Listen to a short interview with Helen VendlerHost: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & CraneThe fundamental difference between rhetoric and poetry, according to Yeats, is that rhetoric is the expression of one's quarrels with others while poetry is the expression (and sometimes the resolution) of one's quarrel with oneself. This is where Helen Vendler's Our Secret Discipline begins. Through exquisite attention to outer and inner forms, Vendler explores the most inventive reaches of the poet's mind. This book is a space-clearing gesture, an attempt to write about lyric forms in Yeats in unprecedented and comprehensive ways. The secret discipline of the poet is his vigilant attention to forms--whether generic, structural, or metrical. Yeats explores the potential of such forms to give shape and local habitation to volatile thoughts and feelings.
Helen Vendler remains focused on questions of singular importance: Why did Yeats cast his poems into the widely differing forms they ultimately took? Can we understand Yeats's poetry better if we pay attention to inner and outer lyric form? Chapters of the book take up many Yeatsian ventures, such as the sonnet, the lyric sequence, paired poems, blank verse, and others. With elegance and precision, Vendler offers brilliant insights into the creative process and speculates on Yeats's aims as he writes and rewrites some of the most famous poems in modern literature.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Helen Vendler's 2007 collection of essays on Yeats are indispensable for anyone wishing a deeper appreciation of the great poet's craft; Ms. Vendler's scholarship and attention to detail is a wondrous gift to the world of poetry and poets.
The best thing in the book is her deconstruction of "An Irish Airman Foresees his Death," one of the greatest poems in the universe. And by "deconstruction," I don't mean any theoretical nonsense. I mean the way she linguistically takes the stanzas apart. She's especially good with the final one, a quatrain as tight as an equation:
I balanced all, brought all to mind, The years to come seemed waste of breath, A waste of breath the years behind In balance with this life, this death.
It's always nice to meet someone who loves those lines as much as you do. She was less successful with another favorite, "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes," a clear presentation of the anima archetype. She might benefit from reading James Olney's "The Rhizome and the Flower," which doesn't address "Robartes" directly but does tie Yeats to Jung and the pre-Socratics.
Although she likes to speak "ex cathedra," Vendler is not infallible. I once had the...
Vendler's book is an extended application of close-reading scholarship to the poems of Yeats, with particular emphasis on the metrical structures of the poems. Lest that summary leave the impression that it is an arid technical exercise, I should stress that this fine book offers immense benefits to a potentially large readership, including: (1) anyone who enjoys Yeats and wants to deepen that appreciation, (2) students and scholars of English poetry, especially prosody, and (3) intelligent readers in general who would like to experience close reading analysis at the feet of an expert. Admirers in category (1) will come away with a new dimension to their love for Yeats. Those in category (2) may be surprised to discover how hard and how thoroughly Yeats applied himself to technical aspects of English prosody, and will probably take a new look at other poets. The book could be read in sections, and would thus easily lend itself to a supplementary role in a literature course, but I...
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