Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler on: "Shooting Script"

Giving up the prism, the lens, the map, and pulling herself up by her own roots, Rich, as The Will to Change closes, eats the last meal in her own neighborhood and prepares, deprived of all instruments, to move on, guided only by the fortuitous cracks in the plaster, the innate lifeline, the traumatic rays of the bullet-hole. She could hardly have been more frank; from formalism to--not freedom, but, as always--a new version of truth. If this is a revolution, it is one bound like Ixion on the wheel of the past--environmental past in the plaster, genetic past in the lifeline, traumatic past in the bullet-hole. And if it is revolution, it is one which does not wish to deny the reality of past choices and past modes of life. Putting off in her boat, Rich watches "the lights on the shore I had left for a long time; each one, it seemed to me, was a light I might have lit, in the old days" ("Shooting Script," II, number 13). Houselights and hearthfires, abandoned, remembered, light the departure.

From Parnassus (1973).

Helen Vendler: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" (2)

At the heart of many of Stevens's poems are harsh and unpalatable experiences revealed only gradually through his intense stylization. The famous poem, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," resisted explication for some decades, perhaps because no one took the trouble to deduce its implicit narrative from its stylized plot. (The Russian formalist distinction between "story" and "plot" is often useful for this and other Stevens poems.) The basic "story " of "The Emperor" is that of a person who goes to the house of a neighbor, a poor old woman, who has died; the person is to help "lay out" (arrange for decent viewing) the corpse in the bedroom, while other neighbors are sending over homegrown flowers, and yet others are preparing food, including ice cream, for the wake.

Stevens "plots" this story into two equal stanzas: one for the kitchen where the ice cream is being made, one for the bedroom where the corpse awaits decent covering. He "plots" it further by structuring the poem as a series of commands from an unknown master of ceremonies, directing--in a diction of extreme oddness--the neighbors in their funeral duties: "Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds. /. . . / / Take from the dresser ... / ... that sheet /... / And spread it so as to cover her face." Both the symbolic kitchen stanza (life as concupiscence) and the symbolic bedroom stanza (death as final) end with the same third-order refrain echoed by the title: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Faced with life (however slovenly and appetitive) in the kitchen and death (with its protruding horny feet) on the bed, one must, however unwillingly, acquiesce in the reign of life.

We cannot know what personal events prompted this 1922 poem, apparently set in Key West (so the poet Elizabeth Bishop conjectured, who knew Key West, where Cubans worked at the machines in cigar factories, where blacks always had ice cream at funerals), but it derives resonance from Stevens's mother's death ten years earlier. What is certain is that it represents symbolically, with the Procrustean bed of its two rooms, the bitter moment of choosing life over death, at a time when life seems particularly lonely, self-serving, lustful, and sordid. Art is exposed as too scanty in its powers to cover up death; the embroidered sheet (a figure for the embellished page), if it is pulled up to cover the dead woman's face, reveals her "horny feet," which show "how cold she is, and dumb." In choosing to "let the lamp affix its beam," as in a morgue, and in acquiescing to the command, "Let be be finale of seem," Stevens makes his momentous choice for reality over appearance.

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Helen Vendler: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

"For purposes of experiment, I have put the details the poem gives us into the form of a first-person narrative; I see the poem as a rewritten form of this ur-narrative, in which the narrative has been changed into an impersonal form, and the linear temporal structure of narrative form has been replaced by a strict geometric spatial construction – two rooms juxtaposed. Here (with apologies) is my conjectural narrative ur-form of the poem, constructed purely as an explanatory device:

I went, as a neighbor, to a house to help lay out the corpse of an old woman who had died alone; I was helping to prepare for the home wake. I entered, familiarly, not by the front door but by the kitchen door. I was shocked and repelled as I went into the kitchen by the disorderly festival going on inside: a big muscular neighbor who worked at the cigar-factory had been called in to crank the ice-cream machine, various neighbors had sent over their scullery-girls to help out and their yard-boys bearing newspaper-wrapped flowers from their yards to decorate the house and the bier: the scullery-girls were taking advantage of the occasion to dawdle around the kitchen and flirt with the yard-boys, and they were all waiting around to have a taste of the ice cream when it was finished. It all seemed to me crude and boisterous and squalid and unfeeling in the house of the dead – all that appetite, all that concupiscence.

