- Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill
During the course of her distinguished career as America’s most renowned poetry critic, Helen Vendler has written several full-length studies of major English, American, and Irish poets from George Herbert to Wallace Stevens and Seamus Heaney. Even longer than these, her tour-de-force close reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all 154 of them taken one by one, extends over six hundred pages, and her recent commentary on selected poems of Emily Dickinson is only slightly shorter. Vendler is a dedicated teacher of poetry, and her introduction to poetry with accompanying poems, now in its third edition, runs to over seven hundred pages. Since 1995 she has made a genre all her own, however, of quite short books, based on lectures she has given, which look at three to five poets in relation to a governing idea about how lyric poetry works and how poets write. Some of these bring together British and American poets of different centuries; others such as Last Looks, Last Books, based on her A. W. Mellon Lectures at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, focus exclusively on American poets. I find Last Looks the most compelling of Vendler’s multi-author short books, which perhaps has something to do with her sense of her own aging, and my sense of mine.
Vendler’s title alludes to an Irish custom of “taking the last look,” which for those of us who have never heard of it she explains as follows: “When you find yourself bedridden, with death approaching, you rouse yourself with effort and, for the last time, make the rounds of your territory, North, East, South, West, as you contemplate the places and things that have constituted your life. After this last task, you can return to your bed and die” (1). Vendler suggests that when poets take a last look at the interface where death meets life, they must invent a “strange binocular style” in order to evoke the reality of that last look when death looms, while doing equal justice to the unsubdued vitality of the poet who calculatedly conjures up that look. In an introductory chapter, she contrasts how older poets, secure in their belief of personal immortality (John Donne, George Herbert, Edmund Waller), met that poetic challenge with how modern poets who lack such confidence (Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, James Merrill) also rise to it. As always with Vendler, we are induced to share her act of reading the poems she discusses and juxtaposes so deftly.
Her chapter on Stevens highlights a group of what were then new poems titled The Rock in his Collected Poems, published on his seventy-fifth birthday, October 2, 1954. Ten months later Stevens died of stomach cancer, bringing to an end five years of incremental exhaustion of body and mind. Nearing the end, Stevens makes the great subject of his magnificent late poetry the interface of life and death. Drawing also on the final poems written after the publication of Collected Poems, and looking back to two earlier poems, Vendler conducts us through Stevens’s poetic rite of passage toward death. As one would expect of [End Page 167] her, she attends to minutiae of style and to the dynamics of rhetorical structure in showing how his late poems portray old age as a paralytic stasis of body and mind, and how they look death in the face. “The Plain Sense of Things” and “The Region November” take an especially bleak look at the repetitive stasis of old age, while “Madame La Fleurie” and “The Dove in Spring” offer a grisly last look at the biological horrors of death by envisioning live burial. Countering the dismal worst, Stevens’s late poems now and again affirm that “mortality confers a compensatory value on life” (26). Vendler reads Part 1 of the title poem of The Rock sequence, subtitled “Seventy Years Later,” as a birthday poem in which Stevens retrospectively examines his biblically long life. This “most nihilistic” poem of his evokes nonetheless...