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Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler

In literary conversation, she is sometimes called “Dame Helen”—a nickname that can be affectionate or sarcastic, occasionally a little of both. No American critic writing about contemporary poetry has quite the prominence of Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. Over the past four decades, her reviews and essays have introduced readers to such poets as Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, and Seamus Heaney.

“As a literary gatekeeper, especially when she was reviewing for The New Yorker,” says Hank Lazer, a poet, critic, and administrator at the University of Alabama, “Helen Vendler could really put someone in the literary spotlight—have them immediately be in the serious running for the Pulitzer and the National Book award nominations, for major-press publication, even for major academic positions. It is an ability she would publicly deny having, but virtually no one else wielded that sort of power.”

Vendler’s most recent book is Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, published by Harvard University Press.

Ms. Vendler does not do e-mail. Somehow this is not surprising. Prolonged reading of her work conveys the sense of a mind utterly devoted to poetry, a woman not at all shy about her bookishness. “I am not interested in groups,” Ms. Vendler said during a panel discussion in New York five years ago. “I have never joined a political party. I have never voted. I have never registered to vote. I have never gone to a church. I have never belonged to a club. I’ve never belonged to anything.” For the journalist seeking to interview her, it is something of a relief to learn that she has a telephone.

She says she “wanders the earth” asking people if they know of any major 30-year-old poets she should read. “And they all say, ‘Not really.’ I don’t know if we’re in a lull. There are competent poets, but nobody taking the world by storm the way Ginsberg did, or Lowell did. I worry about it.”

—By Scott McLemee, Courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education

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