23 April 2006

Shameless gushing

I love Helen Vendler. Despite the recent "controversy" (which amounts to telenovela theatrics on the part of the press) regarding the stance she's taken against the newly-published Elizabeth Bishop material, this is a critic who loves poetry.

Today I spent a few hours finishing The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham in a café because I could not put it down. It is the first of her books I've had the pleasure to read. I'm no grad student, but any critic who says such things as, "It is because I am struck, always, by a naive wonder at the convincingness of a poem that I feel driven to ask how that memorable persuasive power has been gained," merits serious consideration (if not undying devotion). One of the best motives for close reading I've found yet--there is no murder in this dissection.

I've mentioned her section on Hopkins; now I read of Heaney and Graham. Her analyses made me love Heaney all over again, and now The End of Beauty is topping my wishlist. Why have I not read any of this before?

On Heaney's "Field Work":
I lick my thumb
and dip it in mould,
I anoint the anointed
leaf-shape. Mould
blooms and pigments
the back of your hand
like a birthmark--
my umber one,
you are stained, stained
to perfection.
What is it that has liberated the hesitant poet, trapped in states of impotent watching, into "verb, pure verb"? It is the discovery that perfection is not immaculate but maculate. These verbs--"I lick . . . and dip, . . . I anoint"--are ritual sacramental verbs, vaguely baptismal, vaguely confirmational. The reclaiming of the maculate body--male and female--under the signs of sticky leaf-juice (life-juice) and adhering earth ("dust thou art") enables decisive action at last for one who has long seen himself as an indecisive and yearing observer, estranged from his first, famous verb-declaration about his pen (a substitute for his father's spade)--"I'll dig with it."
On a related note, you can watch her Harvard lecture on Yeats' "Among School Children" or listen to a condensed analysis. (I'll have more to say about the Graham section later.)

No comments: