The Queen V Of Poetry Criticism: Helen Vendler’s Reign Of Mediocrity (to be generous)
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/20/03

  Helen Vendler is a plague- correction, a symptom of a plague. No, she’s not as noxious & patently yearning for approbation as is Harold Bloom, but she is a manifestation of most of what’s wrong with criticism today. On the + side, she at least can be occasionally negative in her assessments of poets & poems, & she is not a wannabe poet herself- therefore she is not practiced at the fellatric pleasures. On the minus side, her criticisms lack depth, are basically rehashes of wrong things others have uttered before, & she has no sustaining vision- unless, ala HB, you consider Shakespeare worship a vision.
  Still, even her positives she seems determined to undermine. In an online interview posted in a dozen or so websites HV replies to an interviewer regarding why she rarely does full-blown negative reviews. In it we will see seeds of HV’s own problems, & why her criticism will not last long past her own death: 

  ‘I'm often asked why I don't often do negative reviews. Sometimes I've promised to write something and it turns out to be a negative review, but basically I don't want to write about that which doesn't attract me on the page—it's very much like being asked to talk about an incompetent singer. All you can say is the voice has no carrying power, there's no interpretative ability, there's no resonance or timbre, no dramatic excitement. All you can say is things that you miss; that doesn't seem to me an interesting kind of writing to do, I mean life is too short. It's like doing a multiple choice test: timbre, NO; carrying power, NO; interpretative talent, NO; this is just a boring kind of writing to do, whereas when something seems to be succeeding on the page, it's thrilling—and especially when it's something new and you don't know how the poet is making it happen.
  There's nothing more interesting to me, whether in an old poet or a new poet, than figuring out why something has come alive, why somebody has been able to take a blank piece of paper and make something excitingly volatile and surprising all the time, where you don't know what is going to happen next. I do think that when you turn to, say, the criticism written by Eliot, it just didn't matter whether he was writing about A Game of Chess or Milton or Donne or anybody else, he was really writing about the kind of poetry he wanted to write himself. His essay was a manifesto for the poetry that he himself was sponsoring at the time.’

  Here’s a clue Helen- great poetry often scratches the ineffable. It’s the great poetry that leaves you grasping for why such a great phrase as ‘I stop somewhere waiting for you.’ or ‘You must change your life.’ has such resonance. The bad is easily explicable. In fact- it's in the bad, or at least mediocre, poems of great poets that 1 can truly see how & why the great poems work. The greats cloak their mechanics, but by comparing them to lesser poems 1 can see the differences more starkly. Explaining why there is a NO on the test is often more interesting- & more helpful- than explaining the YESes. That HV is oblivious to this is 1 of the major flaws she shares with other critics. Here is flaw 2- re: her opinion of T.S. Eliot. OF COURSE it matters whether he was writing about this or that. A critic should try to go to extreme lengths to remove as much subjectivity from his/her opinions as can be possible. A good critic should almost NEVER be writing about their own work when grading others. Granted, enough of this will filter through regardless- but to consciously do so is self-defeating. It is in this 2nd flaw that HV really shows her failings. Most notably in a sort of hero worship- be it of Shakespeare, Eliot, Yeats, or any other poet she deems great. She seems almost incapable of acknowledging that most of the writing- even by these name brand titans- was bad. Conversely, she paints herself in a corner with her knocks on PC Elitist poetry. Note how her criticism of a Rita Dove poem is lacking any structural critique. In effect, she’s asking you to take her word on the matter without offering any real proof. This from ‘The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition’:

  ‘Dove characteristically opens a poem with an oblique and unexplained sentence. The ineluctable appearance of the fast-growing sugar-cane, no matter how often it is cut down, is enacted, musically, in the exhausting preciseness of the phrase "the cane appears"….

  Rita Dove, in a feat of sympathetic imagination, enters the white dictator’s mind, and conjectures a sinisterly plausible motive for the mass executions of blacks based on a bizarre word-test. Dove’s stanzaic imitation of Trujillo’s disintegrating yet fanatically circling monologue is a wonderful piece of prosodic mortise-and-tenon work.’

