Politics

My Late-in-Life Friendship With Helen Vendler

One makes so few new friends in older age — I mean, real friends, the ones you bond with and hold dear, as if you’d known one another since childhood.

Old age often prevents, or at least tempers, such discoveries. The joy of suddenly finding someone of compatible tastes, politics, intellectual interests and sense of humor can be shadowed, if tacitly, by the inevitable prospect of loss.

I became friends with Helen Vendler — the legendary poetry critic who died last week — six years ago, after she came to a talk I gave at Harvard about my 1965-66 Fulbright year in Ireland. Our friendship was close at the outset and was fortified and deepened by many letters between us, by our writing.

Some critics gain notice by something new they discover in the literature they examine. Helen became the most important critic of the age by dealing with something old and basic — the fact that great poetry was, well, lovable. Her vast knowledge of it was not like anyone else’s, and she embraced the poets she admired with informed exuberance.

The evening we met, Helen and I huddled together for an hour, maybe two, speaking of the great Celtic scholar John Kelleher, under whom we had both studied; of Irish poetry; and of our families. Helen was born to cruelly restrictive Irish Catholic parents who would not think of her going to anything but a Catholic college. When Helen rebelled against them, she was effectively tossed out and never allowed to return home.

She told me all this at our very first meeting. And I told her the sorrows of my own life — the untimely death of my daughter, Amy, and the seven-plus years my wife, Ginny, and I spent helping to rear her three children. And I told Helen unhappy things about my own upbringing. The loneliness. I think we both sensed that we had found someone we could trust with our lives.

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