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Invisible Listeners

Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery

Helen Vendler
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 112
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  • Book Info
    Invisible Listeners
    Book Description:

    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? InInvisible 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2671-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION Invisible Listeners
    (pp. 1-8)

    The chapters of this book investigate the odd practice by which certain poets address their poems, in whole or in part, to someone they do not know and cannot set eyes on, their invisible listener. George Herbert speaks to God; Walt Whitman to the reader in futurity; John Ashbery to a painter of the past. What are we to make of this choice of addressee? With many visible listeners presumably available—the beloved, the patron, the child, the friend—why does the poet feel he or she must hold a colloquy with an invisible other? And what is the ethical...

  5. ONE George Herbert and God
    (pp. 9-30)

    I hope to describe here George Herbert’s startling accomplishment in revising the conventional vertical address to God until it approaches the horizontal address to an intimate friend. This original intuition was not enacted immediately in Herbert’s writing, though it was always longed for. Herbert inherits ways of thinking about, and addressing, God from two chief sources, the Bible and the liturgy.¹ Both in the Old Testament and the New, Herbert finds anecdotes of intimacy with God: there was a moment, the poet recalls with nostalgia, when God was so familiar with his people that he had to beseech Moses to...

  6. TWO Walt Whitman and the Reader-in-Futurity
    (pp. 31-56)

    Whitman certainly began not as a poet interested in the invisible but rather as a poet of strong bodily response expressed in a daring language of physicality. In the 1855Leaves of Grasshe invents a poetry of far-reaching symbolic resource in its description of the conjunction of bodies, as in his strikingly original rendition of fellatio:

    . . . What is this flooding me, childhood or manhood. . . . and the hunger that crosses the bridge between . . .

    The cloth laps a first sweet eating and drinking,

    Laps life-swelling yolks. . . . laps ear of...

  7. THREE John Ashbery and the Artist of the Past
    (pp. 57-78)

    As we have seen, many lyric speakers have addressed, in intimate terms, an invisible listener. In the work of George Herbert, the invisible listener is God; in Whitman, it is often a listener-in-futurity. Ashbery is one of those—John Berryman is another—who have sought intimacy with a listener from the past: Anne Bradstreet for Berryman, Francesco Parmigianino for Ashbery. And Ashbery, like Whitman, envisages a second invisible listener—his reader, of whom many of his poems are acutely conscious. Ashbery ’s long ars poetica,Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, depends intrinsically on the establishing of an intimacy between himself...

  8. CONCLUSION Domesticating the Unseen
    (pp. 79-80)

    The imagining by lyric poets of invisible listeners—a divine person, a camerado of the future, an artist of the past—suggests that there are life-situations where a visible (if absent) addressee (a friend, a lover, a fellow-poet) is insufficient for the poet’s needs. We have seen three such predicaments. For Herbert, no human being could embody the ego-ideal represented by Jesus (or Love); for Whitman, no actual nineteenth-century lover was likely to understand a Utopian future founded on a freedom in same-sex love; for Ashbery, no contemporary artist exemplified so strongly as Parmigianino the necessity to an artwork of...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 81-90)
  10. Index
    (pp. 91-95)