Mrs. Vendler's Profession

Poor, old Robert Frost--destined to be knocked around as a political tennis ball ever since that day in December 1960 when John F. Kennedy called him at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and asked if he would read a poem at the upcoming inauguration. According to Frost biographer Jay Parini, Kennedy first suggested that Frost compose something new for the occasion, but the poet demurred. So Kennedy, who was well acquainted with Frost's poetry, fell back on Plan B and suggested that the 86-year-old national icon read his poem "The Gift Outright" (first published in 1942, in A Witness Tree), the 16 lines of which go like this:

The land was ours before we were the land's.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. She was ours

In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

But we were England's, still colonials,

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.

Kennedy had just one small request: Would it be possible, in the last line, to change "as she would become" to "as she will become," just to make it sound more optimistic? Frost responded hesitantly, Parini tells us. "I suppose so."

Frost did, at the last minute, end up writing something new for the occasion--77 lines of pseudo-Augustan couplets intended to preface his reading of the older poem--but not many people remember it (even though it was published in his final volume, In the Clearing, in 1962), and that's just as well, because the poem is embarrassing both for its views and its versification (the last couplet: "A golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday's the beginning hour"). What people do remember is an aged poet with a shock of white hair struggling to read the faint typescript of his new poem in the wind and glare of a bright January morning and rather quickly giving up, only to launch into a flawless recitation of "The Gift Outright." "He ended magnificently," Parini reports, "dragging out the last line: 'Such as she was, such as she would become, has become, and I--and for this occasion let me change that to--what she will become." Quite a performance. Poetry and politics, you might say, in perfect sync.

But what of the poem? Many have taken issue with its high rhetorical whitewashing of the continent's conquest, the nationalism of its exclusive We. "This was the calm reassurance of American destiny that provoked Tonto's response to the Lone Ranger," Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize–winning poet, remarked in a 1995 essay on Frost. "No slavery, no colonization of Native Americans, a process of dispossession and then possession, but nothing about the dispossession of others that this destiny demanded." But Walcott (who, as a native of St. Lucia, knows a thing or two about colonialism) is not one to let politics obscure a poet's true artistic achievement. He goes on in the same essay to celebrate Frost's originality and force, concluding: "There is nothing to forgive Frost's poetry for. There are, instead, many poems to be grateful for, so many poems, indeed, that the man, the biography, the symbol of Yankee resilience are all negligible, since poetry pronounces benediction not on the poet but on the reader."

The British poet, journalist, and reader James Fenton--whose most recent collection of poems, Out of Danger (1994), won the prestigious Whitbread Prize--isn't so charitable. In The Strength of Poetry, his newly published volume of lectures delivered as Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1994 to 1999, Fenton labels "The Gift Outright" a "modern imperialist poem." "It is typical of the imperial point of view that it is ignorant of, or blind to, the other," he writes, and then lets fly this volley:

Yes, there had to be deeds of war--"The deed of gift was many deeds of war"--but why or against whom we need not, on this occasion, consider. The point is rather to wallow in the metaphysics of the conceit that Americans, in order to become truly American and truly strong, had to yield to the land, surrender to it, instead of what you would expect from an account of a pioneering society--that they had to seize the land and bend it to their will.

Fenton's treatment of "The Gift Outright"--which, Fenton not being one to mince words, he goes on to disparage as "egregious rubbish"--is the most strident moment in a book covering such twentieth-century poets as Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and W.H. Auden. Yet as damning and unnuanced as this reading may be (there is none of Walcott's insight into Frost's poetic innovation, no acknowledgment of Frost's undeniable contribution to the development of modern poetry), such a politically charged response to "The Gift Outright" is justified on some level, especially when one recalls the image of Robert Frost reading at John F. Kennedy's inauguration--a moment embedded, for better or worse, in public memory.

Nevertheless, in a scathing prepublication review of Fenton's book for The New Republic in late March, Helen Vendler, the Harvard English professor and ubiquitous poetry critic--considered by many the most influential critic of contemporary poetry in the United States today--seized upon Fenton's treatment of "The Gift Outright." Here is a prime example of wrongheaded political criticism, she instructs, and then goes on to offer her own corrective reading of the poem. (Though not before pausing to rebuke Fenton for what she takes as a telling error. "Fenton's animus cannot even stop to check its facts," she writes, before proceeding to quote Fenton's claim that "The Gift Outright" was written, in Fenton's words, "for purposes of state--in this case the inauguration of John F. Kennedy." The only problem is that Vendler's animus toward Fenton apparently cannot pause long enough to check its own facts: The finished version of Fenton's book contains no mention of the Kennedy inauguration at all; the passage she quotes is from the uncorrected proofs.)