  HV does not explain the 1st stanza’s posit, nor does she explain why ‘the cane appears’ is ‘exhaustingly precise’- this being a typical throwaway critical bon mot that serves no purpose. Don’t even attempt to understand the last sentence quoted! Of course, like her bane Harold Bloom, HV really is set on bolstering the beleaguered canon of Dead White Maledom from the assaults of PC Elitist revisionism. Her most famous essays & books have dealt with old Wet Willy Shakespeare- again! The most egregious being 1997’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Be thankful that at least she did not credit him with inventing the human! Nonetheless a bevy of critical pronouncements gushed over the work- especially its bizarrely obsessive breakdown of the sonnets into graphs, charts, & other pseudo-sciencey stuff. HV seemed as willing to obfuscate her way through the poems as she spuriously claims old Willy was to hide his real motives behind the sonnets- or, more precisely, embed them within the sonnets. Yet, despite all her learnedry HV still could not give a good rendering of why a sonnet works or fails- certainly nothing approaching the ease with which I slice through them. In fact, almost as if she were reacting against the PC Elitist/Confessionalist tendencies of the last few decades HV seems intent on extirpating the sonnets of ALL personal meaning. This is extreme, to say the least. Certainly every poem has its own personal place in a poet’s life, BUT that does not mean that every poem bears witness to the poet’s most personal experiences. Witness the centuries of misconstrual accorded the sonnets by critics who have taken WS to not be himself- although the evidence they bear is still nil; or to be gay- although Elizabethan custom at the time dictated that males often assume female roles in plays & poems; & nothing known contradicts the Occam’s Razor that this is why Willy wrote his ‘homoerotic’ poems as he did; or that Willy had some love affair with a ‘Dark Lady’ even though nothing exists to suggest that ‘she’ was more than a Muse- real or not. Even worse than associating the personal with the art, though, HV states Any treatment of the Sonnets that focuses chiefly on their themes loses almost all of their aesthetic richness....’ Here HV says that art should not be judged on how or what it engages- only on how well. Might be reasonable except for 1 thing- the thing engaged often determines the rules of engagement. Now, gander at this beauty of illogic: ‘I assume that a poem is not an essay, and that its paraphrasable propositional content is merely the jumping-off place for its real work. As I say in my Introduction, I do not regard as literary criticism any set of remarks about a poem which would be equally true of its paraphrasable propositional content.’ What is she saying? Basically that art is the art itself- not paraphrase. This is philosophy worthy of the best of Stevens, but it is tautologically- an artsy riff itself. It hermetically seals off any discussion of what lies below the thing. In fact, criticism is, effectively, length paraphrase- so HV is basically arguing against her own profession, the book the statement appears in, & even approaching poetry. Yet, she does. After all- she is Queen V! Yes, a poem is the best explanation of itself- if it’s a very good or great poem. But, if not, this is EXACTLY why criticism is NEEDED- especially for bad poetry!
  But, here’s the kicker- after bizarrely performing critical hari-kiri, she then states this about the purported stories behind the sonnets as a whole: ‘The 'story' of the Sonnets continues to fascinate readers, but lyric is both more and less than story. And, in any case, the story of the Sonnets will always exhibit those 'gaps' and that 'indeterminacy' ... intrinsic to the sonnet sequence as a genre. A coherent psychological account of the Sonnets is what the Sonnets exist to frustrate.’ 1st she obviates her earlier claims by stating that the sonnets’ story is the most important aspect of the sonnets, then she claims the reason Willy wrote them was to deny readers an understanding of them! Perhaps, 1 might argue this of Pound’s The Cantos or assorted Eliotica- but Shakespeare’s sonnets? In effect, she claims not only will we never know why Willy wrote them (fair enough, as we can never be sure of the why of anything- even if the creator or possessor claims something) BUT that we cannot know since Willy planned to deny us this. Not only is her logic tenuous (or nonexistent) & screwy, but it goes directly against her earlier claims that such was even important. Here HV manifests another of her major flaws- a lack of coherence in her own critical see. Like so many other published critics she says A, then says B, then says C, which countermands A, then asserts D, which retracts C & asperses B, then she stands solidly behind A, B, C, & D!
  So confused by her own twisted logic is old Queen V that she actually utters this sentiment in the book: ‘When I refer to ‘Shakespeare,’ I mean the author who invented the text spoken by the fictive speaker, and who structured and ornamented that text for his own aesthetic ends....‘Shakespeare’ stands always in an ironic relation to the fictive speaker, since the written poem exists on a plane other than the temporal 'now' of the imagined speaker's moment.’ Huh? In the 1st part she goes out on a limb to tell us that when she refers to the guy who wrote the sonnets she means the actual flesh & blood guy- now dead. In Part 2 she tries to cast a schism between the ‘real’ Willy & the speaker of the poems she presumes is Willy- but is not. Now, an astute reader never makes that mistake. I almost always assume a guise when I write a poem- as do most poets pre-the last 20 years. In a long convolution HV has actually said not a damned thing of any literary import- but, don’t it sound all intelligent? In a further gem of stating the obvious HV chimes: ‘As I see it, the poet's duty is to create aesthetically convincing representations of feelings felt and thoughts thought.’ You can see why HV is so renowned- going so far out on a limb like that. But, actually, she’s wrong again. A poet’s job is to write good (& hopefully great) poetry- sometimes aesthetics need to be poor to convincingly put forth a poem- say a poem on a serial killer, or mass murder. Revulsion can be a good thing if that’s the intent- & it works, by whatever means.
  To be fair, occasionally HV pops off with something of value to say. In that same endlessly reprinted online essay the interviewer asks Queen V: ‘As you age, do you find yourself valuing different kinds of poems or different traits of poems?’, to which the Queen replies: 

