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This book critically analyses Shakespeare's sonnets quoting some of his poetic beauties.
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.
In Last Looks, Last Books, the eminent critic Helen Vendler examines the ways in which five great modern American poets, writing their final books, try to find a style that does justice to life and death alike. With traditional religious consolations no longer available to them, these poets must invent new ways to express the crisis of death, as well as the paradoxical coexistence of a declining body and an undiminished consciousness. In The Rock, Wallace Stevens writes simultaneous narratives of winter and spring; in Ariel, Sylvia Plath sustains melodrama in cool formality; and in Day by Day, Robert Lowell subtracts from plenitude. In Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop is both caught and freed, while James Merrill, in A Scattering of Salts, creates a series of self-portraits as he dies, representing himself by such things as a Christmas tree, human tissue on a laboratory slide, and the evening/morning star. The solution for one poet will not serve for another; each must invent a bridge from an old style to a new one. Casting a last look at life as they contemplate death, these modern writers enrich the resources of lyric poetry.
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