Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless
And it isn’t for you.
Harold Bloom’s complaints about widespread aesthetic impoverishment are familiar–and unlike Louise Bogan’s observations, reiterative. We listened to a similar jeremiad when he opened his heaven’s gates to his canonical elect in the introduction to The Western Canon. He reproduces much of that sermon here as he ostensibly reviews the last ten years of The Best American Poetry and its sins. Without pointing a finger directly at her, he indicts the editor of the 1996 volume, Adrienne Rich. He heaps coals on her head for sins against Aesthetic Purity, namely for choosing poems that he says reflect “the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin and political purpose of the would-be poet.”
The faithful grow weary of this thundering from the pulpit. For there are still “faithful,” those of us who believe in progressive politics and aesthetics. Who are moved by Bloom’s passionate and poetry-loving persona, his pained and occasionally profound cries about what has been lost, yet think Adrienne Rich has the right to experiment, to “open up” our notions of what a poem might be-as she says, against some “apartheid of the imagination.”
Unfortunately, Bloom cannot seem to make a point without alienating potential sympathizers or employing the tactics he accuses his enemies of using. They have an agenda, he says, they have a self-serving politics. But so, of course, does he. And his rhetoric, not free of the periphrasis he so excoriates in the Other, produces a rather glum prose, re-hashed from The Western Canon, larded with resentment against the School of Resentment-what it serves up is unsavory. And cooked without a sprinkling of humor-isn’t wit a rendering of perceptiveness? To read deeply means to enjoy deeply, to understand deeply. Bloom reads, despairing, what he sees written on the wall of contemporary culture-then what about some graffiti? And while he’s not exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to bump into at a stand-up club, he does call up the “divine” Oscar Wilde; even his whip-toting cultural demagogue protégé Camille Paglia is good for a few laughs. (She did say, after all, that the deconstructionists were the intellectual equivalent of folks who purchased a houseful of zebra-striped Naugahyde furniture, and now have to live with it. The justice of that scenario never fails to transport me.)
What would Pope or Swift have done with this sermon, these death’s-door aesthetic complaints? Might Bloom have suggested a new Dunciad, a neo-Modest Proposal? Might he not have availed himself, at least, of a fairer style? For someone who cares so deeply about the beauty of language, his own words often seem tortured: Emerson’s prose offers transcendent relief when it appears. At times, Bloom’s style is reminiscent of the great crabby, dyspeptic genius Carlyle (without the puns in German): “Let me have my own way exactly in everything, and a sunnier and pleasanter creature does not exist.”
My own rule of thumb when considering matters of style and sensibility is to consult Auden. He knows how poets should be educated-remember his superbly eccentric College for Bards in The Dyers‘s Hand? Curriculum requirements included knowledge of at least one ancient language and two modern languages; students were also expected to keep a domestic pet and cultivate a garden. And here: “The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.” Auden also formulated a kind of regimen for critics. He believed that critics, before publishing criticism, should “come clean” aesthetically-provide their visions of “Eden,” a perfect world (in the critic’s view) that just might reflect a few of the prejudices inevitable in human judgment. “All the judgments,” Auden wrote,
aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes. So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgments. (Emphasis added.)
Auden’s “Eden questionnaire” required that the critic describe (among other things) the landscape, ethnic origin of inhabitants, formal dress, public statues and religion of his/her perfect world. What would Bloom’s Edenic landscape look like? What would be the ethnic origin of his “inhabitants,” their religion, their formal dress? His Edenic music is not rock music; he will not allow Sixties consciousness, nor Bill Clinton. We have all failed him-poets, editors, teachers of poetry, students of poetry, politicians. All infected with the French blight, all in the thrall of bad theory, ideology, and widespread cultural mediocrity. The gates to Bloom’s Eden are closing.
I find myself agreeing with what Katha Pollitt, feminist, journalist, poet, and wit, says in a recent essay (“Why We Read, or Canon to the Right of Me”) as she in turn finds herself agreeing with the Bloom-type conservatives on one hand and the proponents of cultural studies on the other. Some books (some poems) are unquestionably more profound, more complex, and irreplaceable than others. And throngs of our students are graduating now without having read Homer, Plato, Virgil, Milton, Tolstoy-these dead white males whose works still matter to us (or should). Pollitt points out that the canon changes regularly, reverses itself routinely. If T. S. Eliot can single-handedly dethrone the Romantics and prop up the Metaphysicals, why can’t an altering canon include more women writers of the past, writers of color, etc.?
