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Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries Hardcover – August 9, 2010

26 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674048676 ISBN-10: 0674048679 Edition: 0th

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Vendler stands among America's most respected critics. This big book of informed, sometimes witty, always thoughtful and determinedly accessible commentaries follows the model of Vendler's The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets; 150 poems by Emily Dickinson appear alongside essays explaining how to read each one. Vendler (a professor at Harvard) explains Dickinson's intricate, fast-changing metaphors, her emotional extremes, her metrical oddities, and her frequent dissent from organized religion, "the unbeliever commenting on the deluded faithful." Contrary to stereotype, the Dickinson here is less eccentric than deeply ambitious, unwilling to compromise in her search for the right words, the right work of art, the right spirit of life: beneath one late, flirtatious poem's "mischievous play... lies the yearning of the unique Dickinson for a natural companion resembling herself." The collection anticipates readers who will open it up at random, read through at leisure, or else search for a specific poem: it may overwhelm those who attempt to read it straight through. Yet that depth, that concentration on single poem after single poem, is one source of its strength: riddling, idiosyncratic, sometimes coy, and extraordinarily intelligent, Dickinson's poems respond almost ideally to the analysis Vendler is best equipped to give.
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The best close reader of poems to be found on the literary pages. (Seamus Heaney)

There is just no way of summarizing a critic as subtle and meticulous as [Vendler]. (Marilyn Butler)

Emily Dickinson is certainly never going to be an easy poet to understand, but her dense, poignant lyrics are now a lot more accessible to ordinary readers thanks to Vendler's unravelings. If you're going to read Dickinson, this "selected poems and commentary" is the place to start. (Michael Dirda Washington Post 2010-09-09)

Emily Dickinson is the sorcerer's stone. Her poetry contains, no, is, the most essential, passionate use of English and the most essential, passionate connection between the English language and nature (our nature, birds and bees nature, God's nature)...Dickinson's spare use of words are just the tip of her iceberg; the waters below contain so many secrets that it truly helps to have a guide to the meter, the myth, the thread of dreams. [And] if you're going to hire a guide, you may as well have the best, and Vendler is the best. (Susan Salter Reynolds Los Angeles Times 2010-09-12)

This book takes 150 of [Emily Dickinson's] poems and devotes a two- or three-page chapter to each. If you have a favorite poem, you look it up and Vendler will walk you through it as if you've never read it before. It's like reading the poem in italics. (Billy Collins New York Post 2010-10-02)

Both casual readers and scholars of Dickinson alike will want to purchase it. (Stacy Russo Library Journal 2010-10-15)

If it's been a while since you last sat down with Dickinson, now is a great time: Helen Vendler's new book, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, is both an anthology (it contains 150 of Dickinson's nearly 1,800 poems) and an interpretive introduction, with a short essay following and explaining each poem. Vendler is almost certainly the best poetry critic in America, and she's hit upon a great way of writing about poetry. Reading each poem, followed by Vendler's commentary, it feels like you're in your own private poetry class. (Josh Rothman Boston Globe 2010-10-25)

[A] superb and invigorating new selection of 150 poems and probing commentaries...The poet that Vendler finds in these poems is an ambitious and sometimes magisterial artist of extraordinary range and verbal control. Vendler's comprehensive reassessment of Dickinson's achievement seems to me the most challenging new reading of Dickinson since the poet Adrienne Rich's remarkable essay "Vesuvius at Home" (1975)...What Vendler, perhaps the most skilled and accomplished close reader of lyric poetry of her generation, adds to this picture is a renewed attention to Dickinson's deliberate and consummate artistry, along with a fresh way to read cryptic poems that may seem, superficially, to have little to do with the "maelstrom" of human emotions. (Christopher Benfey New York Review of Books 2010-11-25)

