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Poetry has often been considered an irrational genre, more expressive than logical, more meditative than given to coherent argument. And yet, in each of the four very different poets she considers here, Helen Vendler reveals a style of thinking in operation; although they may prefer different means, she argues, all poets of any value are thinkers.
The four poets taken up in this volume--Alexander Pope, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and William Butler Yeats--come from three centuries and three nations, and their styles of thinking are characteristically idiosyncratic. Vendler shows us Pope performing as a satiric miniaturizer, remaking in verse the form of the essay, Whitman writing as a poet of repetitive insistence for whom thinking must be followed by rethinking, Dickinson experimenting with plot to characterize life's unfolding, and Yeats thinking in images, using montage in lieu of argument.
With customary lucidity and spirit, Vendler traces through these poets' lines to find evidence of thought in lyric, the silent stylistic measures representing changes of mind, the condensed power of poetic thinking. Her work argues against the reduction of poetry to its (frequently well-worn) themes and demonstrates, instead, that there is always in admirable poetry a strenuous process of thinking, evident in an evolving style--however ancient the theme--that is powerful and original.
In her challenging and entertaining new book, Poets Thinking, Helen Vendler argues that poetry in all its manifestations, however ostensibly irrational, is a mode of thinking that commands not just our aesthetic appreciation but also our intellectual respect...Vendler is a wonderful elucidator of individual poems. Nobody writes more insightfully about a poem's stylistic armature, and the emotional and intellectual purposes that armature serves. And by examining the distinctive strategies of thinking in the work of such radically different poets as Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, and Yeats, Vendler makes visible aspects of style and language that other critics simply haven't seen.
— Alan Shapiro
One of the most distinguished critics of poetry in the English-speaking world...Vendler engages in close reading to find a poem's distinctiveness of language and literary form...Vendler is really trying to enlarge our idea of what poetry can be...In reminding us to look at and listen to the actual words on the page, and not to leap too soon to some hackneyed idea that they recall, Vendler invites us to expand our own response to experience.
— Christopher Benfey
Vendler's close readings lay bare the process of poetic reflection: Poets Thinking is about how rather than what poets think, about the act of the mind rather than any 'embalmed thought' that readers might want to extract from verse...Vendler is exceptionally skilled at demonstrating that poetry offers us pictures of the mind at work rather than settled axioms to take away...[Poets Thinking] has a good deal to offer in the way of thought-provoking and sometimes dazzling readings of British and American poetry.
— Fiona Green
Helen Vendler's Poets Thinking is lucid, accessible, and inspired...Vendler's own voice is that rare academic combination of expertise and accommodation...Her arguments provide ample explanation and exempla for the lay reader while provoking the academic to revisit old assumptions. She is at ease with the broad sweep of American and English poetry and with the critical methods of the last half-century. Her conclusions seem remarkably self-evident, a voice of trustworthiness and reason that encourages us to lean closer, to listen carefully.
— Lynnell Edwards