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The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition Paperback – October 27, 1995


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a few provocative pages, Harvard professor and author of the NBCC winner Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, once again demonstrates her talent for smart and sympathetic reading of poetry. She looks at four poets and their particular uses of a donnee (meaning theme but derived from the "given" of the title): for Robert Lowell, it is the persistent drive of history; for John Berryman, the mischievous and frightening id; for Rita Dove, the color of her skin; for the trilingual Jorie Graham, the problem of translating thought into language, into phenomenon. Almost all of the chapter on Berryman is devoted to his brilliant, funny and disturbing Dream Songs, while in Dove, Vendler follows differing, equally intriguing manipulations of her theme from "Parsley" to Thomas and Beulah and Grace Notes. Perhaps most interesting, because personal and poetical are so vividly intertwined, is her examination of Lowell. Vendler carefully outlines his changing interaction with history and its effect on his style, from the often overwrought public historical passions of The Mills of the Kavanaughs and the more intimate history and form that followed his parents' deaths and his own bout with manic depression. Although she occasionally gives in to the lure of such words as victimage and necessitarian, which tend to reflect dully on her usually lucid style, it's a small thing in her subtle, beguiling essays.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Review

Vendler is a critic readers of poetry, inside the academy and out, should take seriously...She writes less as a scholar (though her learning is prodigious) than as one impelled by the special pleasure she finds in poems to trace each instance of that pleasure to its source...While [The Given and the Made and The Breaking of Style] offer complex, sometimes difficult interpretations of work that is itself often difficult, they hew close to the primary experiences of wonder and conviction that is poetry's special power to evoke. Her prose is...lucid and elegant...[In The Breaking of Style,] the chapter on Hopkins is a tour de force, the most concise and helpful account I have seen of the dense, jarring, strangely musical meter the Victorian Jesuit called 'sprung rhythm'...Vendler's argument, in The Given and the Made, is that poetry is a special way of confronting, and symbolically resolving, the hard facts of life. And poetry, which has for so long seemed to be approaching an ultimate marginality, surely needs defenders like Vendler, so committed to protecting its singularity as an art form...These [are] illuminating books. (A. O. Scott Nation)

[review of Soul Says, The Given and the Made, and The Breaking of Style] Helen Vendler is justly admired as the author of critical studies of George Herbert, Keats, W. B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. Her current project is a study of Shakespeare's sonnets. She is also the most influential reviewer of contemporary poetry in English: her reviews of new books of poetry appear frequently and forcefully in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, Parnassus, and other journals...[H]er gifts are so immense...The new books have a number of such [acute] analyses, continuously alert to the detail of the poems...One of the pleasures of reading Vendler's criticism is that of seeing a poet's achievement lavishly appreciated...The most valuable chapters in the three new books are those in which Vendler leads us through difficult poems...After [she does so], the poem is still to be read, and read again, word by word, line, sequence, image cut into image. We have to get back from the discursive model, which Vendler so clearly describes, to the local movement and texture of the poem. But after Vendler's commentary we are in a much better position to do so. I cannot think of a better justification for a critic's work. (Denis Donoghue New York Review of Books)

[A] stimulating meditation on four significant American poets by an indispensable critic...Here [Vendler offers] four cool-headed, serenely selfless essays that originated as the T. S. Eliot Lectures given at the University of Kent. Her subject is the characteristic obsessions guiding the work of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Rita Dove, and Jorie Graham, each of whom, in Vendler's view, has transformed obsession into art...The particular virtue of Vendler is to write with the authority of a scholar and the alertness of a contemporary about a form of art too often deluged by arcana, professional jargon, literary back-patting, or neglect...A literary challenge and a companion for the common reader, whoever that may be, of 20th-century poetry. (Kirkus Reviews)

In the collections of essays The Breaking of Style and The Given and the Made Helen Vendler...firmly positions herself as one of our most authoritative voices on modern and contemporary poetry. Already an authority on Keats and Stevens among others, Vendler moved several years ago into the realm of contemporary poetry, where she has quickly established herself as a major critic. Vendler has always been a skilled practitioner of close reading, but in the essays of these two volumes she becomes an articulate apologist for the intensive attention to details of style and form that has come to be identified with New Criticism. Eschewing the current hegemony of theory in literary scholarship, Vendler makes the case in these essays that not only is there still a place for an exclusive engagement with the details of textual analysis, but to fail to address the details of a poem's making is to ignore its physical presence. (Mary Kaiser World Literature Today)
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The latest book club pick from Oprah
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