  I don't believe that poems are written to be heard or, as Mill said, to be overheard; nor are poems addressed to their reader. I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice. You don't read or overhear the voice in the poem, you are the voice in the poem. You stand behind the words and speak them as your own—so that it is a very different form of reading from what you might do in a novel where a character is telling the story, where the speaking voice is usurped by a fictional person to whom you listen as the novel unfolds. 

  This may be the only time in print or online that I’ve ever read a poet or critic echo the basis of my own sentiments re: poetry. Especially with all the ‘poetry was an oral art 1st’ BS. NO. It was, & always will be primarily an intellectual art refined in the tuning chamber of the mind. How the author reads the poem is not necessarily the ‘definitive poem’. Unfortunately such moments of clarity are pure chance, as the Queen redescends back in to the muck of confusion she calls home. Later she is asked ‘How do you feel about identity markers in the teaching of literature today: black studies, gay studies, women's studies, and the criticism built up around them?’ Now read her mamby-pamby reply:

  I was never solely drawn to writing about women authors, chiefly because there weren't that many vivid writers of poetry who were women. And there are many men I am not drawn to write about. I don't think I'll ever write about Alexander Pope, and I don't think I'll ever write about Emily Dickinson, but not because Dickinson is a woman or Pope is a man. They are not on my wavelength as much as some other authors; and life is short. I've never wanted to write about Irish-American authors, though I was born and raised in an Irish-American community. I've never wanted to write about Catholic authors as such, though I was born and raised a Catholic. Those aspects don't seem to define me. I'm much more drawn to authors that I feel close to by temperament. I feel close to Stevens by temperament, I feel close to Keats and to Herbert by temperament. They are indolent and meditative writers. I don't mean indolent in personal character, but they like to roam freely in their thinking about a topic, so that Herbert will come back and back to affliction and Keats will come back and back to the sensuous life. Emily Dickinson cuts things off very short, and that always seems to me rather shocking. She ends poems too soon for me. When I think about the poets that attract me, it's much more because of a deep congeniality than from something which seems to me so superficial as either religion of origin, gender of origin, or ethnicity of origin. Temperament seems to me more deeply fundamental than any of those things. Now if I were black, I might not feel temperament to be more fundamental than being black, or (had I been Jewish in Nazi Germany) being Jewish, because when your whole life is conditioned by a single fact dictating whom you can marry, where you can live, whether you will have to go to prison, what you can buy and sell, whether you can go to a university or not, that fact colors everything. I think in America today, every single aspect of your life, if you're black, is affected by that identity marker. I don't feel that any of my early identity markers so confined or coerced my life that I had to see my life in terms of it. So many gay people have been repudiated by their families, or discriminated against in jobs, that it too might seem to be an overwhelming identity marker at the moment in America. 

