What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Simic on Vendler: A Questionable Criticism

Helen Vendler in 1980 (Photo by Janet Reider)
I want to consider a questionable comment about Helen Vendler’s criticism that Charles Simic makes in his “The Incomparable Critic” (The New York Review of Book, August 13, 2015), a review of Vendler’s recent essay collection The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar. Simic says,

 She’s drawn to ideas in poems, conveys them well, but tends at times to devalue physical setting, “what the eye beholds,” as if it were only a prop and not the hook that draws the reader in. The “poet’s sense of the world,” “the savor of life,”  “the vulgate of experience” as Stevens called it – she often doesn’t do justice to these in my view.

Simic supports his point with an example. He says,

I have in mind her analysis of a poem like “The Idea of Order at Key West,” where she follows the poet’s thinking well enough, but doesn’t show how closely tied Stevens’s meditation is to the changes taking place in the sea and the sky as the tropical night descends and the unknown woman walking along the shore sings her song, and why the speaker in the poem not only comes to understand what he is experiencing, but once he does is overcome with emotion, and so are we as readers. We are moved because we had experienced something like that once and couldn’t find words for it, and now have them. It’s that recognition that links the reader to the poet, and its interdependence of reality and imagination that Stevens strives to sort out in the poem.

If true, Simic’s comment would, for me, be a damning criticism of Vendler’s approach. In my opinion, one can’t respond meaningfully to an artwork to which one hasn’t responded sensually. But Vendler’s writing has never struck me as a devaluation of physical setting or an underestimation of “what the eye beholds.” On the contrary, her work has taught me the value of sensual apprehension. Her expressions of pleasure regarding physical description are among the most memorable passages in all her writings. For example, in “Elizabeth Bishop” (included in her great 1980 collection Part of Nature, Part of Us), she says of Bishop’s “The Moose,”

In the first half of the poem one of the geographies of the world is given an ineffable beauty, both plain and luxurious. Nova Scotia’s tides, sunsets, villages, fog, flora, fauna, and people are all summoned quietly into verse, as if for a last farewell, as the speaker journeys away to Boston. The verse, like the landscape, is “old-fashioned.”

The bus starts. The light
is deepening; the fog
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage rosesand lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

The exquisitely noticed modulations of whiteness, the evening harmony of settling and clinging and closing and creeping, the delicate touch of each clause, the valedictory air of the whole, the momentary identification with hens, sweet peas, and bumblebees all speak of the attentive and yielding soul through which the landscape is being articulated.

That “exquisitely noticed modulations of whiteness” is marvelously fine. There are many examples of Vendler’s sensuous appreciation of physical description. Here’s another one; it’s an excerpt from her “Seamus Heaney” (included in her brilliant 1988 collection The Music of What Happens):

He [Heaney] sees the long, dark body of the Grauballe man, preserved for nearly two thousand years, and almost numbers its bones:

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan's foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

If, in the end, the Grauballe man is made to stand, in one of Heaney’s anxious moralities, for “hooded victim, / slashed and dumped,” he is also, in the plainness of his utter amalgamation of all being (tar, water, wood, basalt, egg, swan, root, mussel, eel, mud, armor, leather), a figure of incomparable beauty.

Of course, there are many ways to appreciate poetry; sensual response is only one of them. I suppose that a poem such as Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” could be enjoyed purely as seascape (“the outer voice of sky / And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled”; “mountainous atmospheres / Of sky and sea”; “The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there, / As the night descended, tilting in the air”), as Simic suggests. But reading it, particularly the words “But it was more than that,” you sense that Stevens intended something else, that description, however beautiful, was not his endpoint. Vendler, in her “Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions, Dedicated to Paul Alpers” (included in The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar), ingeniously interprets “The Idea of Order at Key West” as an elaboration of a new poetic that is “neither instinctual nor mimetic; it is an abstract one of intellectual artifice, of exact measurement, of geometric lines and demarcated spatial lines.” Vendler’s interpretation reveals, for me, at least, a newly perceived aspect of “The Idea of Order at Key West” – “the spirit’s mastery, by the geometrical abstraction afforded by lyric language, of the sublime landscape of the night sky.”  

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