Daniel Swift

Reducing poetry to a science

Daniel Swift takes ‘the Queen of Formalism’ to task over her scientific approach to poetry in her spiky new collected essays, The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar

Reducing poetry to a science
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The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poetry and Poets

Helen Vendler

Harvard, pp. 464, £

Is it possible to tell a good poem from a bad one? To put the question another way: are there objective, even scientific, standards for evaluating literature? Helen Vendler has no doubts. Her spiky new collection of essays begins with the insistence that it is possible to prove how one poem is ‘superior’ to another, and ‘those who suppose there are no criteria for such judgments merely expose their own incapacity’.

That’s a bold claim, but in her hands, literary criticism is a science, and anyone who disagrees with her judgments is put sharply in their place. I should know: my observation, in a book I recently edited, that the late religious poetry by the great American poet John Berryman reminds me of the 17th-century English poet George Herbert is here quoted and then smacked down (‘never in them does the histrionic Berryman sound at all like the subtle and fine-grained Herbert’). If Vendler doesn’t hear the echo, then the echo doesn’t exist.

Apologies for making this personal, but this in miniature is the precise problem that has always bedevilled literary critics: the problem of how to balance feeling and fact, and how to translate subjective response (I love this poem) into informed judgment (this is a great poem). Look again at Vendler’s dismissal: see how the adjectives ‘histrionic’, ‘subtle’ and ‘fine-grained’ are pretending to be descriptive while really operating as subjective judgments? This challenge is at the heart of literary criticism, and it is what divides academic critics (who tend to avoid the language of good and bad) from book reviewers (who make those kinds of calls all the time).

Vendler is a formalist critic — she announces here that someone once called her ‘the Queen of Formalism’, and it’s unclear whether that’s a compliment or an insult — and describes herself as driven by ‘the compulsion to explain the direct power of idiosyncratic style in conveying the import of poetry’. What this means is that she measures a poem by all the tricks that mark it off from daily speech: rhyme, meter, rhetorical patterns. This focus causes her to sound highly technical: she mentions in passing ‘a Miltonic volta’, ‘19th-century ligatures of plot coherence’ and ‘mass synecdoche, if one may call it that’ (indeed, one may).

This is a collection of essays and reviews from various magazines and occasions, and they apparently have not been edited for republication, so the tone varies considerably. Occasionally, Vendler sounds as though she is addressing postgraduates; occasionally, her claims are so bland that she might be composing a Wikipedia entry (on The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot: ‘it revolutionised modern verse’). Some of the pieces are superb: a powerful essay on how Robert Lowell’s poetry uses syntax to perform the feeling of depression, and an amazingly subtle account of ‘if’ and ‘but’ in the poems of Wallace Stevens. These essays have only one thing in common: they are all about poets Vendler loves. But — in contrast to the recent essay collection by the poet and translator Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?, which covers some of the same ground — she never makes you want to go away and read the poets she has been discussing.

The real question about the scientific evaluation of literature arises not when we discuss famous poetry, but when we turn to popular culture. For everyone agrees that the poets Vendler discusses are great, but nobody agrees about how we might apply those same standards to popular culture. Vendler sidesteps this by pretending that popular culture doesn’t exist. ‘Our students leave high school knowing almost nothing about American art, music, architecture and sculpture, and having only a superficial acquaintance with a few American writers,’ she moans. But this isn’t true. American schoolchildren know popular music, and they also know the TV shows Mad Men, The Wire and Breaking Bad — which are better written than the vast majority of American literature of the last decade. ‘Without the scholar and his libraries there would be no perpetuation and transmission of culture,’ she goes on: but what about theatres, museums, cinemas?

Art, Vendler writes, quoting Wallace Stevens, ‘helps us to live our lives’. Lurking inside this collection is a plea to the world that we should all read more poetry and think seriously about art; and for Vendler, this wish is powerfully personal. The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar opens with a brief memoir of Vendler’s early years as an academic, and particularly the misogynistic slights she received from older male colleagues in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But from this moving opening she falls almost immediately into the common trap of any public defence of the humanities: slightly condescending waffle which ignores the simple fact that high art is difficult. Poetry has left people’s lives because it got harder just as people’s lives got easier, and the 20th century taught the West to value ease. Pretending that poetry is science is — to quote the old ad — part of the problem, not the solution.

Daniel Swift is the editor of The Heart Is Strange: New Selected Poems of John Berryman