Posts Tagged ‘Helen Vendler’

IProud to be British by gracust’m an Anglophile.  I like repression, I suppose, depth under calm facades.  My favorite writers—Austen, Dickens, Penelope Fitzgerald, Jane Gardam, David Mitchell, Barbara Pym, Andrea Levy to name a few—have always been Brits, and now my favorite education secretary—if one can admit to such pedantic tastes—is English as well.

Michael Gove visits Wellsway School in Keynsham by educationgovuk


British education secretary Michael Gove has announced an overhaul of his country’s primary school education that includes the memorization of poems by children starting at age five.  (You can read the rest of his plan here.)  How marvelous, and how much more useful and important than learning techniques to pass standardized tests.  Salon writer Laura Miller writes an excellent essay calling on the U.S. to follow suit.


I’ve gone through periods of memorizing poems myself, regretfully none of them as a student, and after reading the benefits listed in Miller’s article and being inspired by Jeffrey of my last post, I’m going to start again.  I usually turn to Yeats for memorizing, but maybe I’ll try Keats for the summer.  Or maybe something long by Wordsworth.



In an interview many years back the brilliant literary critic Helen Vendler spoke about the importance of memorizing poetry.  And not just the kind of bland, crappy poetry about snowmen and falling leaves that shows up on classroom bulletin boards, but really good poetry.  Preach it, Helen, preach it:


2. Czesław Miłosz Festival by Krakow Festival OfficeCole (former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole): You talked about memorizing poetry. People in the past memorized long patches of poetry, right? This is not happening anymore, is it?

Vendler: There are many things that aren’t happening that would make the study of poetry natural to children. First of all, poetry should be taught from the beginning with good poems, not bad poems, and it should be surrounded by a lot of related language arts—-memorizing and reciting and choral recitation and choral singing and all those things that feed into the appreciation of poetry.

Right now what teachers mostly do is have the children write poems. This is distressing to me, because they don’t write good poems.

Cole: They don’t have many examples, right?

Vendler: No. My colleague, Jorie Graham, insists that her writing class memorize every week. She has added an extra hour for memory and recitation, because, as she tells them, would-be poets can’t possibly write out what they haven’t taken in.

Cole: I wonder if the skills of memorization have slackened. Since that is not a part of most people’s mental furnishings, it’s just much harder.

Vendler: It all depends on cultural values. If you can make schoolchildren in China memorize four thousand characters, you can make schoolchildren memorize anything. Indeed, they memorize on their own all kinds of baseball statistics or popular songs. It’s not as though they don’t have memories and that the memories can’t be activated. It’s just a question of will, whether we want to include that as an important part of the curriculum.

Cole: Right. And value.

Vendler: I’ve been told that in Japan everybody, before leaving high school, memorizes the hundred great poems in the canon. So of course it can be done. Children’s minds are enormously active and retentive.

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Last Friday night my youngest daughter went to her first high school dance.  Her date was a boy whose mother died when he was three, a fact which partly explains his unusual attire.  All the other boys wore prep-school navy blue blazers, khakis and loafers; he sported an ill-fitting tuxedo, black skater sneakers and a hairdo that was probably an homage to Justin Bieber but could also have been an art installation in the Museum of Facial Shrouding.


I thought he looked adorable, all the more adorable because his outfit was a collaboration between a single dad and a mildly rebellious teen.  Not everyone agreed with me.  At picture time I overheard one mother say to another with obvious scorn, “Who’s the kid with the hair?”


All at once I couldn’t look at the boy through my camera lens without seeing also how he looked through hers.  Ugh. It was a moment that called for a cream pie.  To be smashed in her own color-treated, straightener-heated, thousands-invested, wowzy- brown tresses.


I had a similar reaction the other day to a comment I read online about a person I admire.  Regular readers of this blog know that I recently fell in love with Professor Helen Vendler after my mother gave me Vendler’s book on Emily Dickinson’s poems. Besotted, I’ve been reading everything about her I can find, which is how I came upon poet Donald Hall questioning her ability to separate good poets from bad.  She’s smart, he said, but she has no taste.


Well, phooey.  I don’t know enough about either Donald Hall or Helen Vendler to assess the accuracy of his judgment.  But his comment sticks with me and clouds my reading of her.  From now on, however much I enjoy her prose, I will always think in the back of my mind that she doesn’t measure up.  And that I don’t measure up for liking her.


