Helen Vendler in 2014.
Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University

ACLS mourns the passing of Helen Vendler F’70, G’64, celebrated poetry critic, former member of the ACLS Board of Directors, and the 2001 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecturer. According to the New York Times, writer and critic Bruce Bawer called her a “colossus of contemporary American poetry criticism.”

Her voracious appetite for contemporary poetry, and a clear, forceful prose style that allowed her to address nonacademic audiences in her reviews, made Vendler a powerful figure in the poetry marketplace, with enormous influence on artistic reputations, publishers’ decisions and the awarding of teaching positions and grants.

Helen Vendler was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1933. She received her PhD in English and American Literature in 1960 from the Radcliffe Graduate School at Harvard University. The year prior, she became the first woman to be offered an instructorship in Harvard’s English department. Vendler taught at Cornell, Haverford, Swarthmore, Smith, and Boston University. In 1980 she was appointed to a professorship at Harvard, and served as an Associate Dean for five years. She received many fellowships, including from ACLS, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the US Fulbright Program, and was frequently a judge for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. She was a consultant poetry editor to The New York Times, the president of the Modern Language Association in 1980, and a poetry critic for The New Yorker.

Vendler was awarded a 1964 ACLS Grant-in-Aid and 1970 ACLS Fellowship for her work on the poetry of George Herbert. She served as a member of the ACLS Board of Directors from 1985 to 1989. In 2001, ACLS named her the Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecturer. The Haskins Prize Lecture series is entitled “A Life of Learning” and celebrates scholarly careers of distinctive importance.

Read her full obituary in the New York Times.