Commenting on Michael Berube's What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, Timothy Burke writes:
Bérubé does a good job of explaining the intellectual constitution of the humanities at present, and of critiquing the affirmative-action logic of some conservative critics. To me, the next gauntlet to throw down to the critics, at least those who come from within academia, is to sketch out a program of “conservative” scholarly and pedagogical practice in the humanities. What I largely hear from [Mark] Bauerlein, [Erin] O’Connor, [Paul] Johnson, and many others is a complaint. What I do not hear, for the most part, is what their alternative scholarly praxis might look like, or even whom their models might be. Is Helen Vendler, for example, a good practicioner of the kind of literary criticism that Bauerlein and O’Connor see as unfairly excluded from English Departments? If so, how uncommon in some generalized sense is the kind of criticism that she practices? Is it really as despised and exiled from disciplinary norms as they imply?. . .
Although she is not in any programmatic way a New Critic, Helen Vendler does indeed write literary criticism that is first and foremost an attempt to understand what is literary about the literary works (in her case almost exlusively poems) she considers. She sometimes makes strong judgments about the merits of the work she considers. She is above all a close reader concerned with the aesthetic qualities of poetry and not with its status as ideology, history, or cultural "symptom."
For these reasons, her practice as a critic is indeed extremely "uncommon," and, whether or not it is "despised" (my guess is many literary academics are mostly indifferent to it because, having never been taught how to read poetry in Vendler's way, they literally don't know what she's talking about), it is certainly "exiled" from the disciplinary journals that are used to define the normal practice (normal for the moment) of academic criticism. Almost all of Vendler's criticism appears in publications like The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books, not in the discipline-defining scholarly journals. I am not aware that any of Vendler's essays in the last 10-20 years have appeared in such journals, in fact. (In the sub-discipline I know best, contemporary American literature, I am additionally not aware of any "scholarly" journal that accepts literary criticism of the sort Vendler has mastered. Luckily she already has tenure, since no one writing her sort of criticism would otherwise have any chance of receiving tenure or promotion in the current system with its protocols of evaluation and reward.)
However. In my opinion, Vendler's brand of criticism is not what conservative critics have in mind when they complain that their own are "unfairly excluded from English Departments." No political preferences or cultural diagnoses follow from or are implied by Vendler's work. She is not shilling for the established order or decrying the degradation of culture by misguided liberal projects. She is interested in the art of poetry and in discerning accomplished poetry from less accomplished poetry. What is impled by Vendler's critical practice is the autonomy of poetry, its separation from the very political debates the conservative critics of the literary academy want to drag it into. In this way these conservatives are hardly any different than the radical critics who they contend (and I would agree with them on this) have politicized literary study. They don't want to de-politicize it; they want it to embody their own politics, their own view of the way things ought to be.
Roger Kimball, one of the shrillest of the conservative critics, not long ago proclaimed that "Art has its own aesthetic canons of legitimacy and achievement; but those canons are themselves nugatory unless grounded in a measure beyond art." The "measure beyond art" comes from politics or religion or "tradition." The "aesthetic canons of legitimacy and achievement," which Helen Vendler observes and attempts to advance, are "nugatory" unless they buttress these cultural pillars. If the "measure" to be applied to poems and other works of literature comes not from within the practice of literary criticism and through the aesthetic models provided by literary history but from the pre-established dictates of the conservative worldview, then Helen Vendler is surely not the "practicioner" conservatives are looking for.