- Fifteen Ways of Looking at Helen Vendler’s Stevens
HELEN VENDLER’S WRITINGS on Wallace Stevens span nearly fifty years. From her first article on the poet, “The Qualified Assertions of Wallace Stevens,” in 1965 (in an essay collection edited by Roy Harvey Pearce and J. Hillis Miller), to her most recent interview in the pages of this issue, readers and scholars of modern poetry, and of Stevens in particular, have seen a steady stream of books and articles, lectures, reviews, and interviews, that demonstrate her distinctive view of Stevens, and her always evolving understanding of this great poet. Ever since her early work, and, especially, since the publication of On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems (1969), Helen Vendler has been and continues to be a central and pivotal figure in Stevens criticism. It gives us great pleasure, then, to devote this special issue to studying her influence on Stevens studies over this half century, and her continuing impact.
To assert that On Extended Wings altered the course of scholarship on Stevens, and on modern poetry more broadly, is hardly an overstatement. Vendler’s attention to the structure and distinctive language of Stevens’ poems, as well as to the arc of his development as a poet, reframed a tradition that tended to focus more on biographical, literary-historical, and compositional history before she arrived on the scene. Her modes of reading Stevens set a high standard for scholars, both in their monographs and in literary-critical essays, challenging them to comprehensively grapple with a single poet’s works. As she reflects in the interview that launches this issue, an extended critical engagement with a single poet’s work is as much a rarity now (perhaps even more so now) as it was then. As a result, our understanding of Stevens, like our broader understanding of poetry and poetics, is often limited by a tendency to read texts in the context of anthology pieces. Among so many lessons Vendler has taught us, a principal one is how to study a poet’s work by tracing arcs of development through a scholarly engagement that begins but does not end in biography, and, above all, focuses upon the distinctive language of poetry, while maintaining a necessary sensitivity to the historical and cultural contexts that complicate and enrich our understanding. [End Page 123]
That Stevens of all modern poets should require such a reading is an understanding we take almost as a given today, but we would contend that it is a given that emerges to a very considerable extent from Vendler’s own work and the influence she has exerted. From the start, her project has been to make Stevens—her Stevens—available to a broader public, correcting what she has seen as misguided understandings of the poet as remote, dandyish, or abstract. As several essays in this issue attest, her zeal to illuminate Stevens as our great poet of desire and passionate feeling must be read against not only what one might presume of her own identification with him, but also against a quite particular historical and cultural moment in the life of literary criticism and literature departments in the United States and abroad.
It is no coincidence, then, that this special issue loosely frames itself in the terms Vendler herself has brought to bear upon Stevens. To grapple with the influence of Vendler’s critical legacy today, we must look back to foundational moments that informed her own education, and we must situate her scholarship in such a way that we might appreciate the development of her insights and her career. The essays that follow consider her work from a variety of perspectives: her coming of age in the educational climate of the 1950s and 1960s; the broader literary-cultural shifts in scholarship that took place over the course of her career, including theoretical traditions that are critical of limitations in Vendler’s work; her own public-private stances; and her positioning of Stevens’ “Americanness” in the context of an increasingly transnational field of scholarship.
Our multifaceted collection presents fifteen different ways of considering Vendler’s influence. In pieces that range from brief...