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Dickinson [Paperback]

Helen Vendler
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 Nov 2012
Seamus Heaney, Denis Donoghue, William Pritchard, Marilyn Butler, Harold Bloom, and many others have praised Helen Vendler as one of the most attentive readers of poetry. Here, Vendler turns her illuminating skills as a critic to 150 selected poems of Emily Dickinson. As she did in "The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets", she serves as an incomparable guide, considering both stylistic and imaginative features of the poems. In selecting these poems for commentary Vendler chooses to exhibit many aspects of Dickinson's work as a poet, "from her first-person poems to the poems of grand abstraction, from her ecstatic verses to her unparalleled depictions of emotional numbness, from her comic anecdotes to her painful poems of aftermath". Included here are many expected favorites as well as more complex and less often anthologized poems. Taken together, Vendler's selection reveals Emily Dickinson's development as a poet, her astonishing range, and her revelation of what Wordsworth called "the history and science of feeling". In accompanying commentaries Vendler offers a deeper acquaintance with Dickinson the writer, "the inventive conceiver and linguistic shaper of her perennial themes." All of Dickinson's preoccupations - death, religion, love, the natural world, the nature of thought - are explored here in detail, but Vendler always takes care to emphasize the poet's startling imagination and the ingenuity of her linguistic invention. Whether exploring less familiar poems or favorites we thought we knew, Vendler reveals Dickinson as "a master" of a revolutionary verse - language of immediacy and power. "Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries" will be an indispensable reference work for students of "Dickinson" and readers of lyric poetry.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Gld edition (2 Nov 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674066383
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674066380
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.3 x 2.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 106,696 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Emily Dickinson is the sorcerer's stone. Her poetry contains, no, <emphasis>is, the most essential, passionate use of English and the most essential, passionate connection between the English language and nature (our nature, birds and bees nature, God's nature)...Dickinson's spare use of words are just the tip of her iceberg; the waters below contain so many secrets that it truly helps to have a guide to the meter, the myth, the thread of dreams. [And] if you're going to hire a guide, you may as well have the best, and Vendler is the best."-- Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, 10 September 2012

"This book takes 150 of [Emily Dickinson's] poems and devotes a two- or three-page chapter to each. If you have a favorite poem, you look it up and Vendler will walk you through it as if you've never read it before. It's like reading the poem in italics." -- Billy Collins, New York Post, 2nd October 2010

" Both casual readers and scholars of Dickinson alike will want to purchase it." -- Stacy Russo, Library Journal, 15th November 2010

" If it's been a while since you last sat down with Dickinson, now is a great time: Helen Vendler's new book, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, is both an anthology (it contains 150 of Dickinson's nearly 1,800 poems) and an interpretive introduction, with a short essay following and explaining each poem. Vendler is almost certainly the best poetry critic in America, and she's hit upon a great way of writing about poetry. Reading each poem, followed by Vendler's commentary, it feels like you're in your own private poetry class." -- Josh Rothman, Boston Globe, 25th October 2010

" [A] superb and invigorating new selection of 150 poems and probing commentaries...The poet that Vendler finds in these poems is an ambitious and sometimes magisterial artist of extraordinary range and verbal control. Vendler's comprehensive reassessment of Dickinson's achievement seems to me the most challenging new reading of Dickinson since the poet Adrienne Rich's remarkable essay "Vesuvius at Home" (1975)...What Vendler, perhaps the most skilled and accomplished close reader of lyric poetry of her generation, adds to this picture is a renewed attention to Dickinson's deliberate and consummate artistry, along with a fresh way to read cryptic poems that may seem, superficially, to have little to do with the "maelstrom" of human emotions." -- Christopher Benfey, New York, Review of Books, 25th November 2010

