Structure and Poetry

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In a recent interview I read in the Harvard Gazette, poetry professor Helen Vendler discusses her inspiration for becoming an expert on poetry. Vendler was the first woman to be named a University Professor at Harvard. Much of her inspiration for studying poetry, it turns out, comes from her early love of science and math. She even says that if she were not a critic of poetry, she would probably have chosen to be a physician. This close relationship between the type of thinking required for art and science that she describes is very interesting.

Here are some Vendler quotes on art and science that particularly stand out to me:

“Geometry, with its shapes and volumes, taught me about poetic structure, and so did organic chemistry, because of the variety of structures of three-dimensional molecules.”

“I love structures. They were, in a way, what I was able to convey in my writings on poetry, because I could see the skeleton beneath the skin. And poetry was a mobile structure, changing from opening to close. It’s no accident that [John] Ashbery called one of his books ‘Flow Chart’: in a chemical flowchart, you begin somewhere, and then the chemical reaction evolves: finally you end up with the product you were aiming for. You have to plan the course of the experiment and write the equations for the many steps of combination and distillation and so on. That practice gives you a firm way of thinking sequentially. I’ve always been interested in the internal shape-changes of the poem.”

“I seriously thought I might be a doctor. I would have enjoyed the act of diagnosis. Any medical case is a puzzle until suddenly the elements come together and click into shape just as poems do.

“[Literature] is an art that always arises from passionate feeling, but it must be composed with profound technique. However abstract its symbolic expression, it is something deeply seated in the emotional life.”

Read the whole interview at the Harvard Gazette here.