The Dance of Intellect

Mind and heart in lyric poetry

For generations now, critics as well as poets have debated what relationship, if any, poetry has to rational thought. The majority view is that poetry is the literary genre most antithetical to intellect. Poets are dreamers, not thinkers. Their job is not to traffic in ideas or arguments, and certainly not to assert true statements about the world, but rather to express emotion, or present experience. Idiosyncratic imagination is their stock in trade. If an idea should happen to sneak into a poem, what the poet tries to do is dramatize the subjective mind that's entertaining the idea, to drench the idea in a weather of sensibility so as to register its emotional effects. The stylistic essence of poetry, then, is image or metaphor or rhythm—the elements closest to sense impression and reverie—but certainly not anything we might associate with rational inquiry, like logic, abstract statement, or even syntax, which can embody the movement of a thinking mind.

Helen Vendler, Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats (Harvard University Press, $19.95)

Some poets and critics have dissented from this view: in the twentieth century, most notably, the poet-critic Yvor Winters, whose most famous book, published in 1947, is entitled In Defense of Reason. Winters argued passionately for a view of poetry that does not divorce it absolutely from rationality. Poetry for Winters is part and parcel of the human struggle to enlarge and extend the reach of consciousness. Its ambition is not simply to imitate or dramatize, but also, through stylistic and formal mastery, to illuminate and control the irrational and unknown aspects of our nature. According to Winters, every good poem is an act of moral discovery—of moral judgment and discrimination—in which feelings are understood as well as expressed. In the modernist period, when most critics and poets were arguing for some exclusive, non-rational way of writing—"a poem should not mean but be" (Archibald Mac Leish), "no ideas but in things" (William Carlos Williams), "a systematic derangement of the senses" (Arthur Rimbaud)—Winters admirably defended an inclusive aesthetic, one that attempts to integrate rather than isolate the rational and irrational dimensions of human experience, that sees the poem as activating both the mind and heart. And yet, while the principles Winters puts forth are attractively inclusive, his critical judgments of individual poets often seem eccentric, finicky, and moralistic. And this perhaps has limited the influence of his ideas on contemporary American poetry.

In her challenging and entertaining new book, Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Porter University Professor Helen Vendler argues that poetry in all its manifestations, however ostensibly irrational, is a mode of thinking that commands not just our aesthetic appreciation but also our intellectual respect. Like Winters, Vendler attempts to "counter the common practice of separating the idea of lyric from the idea of responsible thinking." Unlike Winters, though, her conception of thinking in poetry isn't confined to "rational statements in meter about human experience," nor is she interested in elevating one kind of poem or formal procedure over any other.

Thinking, in her view, is something larger than logical argument or discursive rigor. It isn't tied to any one style or form of writing; it isn't only or primarily a function of content or theme. Rather, thinking is synonymous with whatever aesthetic intent governs the unfolding shape of an individual poem. A poet's compositional habits, structural devices, and formal and rhetorical schemes project the energy of a mind at work. A poet, then, can think in images as well as abstractions, in narrative structure as well as rational deliberation. Moreover, poetic thinking may be constrained or shaped by history, but it is not determined by it. For Winters, thinking in poetry, and thus poetry in general, declined in the eighteenth century with the onset of romanticism and began to recover only in the twentieth century, with the emergence of what he called the post-symbolist poem—a poem that can integrate abstraction and image, sense-perception and idea. For Vendler, any good poem in any period or style embodies a process of thought. Vendler is more ecumenical than Winters, less doctrinaire.

While critics like Winters (whom, oddly, Vendler fails to mention) and John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell, and R.P. Blackmur all in different ways promoted a less exclusively expressive view of poetry, they all regarded the poem as a "static object, an entity that could be seen as a 'verbal icon' (a stylized picture to be gazed upon) or as 'a well-wrought urn.'" What interests Vendler, on the other hand, is the poem "depicted primarily as a fluid construction that could change its mind as it proceeded." This concern for the fluidly dramatic and open-ended is informed both by postmodern notions of selfhood as indeterminate and provisional, and by modernism's presentational or nonpropositional notion of poetic speech. The poem enacts a personal style of thought without necessarily saying anything of apparently rational significance. The thinking specific to poetry, she implies, is primarily dramatic and idiosyncratic. The poet is showing us a particular mind in the act of thinking, whether through story, lyric imagery, narrative structure, or nearly any element of style or form.

Which is to say, Vendler's notion of poetic thinking runs less against the grain of prevailing assumptions about lyric and responsible thinking than the title of the book implies. She is not suggesting that poets make assertions with which we either agree or disagree, but rather that when poets put their minds in motion on the page, they present linguistic experiences that invite participation, not argument. Ideas and discursive strategies are "toys" to play with, not instruments of truth. Even in the overtly essayistic and didactic Alexander Pope, she says, ideas are less important than the stage they set for an enactment of the poet's brilliance. Pope loves the "showy ornament," not the thought it illustrates. What he strives for is "a cinematic flow of living thought," not "thought embalmed." The fundamentally modern and postmodern qualities that Vendler admires and treats as evidence of thinking in the poets whom she discusses—identity as process, fluidity of structure, repetition with modification, playfulness, narrative shifts or dislocations—still assume that the work of poetry is to convey the poet's subjectivity. Poetic thinking compels our interest not necessarily because of what it says about the world, but because of what it expresses about the poet.


