Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Montage | Open Book

"Poems Are Not Position Papers"

January-February 2008

Porter University Professor Helen Vendler grew up with her mother’s poetry books, which “stopped with the Victorians.” It was not until she was 22 that she read Yeats’s work and “was astonished by it.” She felt too young to write her dissertation on the poems; now, in Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Harvard, $35), she feels “it is not absurd” to do so.

 I knew that someone who was 22 could not write convincingly on the emotions and motives of someone who wrote until he was 73. Perhaps, I thought, once I had lived through the stages of life that had, in Yeats, produced the great late poems, I might aim to write about them.…

[T]o my eyes, Yeats’s style was the most important of his qualities, since it was what would make the poems last. Yeats himself said, after all, “Books live almost entirely because of their style.” To undertake a book that was taxonomically focused on Yeats’s lyric styles was not entirely what I wanted to do…but it was what needed to be done. .…

I have put myself here in the position of the writer of the poems, attempting to track his hand and mind as he writes. I do not, therefore, argue with Yeats’s ideological or aesthetic positions (which in any case changed over time, and were never anything but complex; as my teacher John Kelleher once said, “Yeats is a poet who moved, like General Sherman, on a wide and constantly shifting front”). I take as my defense for this position Yeats’s remarks in a 1927 letter…: “Schopenhauer can do no wrong in my eyes—I no more quarrel with his errors than I do with a mountain cattaract [sic]. Error is but the abyss into which he precipitates his truth.” Here, as I comment on a poem, I aim to follow the poet’s creative thinking as it motivates the evolution of the poem. Nor do I want to argue with the poems; poems are hypothetical sites of speculation, not position papers. They do not exist on the same plane as actual life; they are not votes, they are not uttered from a podium or pulpit, they are not essays. They are products of reverie.…Each poem is a new personal venture made functional by technical expertise; the poet’s moral urgency in writing is as real, needless to say, as his technical skill, but moral urgency alone never made a poem. On the other hand, technical expertise alone does not suffice, either. Form is the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet’s moral urgency, the poet’s method of self-revelation.…

Yeats asserted (in his elegy for the painter Robert Gregory) that the gazing heart “doubled its might” by having recourse to the artist’s “secret discipline” of form. He singled out…“that stern colour and that delicate line”—an emotional palette and structural draftsmanship—as the ingredients of that “secret discipline.” In poetry, as in all the arts, “the gazing heart” remains the center, but it doubles its might by its own proper means: diction, prosody, structural evolution, a sense of perfected shape.