Helen Vendler, ‘Colossus’ of Poetry Criticism, Dies at 90

Helen Vendler, one of the leading poetry critics in the United States, with a reputation-making power that derived from her fine-grained, impassioned readings, expressed in crystalline prose in The New Yorker and other publications, died on Tuesday at her home in Laguna Niguel, Calif.She was 90.

The cause was cancer, said her son, David Vendler.

In an era dominated by poststructuralist and politically influenced literary criticism, Ms. Vendler, who taught at Harvard for more than 30 years, adhered to the old-fashioned method of close reading, going methodically line by line, word by word, to expose a poem’s inner workings and emotional roots.

“Vendler has done perhaps more than any other living critic to shape — I might almost say ‘create’ — our understanding of poetry in English,” the poet and critic Joel Brouwer wrote in 2015 in The New York Times Book Review, adding, “Were it not for Harold Bloom, the ‘perhaps’ would be unnecessary.”

Mr. Bloom, the literary scholar, himself said of Ms. Vendler: “She is a remarkably agile and gifted close reader. I think there isn’t anyone in the country who can read syntax in poems as well as she can.”

The writer and critic Bruce Bawer called her simply “the colossus of contemporary American poetry criticism.”

In important scholarly studies of classic authors, Ms. Vendler offered fresh interpretations of the 17th-century metaphysical poet George Herbert, Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, the Keats of the odes and the Shakespeare of the sonnets — all 154 of them, analyzed in a thick volume, “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (1997), which the poet Richard Howard called “the most intricately inquiring and ingeniously responding study of these poems yet to be undertaken.”

Back to top button