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Monday, December 17, 2012

Helen Vendler on Yeats and Post Grads

Some of you perhaps know who Helen Vendler is. If you're not familiar with her, she is a well respected professor and literary critic who has taught at a number of big name universities, including Harvard, where she is now. There are people whose opinions I respect very much who do not think as well of her as I do, but anything of hers that I've ever read has made perfect sense to me. In fact, I respect her work and her opinions so much that when I was a senior in college I found her email address and wrote to her, asking for advice on life plans. Imagine my delight, my outrageous joy, when she wrote me a lovely response, addressing all of the questions I had asked her with kindness and consideration. I, of course, printed off the email and paraded it around campus, showing it to all of my fellow English majors, who nerdily oooed and awed with gratifying and complementary abundance. Although I'm fairly well settled against grad school at this point, and perhaps because of that fact, imagine my delight when last week I came across a recorded lecture of Vendler discussing one of Yeats' poems. Check out this page if you have a particular interest in Among School Children, or if you're simply ready to step back into a classroom and receive some edifying insights from a master instructor.

And, for a little firsthand knowledge of the Lady, here is our correspondence:

Dear Dr. Vendler
I hope you don't find it odd that I am writing to you -- my name is Ellen Turner, and I am a senior English major at the University of Dallas. I want to go right into grad school next fall, so I've been looking around at different graduate programs for English Language and Literature. I've been trying to decide if I should attempt to enter a PhD program right away, or just start with an MA in English and see what happens with that. One of my professors here, Dr. Andrew Osborn, did his undergraduate work at Harvard and has encouraged me to apply, but I wonder if it might not be smarter for me to wait a few years. I'm only 20 now, and much as I would love to dive into the program at Harvard, part of me thinks that I would get more out of it if I let my mind grow up a little more. Not to mention, there is of course a very real possibility that I won't get accepted if I apply now.
 You are the big draw for me at Harvard. Any of your critical essays that I've had a chance to read make so much sense to me -- they just fit with the way I understand things. During the Junior year here at UD, all of our English majors have to choose a poet with whom to become intensely familiar, not just by reading the poet's complete cannon and a full length biography of them, but also by reading about twenty-five or thirty critical books and essays on their work. After a semester of living in the poet's mind, we have oral examinations with a panel of three of our professors. It is a huge amount of work, but very gratifying. After a lot of changing my mind, I finally settled on George Herbert as my poet, and it was through researching him that I came across your work The Poetry of George Herbert -- it was just wonderful. One of my professors also just lent me your book, Invisible Listeners; besides revisiting Herbert, I'm trying to understand Whitman a little better, so I'm sure it will be a great help. I was very excited to learn that you are still teaching, and I very much want to study with you.
So I suppose I'm writing for advice -- do you think I'm too young to fully appreciate what is offered at Harvard's PhD program? Should I work on my Master's for now, and apply to Harvard in a few, or maybe five years? Also, do you ever teach at the Harvard Extension School, and is it possible to take your classes without being enrolled at Harvard as a full-time, degree-seeking student?
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I really do appreciate it!
Ellen Turner
Her response:

Dear Ellen,

(Forgive me, I sent you an empty e-mail because my finger slipped. This is the real e-mail.)

Thank you for the very kind remarks on my work. I enjoy doing it, and so it's good to feel that someone has enjoyed reading it.

As for advice: since I haven't taught you, and don't know you, I can only answer in generalities. Twenty is I think too young; I was out for 2 years before graduate school, and entered here at 23. I felt then that some of the students were really immature; they had done nothing from kindergarten to graduation except be in a classroom. I'd suggest you work for a couple of years, and read while you're working. Your undergraduate English major won't have covered everything; and you'll do better on the GREs if you read some more. I of course remember Andrew Osborn, who was one of our best students; I'm glad to know where he is; give him my best.

The second thing I should tell you is that Harvard only admits to the Ph.D. It is very hard to enter our program if you already have an MA; we prefer that people do all their course-work here (since there isn't that much in the way of course-work; perhaps we require too little). Getting an MA would not help in admission here.

Barring death (smile), I hope to stay on teaching. But I can't say for sure, of course, at my age. However, there are other poetry people here that you'd like--Gordon Teskey, Peter Sacks, Jorie Graham, etc. I don't teach in Extension; and Harvard doesn't permit auditors.

Have you thought of things you might do for a year or so? One of my students went, under the Fulbright program, to teach English in a French University. There are other things--Teach for America, the Peace Corps, etc.--that are both intellectually interesting and good for the growing up you should do before applying to a high-profile program. I am sure you are a very good student if Professor Osborn is encouraging you to go to graduate school--and your intense work on George Herbert certainly shows you'd enjoy it. But I'd say wait, read, travel if possible, get a sense of a larger world, learn another language (preferably Latin)--and then apply in a year or two.

I hope this helps a little. Finally, you must do what your heart tells you. You should apply widely, but only to places you could bear living in for 6 years. . . .

Yours, Helen Vendler 

1 comment:

  1. Had you written to me, my response would have been very brief: NEVER, under any circumstances, should anyone enter graduate school in any humanities discipline. All universities are now run by capitalist Visigoths, and the teaching profession is a thankless wasteland. It is advice I could not have received 30 years ago, because the landscape was not yet so bleak. But now, there is no other honest advice to give to any intelligent student. Western Civilization might not be doomed to die out everywhere, but be assured that universities will play no role in it's survival.