Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology

Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology

Inseparables by Florence Fuller
Inseparables by Florence Fuller

Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology by Helen Vendler (The third edition is quite expensive, but you can buy used copies of the second edition for as little as $2 plus shipping. That’s $6. A steal.)

“This book offers ways to read and understand poems with the pleasure they deserve.”

I was reminded of the existence of this textbook/anthology when a homeschooling friend mentioned that she was using a particular poetry text with her daughter and I remembered it as one I’d used maybe in high school or college. I was looking to see if I still had my copy of that one and I spied this one and grabbed it off the shelf and wondered why I’d never got around to reading it. And then started flipping through and reading it and really wondered why I’d never read it. It’s really a lovely little book.

I first encountered Helen Vendler through her work on T.S. Eliot when I was an undergraduate doing a project on his poetry. Of the more than two dozen critics I read for that project, Vendler was one of my favorites. This book though I acquired as a review copy back when I was teaching at Salem State College. Even though I wasn’t teaching a class on poetry at the time, I snagged this one because I recognized Vendler’s name. I can’t recall how I justified it to the publisher.

First, a caveat. This is a book intended for college students. It’s not necessarily going to work for younger homeschooled kids (my friend’s daughter is very mature, but I’m always reluctant to recommend materials that might not suit another parent’s idea of what is appropriate, so I’m giving fair warning). At least not immature or sensitive ones. There are some choices of poems that I’m guessing would not have been included in a high school anthology when I was in high school (who knows but that anything goes these days): a poem by Walt Whitman about a male lover, poems that include anatomical words, etc. On the other hand, if you’re looking to teach poetry to younger students, this might work well as a a teacher’s manual, a book for you to read and perhaps use to organize your lessons, read excerpts from to the student, etc.

I’ve read many different poetry texts in my day and this one is different. If you like poetry but want to think more deeply about it, if you would like to like poetry but don’t quite know where to begin, if you want to understand poetry better so you can teach it to others more easily…. those are all good reasons to grab this book. I’m thoroughly enjoying working my way through it in little tiny nibbles.

A few snippets from the Preface to give you a sense of Vendler’s approach to reading poetry:

We read imaginative works– whether epic, fiction, drama, or poetry– in order to gain a wider sense of the real. Our hunger to know the world, born with us and eager in childhood, finds one of its chief satisfactions in learning about the responses of others. Of course we are pleased to learn that others share our views, but we are also keenly interested to find out that others see the real differently from us.

Lyric is the genre of private life: it is what we say to ourselves when we are alone. There may be an addressee in lyric (God, or a beloved), but the addressee is always absent. [. . .] Because the lyric represents a moment of inner meditation, it is relatively short, and always exists in a particular place– “here”– and a particular time– “now.” It may speak about the there and then, but it speaks about them from the here and now. It lets us into the innermost chamber of another person’s mind, and makes us privy to what he or she would say in complete secrecy and safety, with none to overhear.

[. . .]

A lyric poem is a script for performance by its reader. It is, then, the most intimate of genres, constructing a twinship between writer and reader. And it is the most universal of genres, because it presumes that the reader resembles the writer enough to step into the writer’s shoes and speak the lines the writer has written as though they were the reader’s own. . .

Yet even when there is a clear disparity of personal character– as when I, a twenty-first century white American woman, am reading Blake’s lyric poem spoken by a little black boy in eighteenth-century England– the lyric poet expects that I will put myself into the subject-position of the little black boy, and make the boy’s words my own. . . . I do not become a disinterested spectator overhearing the lyric speaker: rather, the words of the speaker become my own words. This imaginative transformation of self is what is offered to us by the lyric.

Even though lyric sometimes makes greater demands on us that do the more explicit genres, a poem always (if it is successful) attracts us enough to make us willing to bear with it while we try to understand it better. A poem, said Coleridge, can communicate while it is still imperfectly understood. It can communicate because it exhibits a mastery of language, in addition to an imaginative sense of the world. We are drawn in by words used in unusual and compelling ways– ways that appeal to the senses of sight and hearing and bodily tension, as well as to the mind. We are also drawn in by its volatility and its surprising resources of strategy. And finally, we are drawn in because every poem enters into a continuing conversation with its culture– querying it, amplifying it, rebelling against it, subverting it, aestheticizing it, enhancing it.

And this bit most of all. I think every teacher who teaches lyric poetry should take this as their classroom motto:

Like all arts, lyric is meant to give pleasure– imaginative, linguistic, intellectual, and moral. If one hasn’t enjoyed a poem and been moved by it, one hasn’t really experienced it as an artwork. There are moments in life when one poem suits and another doesn’t. The poems in this book will not invariably please everybody, because each of us brings a unique life-experience, and a different expectation of art, to the page. Nonetheless, many of these poems have won and kept readers because in them readers have found the most moving revelation of all– that of their own inner life, enacted in words adequate to both sorrow and joy. The rule of thumb for the encounter with any art is to dwell on what moves you or gives you pleasure, and skip over, for the time being, what leaves you cold. But if you remember that someone, somewhere, has been fiercely attracted by each of these poems, you may be willing to give the ones you first neglect a second chance. Often, a door that has been shut can open marvelously at the second knock.

I’m reading this book slowly. One or two poems and their commentary at a time. And weeks of not reading it at all. But I can’t walk away from it either. I keep getting drawn back in.

Vendler doesn’t write an essay about each poem. Rather, she points out formal elements and makes some suggestions as to how to begin to build a reading of the text. But she then steps away and leaves the rest to you, the reader. I like poetry, I’ve always liked poetry. I’ve studied in in school, done graduate level projects on it. And yet I find Vendler’s approach eye-opening. She has a way of making me see things as if for the very first time. I feel like I’ve never quite known how to read a poem before, even though of course I’ve taken many classes on poetry.

When several overlapping and interlocking shapes are present at once in a poem, it becomes potentially more interesting– because more complex, as life is– than poems that have only one shape. The ideal poem would have temporal shape, a spatial shape, a rhythmic shape, a phonetic shape, a grammatical shape, a syntactic shape, and so on– each one beautifully worked out, each one graphically presenting in formal terms an aspect of the emotional and intellectual import of the poem. One way we distinguish more accomplished poems from less accomplished ones is the control of the artist over a number of shapes at once. Other things being equal, the more shapes that are being evoked, the more pleasure one derives from the poem because more of its inner life has been thought through, analyzed, and made visible in form by its creator.

Here’s another bit: “. . . since we derive pleasure in poems, just as in life, not only from pattern but from the interruption of pattern. If everything were unpredictable we would have chaos, but what we usually find in a good poem is the unpredictable within an overarching purposiveness.

I’m only in the middle of Chapter 2. I might have to write more later.

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  • Your last big quotation of Vendler brought to mind those wonderful Amish quilts you posted on recently. ‘Overlapping and interlocking shapes’- and the secondary and tertiary patterns that appear, the counterpoint of the quilting lines over the piecing, also the way they witness to the values of the faith community whence it came. I also like ‘the more shapes that are being evoked, the more pleasure one derives from the the poem because …its inner life’ I love how really pleasing poems have tension eg between formal and expressive, or work on several levels at once, or can startle you with feeling. To me the quilts have that simplicity in complexity, historic and fresh, useful and art double reality.
    Really enjoying your poetry posts, thanks!

    • Thanks, Stephanie.

      Delightful insights about the quilts. I hadn’t thought to apply those concepts to the quilts. But they work wonderfully well. (I was applying them to a Weird Al video today, however.)

      Yes so very much this: “To me the quilts have that simplicity in complexity, historic and fresh, useful and art double reality.” I couldn’t agree more.