Reviewing Helen Vendler's new collection of essays, The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar, Jack Hanson identifies one of the critic's core principles:
She moves as swiftly or as slowly as the material demands, locates the poet within a concrete tradition (elsewhere she compares Stevens’ bird to Keats’ nightingale), and touches always on what she refers to as the “base of poetry,” that is, emotion. Her request that the reader imagine herself living out a poem’s metaphor succinctly illustrates Vendler’s commitment to the belief that poetry, and art in general, spring forth from life, not as a political or even educational exercise, but as part of human experience, and that indispensable to enduring art is the reflection of life’s central concerns.He also touches on her generosity:
She is at once willing to follow merit into poets whose work is, as she has said elsewhere, “uneven,” and also to rave, as an ostensibly “objective” critic or scholar (or even reviewer) might not. Where a Harold Bloom or a George Steiner (her most famous contemporaries and certainly her equals as readers of poetry, if not, in some cases, slight inferiors) might not devote much time to say, Hughes or Ginsberg, given the much bigger poetic fish to fry, Vendler digs in and finds worth where she can. It takes an unusually gifted reader, having once established Hughes as “not a major poet,” to go on to claim that his is a “poetics of announced reciprocity,” and spend pages on the several short, gnomic poems that exemplify this quality, which is so often passed over by the poet’s political disciples. It also takes an unusually enthusiastic and confident critic to engage in a long discussion of titles and their import, as she does for A.R. Ammons, whose canon, she writes, “to our grief, has now closed.” The heart wants what it wants, and what reader has not fallen in love with a poet?