Vendler is a wonderful elucidator of individual poems. Nobody writes more insightfully about a poem's stylistic armature, and the emotional and intellectual purposes that armature serves. And by examining the distinctive strategies of thinking in the work of such radically different poets as Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, and Yeats, Vendler makes visible aspects of style and language that other critics simply haven't seen.

In her chapter on Pope's Essay on Man, she shows how Pope cleverly miniaturizes and parodies "every didactic genre" that he touches, diverting attention from intellectual content to the dance of intellect. This chapter is the most exciting in the book, for Pope is probably the least read of the poets she considers. He has been largely relegated to the classroom, read mostly by scholars and students of eighteenth-century literature. Vendler shakes the academic dust off Pope; she reveals how downright funny, entertaining, and offbeat he can be, even at his most solemn. Her analysis of structural devices like chiasmus in the famous "Man is not a fly" passage, or Pope's energetic use of meter and caesural pauses to enact his vision of man's middle status between gods and beasts (in the opening lines of section II of the poem), are memorable examples of vigorous close reading—of reading, as it were, over the shoulder of the poet as he writes. Time and again, I find myself as interested in Vendler's dance of intellect around the poem as in the intellectual dance of the poem itself.

Also, Vendler is one of the few critics who writes about syntax as an indispensable and expressive poetic resource. In her chapter on Whitman, she shows us how Whitman's use of reprise as an organizing principle, moving from some perceptual transcription of a moment to intellectual or aesthetic revision of it, grows out of "the basic molecule of Whitmanian chemistry, the semantic or syntactic parallel." She understands how syntax dramatizes a thinking mind. So in the closing lines of Whitman's "Come Up from the Fields Father," Vendler demonstrates how the permanence of the mother's grief over the death of her son is reflected by the "untensed and therefore eternal" present participles, and likewise how the mother's inconsolable and incontrovertible loss is suggested by "the untensed infinitives of impossibility" in the closing lines: "to follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son." She has equally illuminating observations on Dickinson and Yeats. She demonstrates how characteristic modes of structure—variations on seriality in Dickinson, alternations in Yeats between chains of imagery and discursive statement—can serve both as organizing principles and visions of experience.


But the question remains: what kind of truth is gotten at by the kind of thinking that poets do? If thinking in poetry has less to do with ideas per se, or with paraphrasable content, than with form and style, what vision of human flourishing is projected in and through a poet's characteristic modes of writing? Of course, it's not Vendler's intention to answer these questions definitively. Her ambition in Poets Thinking is simply to enlarge our view of what thinking in poetry can be. But there is a tension in the book between a vision of poetry as mere game and a suggestion of it as legitimate moral and intellectual inquiry that can deepen our understanding of what it means to be alive. Here and there she indicates that poetry has an important ethical dimension, however much it plays with modes of discourse, and she touches teasingly on the larger question of what the aim and purpose of poetic thinking is, what kind of knowledge poetry discovers, what moral values it projects.

Vendler states that the truth or value of poetry resides in its linguistic and imaginative energy, not in its intellectual content. The ideas behind Pope's Essay on Man are eighteenth-century commonplaces, interesting from a literary/historical perspective but offering nothing much of use to contemporary readers. On the other hand, the person implied by the poetic language of Essay on Man compels our admiration, respect, and even moral approval for his lightning wit, his emotional poise, his sense of proportion, and his simultaneous commitment to moral inquiry and his distrust of moral certitude—or, as Vendler puts it—"his need for the grids of system but at the same time his demonstration of the instability and insufficiency of all systems."

Likewise, the Whitmanian catalog with its avoidance of syntactical subordination, with every independent clause holding an equal position in the sentence while they each nonetheless possess their own distinct lines with their own distinct rhythms—isn't this itself a grammatical enactment and projection of Whitman's vision of a just society based on equality and individuality, just as the disruption of serial structure in Dickinson's later poetry reflects her sense of life as unpredictable? And doesn't Yeats's dual commitment to chains of imagery and discursive statement itself make a statement that human flourishing entails intellect and imagination, sense perception and thought?

While I am wonderfully instructed by the nuanced readings that comprise the heart of Poets Thinking, I find myself wishing that Vendler would think in much greater detail about these larger aesthetic/moral/philosophical questions. I can't think of an American critic better equipped to do so. In the meantime, I am grateful to have Poets Thinking to read and reread, and to use as a starting point for further meditation on these complicated but essential issues.


Alan Shapiro, Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the University of North Carolina, is the author of Song & Dance and other volumes of poetry.

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