" The reigning doyenne of American poetry criticism is a close reader par excellence. [Vendler] loves her favorite poets unstintingly. She seems to think and feel in their language--to think and feel through their work, as through a membrane. Her Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries plays exactly to her strengths, as did her 1997 edition of Shakespeare's sonnets...What I like best about Vendler's Dickinson is its can-do attitude. Yes, it assures the reader, the poem says what you think it says: trust your own eyes, experience, and heart...She doesn't try to quash the mystery of the poems; she notes their ambiguities but by and large leaves those to do their work--and leaves us closer to a canonical poet whom we are still only coming to know." -- Lorin Stein, Harper's, 1st December 2010

"Dickinson continues to entertain and enlighten me. Vendler manages to clarify and illuminate Dickinson's poetry without oversimplifying the work of a complex mind. Her succinct but astute readings of Emily Dickinson's poetry are little kernels of insight into a wickedly keen poetic mind." --Hillary Kelly, New Republic, 22nd December 2010

"Emily Dickinson is certainly never going to be an easy poet to understand, but her dense, poignant lyrics are now a lot more accessible to ordinary readers thanks to Vendler's unravelings. If you're going to read Dickinson, this "selected poems and commentary" is the place to start." --Michael Dirda, Washington Post, 9th September 2010

About the Author

Helen Vendler is A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emily Dickinson for beginners 29 July 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A superb and comprehensive book -this all you will ever need as a student or teacher of the poetry of Dickinson.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding Emily Dickinson's poetry 21 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Dickinson is very enigmatic, especially when you're new to her, and Vendler's informed and fascinating commentary gives you an excellent reading of the poems and a sound base on which to build your own critical appreciation.

