The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself,” and this No is its creative deed. This inversion of the value-positing eye-this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself-is of the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile world; it needs, psychologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all–its action is fundamentally reaction.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Geneology of Morals
There have been, of course, extraordinary anthologies. Take, for example, Alfred Kremborg’s 1916 beautifully titled Others: an anthology of the new verse, a collection of thirty-six poets which included Pound, Eliot, Moore, Loy, Sandburg, Stevens and Williams, as well as such figures as Man Ray and William Zorach, plus a host of persons now consigned to the infamous dust heap of history, many of them, I hasten to add, women: Mary Aldis, Adelaide Crapsey, Alice Groff, Helen Hoyt, Hester Sainsbury, Marguerite Zorach. Their names alone suggest a devastating sorority. Or, just past mid-century, The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen and Warren Tallman, which brought together important strands of American poetry emanating from Modernism, by way of Pound, Stein and Williams (but not Stevens: therein hangs a sad tale), and included poets associated with the Beats, the Objectivists, Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance and New York schools. This volume was in some contrast to M. L. Rosenthal’s The New Modern Poetry: British and American Poetry since World War II (1967), an ecclectic collection which foregrounded the Confessional Poets, but included such diverse poets as Elizabeth Bishop, Hayden Carruth, Robert Bly, Howard Nemerov, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov. In recent years, there has been a kind of anthology mania, as the millennium approaches with the attendant desire to at once sum up the past and predict the future, ranging from Eliot Weinberger’s contested but rigorous American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (1993), to Paul Hoover’s more catholic Norton anthology, Postmodern American Poetry (1994). And now, just out from Talisman, Mary Margaret Sloan’s magisterial Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women.
Of course none of the anthologies cited claims to be the best; each displays the preferences, the tastes, of its individual editors. But we live in a time when marketing schemes override critical nuance, when the idea of an individual’s predilections is not as compelling as the notion that something, some thing, is the best of its kind. To be the best implies there is an objective standard of judgment, some absolute way of measuring and knowing, and it is this idea which has, I think, contributed to the current crisis in aesthetics generally and in critical responses to poetry in particular. And when there is a public that knows less and less about contemporary poetics, one feels a kind of cultural shudder-sadness mixed with fury-when only part of the landscape is illumined. For although there are many fine poets in The Best of volumes, one cannot help but notice an overall distaste for work by poets for whom the act of writing is a search for new structures, new forms, with which to meet a rapidly changing postmodern reality. Over in the unlit woods, the shadowy groves of the unbest, there are many poets, or varying degrees of accomplishment, who, in my view, have taken up the task which Emerson set for them, to give voice to this new yet unapproachable America. Their virtual exclusion is a symptom of a condition which extends beyond the margins of poetry.
Which brings us to the issue at hand, and Harold Bloom, whose behest it was to reiterate the best into its resounding redundancy, the best of the best. And who better qualified? He is, if not exactly our Old Testament God, at least our Darwinian Freud, concerned with origins and etymologies, anxieties and crossings, capabilities and canons, the Orphic Spin Doctor with a whole lot of tools in his Survival Kit, midwife to the prolific American Muse. He, among us, is free of the noxious toxins which have sullied the pure waters of aesthetic judgment, from the invading xenophobic French-down with Kristeva! down with Derrida! down with Lacan!-to the factional fictions of Identity-feminism, queer theory, multiculturalism-that have made a turmoil of Lit. Crit., as it was once so quaintly monikered. A person of impeccable discrimination, Bloom knows a Giant when he sees one, he has the requisite knowledge (“My mind was formed by Blake and Hart Crane, and then by Wallace Stevens and Shelley” he modestly attests) to prise out, to cultivate, the essential genius of American poetry, to keep it free from rampant weeds and vagrant winds of academic fashion and street fad. You won’t find Bloom including a poem for impure reasons-allegiances of religion, gender, race, institutional affiliation, not to mention mere friendship: he is immune to such vulgar predicates. Bloom will not split the copulating atom of Truth/Beauty and wreak unholy havoc on the pure products of American poetry.
Nothing is perfect but the hope of it, Emerson remarks.