Fact checking and personal animus aside, what Vendler goes on to say about Fenton's book as whole, is interesting for what it reveals about Vendler as a critic and about the kind of influence she wields with such a heavy hand--an influence that would attempt to prescribe the proper role of the critic and the proper boundaries of criticism itself.

"Fenton wants Frost to have written the materialist poem of manifest destiny," Vendler tells us. "But Frost is after other game: when, he asks, and how, and why, does any émigré begin to feel patriotic about the land he now inhabits instead of about the land he has left? How does such a change in consciousness take place?" In other words, Vendler doesn't want Frost to have written an overtly public-themed poem dealing with an objective, historical reality but a poem about a private, inner phenomenon. "Why is it that Fenton has so mistaken a poem about the inner process of a transfer of loyalty?" she asks. "Because his politics has wrenched him into misreading it."

Vendler's account of the poem, with her close attention to the language, is characteristically assured, but not particularly convincing. To call "The Gift Outright" a poem about "the inner process of a transfer of loyalty" is one thing; but to say, as she does, that "analogically taken, it is as much a poem about marriage as about colonials becoming Americans" is, well, a bit of a stretch--and seems willfully blind to the poem's explicit subject matter, simply for the sake of polemic. I'm all for reading "analogically," but what need is there to read a poem like "The Gift Outright" in such a way? Is that how the audience of the Kennedy inauguration heard it? Or any general reader before or since? (Good luck convincing Jack Kennedy that the poem he requested for his inauguration could just as easily be about marriage and the "inner process" of becoming a faithful spouse.)

What is it about Fenton that so offends Vendler's sensibilities as a critic? "It is revealing," she writes in the closing paragraphs of her review, "to notice how rarely Fenton ends his lectures on a literary note, claiming a new literary originality of some sort for his writers." The term "literary" can be taken many ways, but one assumes here that Vendler means the kind of close reading for which she herself is known, as opposed to the historical or biographical. Indeed, she concludes: "One would like to see Fenton writing a series of lectures on works denuded of biographical context--to see him write as a poet on poetry. On the strength of poetry. To live up, in short, to his title."

Fenton's real sin, in short, is that as a critic he is so utterly unlike Helen Vendler. In fact, it's hard to think of two contemporary critics who lie at further extremes of the spectrum of emphasis, style, and method. Fenton--who spent much of his career as a foreign correspondent in East Asia for The Independent (he was among the last Western journalists to leave Saigon in 1975) and has been a critic for the New Statesman and The Times of London--is obsessed with biography, politics, and sexual and cultural identity. His style tends toward the conversational, the anecdotal, and the irreverent. His arguments are loosely structured (when they are structured at all), painted in the broadest strokes.

Vendler may lack Fenton's colorful curriculum vitae, but what she lacks in worldliness she more than makes up for in scholarly authority. A distinguished lifelong academic, her work on the odes of Keats and on the sonnets of Shakespeare has been widely acclaimed, and her frequent reviews for The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books (to which Fenton is also a regular contributor) are often widely discussed. As a critic, Vendler's obsessions are the aesthetic, the lyric, and the most subliminal elements of poetic technique. Her style is relentlessly serious and scholarly. Her tightly structured arguments are based almost entirely on close textual analysis, the sole purpose of which is to pass (sometimes austere) aesthetic judgment. Vendler's representative poet might well be James Merrill, whom she described in a recent New Yorker review of his Collected Poems as "minutely interested in the tiniest elements of language" and praised for having persevered through "accusations of snobbery, affectation, preciousness, artifice, perversity, and élitism." If one poet among Fenton's favorites can be taken to represent his proclivities, it would perhaps be Auden, his illustrious predecessor as Oxford Professor of Poetry, to whom Fenton devotes no fewer than three of his lectures.

Maybe the difference between Fenton and Vendler, and between the opposing approaches to criticism they represent, comes down to this old, perhaps irresolvable debate: Is poetry, including Vendler's privileged lyric genre, a public affair, open and available to all readers and responses, and therefore part of the public life and political discourse of its time and place, an artifact of public record and public memory--of history? Or does a poem exist in a separate, aesthetic realm of the poet's imagination, a private world to which only the most educated, alert, and sophisticated readers can gain admittance? And in either case or both, what responsibility, if any, does the poet--to say nothing of the critic--owe the world, the public realm? For Vendler, lyric poetry is an "essentially private genre," and the moment a critic ventures into politics he crosses a dangerous frontier into the uncivilized terrain of journalism (that profession of ill repute). Fenton knows that the critic is already a journalist; for him, a poem, its context, its author's biography, are always fair political game: They have to be, because for Fenton there are no neat divisions between politics and art, between art and life.

One of the lectures Fenton does end on a "literary note" is the one on Seamus Heaney, the Catholic-born Nobel laureate from Northern Ireland, who was Fenton's immediate predecessor at Oxford and is a poet Fenton clearly admires--enough so to defend him against attacks by politically motivated critics. (Caught between nationalism and nonviolence, it must feel to Heaney as though he's been attacked from all sides: by those who would have had him take a stronger stand for the Irish Republican cause and by those who have maliciously read into certain of his poems a moral or political stance, including implicit support for IRA violence, that he does not espouse.)

Vendler doesn't comment on Fenton's Heaney lecture in her New Republic review, which is somewhat odd given that her most recent book--titled, simply, Seamus Heaney and published in 1998--is an unabashed celebration of Heaney's career up to 1996. Responding, like Fenton, to Heaney's political critics, Vendler issues some of her strongest statements about the nature of lyric poetry and how it ought (and ought not) to be read:

Heaney's adversary critics read the poems as statements of a political position, with which they quarrel. To read lyric poems as if they were expository essays is a fundamental philosophical mistake... .

Lyric is not narrative or drama; it is not primarily concerned to relate events, or to reify contesting issues. Rather, its act is to present, adequately and truthfully, through the means of temporally prolonged symbolic form, the private mind and heart caught in the changing events of a geographical place and a historical epoch.

These comments from the book's introduction strike me as an effort to close off debate with a few statements of inarguable critical dogma. Obviously a lyric poem is not an expository essay. Obviously lyric is not narrative or drama. Who could disagree? But this does not mean that a poem, even a lyric poem, never takes a position or expresses a political idea that demands an answer. After all, it was none other than Frost who wrote, in his famous essay "The Figure a Poem Makes," that in the end even poetry boils down to "one more art of having something to say."

Whereas a critic like Fenton takes it for granted that a poem is an inherently public act of communication, Vendler wants to remove poetry, and lyric in particular, from the public realm of political discourse. This puts her in an awkward position with regard to Heaney, a poet who knows well enough (as evidenced by his own essays and lectures in his books The Government of the Tongue and The Redress of Poetry) that his lyrics live in the open, that each connection between poet and reader takes place in the public space of the page. Vendler seems to want nothing less than to rescue Heaney from his inescapable role as a public poet, to keep him private (to keep him to herself). Yet nothing can change the fact that Heaney's poems, even those that appear the furthest removed from politics, are not private correspondence or entries in a diary but public utterances.

This tension between the public and private lives of poetry is perfectly displayed in the concluding passage of Seamus Heaney, where Vendler concedes, almost apologetically, that "Heaney has been forced, by the place and time into which he was born, to take on, within the essentially private genre to which he was called, the representation of an unignorable social dimension." But she cannot possibly leave it at that. She must remind her reader that

the only thing to which the genre of lyric obliges its poet is to represent his own situation and his responses to it in adequate imaginative language... . [The demand of Heaney's critics] that he see predicaments of politics or gender as they would, or have the same feelings about them as they do is, of course, unanswerable; that is not a demand one can make of art.

Fair enough. But one feels compelled to ask: What demands are we permitted to make of criticism? Certain demands may truly be "unanswerable" in the terms of art alone, but surely criticism is answerable; that is, as a form of journalism, like it or not, it must answer to the demands of history and politics. In Seamus Heaney, Vendler answers this demand in spite of herself: Despite her disavowals, she manages to deepen our understanding of Heaney's achievement as a witness to the political and moral predicaments of his time and place. For that, we have to be grateful. In the end, however, one would like to see Vendler acknowledge the full compass of her role as critic--to see her own up to the inherently public and, yes, political nature of her work, as Heaney acknowledges the nature of his. To live up, in short, to her title.