Bloom’s one joke–“If [the function of my profession] is to appreciate and teach Laetitia Landon and Lady Mary Chudleigh, then the demise cannot come too soon”-would be a lethal parry, if the selection process for his own Western Canon had been beyond reproach. Yet think of his waving the mercifully forgotten Trumbull Stickney into a reserved parking spot near Henry James and Walt Whitman, as a like representative of the canon’s “Democratic Age.” And shall we overlook all the Yalies represented in his “best of”? At the close of The Western Canon Bloom mentions that he “resisted the backward reach of current canonical crusades” that elevate “sadly inadequate nineteenth-century women writers” and “rudimentary verses and narratives of African Americans.” After this charming volley, he makes a point that seems to me at the heart of this debate: “expanding the Canon tends to drive out the better writers,” he writes-and presumably, time will be wasted on inferior work-since “none of us” have time to read everything, especially “the harried young.”
What this war is about, finally, is turf. What’s “called out” Bloom is the selling of The War of the Edens. The last time most people will read a book is in college-therefore the gang wars raging near this dying reader’s pallet are really aboutmarketing the reading of a book as a point of view or a kind of product. Getting on the Required Reading list-and staying there. Putting together The Best American Poetry, then selling it as a textbook. Reiterating The Western Canon.
Katha Pollitt again: it is foolish to argue that Chekhov has nothing to say to a black woman–merely because “he is Russian, long dead, a man.” Yet she remembers as a child (as I do), paging through anthologies of poetry, in vain, looking for the names of women. Surely there was some other female writer besides Dickinson or Sappho? Maybe the Countess of Pembroke? How thrilling it was, back then, to find a female name, even if it was attached to a relatively uninspiring poem. It was thrilling just to see that women wrote, were published. So room had to be made for these other voices-beyond the best. And beyond The Best of.
So how bad are the poems in The Best American Poetry 1996? A poem by Jean Valentine first printed in The New Yorker; a poem by William Dickey, from Poetry; one by James Merrill, from The New York Times. Poems by Carl Phillips from The Atlantic Monthly, Reynolds Price from The Southern Review, Gary Soto from Prairie Schooner. Marilyn Chin, W. S. Merwin, Alberto Rios, Stanley Kunitz, Sherman Alexie, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jane Kenyon. Does this sound like a Stuffed Owl to you so far? No? Then, could it be possible that Bloom is objecting to the editor? His published objection was to all the poems in this collection–though could he have had more specific poems in mind, written by other poets in Rich’s group (like, for example, the poem by a maximum-security prison inmate that “opens” the selection)?
At the very outset, Adrienne Rich states that her selections are not meant to be Top Poems:
These are not, by any neutral or universal standard, the best poems written, or heard aloud, or published in (North) America during 1995. From the first, I pushed aside the designations ‘best’ and ‘American.’ . . . This is a gathering of poems that one guest editor, reading through mailboxesful of journals that publish poetry, found especially urgent, lively, haunting, resonant, demanding to be read.
So Rich, on a less ambitious scale, has done what Bloom managed to do, with very different purpose. Rich has selected some memorable poems-in her case the standard is not aesthetic excellence, but resonance, urgency, liveliness. The big deal over this seems to be that there’s supposed to be only One Big Deal. And it begins to look like who’s doing the choosing is part of the Big Deal. Which is why, when Katha Pollitt and I were wee girls, finding that female name might not have had much to do with the perfect mind in touch with perfect poetry-or even one’s attempt to write poetry-but it had to with (here is the argument for cultural studies) overcoming a really bad joke: bias. And bias-made taste. A snake that could curl in a critic’s Eden.
Why is it we cannot imagine a world of reading in which many sensibilities were represented? It might be that in order to have that world-we would have to be a nation of readers. Our reading lives would be just beginning in high school or college or on the job-and everyone would read all the time-the bus driver, the cabbie, the video store owner, even the critic . . . Thus there would be no need for a canon or a “best of” anything, because this reading public would be interested in everything literary. We wouldn’t have to worry about whether Joy Harjo was replacing Yeats-our readers would be reading and buying both writers. There would be room for Bloom’s timeless masterpieces and for cultural studies.
