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."