Helen Hennessy Vendler

Doctor of Letters

Perhaps it was the Harvard English department's reluctance to accept a chemistry major as a graduate student that set Helen Hennessey Vendler so firmly on her path to literary eminence. More likely it was what she has described as a "young and fierce worship of truth." Now the A. Kingsley Porter Professor of English at Harvard, she has published 10 major books of literary criticism and stands as one of America's most respected critics of poetry.

Never at a loss for words about words, Vendler writes and speaks in an authoritative voice that combines meticulous scholarship with pure common sense. An impressively wide-ranging critic and scholar of lyric poetry in English, she began her career by publishing her Harvard dissertation on W.B. Yeats, moving on to write next about Wallace Stevens, George Herbert and John Keats. More recently she has written a book on Shakespeare's sonnets and one on Seamus Heaney. Her vision of what is best in contemporary poetry has been conveyed through her teaching and in regular reviews for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, among many other publications. Students at Amherst were privileged to spend time with her when she was Frost Library Fellow in 1985.

Poetry, Vendler has said, "is casting reality into a symbolic form." Asked what she thought poetry would offer in the future, she replied with an analogy: "The same thing that it has offered in the past . . . . the sheer athletic delight of seeing something done extremely well." Admiring excellence in language or sport is not equivalent to "elitism," she added: "You love to see the human organism pressed to its utmost expressiveness in any field."

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