My own Bloomsian rant: I have just read eighty-two volumes of poetry (for a prize), all first books, most of which have already won a competition in order to be published. I must confess that the experience was not an especially enjoyable one; not a feast, but a sort of bland diet of slightly sweet, sticky gruel. Book after book, poem after poem, line after line, the center of concern is the poet’s self, his or her experience in life (not of life) transmuted into a language one might imagine to be “poetic”: a dressy, fussy, inflated diction. Most of these writers rely on pictorial/narrative effects, and almost none seems to want to explore either the aural possibilities of a line, except in its most traditional (when is a form not a form? when it is a new form! Jazz, anyone?) register, or the corresponding material, physical pleasures of the page (I said page, not text). The poems are dull: self-conscious and self-absorbed; most are little prose essays, broken along their syntactical scaffolds into lines. Somehow it is imagined (it is taught) that the main object of poetic ambition should be a kind of discursive commentary; self-witnessing transformed into “pretty pictures” of traumatic events. Next stop: profundity, wisdom, the pieties of essential truth! They seem to be culturally and historically nearsighted, undernourished, deprived. Some attempt to extend their personal lives to paradigmatic stature, believing, I suspect, that they are representative, but they have neither Whitman’s inclusive humanity nor Wordsworth’s historical centrality (not to mention linguistic gifts). In any case, these poets seem to be driven by 1. limited subject matter and 2. an idea of poetic diction and form which is as familiar as it is exhausted: mechanical monkey plays same old tune. They seem to agree to the received idea of a poem as a kind of cultural decor, an accessory, a small-nay, a tiny-entertainment. They seem unwilling to risk real play-the play that involves humor as well as eros-unable to ask the poem to tell them, and us, something they do not already know. The poem as aspirin for the soul. Take two, you’ll feel better in the morning.
What if “truth” and “beauty” are not eternal and static, but variable, and in an infinitely extendible and unstable equation? And what if it is precisely the relation between these two terms (truth as form, beauty as hermeneutic) which it is the task of a poet in any given time to manifest? And what happens when you begin to notice, as it began to be noticed as Modernism began to wane, that there is no such thing as an aesthetic value which is not to some extent inflected, informed, by other values which, in turn, arise from particular, individual as well as cultural, ways of believing, perceiving and knowing? What if, in fact, the “aesthetic” is the very site of turbulence and uncertainty through or by which an artist attempts to come to terms with the various field of human investment and experience, the choices, decisions and judgments, which ratify a life? The aesthetic would then be the result of complex determinants, not fixed, not pre-determined, not necessarily knowable in the first place, but always, definingly, a place ofdiscovery.
Discovery, by its very nature, cannot be reduced to formulas, captions, or categories.
What, then, is the nature of this discovery? Or to put it another way, what is the source of pleasure
which Professor Bloom continues, following Pater and Coleridge, to affiliate so closely with his understanding of the aesthetic experience? The pleasure of perspicacity, of insight, of seeing into the life of things
? My own understanding is that there is, indeed, an ethics implicated in or by aesthetics, but it is not an ethics that can be realized or represented simply through assertions of specific content, or subject-matter, what Charles Altieri has called “overt ideological claims or their value as social documentary.” Citing Nietzsche, Altieri goes on to say that “What matters most about a culture emphasizing epistemic values is the difference between the questions that it allows itself to ask and the questions that it marginalizes. For those questions what are primary also offer the most pronounced and most powerful principles of identification and valorization within the culture.” 1
On this reading, we might want to say that the new foci of attention in the field of literary studies reflects a much delayed, if much contested, adjustment to the questions the culture asks about itself. To blame and vilify the 1960s for these shifts is, I think, an act of revisionism not worthy of Bloom’s scholarship and humanism. To my mind, Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson are radical
, that is, original, thinkers, stunning innovators, and they were, as well, spiritually profoundly generous; they would have been more tolerant of the anguish of the under-represented, more patient with righteous, if short-sighted, zeal. They were, after all, non-conformists.
I love John Ashbery as much as the next guy, but every poet influenced by him is not a pale imitation of him, anxieties notwithstanding. His greatness has allowed many poets–from David Lehman himself to, say Charles Bernstein, to name two not quite at random–to explore some of the territory he opened, some of which is, it would seem, directly attributable to his knowledge, not only of “minor” poets, but of literatures outside of direct Anglo-American descent (that of France, for example).
Bad poetry, I would submit, asks questions, raises issues, makes complaints, marks territories. Bad poetry does not take on the more difficult task, where the question and its answer are as one. Good poems absorb into their formal and imaginative resources new questions which are as “difficult” to answer as they are to raise. Or put it this way: the poem is an answer to a question or questions no one, including the poet, had thought to ask. These questions are always in temporal, historical flux, responding to myriad collisions of information from every possible-and they seem to multiply by the day-domain. The poem as answer to an unasked question puts pressure on the poet to be alert, vigilant, receptive, not just to the past, but to the weathers, internal and external, which characterize the day- poems of our climate, indeed. The burden of knowledge is immense, but it is also messy and malleable; each time you reread “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” a new fiction will arise and the nature of it supremacy (its bestness) will alter. It is the critic’s job to ask the question or questions which the poem elicits in its answering. As long as editors and critics are blind-sided by the myopia of their pre-existing conditions for good, better and best (the latter a test only time can take), as long as they mistake subject for content, content for meaning, an form for that which is what was, much of the best of the best will remain invisible, and the real questions to their answers will go, as Shelley foretold, unacknowledged.
A rose, after all, is still only a rose, but it smells sweeter when there are three of them.