The punch line: we don’t live in that world. Robert Hass, in his recent book Poet‘s Choice, remarks that “if ‘Read my lips’ was the only line we had in common, how could we not have a debased public language?” This “dumbed down” language and our dumbed-down unread public consciousness (in some peculiar alliance with theorists) as Bloom has pointed out, plagues campuses. I’ve spent my whole life thinking about language and literature, yet “literature” as such seems to have disappeared from the standard curriculum. Still, although the New Historicists and the deconstructionists and pop culturists now hold sway, it’s true that they are only trying to survive by engaging the same audience, commanding the same spotlight once focused on Great Literature. If we think about who we’re all supposedly trying to reach here, the readers of the future, we all may have lost the war. We are experiencing the commodification of everything from underwear to the way we talk to each other. It’s a terrifying time for books and readers. How to make “Ozymandias” or an analysis of Ozzie and Harriet interesting becomes the same issue, looked at in this light. Literature may be about choosing, but if the act of reading is no longer a popular choice, there may be no more poems, best or just memorable, left from which to select.
Recently the great poet and critic Ocatvio Paz died, leaving these words in The New York Times: “The market, blind and deaf, is not fond of literature or of risk, and it does not know how to choose. Its censorship is not ideological: it has no ideas.”
It seems to me that Bloom’s argument with ideology is misdirected. While he skirmishes on the sidelines with faux commissars and mock feminists, his battlefield, set on the “heights,” is being slouched toward by the real “numbers,” the legions of blind and deaf, the dumbed down, the barely-literate, commodified and sold. Bloom faces the real deluge when he questions how poetry will continue to be taught. His concern is exactly appropriate-given that neither the “universe-of-readers” Eden nor his aesthetically perfect Eden will ever come to be. Nevertheless, there is always a kind of “Eden-in-progress” featured in the (if you will) practical aesthetics of the pedagogy of poetry-as taught by poets and true lovers of poetry.
J. D. McClatchy praises Bloom’s teaching style in a recent essay on reading, painting a portrait of Professor Bloom brooding before his students, asking hard questions of poems. This is (and always has been) an effective way to teach– not to “interpret”, but to re-create each encounter inherent in the act of reading poetry, to brood over the text, to both identify with and interrogate each word, the mind moving as the language moves. Thus, Bloom elucidates what is profound and beautiful-and thus, it seems to me that the teacher of poetry can also identify what aspires to be profound and beautiful and fails. Bloom would counter that the developing poet’s mind requires only the aristos, but it is in acknowledging the great and not-so-great failures, the alternative voices, the various articulations of our mortal condition, that we not only come to appreciate what is timeless and why, but also remain aware of possibility, of mutability, of a natural refreshing dialectic that keeps the canon permanently challengeable and puts one’s own aesthetic subjectivity on alert. Just as Bloom (as sketched by McClatchy) dramatically interrogates Emily Dickinson’s use of “circumference” in a poem, elucidating the genius of her “re-making” of its meaning, her startling and miraculous perceptions can become an invitation to poets to visit other habitations of this word, circumference. Not as elitist missionaries of some doctrine of perfectibility, but as explorers in language and the permutations of thought.
It seems to me that there is an element of this pedagogical approach implied in Adrienne Rich’s emphasis, in her introduction to the 1996 volume, on qualities other than “best”: i.e., a poem’s “urgency,” its “demanding to be read.” In her College for Bards, there are lessons to be learned from the words of the great poets and from the poets of the underclass, the unlikely, the unheard, perhaps other possibilities of “Great.”
I am not promoting mediocrity, or bad poems, and I don’t think that Rich is; nor is she reinforcing the canon. Hers is a different kind of “questioning,” perhaps an investigation of a poem’s longing. Why not hold a poem of longing up to a great poem and discuss their differences, ask why these differences are profound or small? It is crucial that a young poet develop critical judgment; it is equally crucial that she develop, through the same inquiry, an open mind.
Bloom extols Shakespeare as the great “multiculturalist”-and he is right to do so. But the unyielding selfishness that must inform the sensibility of the great writer for Bloom seems contradicted by Shakespeare’s uncanny empathy and affection for all humanity. Shakespeare has, in Emerson’s words (which Bloom quotes to substantiate his arguments), “no discoverable egotism”; he possesses “an omnipresent humanity.” This seems to me to contradict what Bloom asserts about the writerly ego. Emerson is saying that Shakespeare was open-minded.
Despite all the bad news from the front, I believe in the Eden-in-progress. I also believe the young will continue to matriculate at the College for Bards, and that wise poets will continue to teach them. And outside there, on the lawns of Eden, will stand the happy public statues, side by side: Professor Harold Bloom and Lady Mary Chudleigh.