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Invisible Listeners Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery by Helen Vendler

Invisible Listeners Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery


Invisible Listeners Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery by Helen Vendler

When a poet addresses a living person--whether friend or enemy, lover or sister--we recognize the expression of intimacy. But what impels poets to leap across time and space to speak to invisible listeners, seeking an ideal intimacy--George Herbert with God, Walt Whitman with a reader in the future, John Ashbery with the Renaissance painter Francesco Parmigianino? In Invisible Listeners, Helen Vendler argues that such poets must invent the language that will enact, on the page, an intimacy they lack in life. Through brilliantly insightful and gracefully written readings of these three great poets over three different centuries, Vendler maps out their relationships with their chosen listeners. For his part, Herbert revises the usual vertical address to God in favor of a horizontal one-addressing God as a friend. Whitman hovers in a sometimes erotic, sometimes quasi-religious language in conceiving the democratic camerado, who will, following Whitman's example, find his true self. And yet the camerado will be replaced, in Whitman's verse, by the ultimate invisible listener, Death. Ashbery, seeking a fellow artist who believes that art always distorts what it represents, finds he must travel to the remote past. In tones both tender and skeptical he addresses Parmigianino, whose extraordinary self-portrait in a convex mirror furnishes the poet with both a theory and a precedent for his own inventions. By creating the forms and speech of ideal intimacy, these poets set forth the possibility of a more complete and satisfactory human interchange--an ethics of relation that is uncoerced, understanding, and free.


Helen Vendler['s] ... Invisible Listeners, a compact study of lyric intimacy in three poets, demonstrates, if you have forgotten, some of the best reasons to read literary criticism. --Langdon Hammer, The New York Times Book Review [A] compact and lively little book... Vendler's brisk and light touch, her ability to pick at a line for every bit of meaning, makes this an enjoyable and moving book. --Angela Leighton, Times Literary Supplement As poetry is not read but re-read, so Vendler's handsome analysis should be, the art of engaged reading. --Leeta Taylor, Foreword Magazine

About the Author

Helen Vendler is A. Kingsley Porter University Professor of English at Harvard University. Her most recent books include Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats; Coming of Age As a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath ; and Seamus Heaney . Her reviews of contemporary poetry and criticism have appeared in the New York Review of Books , the New Yorker , the New Republic , and other publications.

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Book Info

Publication date

27th August 2007


Helen Vendler

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Princeton University Press


112 pages


Literary studies: poetry & poets



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