Book alert: The coming together of two greats—Emily Dickinson and Helen Vendler. Vendler has just released a new book, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. And although there are many collections of Dickinson’s work currently available, I can’t think of anyone I would prefer walking through those poems with than Vendler. Her sensibilities have enriched the works of two of my other favorite poets, Wallace Stevens and William Butler Yeats.
From a review of Vendler’s book written by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:
Vendler’s sheer appetite for poetry and her explicatory power are phenomenal. She is, however, a thoroughly serious, academic critic. Now, some professors are fun to read: Think of the cool Olympian clarity of Northrop Frye, the astonishing encyclopedism of Hugh Kenner, the delicious precisions of Guy Davenport, the Empsonian dash and brilliance of Christopher Ricks. Vendler’s strength, meanwhile, lies in clearly, patiently explaining what’s happening in a poem. But — and it’s a big but — you really do need to pay attention. As Vendler writes in her introduction to “Dickinson,” hers isn’t so much a book to read through as “a book to be browsed in, as the reader becomes interested in one or another of the poems commented on here.”
As Dirda points out in his review, Dickinson has been described by the legendary critic Harold Bloom as “the best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries.” And yet:
Aside from the handful of poems that appeared anonymously in local newspapers, she never published her work. Most of it survives either in manuscripts or from transcriptions in letters, mainly to her family. When first brought out in book form, her generally short, gnomic verses were often regularized. Words were altered when their meaning was deemed puzzling or sacrilegious, and Dickinson’s beloved dashes, her preferred form of punctuation, were frequently changed to commas or periods. Only in 1955 did Thomas Johnson produce a scholarly edition that printed the earliest fair copy of what Dickinson actually wrote.
Dickinson’s poetry, summarizes Vendler, is “epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, funny.”
Can’t wait to read this commentary.