Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill
Princeton University Press (Footprint Books), $29.95 hb, 152 pp
Helen Vendler, a supreme partridge among American critics of poetry, has written a third shining book on style – which she has made her métier, rather after Theodor Adorno, the philosopher-critic of music and the aesthetic high road. In her first, The Breaking of Style (1995), about Hopkins, Heaney, and Graham, she revealed how poets ‘can cast off an earlier style to perform an act of violence on the self’ – extending mastery. Coming of Age as a Poet (2003) was about the mature self-making of Milton, Keats, Eliot and Plath. Both books delivered the pleasures to which we have become accustomed: the feeling that we are in the company of a most brilliant undresser of poems, a critic who knows their stitching so well that she can lay their song and soul truly bare. Her powers of elucidation, with its enshrining of techne, have long brought joy to poets and their readers.
Last Looks, Last Books completes the logic of this sequence. Her great poets are inspected by reference to death, as their ‘last words’ contend with the mortal coils of bodies and time. What happens then? Vendler wants to know. As poets of a secular modernising age, by what means does the poem contend with the absence of the consolation available to the earlier greats? ‘The poet, still alive but aware of the imminence of death, wishes to enact that deeply shadowed but still vividly alert moment; but how can the manner of a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit.’ Such a poem, Vendler proposes, is one that can sustain what she calls a binocular vision.