26 January 2005

Kindred spirit

Scott McLemee's excellent article on Helen Vendler is up at The Chronicle of Higher Education (as an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to discover her while studying George Herbert):

In her Jefferson Lecture and in Poets Thinking, her most recent book, Ms. Vendler is making a claim that the careful reading of poetry is itself an intellectual discipline -- one that is distinct from whatever one might say about it using the tools of cultural theory.


"The way poetry is practiced was considered of no serious import to higher education," she says. "That struck me as very wrong. After all, some of Shakespeare's sonnets are among the glories of our literature, and should belong in the training of the mind." Ms. Vendler has been using her appearances at the lectern to advocate the idea that the skills involved in reading poetry closely have as central a place in the humanities as philosophical analysis or historical context does.

Those who know me well know that I'm a huge proponent of close reading. I think there's a certain part of us that is challenged (touched, expanded) by works of literature that isn't necessarily affected in the same way by other disciplines. There's actually quite a debate/discussion going on right now regarding the "point" of literary studies. (A great place to start is The Reading Experience--incidentally, Dan Green is also quoted in the Vendler article.) Whenever I find the time, I would really like to delve into this further.

But for now, the day is drawing to a close and I'll have to try and catch the bus home...so I'll (happily) end with Vendler explicating Dylan Thomas:

All I have to give I offer
wine, bread, and halter.

"It means that you offer your little capacities," she explains. "And every generation is astonished that the capacities on offer are not better. 'Are we all there is?' you say to yourself. And you wish you were better. You wish your tastes were more catholic, perhaps. But all you can do is offer what you have. I've always loved thinking about poetry, and writing about it. That's my vocation. All I can do is practice it."

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