The reigning doyenne of American poetry criticism is a close reader par excellence. [Vendler] loves her favorite poets unstintingly. She seems to think and feel in their language--to think and feel through their work, as through a membrane. Her Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries plays exactly to her strengths, as did her 1997 edition of Shakespeare's sonnets...What I like best about Vendler's Dickinson is its can-do attitude. Yes, it assures the reader, the poem says what you think it says: trust your own eyes, experience, and heart...She doesn't try to quash the mystery of the poems; she notes their ambiguities but by and large leaves those to do their work--and leaves us closer to a canonical poet whom we are still only coming to know. (Lorin Stein Harper's 2010-12-01)

Dickinson continues to entertain and enlighten me. Vendler manages to clarify and illuminate Dickinson's poetry without oversimplifying the work of a complex mind. Her succinct but astute readings of Emily Dickinson's poetry are little kernels of insight into a wickedly keen poetic mind. (Hillary Kelly New Republic 2010-12-22)

This year Helen Vendler published her own selection of Dickinson's verse along with astute commentary. After reading Dickinson's fifty or seventy-five best poems you realize that few poets have written this many poems of this much merit. Dickinson's manuscripts show that she left behind multiple variations on words and phrases, sometimes as many as a dozen, without favoring a particular one. Vendler points out moments when Dickinson wrote one word, only to bracket it and replace it with another. Not since Vendler's meticulous commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets has a finer book of close-readings been published. (Jeannie Vanasco Lapham's Quarterly 2010-12-29)

What Vendler did for Shakespeare's sonnets, she has done again for Dickinson's poems, demonstrating her refined skill and rare gift for loving attentiveness. When our age of hurry and perspiration threatens close reading, Vendler helps us slow down--way down until meter, word choice, punctuation, metaphors, tone, and allusion matter. She deftly reveals that form is as much a carrier of meaning as content. (Christopher Benson First Things 2010-12-21)

These commentaries on a selection of Dickinson's poems are best summed up in one word: brilliant. Skeptics who might be inclined to question whether anyone has anything new to say about Dickinson's oeuvre nearly 125 years after her death will find that the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Vendler manages to offer original, insightful observations about Dickinson's humor, her pain, her metaphysical abstractions, and her syntactical inversions. (D. D. Knight Choice 2011-03-01)

Vendler's commentaries are enlightening and enjoyable revelations of Dickinson's often elusive meanings; she is also a master of the technical and devotes consistent attention to the poet's metrical skills and innovations. (Maurice Earls Dublin Review of Books 2011-03-01)

This new book is as meticulous as Vendler's commentary on Shakespeare's Sonnets (1997). As well as their mysterious inner lives, these are poets who share an ability to compress the maximum force into the fewest words. In Dickinson's case, her manuscripts show that she left behind multiple variations on words and phrases, sometimes as many as a dozen, without any indication of favoring one over the others. She claimed that her closest companion was her lexicon. (Jeannie Vanasco Times Literary Supplement 2011-05-13)

Helen Vendler provides clear commentary, uncluttered by fashionable and hyphenated literary theory, on 150 poems by one of the most enigmatic American poets. (Elizabeth Hoover Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2011-04-24)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (September 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674048679
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674048676
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #353,639 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