  Notice how she never answers the question of PC Elitist criticism directly. Instead, she masks her well-known revulsion for it behind platitudes. So which is worse- a critic that knows nothing, or 1 that refuses to criticize in detail? Damned if that can be answered by a glance at HV’s oeuvre. She does both. In an interview posted only at http://www.radcliffe.edu/quarterly/200001/shape-1.html HV is asked: ‘Who were the five greatest poets of the last millennium--in your opinion--and why?’ to which HV retorts:

  If you restrict me to the poets that I've read--which are very few compared to all the poets that there are and in very few languages compared to all the languages there are--perhaps, after Shakespeare, I think Yeats was one of them, then Milton. Before Shakespeare, Chaucer. The best modern foreign poet that I know is Paul Célan. I have only read him in translation, but I put him somewhere doing the unimaginable.


  Pay close attention to her answer. She never answers the why portion of the question, & as to her list. Boy, what a shocker to name Willy. But Chaucer & Milton? Sorry, compared to modern great poets they come up distinctly short. Chaucer’s ‘poetry’ is de facto prose & Milton- outside of a couple of poems & the best parts of Paradise Lost is vastly overrated. But that’s just your subjective opinion Dan. Well, yes & no. Of course anything from a single person is subjectively that person’s own. BUT, not all subjective opinions are equal. Just as Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds are more qualified to speak on what it’s like to hit a Randy Johnson fastball, similarly I’m far more qualified to pass judgment on others’ poetic & critical claims. Then Paul Célan? I guess if you like poorly broken rants. & where’s #5? In all of the 20th Century she can only pluck PC? Even worse- guess who she picks as the living poet who will have the greatest influence in the coming century? Jorie Graham. Yes, that poetaster who got her own This Old Poem essay not too long ago. Quoth the Queen:


  I think Jorie Graham will have an influence. She's immensely talented and she's only forty-nine. Yeats had only begun to write his greatest poetry by the time he was forty-nine….She came aboard at a time when everybody was imitating the confessional poetry that had taken off from that very important cultural event, the institutionalization of therapy. After World War II, all sorts of intelligent, aware, and linguistically talented people were sitting in offices telling someone about their mummy and daddy. Sooner or later it moved over to poems about their mummy and daddy….When Graham came along, she was writing poetry that was not solely autobiographical in that therapeutic sense. Her poems were written about lots of things. They were about sitting in a movie theater when Kennedy was shot, or about looking at a painting of the resurrection of the body. She also came in the wake of feminist descriptions of the relations between the sexes which had, by and large, cast men as oppressors and women as victims. In her poems, she redefined the self and relations between men and women; she showed people playing the same roles alternately with each other rather than focusing on the single victim/oppressor role; she saw the self as gestural and relational rather than as simply an encapsulated, atomic self. In these ways, she has been original.

