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This article is taken from PN Review 106, Volume 22 Number 2, November - December 1995.

At the Harvard Club Nicolas Tredell

Helen Vendler, Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (Harvard University Press) £19.95

'The first person I spoke to was Helen Vendler, and all she was sure of was I was wasting my time. 'These are the words of Sam Slade, the detective given the mission of finding out who fixed the literary canon, in Henry Louis Gates Jr's hilarious spoof 'Canon Confidential'.'[F]astidiously squeezing a lemon section over her oysters' at the Harvard Club, Vendler assures Slade: 'Nobody's fixing what we read-the whole idea's preposterous. If a book's good, people read it. If it's bad, people won't' (Loose Canons, Oxford, 1992, p. 4). Feeling that she is too smug, Slade reminds her of her own role in the formation of the modem canon, as the editor of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry- at which point she summons the bouncer, and Slade decides to take a walk.

Like all caricatures, this is unfair, but it does point to the kind of position in American cultural life which Helen Vendler now occupies - the representative of a residual high culture compounded out of Henry James, Lionel Trilling and the New Criticism, who continues to exercise authority through her writing on poetry, especially in such venues as The New Yorker, but who is not accommodating to the kind of radical interrogation which has become the stock in trade of many younger critics. She is not, however, smug or repressive in her writing; she is clearly concerned about the ...


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