104 of 109 people found the following review helpful By Tim Ellison on August 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the book on Dickinson I have always been waiting for, and wished I could write. Though I have loved Dickinson since I first started reading poetry and have brooded on a number of her poems and have even visited her residence in Amherst, Vendler's endless array of superb insights prove my previous interpretive sallies splendidly inadequate. Like Vendler's previous work on Keats, Hopkins, Yeats and Stevens, Vendler's lucid commentaries on Dickinson open up the poems to the reader's own imagination. This is to say that, though Vendler writes confidently and persuasively, even less than in her books on Keats and Stevens, she is not beholden to any overarching `argument' she must continue to address. (Some have criticized Vendler for her argument that Keats's Odes constitute a `sequence'; even if you disagree, you could very well ignore that thesis and instead concentrate on the local insights that constitute so much of the book's pleasure.) Without having to worry about promoting a ground-breaking thesis (other than a general one about Dickinson's originality of poetic argument, language, form and metaphor), we can simply enjoy Vendler thinking through each poem, providing us with intellectual and `algebraic,' to use her metaphor, schemas upon which to apply our own emotional responses.
Unlike some other great poetry critics (such as Harold Bloom), Vendler is intuitive and imaginative without being so idiosyncratic or doctrinaire as to promote her reading as THE reading or at least the definitive "Vendler" reading. We feel, rather, that we are being taught, instructed, provoked without being asked to incorporate ourselves into an unfamiliar theoretical interpretive system that would leave any vigorous response under the spell of that system rather than under the spell of the poem.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Michael Greenebaum on March 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I am actually very glad to read the enthusiastic comments of most reviewers, even though I cannot go all the way with them. As an admirer of both Dickinson and Vendler, I was surprised to feel that poet and commentator were in this instance mismatched. Dickinson opens her lines to multiplicity of possibilities; Vendler wants to close them to only one. Dickinson's punctuation is deliberately (I think) ambiguous; Vendler largely ignores it. When a great poem "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" ends with the breathtaking word "then, " which looks both forward and back, Vendler appears uninterested. And when Dickinson marvelously describes a steam engine standing in the station as "docile and omnipotent", Vendler chooses, without justification, to transform those adjectives into a grotesque self-parody. To Vendler, everything requires an explanation.

Much of Vendler's commentary thrills me and opens up interpretations that I had not considered. But I soon learned to consult the commentary only when some aspect of a poem puzzled me, and then I was surprised to find that Vendler did not choose to comment on it. Of course, there is so much Dickinson commentary that this book holds a valuable place on the shelf. But unlike Shakespeare, Keats, Stevens and Yeats, for whom Vendler has become an authoritative reader, Dickinson resists her.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Eileen Granfors on October 6, 2010
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No one offers insight into poetry as detailed and yet helpful as that of Helen Vendler. She has written of the great poets and their poetry, and I have gained something from each of her books.

This new volume, "Dickinson" takes on the enigma of Emily Dickinson. Like the others, this one is a browser's book. . .find a poem you want to understand better, wrestle with the poem a while by yourself, and then go over what Vendler has to say. Go over what Vendler has to say VERY SLOWLY and CAREFULLY. You will be enriched.

While she sometimes makes outlandish claims about the impact of a particular word or meter, she is nevertheless helpful in giving the reader new ideas to consider.

I love Emily Dickinson's work. I cannot say that I truly understand Dickinson's work. With Helen Vendler's help, I can speak somewhat more intelligently about the possibility of meaning in Dickinson's poems that appear so simple. There is much more going on between the lines, as Vendler points out.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By John Klima on December 9, 2010
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This is Vendler doing what she does best: illuminating the stylistic and imaginative features of the work of a great poet. Here, the reader always benefits from Vendler's insights into Dickinson's creative process and decisions, and in every case the reader comes away with a stronger sense of what the poet was trying to accomplish in a particular poem. This is true whether Vendler turns her attention to the substitution of a single word (lie/sleep) or an entire stanza (as in "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers"). Vendler's comparison of variants is always instructive -- as in her reading of "Title Divine -- is mine!," in which she reflects on the poet's use of rhyme, rhythm, diction, punctuation, et cetera. It will be eye opening to many readers, I suspect, to see the ways in which something as "simple" as rhyme reinforces meaning.

Vendler is also very good on biblical imagery and allusion. Over the course of many commentaries, Dickinson's obsession and argument with the Bible seems to come to life. This, I think, is one of the more astounding accomplishments of the book. And here she provides a great, great service to the reader. In a more secular age, when people don't really read the Bible any longer, we need to have everything writ large for us. All in all, this is an indispensible guide to Dickinson's poetry.
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