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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Helen Vendler's Great "Stevens and Keats's 'To Autumn' " (Contra Mark Jarman)

Mark Jarman, in his “The Judgment of Poetry” (The Hudson Review, Autumn, 2015), praises Vendler as “one of the best close readers of poetry today.” But his treatment of her great “Stevens and Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ ” seems peevish. He writes,

In her discussion of Keats’s “To Autumn,” she hears the great ode in Stevens’ poetry, especially in the final strophe of “Sunday Morning.” Her argument is illuminating, and yet it seems as if no other modern poet read Keats as Stevens did. She believes the central problems of Keats’s ode “become central to Stevens’ poetry as well.” But what about the fact that Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” gathers together two of Keats’s great odes, “To Autumn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” and links sleep, poetry, and imagination in similar ways?

At no point in “Stevens and Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ ” does Vendler argue that Stevens is the only poet to rework the materials of Keats’s ode. But I think it’s safe to say, based on Vendler’s essay, that the magnitude of Stevens’s rich reworking of it is unmatched by any other poet. Frost may have had “To Autumn” in mind when he wrote “After Apple-Picking.” But his poem doesn’t come close to reinterpreting, reusing, and recreating “To Autumn” the way that, say, Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” does. Vendler writes,

The resemblances have been often remarked. Both poets use successive clauses of animal presence (gnats, lambs, crickets, redbreast, and swallows in Keats; deer, quail, and pigeons in Stevenson; both poems close with birds in the sky (gathering swallows in Keats, flocks of pigeons in Stevens) and with the sense of sound (including a whistling bird in each); Keats’s soft-dying day becomes Stevens’s evening.

Vendler shows that the end of “Sunday Morning” is a rewritten version of the close of Keats’s “To Autumn.” But what’s even more arresting is her analysis of how Stevens, in his rewriting, made the materials of Keats’s great poem distinctly his own:

Keats writes a long clause about the gnats, then follows it with shorter ones dwindling to “hedge-crickets sing,” then broadens out to end his poem. Stevens writes short clauses followed by a final long one. The result is a gain in climactic force and explicit pathos, but a loss in stoicism and discretion of statement. Keats’s pathos (at its most plangent in the small gnats who mourn in wailful choir, helpless in the light wind; less insistent but still audible in the bleating lambs; but largely absent in the whistle and twitter of the closing lines) reaches us with steadily diminishing force, in inverse relation to Keats’s recognition of the independent worth of autumnal music, without reference to any dying fall. Stevens’s pathos, on the other hand, is at its most evident in the closing lines. In short, Stevens has adopted Keats’s manner – the population of animals, the types of clause, the diction, even the sunset landscape – without embracing Keats’s essential stylistic argument against nostalgia. Nor has he imitated Keats’s reticent diction and chaste rhetoric; instead, he writes with an increasing opulence of rhetorical music, and imposes explicit metaphysical dimensions on the landscape.

Jarman calls Vendler’s discussion of “To Autumn” and “Sunday Morning” “illuminating.” Yes, it certainly is. But it’s more than that. It’s an extraordinary work of comparative analysis. Jarman doesn’t do it justice.

Postscript: Helen Vendler was The New Yorker’s poetry critic from 1978 to 2001. Her work is one of this blog’s touchstones.

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