The 2001 Charles Homer Haskins Lecture
Helen Vendler was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1933, the middle child of three siblings. Her parents were both school teachers, and her father taught her and her sister Spanish, French, and Italian in their childhood; her mother knew countless poems by heart. Vendler received her B.A. in Chemistry in 1950 at Emmanuel College, Boston, and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in mathematics at the University of Louvain, Belgium, during 1954-5 5. After a year studying literature as a special student at Boston University, she was admitted to the Radcliffe Graduate School, receiving her Ph.D. in English and American Literature in 1960. She married Zeno Vendler, a philosopher, and went with him to Cornell, where she taught for three years; the marriage produced a son, David (who is now married to Xianchung Jiang; they have two children). After Cornell, Vendler, now divorced, taught at Haverford, Swarthmore, Smith, and for nineteen years, at Boston University (with a year as a Fulbright Professor at the University of Bordeaux in 1968-69). In 1980 she was appointed to a Professorship at Harvard, where she is now a University Professor (the first woman elevated to that rank). At Harvard, she was for thirteen years a Senior Fellow in the Society of Fellows, and for five years an Associate Dean.
Vendler’s work as a critic has always been directed towards lyric poetry. Even though her dissertation (published as Yeats’s Vision and the Later Plays) was on another genre, she considered it preparatory work for a book on Yeats’s poetry (which she is now in the process of writing). Subsequent books were on Wallace Stevens, George Herbert, John Keats, William Shakespeare, and Seamus Heaney. From 1968 to the present, Vendler has frequently written on contemporary poetry for such journals as The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and The New Republic. Her reviews and essays have been collected in three volumes: Part of Nature, Part of Us; The Music of What Happens; and Soul Says.
Vendler has regularly taught American and English poetry from the Renaissance to the present day. At Harvard, she gives a Core Course called Poems, Poets, Poetry, which gave rise to a textbook by the same name. She has also edited the Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry. She has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies, among others; she has also been the recipient of the Radcliffe Graduate Medal and the Jefferson Medal from the American Philosophical Society.
Vendler has served as the President of the Modern Language Association and Vice President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she has been a member of the board for the Pulitzer Prizes. She has been awarded honorary degrees from ten universities in the United States and seven universities abroad. She is probably the most widely read critic of poetry in the United States.