For new and essential biographical details, I also recommend you to read the astonishing, "Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds" by Lyndall Gordon.
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102 of 107 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceedingly Brilliant 19 Aug 2010
By Tim Ellison - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is the book on Dickinson I have always been waiting for, and wished I could write. Though I have loved Dickinson since I first started reading poetry and have brooded on a number of her poems and have even visited her residence in Amherst, Vendler's endless array of superb insights prove my previous interpretive sallies splendidly inadequate. Like Vendler's previous work on Keats, Hopkins, Yeats and Stevens, Vendler's lucid commentaries on Dickinson open up the poems to the reader's own imagination. This is to say that, though Vendler writes confidently and persuasively, even less than in her books on Keats and Stevens, she is not beholden to any overarching `argument' she must continue to address. (Some have criticized Vendler for her argument that Keats's Odes constitute a `sequence'; even if you disagree, you could very well ignore that thesis and instead concentrate on the local insights that constitute so much of the book's pleasure.) Without having to worry about promoting a ground-breaking thesis (other than a general one about Dickinson's originality of poetic argument, language, form and metaphor), we can simply enjoy Vendler thinking through each poem, providing us with intellectual and `algebraic,' to use her metaphor, schemas upon which to apply our own emotional responses.
Unlike some other great poetry critics (such as Harold Bloom), Vendler is intuitive and imaginative without being so idiosyncratic or doctrinaire as to promote her reading as THE reading or at least the definitive "Vendler" reading. We feel, rather, that we are being taught, instructed, provoked without being asked to incorporate ourselves into an unfamiliar theoretical interpretive system that would leave any vigorous response under the spell of that system rather than under the spell of the poem. You can just jump right in to Vendler; you don't need to learn how to read her.
Samuel Johnson (whom she, surprisingly, invokes in the course of her book) and William Hazlitt and Kenneth Burke and Paul de Man and Harold Bloom were/are all among the greatest readers of literature of all time, but their responses to works of art can be intransigent (Johnson disparaged Milton's `Lycidas'; Harold Bloom in his many great commentaries on Victorian Poetry, unnecessarily downgrades certain key works of Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins), extraordinary but philosophically and linguistically dense (see de Man's commentaries on Mallarmé, Rilke, Shelley or Yeats), or, perhaps, ingenious but highly dependent on overarching aesthetic or rhetorical systems (Hazlitt's romantic `gusto,' Burke's `symbolic action,' Bloom's `anxiety of influence'). When I read `Lycidas' now, I may have Johnson's thoughts on the inadequacy of the pastoral mode for elegy or Bloom's mapping of his six revisionary ratios in the back of my mind, but these insights do not necessarily clarify local problems of poetic argument, formal innovation or visual logic.
Vendler, to be sure, is a formalist, but she is not dead-set on making us formalists too; she lets her readings speak for themselves. This lack of doctrine is a great stress reliever for the reader who simply wishes to get to the bottom of a Dickinson poem. As such, the book can be useful for advanced students (scholars, graduate students, undergraduates), high school teachers, high school students, casual readers, even your occasional exceptionally talented middle or elementary school student. In her introduction, Vendler characterizes the book as one to be "browsed in," much as we tend to find ourselves browsing in the collection of Dickinson's 1,800 or so poems. She resorts infrequently to the (admittedly very interesting, but already well-treated) subject of Dickinson's biography in interpreting the poems, and, only when appropriate for interpretation does she uncover the textual history of a poem (its many editorial iterations). Instead, Vendler gracefully uses the strategy of close reading; to justify this, she appropriately quotes in her introduction from possibly my favorite short poem in all of English literature, Dickinson's "There's a certain Slant of light," a poem which, I think, effectively encapsulates the Dickinsonian aesthetic of "internal difference,/ Where the meanings, are."
Have you ever had a teacher who said just the right thing to you to open you up to a work of art? Perhaps a music teacher taught you to appreciate proper instrumentation, an art teacher the virtues of abstract impressionism, or a physics teacher the secret of an elegantly constructed experiment. I consider this book loaded with those moments of saying "just the right thing" to help us find, to quote another Dickinson poem, "another way - to see." For the first time you may take pleasure in a poem you previously thought obscure, or wish to memorize a phrase the evokes an image or an emotion that only Dickinson could present. To sample just one of those moments, take Vendler's interesting comment on the final two lines of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -": "Soundless as dots,/On a disc of Snow." Vendler writes: "Her field of snow is, as a disk, circular in shape and perhaps alludes here to "The (apparently flat) surface or `face' of the sun, the moon, or a planet, as it appears to the eye" (OED, s.v., "disk, 4a)." Our planet, seen from afar, in the Arctic light of death, is rather like our full moon - a white disk frozen into snow...In the cosmic distance, human deaths, even the fall of crowns, cannot be heard. The world altering effects of a change of earthly government are insignificant to a cosmic observer-from-afar." Even if you disagree with Vendler on some local points, her visionary reading here of the single word `disc' is breathtaking and exciting to the imagination.
Having pre-ordered this book a while ago, I was admittedly pre-disposed to like it, especially since I am an unapologetic Dickinson freak. Maybe I'm a little strange for how excited I was, more excited than for any other work of criticism published in some time. I have very few complaints. Otherwise attractively produced, my main criticism is that the font, Adobe Garamond Pro, while great for prose, is somewhat ill-suited to Dickinson's poems; the font allows for somewhat unimpressive dashes (they look more like hyphens). If you've seen any of Dickinson's fascicles, her dashes are long, striking and manic. Some readers may object to Vendler's endless references to Keats, especially to "Autumn," but these references are never inapt and she even dedicates the book, lovingly, to Keats, who presumably, along with Stevens, taught her how to read nature lyrics, especially those of the emotions and the seasons. If I had any other complaints, it would be that she does not read more poems! With her selection capped at 150, while generous and inclusive of most of Dickinson's greatest pieces, Vendler manages to enlighten us on less than 10% of the Dickinson canon. The rest of the work, I suppose, is up to the industrious reader whose mind has been opened by this lovely, loving and thoughtful book.
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too much explaining 23 Mar 2011
By Michael Greenebaum - Published on Amazon.com
I am actually very glad to read the enthusiastic comments of most reviewers, even though I cannot go all the way with them. As an admirer of both Dickinson and Vendler, I was surprised to feel that poet and commentator were in this instance mismatched. Dickinson opens her lines to multiplicity of possibilities; Vendler wants to close them to only one. Dickinson's punctuation is deliberately (I think) ambiguous; Vendler largely ignores it. When a great poem "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" ends with the breathtaking word "then, " which looks both forward and back, Vendler appears uninterested. And when Dickinson marvelously describes a steam engine standing in the station as "docile and omnipotent", Vendler chooses, without justification, to transform those adjectives into a grotesque self-parody. To Vendler, everything requires an explanation.

