The critic is the only artist who depends entirely upon another art form, which means that part of his job is to determine the nature of that relationship. Should he be an advocate? A policeman? A curator? A hanging judge? A mostly loyal but occasionally snippy personal assistant? The decision is an unconscious one, perhaps, but once it’s made, the critic’s writing will be colored by his chosen role in the same way that our voices carry the accents of our birthplaces.
Helen Vendler is one of the most powerful poetry critics of our time, and her relationship with her art is as simple as it is peculiar: she’s a steward. If contemporary poetry were a great manor house, Vendler would be its long-serving and unshakable manager, monitoring the stable hands, restocking the wine cellar, preventing the chambermaids from swiping the jewelry and, above all, keeping immaculate the high chambers to which the lords and ladies retire at nightfall. It’s an unusual position — unlike Vendler, most poetry critics are poets themselves — and it comes with its own curious set of virtues and vices. On one hand, Vendler is an astonishingly thorough and patient reader whose devotion has influenced the way we read Herbert, Shakespeare, Stevens and many others. On the other hand, her work occasionally demonstrates the flaws that come from feeling that one is obligated to ensure the Right Poets are read the Right Way.
Note that your blogger has just finished this book and, although as the reviewer writes, much of it is as “dry as chalk dust,” it’s still a remarkable work of scholarship and of interest to all Yeats’ aficionados.