  Now, re-gander at my essay on JG. Ridiculous. Personal biases will crop up but such a statement shows how utterly void of critical skill HV is. In accord with her earlier politic manner she should at least have said that the most influential poet has yet to be published. But, HV is irredeemable. Here’s another doozy from the opening chapter of The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: ‘Because the ghost of the Italian sonnet can be said to underlie all the sonnets in the sequence, a “shadow sonnet” often can be intuited behind the sonnet we are reading.’ In other words, HV says these sonnets be deep shit. Now, again, accuse me of nitpicking, but how often do critics get away with overstuffing their prose with such obvious statements just to seem deep- equating prolixity with intellectual depth.
  But, as for the sonnets? Here’s some comment on Sonnet 62, as well as that poem:

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye,
And all my soul, and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account,
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my glass shows me myself indeed,
Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
  'Tis thee (my self) that for myself I praise,
  Painting my age with beauty of thy days.


  1st I’ll quote the Queen, then tell you the real dope. HV: ‘To love and be loved by the young man to the point of identity makes one feel, indeed, superior to everyone else -- in looks, in form, in character, in worth. But the self-justification is here phrased in comparative terms, in a comic mounting concatenation. 'Compared with others, there is no face so gracious, no shape so true, no truth of such account as mine.' To this comic self-exaltation, the mirror comes as an astringent corrective. And at the end, the speaker's identification with the young man is recognized as superficial maquillage -- the speaker's true age is said to be painted over with the beauty of youth's young days.’ Comic? Not really- a bit of self-delusion, but hardly comical. & the whole poem is a bit too tongue twisty to be as memorable as his better & better-known sonnets. The major problem is a lack of clarity both aurally & narratively; + the fact that such a theme has been done better in other poems. I rate this poem a 55 on a scale of 1-100, a real snoozer. Yet, look at this major gaffe in HV’s reasoning- ‘the speaker's true age is said to be painted over with the beauty of youth's young days.’ Show me where the sonnet says that. It says ‘Painting my age with beauty of thy days.’- but nowhere does it even imply that it is a pining for lost youth. The speaker is addressing another aspect of himself, BUT not necessarily a younger version. HV infers this, wrongly, from line 10’s ‘tanned antiquity’- but that merely establishes the overall age of the speaker. Age is not at issue. What the last line actually denotes is the speaker coming to accept his agedness- that’s all. Am I nitpicking? No- because little misreadings & misstatements (like those I’ve earlier pointed out) become a snowball unrelenting down a hill. Yet, no one EVER calls her, or the myriad other bad critics, on these appalling lapses of basic reading comprehension, much less exegesis.
  & I’m not exaggerating. In sifting through a few books & dozens of online articles that mention Queen V, there are only a handful that take her to task on anything (usually her theories being too grand or being guilty of oversimplification), & none that point out how she almost always misreads. The only 1 that came close was this snippet calling the book ‘astoundingly bad’- from a professor at Villanova University named Margaret Boerner- for ‘making the obvious arcane, elevating the banal, printing up lecture notes, and rabbitting on for nearly seven hundred pages.’ Other than that, almost all of the reviews were genuflective. Is HV that powerful? I mean even the ludicrous Harold Bloom has a few criticisms leveled at his viewpoints. To answer that q I have to simply state I do not know. HV seems every bit as obsessed with Shakespeare-worship & The Canon as HB is. Is it too simple to say that HV gets a freer ride than HB simply based on their respective sexes? Perhaps. But recognize that feminists have biases, & even though HV basically mouths the same platitudes as HB, she is still- 1 of them- whether she likes it or not.
  Another group she obviously belongs to is the Academy. Here is her sterling c.v. & invite to that clergy:

Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath (2003)
Seamus Heaney (1998)
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1997)
Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology (1997)
The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham (1995)
Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (1995)
The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (1995)
The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (1988)
Voices & Visions: the Poet in America (1987)
The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1986)
The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985)
Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (1984)
The Odes of John Keats (1983)
Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (1980)
The Poetry of George Herbert (1975)
On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems (1969)
Yeat's Vision and the Later Plays (1963)

