I greatly admire Helen Vendler. She is perhaps the greatest living close reader of poetry, especially modern poetry, in the United States. She is also passionately committed to the task of explicating the value of poetry, of literature in general, to as wide an audience as possible, as her recent Jefferson lecture, "The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar," makes abundantly clear. Cynics are advised to not go near this lecture: not only will they immediately encounter a student of literature utterly convinced of its centrality to human life, but they may wind up convinced of this centrality themselves if they read the lecture through to the end.
But it is precisely Vendler's sincerity and her eloquent communication of her own passion for poetry that ultimately, for me at least, make reading this lecture a rather sad experience. She's right about almost everything she says in trying to argue for making art and literature the curricular centerpiece in the study of the "Humanities" in American universities, but given how thoroughly the study of literature (art more broadly) has been rejected in this country, by administrators, politicians, students, parents, employers, and most pathetically, by literature professors themselves, the context in which her words are offered make this lecture sound more like a funeral oration than an inspirational address, an elegy for what might have been than a proposal for curricular reform. It's almost as if she hasn't noticed that the academic and business elites in America ooze contempt for art and literature, or, more to the point, that literary academics long ago stopped pretending they had any real regard for what is supposed to be the subject of their scholarly study.
Vendler is certainly correct in saying that "When it became useful in educational circles in the United States to group various university disciplines under the name 'The Humanities,' it seems to have been tacitly decided that philosophy and history would be cast as the core of this grouping. . .Philosophy, conceived of as embodying truth, and history, conceived of as a factual record of the past, were proposed as the principal embodiments of Western culture, and given pride of place in general education programs." Americans' demand for "facts" and "hard" knowledge, their disdain for the fluff that is fiction or poetry or painting or music, were reflected even in that realm of academic study that was--grudgingly--ceded to "humanists." She is also justified in claiming that "Confidence in a reliable factual record, not to speak of faith in a reliable philosophical synthesis, has undergone considerable erosion. Historical and philosophical assertions issue, it seems, from particular vantage points, and are no less contestable than the assertions of other disciplines." Finally, she makes as compelling a case that serious engagement with the arts is good for you as anyone is likely to make.
But her answer to her own posed question, "If the arts are so satisfactory an embodiment of human experience, why do we need studies commenting on them?", is not so compelling, at least if she means by this, "Why study the arts in college?" Or, "Why create an academic caste of professional 'scholars' to comment on art as a 'discipline?'" I unhesitatingly agree that "reminders of art's presence are constantly necessary," but is the best way to do this to relegate the study of art to universities, where the most concrete result has been the very maginalization, the trivialization, of art and literature? Vendler's second reason for installing the arts in the curriculum of universities, that "such studies establish in human beings a sense of cultural patrimony" is, in my opinion the weakest argument that can be made on behalf of the academic study of art or music or literature, since it threatens to reduce them to a form of nationalist propaganda--or a reaction against such perceived propaganda, which is largely what has indeed happened to literary study in particular. But Vendler doesn't finally seem to believe very strongly in this argument herself.
The real weight of Vendler's defense of "the products of aesthetic endeavor" falls on her contention that studying works of art and literature "helps us to live our lives," and that scholars are best situated to show us how this can be true. The weight of this argument, in turn, rests on her reading of three poems by Wallace Stevens, poems in which Stevens does indeed speak of the indispensability of art--specifically poetry--and of the scholar's role in reminding us of this. I have no intention of disputing Vendler's reading of these poems. I couldn't plausibly do it even if I wanted to. But I do think she overgeneralizes Stevens's reference to the "scholar, separately dwelling," who "Poured forth the fine fins, the gawky beaks, the personalia,/Which, as a man feeling everything, were his" to mean the academic scholar of the sort we find in American universities. As Harold Bloom points out in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, the scholar of "Somnambulisma" is likely an allusion to Emerson's "American Scholar," who is not exactly the tweedy gentleman available for office hours we all know and love. If Vendler means in her discussion of this poem that it is desirable if not necessary that some people devote themselves to perpetuating the legacy of still vital poets and artists from the past, reminding us of the "pervasive being" Stevens identifies in his poem, I would have no quarrel with her. But I have a hard time believing there are many such scholars around any more, the very denotation of the word "scholar" now understood as it is to designate exactly the gentleman/woman in the office.
Bloom additionally points out that "Large Red Man Reading," the second poem Vendler discusses, as well contains allusions to Emerson, who also saw the poet's job as writing the "poem of life," was also concerned with the "vatic" power of the poet, but again it is difficult to imagine that either Emerson or Stevens conceived of this "earthly giant of vital being" (Vendler's words) as a "scholar" of the modern kind. Is it part of the job description of the scholar nowadays that he hold his students in rapt attention as he teaches them that "the experiences of life can be reconstituted and made available as beauty and solace, to help us live our lives"? If such scholars as Vendler seems to evoke here ever existed, they surely no longer stride through the halls of the general classroom building, if only because such activity as Vendler wants to describe through her explication of this poem will certainly not get you tenure. The "Large Red Man Reading" helps us pay attention to what we otherwise wouldn't notice; the modern scholar only notices what is otherwise not worth our attention.
Although clearly what Helen Vendler values most in art and literature is the stimulation and pleasure they afford in their own right, in order to duly place them at the center of humanities education, she is ultimately forced to appeal to other services they might perform ("training in subtlety of response," enhancing "scientific training" through the "direct mediation. . .of feeling, vicarious experience, and interpersonal imagination"), as is any proposal to include art in an academic curriculum. She is also led to adopt very dubious--and somewhat naive--theories about how training in the arts is to be accomplished: "Once the appetite for an art has been awakened by pleasure, the nursery rhyme and the cartoon lead by degrees to Stevens and Eakins. A curriculum relying on the ocean, the bird, and the scholar, on the red man and his blue tabulae, would produce a love of the arts and humanities that we have not yet succeeded in generating in the population at large." I am not aware of any evidence that the aesthetic domino effect--from the nursery rhyme ultimately to Wallace Stevens--actually ever happens with other than those students who were always going to get to Stevens or Eakins anyway. And if "the population at large" were going to be led to a love of the arts, we would already have witnessed the appearance of this heaven-on-earth, since much of the justification for teaching the arts and humanities to captive student audiences during the last seventy-five years was based on some such theory. Everyone should read Helen Vendler's poetry criticism, as it indeed can lead individual readers to an appreciation of what makes poetry worth reading. Her Jefferson lecture, however, mistakenly assumes that this kind of concrete experience of literary art can be universalized into a system of academic intruction, still mistaken no matter how well-intentioned the effort might be. Or how nice it would be if it could actually work.