Is Helen Vendler's New Book a Thriller?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 25 2010 11:22 AM

Is Helen Vendler's New Book a Thriller?

Helen Vendler is the most estimable scholar of poetry alive in America her reputation so well-established that the bio on the jacket of her forthcoming book, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries , reads simply: "Helen Vendler is A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University" no droning on about her long bibliography , her studies of Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, John Keats, W.B. Yeats, William Shakespeare. It's the academic equivalent of Barack Obama calling himself an expert in constitutional law.

I have little doubt that Dickinson is as rigorous and insightful as Vendler's other works, but judging from the cover, it's a piece of trash fit for the bargain bin. The picture at left does not do its ugliness justice. It doesn't adequately capture its glossy sheen or its mauve tone. At first it was unclear to me what the photograph was even depicting a leather jacket abandoned in the woods? It's the sort of thing a designer might choose for a thriller about a sexually perverse kidnapper. Maybe it's a clue! The jacket must have fingerprints! But, no, the inside flap identifies the cover art as "Part of plant against silk," a 1959 photograph shot by Elspeth Ross. Still channels pervert kidnapper , I think.

Typically, academic publishers go for rather bland art a picture of a poet looking moody against a dark background , say. Obviously the Dickinson designer wanted to avoid this familiar trope, but if there's a more discordant cover out there, I haven't seen it. Maybe bland is good.

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Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.