Art Creates Its Own Relevance
December 1997 The idea that William Shakespeare’s sonnets should need any kind of defense in this day and age may sound preposterous to some readers, but that is precisely what the nation’s foremost poetry critic had in mind nine years ago when she began writing a book that is just now being released to widespread acclaim.
I admire the Sonnets, and wish to defend the high value I put on them, since they are being written about today with considerable jaundice, Helen Vendler states in the introduction to The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 672 pages, $35), a labor of love born from a lifetime of reading, and a tour de force of literary explication.
Unlike his great plays, which have never fallen from favor in the nearly four centuries of their luminous existence, the 14-line poems known as sonnets Shakespeare composed while in his 30s have been received far less agreeably over the decades. A good deal of that derives from the nature of lyric poetry itself, Vendler made clear during a recent interview in her office at Harvard University, where she is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor of English literature.
Most poetry has power over us by what it does, not with the theme, but with the language in which it enacts the theme, she said. A poem is not an essay. It does not have a topic sentence which it then develops. It is more like a piece of music. It is a constantly evolving form taking new shapes as it goes along.
Vendler believes that poetry is meant as much to be heard as it is to be read, a circumstance that explains why The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets comes with a compact disk featuring her own reading of a selection of the sonnets
Considered the most influential poetry critic in the United States When Helen Vendler speaks, poets jump, Dinitia Smith wrote last week in the New York Times-Vendler, 64, has written numerous books, including authoritative studies of George Herbert, John Keats and Wallace Stevens. Her 1980 work, Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.
Although she has been reading Shakespeare’s sonnets for most of her life, Vendler said she avoided writing about them all these years, “because I didn’t understand them well enough. I didn’t feel I was ready to write on Shakespeare until I was in my 50s, even though I had known these poems since I was 15. What changed is that I lived, among other things.
Instead of examining the sonnets as a unit, Vendler writes about them individually, offering what amounts to 154 separate essays on each one, giving equal weight to such acknowledged masterpieces as Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day ), Sonnet 73 (That time of year thou mayst in me behold) and Sonnet 146 (Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth), as she does to those that are lesser known.
Most books about the sonnets are about the 15 best-known poems, she said. For me, it is very interesting to consider what happens when a poet confines himself to a single form, and does it over and over and over, and when the outer cage is the same. He has to find something new to do each time within the cage, and what he does is very many acrobatic jumps. It is such a test of invention to do that, and I think no one has ever done it better than Shakespeare.
Unlike Shakespeare’s 36 plays, which were written for performance before an audience, the sonnets get their energy from words, not dramatic persons. Published without authorization in 1609 when Shakespeare was 45, some observers contend they were never intended for a general readership.
That is not the reason for which poems are written, Vendler said simply. They are written because a person is compelled to write by whatever genius compels you to do anything. They are written to satisfy yourself, and you keep working on them until they click, and everything is in its place.
A native of Boston, Helen Hennessy Vendler studied chemistry as an undergraduate at Emmanuel College, a Roman Catholic school her parents insisted she attend, and turned to literature while pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard. She wrote some poetry, but found the results disappointing.
My poems were what you might call technically correct, but there was something wrong, she said. They were more the poetry of statement than the poetry of waywardness. Being led by the imagination is waywardness, and being led by thought is expository. I could only know later that my line was analytical rather than imaginative.”
With so much of what has become known as the Western Canon of literature under attack, purportedly, in some quarters, for not being relevant to modern life, Vendler is clear on what matters, and what does not.
Art, she said unhesitatingly, creates its own relevance.