September 9, 2010
Any good bookstore is likely to offer a half-dozen different editions of Emily Dickinson's poetry. But the reason to consider buying Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries lies, of course, in the commentator, Helen Vendler.
Vendler -- A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard -- is widely regarded as our finest living critic and champion of contemporary poetry. Many would say of poetry, period, since she has produced important studies of half the Western canon, from Shakespeare's sonnets and George Herbert's metaphysical verse to the work of Keats, Whitman, Yeats, Stevens, Plath, Heaney and Ashbery. Vendler's sheer appetite for poetry and her explicatory power are phenomenal.
She is, however, a thoroughly serious, academic critic. Now, some professors are fun to read: Think of the cool Olympian clarity of Northrop Frye, the astonishing encyclopedism of Hugh Kenner, the delicious precisions of Guy Davenport, the Empsonian dash and brilliance of Christopher Ricks. Vendler's strength, meanwhile, lies in clearly, patiently explaining what's happening in a poem. But -- and it's a big but -- you really do need to pay attention. As Vendler writes in her introduction to Dickinson, hers isn't so much a book to read through as "a book to be browsed in, as the reader becomes interested in one or another of the poems commented on here."