  But let me not veer off too far from the basic point of HV’s critical oeuvre: Nowhere do you find HV as straightforward on Sonnet 62 as I am regularly on the poems I hold up for criticism- there is always the troubling need to spew irrelevancies & to show her ‘awesome’ intellect in general (or as The New York Times labels her- to her glee- ‘arguably the most powerful poetry critic in America’), & -consequently- its impotence in application. 1 of the troubling aspects of HV’s book on Shakespeare- & it’s been a few years since I read it, but this point sticks out dramatically- is her use of flow charts, diagrams, matrices, etc. It’s almost as if 1 is in a football coaching session rather than learning about art. Doubtless, HV intended this to show that she was gonna get ‘down & dirty’ & show the technical wiring that makes each sonnet go. But, given her rather obvious inability to grasp some of the basics of what each sonnet says, the whole exercise comes off rather Rube Goldbergian (or Frederick Turnerian- if you are familiar with his pseudoscientific attempts at vivisecting poetry). To her credit, she does attempt to detach Willy’s persona from his person. She has little use of questions of morality or actuality- yet even this laudable break from convention is compromised by her still buying in to the myth that the sonnets ‘do’ reveal a personal narrative- the whole homoerotic/Dark Lady axis. What is left- when each sonnet has been reverse engineered- is nothing ‘new’- rather obvious points that HV & others have made for centuries. Yes, she does seem to drone on about what might be perceived as pet peeves or lingual minutiae, yet her further literary analyses, whether you agree or not, only serve to show how superfluous all the charted razzle-dazzle is! Even more puzzling is HV’s attempt to plant a flag in critical history by inventing a new critical term- ‘defective key word’. No, she does not use this to signify an actual word that does not work IN the poem, rather a word HV believes should be in the poem, but is not. Yes, she actually criticizes ‘phantom poems’- 1s which do not exist. This leads a reader to wonder what her real agenda is.
  In her book that came out the same year as her Shakespeare tome- Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology- HV seems often lost. The book is as muddled as her nemesis’s- Harold Bloom’s book on the Western Canon. Yes, she goes after Post-Modernism & that ilk, with some success, although that success is merely many of the same charges prior critics have noted. The book (3P) is a typically generic textbook/anthology with a manifesto, some explanation of techniques, & the requisite anthology of mostly Classic poems & poets from which to choose from. HV- as with most of her lesser-known rivals- feels a need to ask such banal queries as what aspect of life is the poem concerned with?, etc., rather than actually focus on the pseudo-hard mechanics that dominate her Sonnets’ analyses. Rather than acknowledge that a lyric poem is simply a poem about beauty, or reflective of beauty in its structure, HV cannot wean herself from incessant eggheadedness. Instead she asks, or rather declaims (page 14): ‘Lyric poems spring from moments of disequilibrium: something has happened to disturb the status quo. Hope has come to rebuke despair; love has come to thaw coldness; envy has come to upset happiness; shame has come to interfere with self-esteem....’ Instead of a lyric being simply what I described, there is the relentless need to preen. To HV a lyric is not life, rather life is a lyric’s ‘generative occasion’. You know you are in trouble when such extraneous thought pops in to critical discussions. Later on she devotes a whole chapter to show how a poem is not life, but a lyricization of it. Well….DUH! Was there ever any controversy over this point?- even from moronic Confessionalists?
  But her theorizing reaches its heights (our nadir) with this passage:

  Life itself is a continuation of successive moments in one stream. Art interrupts the stream and constructs one segment or level of the stream for processing. In a single act, it describes, analyzes, and confers form on that segment. The form it confers by its ways of organizing the poem makes visible the contour of that life-moment as the poet perceives it. The poet discovers the emotional import of that life-moment by subjecting it to analysis; the analysis then determines how the moment is described, and the invented organizational form that replicates it.

