoral albeit urban poet.

I admire her to no end, mind you. A woman born in 1933 excelling in academia which then was--and I apologize for the truth--male, male-centered? It could be that very interchange, struggle . . . influenced her perspective. She made herself what she is.

She's not keyed-in, however. She is insightful.


  1. Poets are just as connected as anyone else. it's not that poets have some special access to the mystical, it's that they're good at using language to try to get at it sideways since it's impossible to approach directly. Vendler, in denying this, as she denies everything outside her very limited purview, illustrates yet again just how wrong her critical stance is.

  2. She doesn't deny what you say. I think your vehemence is odd, as you are putting her in a category I reserve for Rove and Bush. A generous heart is unlimited. I do appreciate what you say but am not looking for answers, black or white. Which is no doubt a difference between us.

  3. I wrote: "I'm not sure why a critic needs to explain to an audience of poets and deep readers her belief that poets aren't Supremely Keyed-in " I understand we're (you're a poet, yes?) not drectly from Olympus.