Helen Vendler, Marjorie Perloff, and the Art of Criticism

Helen Vendler needs no introduction.  At a time when the general public’s estimation of the critic has significantly dropped in value we need good critics more than ever.  But who pays attention to critics anymore?  Most people buy books, attend concerts, or watch movies prior to consulting critical reviews.  Often criticism is an afterthought, especially literary criticism.  Recently, Vendler stirred up controversy with a review of  Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry.  Incidently, Marjorie Perloff voiced similar criticisms of the anthology. It’s really quite difficult, and even perhaps fatuous, to disagree with two renown scholar-critics of our age.  Which raises certain questions: To what extent do we value scholarly and critical expertise?  Shouldn’t we perk up and listen to the experts?  As Perloff remarks, if nearly everyone can be considered a poet these days, due to the proliferation of MFA creative writing programs, then it follows that nearly everyone has critical opinions on the craft of poetry.  If nearly everyone has critical opinions on poetry, then what constructive role does the critic play?  Wouldn’t the critic’s opinion merely be another voice in the critical landscape?  Both Vendler and Perloff have spent their careers demonstrating the importance of scholarly criticism–and the value of developing aesthetic taste– to those who believe that art and literature still matter.

Vendler has penned critical studies on poets as various as Rita Dove and Seamus Heaney to William Shakespeare and John Keats.  In fact, her work on Wallace Stevens is a tribute to artful criticism.  And prior to the Penguin anthology debacle, Vendler’s critical study on the poetry of William Butler Yeats  merited well-deserved attention.  Her work demonstrates the ways that scholarly criticism can be relevant to us: stylistically, Vendler’s writing serves as a model of clear thinking and superb prose.  At no point does she obscure close reading with technical jargon or ideological nonsense.  Does she ever cite Adorno, Agamben, or Zizek?  Nada.  In this way, her work belongs to an esteemed critical tradition; she is studied along with other major critics of the twentieth century, such as  R.P. Blackmur, Lionel Trilling, Frank Kermode, Hugh Kenner, Richard Ellmann, William Empson, T.S. Eliot, Northrop Frye, I.A. Richards, and M.H. Abrams, to name a few.  But do we study the critical tradition anymore?  Who are these names of the past?

In addition to lectures and interviews critics are exerting themselves with the use of technology: YouTube clips, podcasts, sound bites, and distance-learning interviews.  After all, both students and the general public are as likely to listen to a lecture by podcast as sit in a lecture hall. For years, Hubert Dreyfus at UC Berkeley has offered Heidegger lectures by podcast.  Vendler’s lectures have been converted to PDF files that are available online, such as  A Life of Learning: The Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 2001.  Or we can read Vendler’s Paris Review interview (1996) with the poet Henri Cole, aptly entitled “The Art of Criticism.”  Not only limited to Harvard lecture halls, Vendler’s lectures on W.B. Yeats’s poetry can be downloaded from a very popular web link.

Moreover, Marjorie Perloff has also reached out to audiences by means of radio interviews.  For instance, we can listen to an audio file of her discussing Yeats here.  Technology provides us with viable alternatives to appreciate critical discussions of poetry.   Have you ever explored the sound files on Penn Sound?  Have you browsed UbuWeb?  Check out these sites.  You might be surprised to discover what you’ve been missing.  By following links we can discover new media, poetry, films, and access critically informed scholarship  that is very much worth paying attention to.

Next time, I will discuss a chapter on Yeats in Vendler’s Poet’s Thinking… Until then, please enjoy the audio files and links, for you too can be a critic.


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