  Sounds impressive, eh? But this is all- & I’ll be gentle- horse hooey. 1st off, the 1st sentence is a Classical representation of Time- yet many a Modernist (& later –istic poets) have had success subverting that claim. Still, this is the most coherent sentence in the snippet. Sentence 2 sounds OK- until you realize that she has totally excluded art from life- as if it were an outside, unnatural force. Reread the piece- art is something peregrine to life. Also look at how she totally misunderstands the genesis of art- that being that it is all about ‘emotional import’. Granted, I think the bulk of art comes from emotion 1st, & intellect 2nd- but not all. This use of sweeping imperatives, with no room for exceptionalism, is a vein that runs throughout most of contemporary criticism- & HV is just spume on that tide.
  Later, she drones on about ‘a temporal shape, a spatial shape, a rhythmic shape, a phonetic shape, a grammatical shape, a syntactic shape’ to poems, yet never really details what these shapes are, nor how 1 could empirically test them. I can show, & have shown that metrics in poetry is a myth &/or desideratum, yet I do so by very simple analysis. How does, or how could, HV test out her ‘shapes’ hypothesis? Without grounding herself with a concrete answer for that her assertions that good poems are better than bad poems because of ‘the control of the artist over a number of shapes at once’ becomes merely an act of faith- not criticism. HV, in attempting to avoid the typical banalities about poetry’s essence & uses, stumbles into a Looking Glass world that only she can reckon.
  To her credit, she does have some good insights on poets’ needing to foster audiences for their work, but, if you read this snippet from pages 88 & 89 you will see a glaring flaw. Read it & I’ll expound:

  Wordsworth said that the poet must create the taste by which he is enjoyed; that is, the poet trains the audience to like a new sort of art. The training takes time, and each new poet you read is training you to like a new personal shorthand of images and a systematically original language. If a poet does not appeal to you now, look again at the work in ten years, and you may like it then. Acculturation is fast in some cases, slow in others. But if many people have found a poet's language memorable, you may some day find it memorable, too. Each person's taste hovers at a different evolutionary moment….The important thing is to feel companioned, as you go through life, by a host of poems which speak to your experience. And, in the long run, the poems you first read because you wanted to find out about love or death you will read again because of the living quality of the voice that speaks in them, that quality we call "style."

  HV is dead-on about audience creation- the whole Whitmanian great poets-great audiences schtick. But, surprisingly, she leaves out any ideas of excellence being non-subjective. & the quote’s 2nd part is bizarrely (for HV) PC. Later on she goes back to her architectonic approach: ‘To give a poem its due as a work of art, we need to be able to see it as an arranged message. Looking through the poem thoroughly helps us realize the kind of work the poet puts into constructing this urgent expression of life as it is seen, sensed, and reflected on.’ Which of these 2 opposing POV’s is the real HV? I don’t think it matters because her insights in to poetry- be they Willy’s Sonnets, or any of the poems she has analyzed through the years- are so banal in general, & occasionally strained to try to separate herself from her critical siblings. As for her rise to the top of the critical heap? Probably 1 could attribute that to being in the proverbial right place at that right time- a woman critic at the dawn of modern Feminism. If it worked in getting a mediocre writer like Toni Morrison a Nobel Prize it could certainly elevate HV to Queen V status. Bear in mind my earlier remark about her being ‘1 of us’ to Feminists, even if HV demurs. Also, HV- unlike Harold Bloom- is not as openly hostile & contentious against PC Elitists as HB. HV sees their poetry as something to be approached- if often dismissed (yet she does reserve high praise for some of PC Elitist Adrienne Rich’s doggerel), while HB almost visibly bristles when confronted with the mere notion that this sort of ‘poetry’ exists.
  Still, 3P & the rest of HV’s criticism fails for the simple reason that she has no real Creationary intellect herself, much less Visionary. In her graphs & neologisms she struggles for relevance, rather than actually attempting to get at the core of what poetry is. In this regard I cannot fault her- it is simply beyond her, lest she would be a great poet herself- not a hanger-on. But, this does speak to the need for great poets & artists to take the time to educate their audiences. In this regard HV is absolutely correct, & most contemporary artists & poets deserve the ignorance of their work they receive because they openly scorn mass scrutiny, even as they long for mass praise. The same could be said of critics such as Queen V.

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