Then I left the sexuality and gluttony of the kitchen, and went in to the death in the bedroom. The corpse of the old woman was lying exposed on the bed. My first impulse was to find a sheet to cover the corpse; I went to the cheap old pine dresser, but it was hard to get the sheet out of it because each of the three drawers was lacking a drawer-pull; she must have been too infirm to get to the store to get new glass knobs. But I got a sheet out, noticing that she had hand-embroidered a fantail border on it; she wanted to make it beautiful, even though she was so poor that she made her own sheets, and cut them as minimally as she could so as to get as many as possible out of a length of cloth. She cut them so short, in fact, that when I pulled the sheet up far enough to cover her face, it was too short to cover her feet. It was almost worse to have to look at her old calloused feet than to look at her face; somehow her feet were more dead, more mute, than her face had been

She is dead, and the fact cannot be hidden by any sheet. What remains after death, in the cold light of reality, is life – all of that life, with its coarse muscularity and crude hunger and greedy concupiscence, that is going on in the kitchen. The only god of this world is the cold god of persistent life and appetite; and I must look steadily at this repellent but true tableau – the animal life in the kitchen, the corpse in the back bedroom. Life offers no other tableaus of reality, once we pierce beneath appearances.

Helen Vendler: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

The blackbird is the only element in nature which is aesthetically compatible with bleak light and bare limbs: he is, we may say, a certain kind of language, opposed to euphony, to those "noble accents and lucid inescapable rhythms" which Stevens used so memorably elsewhere in Harmonium. … There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird because thirteen is the eccentric number; Stevens is almost medieval in his relish for external form. This poetry will be one of inflection and innuendo; the inflections are the heard melodies (the whistling of the blackbird) and the innuendoes are what is left out (the silence just after the whistling) …

… The blackbird has perhaps something in common with Eliot’s "shadow" that falls between potency and act, desire and consummation [in "The Hollow Men"]. But Stevens would deny that it is remediable or accidental intrusion between two things that without it would be better off. It is, rather, of one substance with the things it relates:

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections 

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after. (iv)

Between the man and the woman is the blackbird, one with them; between the man’s mood and his environment is the blackbird, the indecipherable cause of the mood which is man’s response to nature (stanza vi); between the man of Haddam and their imagined golden birds is the blackbird, the real on which they construct their "artifice of eternity" (vii); between the haunted man and his protective glass coach is the terror of the blackbird (xi); it lies at the base of even our powerful verbal defenses, those beautiful glass coaches of euphony and lucidity/ It is, finally, the principle of our final relation to the universe, our compulsions, first of all,

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying. (xii)

and, lastly, our despair at death:

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar limbs. (xiii)

But neurosis and death are only instances of a pervasive relational eccentricity. Our extent in space (as well as in time) goes only as far as the blackbird goes – the blackbird is our "line of vision" (ix), as it is our line of thought: when we are of two minds (or, as Stevens presses it, "of three minds"), it is not as if we had a blackbird, an oriole, and a pigeon in view, but only "a tree / In which there are three blackbirds" (ii). The blackbird is by no means all – it is surrounded by the vastness of twenty mountains, the autumn winds, the snow – but though only a small part, it is the determining focus of relation.

From Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens; Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 75-77.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 5"

The most original poems among The Dream Songs invent, with enormous buoyancy, the Henry-dialect, of which more needs to be said. This is not therapy-language as such; rather it is a cartoonish poetic equivalent of the aggression and regression permitted in the analyst's office. It includes baby-talk, childish spite-talk, black talk, Indian talk, Scottish talk, lower-class talk, drunk-talk, archaism and anachronism, megalomaniacal self-aggrandizing images, hysteria and hallucination, spell-casting, superstition, paranoid suspiciousness, slang, and primitive syntactic structures of all sorts—sentence-fragments, incorrect grammar, babble, and so on. Many of these are present in the famous Dream Song # 5: . . .

Haffenden glosses the last image as deriving from Cervantes' 'Colloquy of the Dogs,' in which the witch Camacha of Montilla was able 'to cause the living or the dead to appear in a mirror or upon the fingernail of a newborn child.' The image is made more plausible when we know that in an unpublished poem of the fifties, Berryman writes of himself as 'a sort of Don Quixote trickt out as Lucifer.' Still, the role the unglossed fingernail-image plays in the poem is a surreal one, as though even the newborn John Smith proleptically bore on his own body the picture of his dead father, which as John Berryman (he punned on 'bury-man ') he continued to exhibit.

The elegant three-part comic strip of Dream Song #5— locating Henry first in the bar, then in the plane, and lastly in the hospital—gives the sort of emotional access to Berryman's extreme mood-swings that the gloomy psychiatric diagnoses quoted in Haffenden's biography cannot adequately convey: 'Cyclothymic personality . . . Habitual excessive drinking'; 'After admission he became severely grossly tremulous, insomniac, experiencing some frightening dreams, and was obviously on the verge of delerium tremens.' These late medical diagnoses merely record, in psychiatric terms, the disorienting experiences which formed the given of Berryman's adult life, and out of which he made, so vividly, the Dream Songs.


from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler on: "The Dream Songs"

Though it is tempting to characterize the two protagonists of The Dream Songs—the 'imaginary character' Henry and his nameless 'friend'—by the words of faculty psychology—'intellect' for the friend, and 'will' for the irrepressible Henry, a much better fit comes if we speak loosely of the two protagonists of The Dream Songs as Superego and Id. Yet, though the second of these two names fits the anarchic protagonist Henry reasonably well, the unnamed Friend, representing both common sense and conscience, does not exhibit the irrationality and sadism of the Freudian Superego, though he utters the reproaches proper to it. He could more properly, perhaps, be called Conscience, like something out of a medieval Christian allegory. In fact, it is the very crossing of the Christian model of the Friend with the Freudian model generating Henry that makes The Dream Songs an original book; two great schemes of Western thought, the religious and the psychoanalytic, contend for Berryman's soul in a hybrid psychomachia.

The fiction of the Dream Songs (first published as 77 Dream Songs in 1964) is that its two protagonists are 'end men' in an American minstrel show. This common form of vaudeville (seen in my childhood) presented, while the curtain was lowered between vaudeville acts, banter between two 'end men,’ one standing at stage left, one at stage right, in front of the closed curtain. The end men were white actors in exaggerated blackface, who told jokes in exaggerated Negro dialect, one acting as the taciturn 'straight man' to the buffoonery of the other. They addressed each other by nicknames such as—'Tambo' or 'Mr Bones' (the latter a name referring to dice). The unnamed Friend in The Dream Songs, acting as straight man and speaking to Henry in Negro dialect, addresses Henry as 'Mr Bones' or variants thereof. Henry, the voluble, infantile, and plaintive chief speaker, is the lyric ‘I’ of the songs; he never addresses his 'straight man' by name. Henry's own colloquial idiolect (sometimes represented in third-person free indirect discourse or second-person self-reproach) is not exclusively framed in any one dialect, but rather exhibits many dialectical influences, from slang to archaism to baby-talk.