Much of Vendler's commentary thrills me and opens up interpretations that I had not considered. But I soon learned to consult the commentary only when some aspect of a poem puzzled me, and then I was surprised to find that Vendler did not choose to comment on it. Of course, there is so much Dickinson commentary that this book holds a valuable place on the shelf. But unlike Shakespeare, Keats, Stevens and Yeats, for whom Vendler has become an authoritative reader, Dickinson resists her.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Stunning Classic of Scholarship 6 Oct 2010
By Eileen Granfors - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
No one offers insight into poetry as detailed and yet helpful as that of Helen Vendler. She has written of the great poets and their poetry, and I have gained something from each of her books.

This new volume, "Dickinson" takes on the enigma of Emily Dickinson. Like the others, this one is a browser's book. . .find a poem you want to understand better, wrestle with the poem a while by yourself, and then go over what Vendler has to say. Go over what Vendler has to say VERY SLOWLY and CAREFULLY. You will be enriched.

While she sometimes makes outlandish claims about the impact of a particular word or meter, she is nevertheless helpful in giving the reader new ideas to consider.

I love Emily Dickinson's work. I cannot say that I truly understand Dickinson's work. With Helen Vendler's help, I can speak somewhat more intelligently about the possibility of meaning in Dickinson's poems that appear so simple. There is much more going on between the lines, as Vendler points out.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vendler at Her Best 9 Dec 2010
By John Klima - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is Vendler doing what she does best: illuminating the stylistic and imaginative features of the work of a great poet. Here, the reader always benefits from Vendler's insights into Dickinson's creative process and decisions, and in every case the reader comes away with a stronger sense of what the poet was trying to accomplish in a particular poem. This is true whether Vendler turns her attention to the substitution of a single word (lie/sleep) or an entire stanza (as in "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers"). Vendler's comparison of variants is always instructive -- as in her reading of "Title Divine -- is mine!," in which she reflects on the poet's use of rhyme, rhythm, diction, punctuation, et cetera. It will be eye opening to many readers, I suspect, to see the ways in which something as "simple" as rhyme reinforces meaning.

Vendler is also very good on biblical imagery and allusion. Over the course of many commentaries, Dickinson's obsession and argument with the Bible seems to come to life. This, I think, is one of the more astounding accomplishments of the book. And here she provides a great, great service to the reader. In a more secular age, when people don't really read the Bible any longer, we need to have everything writ large for us. All in all, this is an indispensible guide to Dickinson's poetry.
32 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Better than Churchill 28 Aug 2010
By J. A. Haverstick - Published on Amazon.com
Went into Border's w/coupn for some Autumn weekend reading, Hasting's bio of Churchill. What's this? Dickinson? Vendler? Back goes Churchill and out goes Vendler.

Dickinson's been a favorite since I discovered her in Mom's Oxford Am Poetry as a child in the fifties. . When my oldest friend died, himself as a young man, I recited "Because I could not stop for death" at the graveside. One of my favorites, but I gotta say I didn't get it all till reading Vendler's gloss, she touches exactly where that minor chord comes in, some thing I had missed for about half a century. I might have rethought the tribute had I had Vendler's take. I've got a couple other of her poetry criticisms in the library, Poetry prof at home, and they are always a treat to browse in, Shakespeare, Eliot, whatever. If you like browsing in Dickinson you're going to like browsing in Vendler. One poem, then commentary, follows another with a good short general introduction. (There's a lot that's that provoking, too, I think...I'm not saying Vendler's alawys on my page, for instance.)
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