Helen Vendler, Poetry Critic Both Revered and Feared, Dies at 90

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University
Helen Vendler in Cambridge, Mass., in 2014.

Helen Vendler, a literary scholar and reviewer of poetry who was revered and feared in equal measures, whose scalpel-sharp critiques could elevate or wound careers and who introduced hundreds of poets to a wider audience, died April 23 at her home in Laguna Niguel, Calif. She was 90.

The cause of death was cancer, said her son, David Vendler.

Among poets writing in English – and especially Americans – Dr. Vendler stood as a powerful gatekeeper in the same way that top theater critics can make or break a Broadway show. For the reading public, meanwhile, she helped bring attention to poets and their work with reviews in the New Republic, the London Review of Books, the New Yorker and other outlets.

Her clout grew steadily over more than five decades through a prolific output of reviews and more than two dozen books. She also carried added sway as a longtime poetry judge for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as a nominator for the “genius” grants of the MacArthur Foundation.

Literary critic Bruce Bawer called her “the colossus of contemporary American poetry criticism.”

“I do understand, I think, what it feels like to be a poet, even though I’m not one,” Dr. Vendler once said at Harvard University, where she began teaching in the 1980s. “I was born with a mind that likes condensed and unusual language, which is what you get from poetry.”

She acknowledged that poetry was often a deeply personal experience for the reader. “You don’t read or overhear the voice in the poem,” she told the Paris Review. “You are the voice in the poem.” But she also made clear what she favored and why.

Dr. Vendler objected to poetry that pushed an ideology, an instinct she traced back to her dismay over the controls of the Catholic Church during her education while growing up in Boston. She could find kinship with poets exploring the world through a woman’s eyes, recalling the cold reception she received in the 1950s as a graduate student at Harvard’s English Department.

She insisted that her goal wasn’t to be an arbiter of poetry. She instead regarded herself as an interpreter of the craft, seeking to analyze the form, flow, intent and literary inspirations behind a piece. Harold Bloom, a noted literary critic, called her the ultimate “close reader.”

“Reviewing doesn’t mean much if your fellow poets don’t think you are good,” Dr. Vendler told the New York Times in 1997. “The canon is made by poets themselves.”

Yet there was no doubt of the boost she gave to those she praised, such as Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney; Rita Dove, the U.S. poet laureate from 1993 to 1995; and Pulitzer winner Jorie Graham. (During the early 1970s, Dr. Vendler helped select poets whose work was evaluated by the New York Times Book Review.)

“She is like a receiving station picking up on each poem, unscrambling things out of word-waves, making sense of it and making sure of it. She can second-guess the sixth sense of the poem,” Heaney once said.

She also wrote in a taut, journalistic style that could carry a punch.

In 1982, she pounced on the “ventriloquism” of a future Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott, whom she criticized for being “at the mercy of influence” of other writers. In a 1996 review in the New Yorker, she called out American poet and memoirist Mark Doty for “inert” rhythms. In the same story, she celebrated August Kleinzahler for “his irreverent joy in the American demotic” – a recurring point of reference for Dr. Vendler and her interest in poets seeking to convey the American experience.

When Alice Quinn, the poetry editor at the New Yorker, pulled together unpublished works by the late poet Elizabeth Bishop in the 2006 anthology “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” the reception from Dr. Vendler was harsh. She chided Quinn for publishing the “maimed and stunted siblings” of Bishop’s completed poems. “I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts,” Dr. Vendler added in the New Republic.

Any critic, of course, faces criticism. Dr. Vendler was sometimes described as too protective of poetry in its traditional forms and failing to give sufficient recognition of other outlets such as hip-hop, rap and spoken-word poetry slams. In 2011, she engaged in back-and-forth barbs with Dove over the “The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry,” which Dove edited. Dr. Vendler asserted that “multicultural inclusiveness” meant too many poets were represented.

“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading,” Dr. Vendler wrote in the New York Review of Books, “so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? … Selectivity has been condemned as ‘elitism.’”

Dove shot back, “I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt.”

‘Poetry in the house’

Helen Hennessy was born April 30, 1933, in Boston. Her father taught Romance languages at high schools; her mother had been a teacher in the Boston Public School system but was forced to resign under a rule at the time requiring female teachers to be single.

Helen learned Spanish, French and Italian from her father, and said her love of poetry was inspired by her mother, who “was the fount of poetry in the house.”

She wrote her first poem at 6. “I went on writing until I was 26, and then I stopped,” she recalled. “I had found my real vocation as a critic by then.”

As a student, she attended Catholic schools and then Boston’s Emmanuel College because her parents opposed a “secular” education. “Women intellectuals were not thick on the ground in the Catholic Church,” she told the Boston Globe. “There was no place for me to be. There was no club for me to join.”

She wanted to study French literature at Emmanuel but found that many French writers, including Voltaire and Gustave Flaubert, were banned by the church at the time. She switched to chemistry. After graduating in 1954, she studied in Belgium under a Fulbright fellowship. When she returned in 1955, she took undergraduate courses in English at Boston University and in 1956 entered Harvard as a graduate student.

The head of the English department told her that “we don’t want any women here,” and she was once blocked by a recalcitrant professor from attending a seminar on the author Herman Melville, she recalled.

“I was very shaken,” she said. She completed her doctorate in 1960 and soon married Zeno Vendler, a philosopher who had once trained for the Jesuit priesthood.

After her divorce in 1964, she struggled financially as a single mother. She told the Boston Globe that she refused to abandon writing, calling that path a “form of self-murder.”

In 1966, the Massachusetts Review magazine asked her for an article looking at that year’s new poetry. Three years later, she published a volume analyzing the poems of Wallace Stevens, making a strong case for a reevaluation of his work, which many other scholars had dismissed as overwrought and tedious.

In her 1975 book “The Poetry of George Herbert,” she asserted that the poet was more complex than his far more famous contemporary John Donne.

For more than two decades, she taught at various campuses including Cornell University, Smith College and Boston University. In 1985, Dr. Vendler joined the Harvard faculty full-time. She retired in 2018.

Her books and essays included explorations of John Keats, Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare’s sonnets. She remained forceful in her opinions about some poets, including T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, over political views that some characterized as antisemitic.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Humanities named her a Jefferson Lecturer, the highest government honor on a scholar of the humanities. A collection of her essays and reviews, “Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets” (1980), won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

In addition to her son, David, survivors include a brother; and two grandchildren.

In a 1996 interview with the Paris Review, Dr. Vendler was asked whether her reviews ever outshone the poetry she was reviewing.

“Oh, no,” she said. “My language is so much the inferior of the poets’. Even a minor poet has far greater gifts of language than I have.”