One can see that there is no integrated Ego in The Dream Songs: there is only Conscience at one end of the stage and the Id at the other, talking to each other across a void, never able to find common ground. In the early Dream Songs, the fastidious John Berryman writing the poem never enters the verse, and never interacts with either of his split under-selves. As he wrote about his Henry, ‘Who Henry was, or is, has proved undiscoverable by the social scientists. It is . . . certain that he claimed to be a minstrel.’ Each Dream Song is (with very few exceptions) eighteen lines long, and is divided into three six-line irregularly rhyming stanzas—an isometric form one might associate, looking backward, with Berryman's debt to the meditative Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet sequences or, looking forward to the therapeutic fifty minutes, with the, inflexible and anecdotal psychiatric hour. Theoretically, anything can be said within this arbitrary limit, but one has to stop when one's time (one's rhyme) is up. Henry, the Id, has a great deal to say: he is petulant, complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse; he is also capable of childlike joy and disintegrative rage. Henry's life has been blasted, as he tells us, by the suicide of his father when he was a boy; he is driven by a random avidity, often sexual, which he indulges shamelessly until the unnamed Conscience reproaches him.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler: On "For the Union Dead"

Asked to participate in the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, Lowell delivered "For the Union Dead," a poem about a Civil War hero, Robert Gould Shaw, whose sister Josephine had married one of Lowell's ancestors, Charles Russell Lowell (who, like Robert Gould Shaw, was killed in the war). The poem is thus, though undeclaredly, a family poem; and in it, Lowell quotes from a letter that Charles Russell Lowell wrote home to his wife, Josephine, about her brother's burial: "I am thankful that they buried him with his niggers.' They were brave men and they were his men." "For the Union Dead" honors not only the person of Robert Gould Shaw, but also the stern and beautiful memorial bronze bas-relief b Augustus Saint Gaudens which stands opposite the Boston State House. It represents Colonel Shaw on horseback among the men of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a regiment entirely composed of Negro soldiers. By his own earlier request, Shaw -- who had the right, as an officer, to have his body brought home for burial -- was buried with his men in a mass grave after the battle of Fort Wagner, in which he and they had fallen. Far from criticizing the Brahmin past from the vantage point of the Catholic present, as he had done in Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell now criticizes Boston's Irish-American present in comparison with the New England past. It is not he, any longer, who illuminates the past; the past, with its noble but fading light, now illuminates the debased present, of which he is a part.

. . . .

Lowell now conceives of the events of public history as existing solely in commemorative art, on the one hand, and metaphysical "immortality," like that of Shaw, on the other. Past deeds of war have vanished into these aesthetic and virtual forms . . . . With the disappearance of history as firm past reality, the poem tails off into the abjectness of a Boston now ruled by the immigrant Irish, who, like the skunks of Castine, have taken over territory formerly belonging to the Lowells and their kind. The Irish have defaced the historical Common on which Emerson had his transcendental vision; they have undermined the State House and the Saint Gaudens relief in order to build a parking garage; they have abandoned civic responsibility in letting the Aquarium decline; everywhere, reduced to the synecdoche of their vulgar automobiles, their "savage servility / slides by on grease." Lowell's anti-Irish statement, though covert here . . . , shows a new commercialized history replacing an old ethical history. The bas-relief shakes, and the statues "grow slimmer and younger each year" so that they will, if the process continues, disappear altogether . . . . Christian language, the "Rock of Ages," is debased to gross advertisement, heartless in its appropriation of Hiroshima for commercial purposes. What saves the poem from Pharisaic superiority is the speaker's own confessed participation in the degradation he so scathingly observes: "When I crouch" -- he says as he offers the most startling image in the poem -- "When I crouch to my television set / The drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons."

Lowell has now realized that the inner life, even that of a prophet, cannot remain immune from the corruption it describes. The savage servility he observes, if it is that of the Irish politicians turning Boston into one long financial and ethical scandal, is also that of the poet, representing old Boston, servilely crouching to his television set as the savagery of long-standing segregation victimizes Negro children in the white Protestant South -- as though Shaw and the men of the Massachusetts 54th had died for nothing.