Those two incidents have me thinking about spoilers.  We’ve all experienced being entranced with a book, a song, a restaurant, maybe even a poem, and then someone—a critic or a culturally superior friend—calls it crap.  And enjoyment gives way to disillusion and perhaps humiliation.  When I was young I spent many hours pouring over a set of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I loved the illustrations, the gold lettering on the cloth binding, all of which made me think I was reading important literature. Then one day my brother came home from college and quoted his professor:  “’I don’t read Reader’s Digest.  Nor do I eat bullion cubes.’”



I’ve been a spoiler myself, often enough to be called a snob at best and a social moron at worst.  What motivated me to slam Bridges of Madison County to a devoted fan?  To  flare my nostrils when I saw Berenstein Bears books at another mother’s house?  To say, without irony, “The movie’s okay, but not nearly as good as the French version”? My kids often say my answer to every question about why people behave as they do is “insecurity,” and I won’t disappoint them now.


I’m not saying that all taste is relative, blah, blah, blah.  Of course there are works that are better and works that are worse. With education we learn to discern, to discriminate.  I’m just wondering why I feel it’s always necessary to spoil other people’s pleasure in an experience.


British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald has a great line about spoilers.  She gives the line to a comic character in her novel Innocence, Dr. Salvatore Rossi, an intemperate fellow who operates under the delusion that’s he’s perfectly reasonable. Arguing with his friend, Salvatore announces, “The sole task of the intellectual is to make people despise what they used to enjoy.”


Please note that I have no respect for the Fox-News-block-views-Sarah-Palin-wear-a-veil-n-sneer-at-smarties-fear-opposing-parties anti-intellectual bilge.  I like to think that someone who knows more about something than I do can increase my enjoyment, not kill it.  But there’s truth in Fitzgerald’s words that I hope I remember the next time someone pushes a book on me that doesn’t meet my literary standards.


Besides, if we culture snobs are too invested in our own critical abilities, we risk coming off as mere poseurs.


To illustrate:

Watching a advertisement for an upcoming DVD sale, my son said, “Inception is a masterpiece, don’t you think?”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a masterpiece,” I said.

“Why?  What would you call a masterpiece?”


I ran through my file of classic movies–Citizen Kane and—and—uh–and–every foreign film I’ve ever seen.  I realized I had nothing to say.


I had just ruined the movie for him.  For no good reason I stomped out that first glow of discovery.  Chill, I should have thought.  “Mmmhmm,” I should have said.  In time, with exposure and interest, his taste will develop.  All without my unsolicited commentary.

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Spotlight on another gift today, one that my mother gave me a few months ago, a gift that was unconnected to any celebration.  How wonderful is that! To my list of what kind of gifts are best, add the following:  a gift given for no reason other than the giver thought the recipient would really like it.  I saw this and thought of you. Or in the case of this gift, pictured above, I saw on your blog that you didn’t understand Emily Dickinson and the next day I happened to read a review of this book and I thought it might be helpful. My mother’s gift is all the more unexpected and sweet because she is not one for impulse or indulgent purchases.  Frugality is the instinct of her generation but also of her particular circumstance.  In raising eleven children with a constant worry that the family was headed to the poorhouse, she learned to do without.  Which is an understatement for someone who served powdered milk, sewed her own clothes, and wrapped presents in newspaper comics.

Thank you, Mom!  The book is a wonder.  It’s the perfect bathroom book and I say this not because the pages are like silk and in a pinch would feel not unpleasant on my bummy.  You can dip into the book at any point, read two or three pages, and flush with the accomplished feeling that you understand a new poem. Poetry scholar Helen Vendler takes 150 of Dickinson’s poems and not only explains them, she opens each one up, throws the doors wide open and amazes readers with how much is going on behind Dickinson’s plain style and compact verses. I’m in awe of Helen Vendler almost as much as Dickinson.  She’s a perfect guide.  How nice it would be to have Ms. Vendler take me by the hand through the halls of poetry, pointing out things I hadn’t noticed and explaining what I thought I couldn’t understand.

She’s an interesting gal, this Helen Vendler.  She majored in chemistry as an undergrad and got a Fulbright scholarship to study math, but here she is, one of our most esteemed literary critics.  You can read a wonderful interview with her here, where she weighs in on everything from the importance of memorizing poetry to how her study of science relates to her work with poetry.  I just love her big big brain and good sense.

She’s written a book on Shakespeare’s sonnets in a similar format to the Dickinson one.  As long as I’ve got presents on the brain, I might as well mention that if anyone related to me is thinking about Christmas presents, her Shakespeare book is at the top of my list.

all ready for Helen

I really could use a new book in the guest bathroom.

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