Let me first declare an interest. Not only is a poem of mine included in Harold Bloom’s anthology, but he was a teacher and is now a colleague of mine at Yale. These facts, when I brought them to the attention of Boston Review’s editor, did not prompt him to withdraw his invitation to comment on Bloom’s argument. But I want you as well to bear in mind my partiality.
Actually, it was Bloom’s contentious essay that pointed me backwards and led me to read through Adrienne Rich’s collection, which I had earlier overlooked. It is a strong collection-as in “strong medicine”-but it is not a good one. That is to say, it does no good either to the purpose of the series or to Rich’s own lofty, urgent ambitions.
It’s important to note that both editors begin with the same political perspective, and a similar sense of cultural crisis. Rich’s introduction bemoans the “accelerated social disintegration” of 1990s America, and Bloom is in bitter agreement about the bankruptcy of our political and economic life. In her desire for a poetry that is both conscience and clarion call, Rich declares that the one question she asked of the year’s poems was this: “What does it mean for poets when so powerful an idea, prescription, vision of the future-however unrealized-is so abruptly abandoned or driven underground?” Poetry in her view is addressed to society, to the moment, with social justice on its mind and the prospect of radical change in its pocket. She begins by boldly abjuring her duty and declaring that her choices are “not, by any neutral or universal standard, the best poems written, or heard aloud, or published, in (North) America during 1995.” Instead, she “was interested in any poet’s acknowledgment of the social and political loornings of this time-space.”
Bloom, of course, asks a different question altogether of the poets, and makes different demands. He takes Rich’s premise and pursues it further: the social malaise has infected the culture; both art and criticism have been politicized to serve narrow, debased agendas. Where Rich sees an “apartheid of the imagination,” Bloom finds “cultural guilt,” the spineless submission of principle to expediency. “The realm of the aesthetic” is his only soul-making arena, and the struggle enacted there is one between tradition and the individual talent. But it is more than that. For Rich, poems should be aggressive. For Bloom, they should be defensive-the final defense of the self against whatever idea or ideology, cause or condition, moral or emotion may impinge on its isolate freedom.
Both Rich and Bloom are spirited contrarians. But while some may find a musty bardolatry in Bloom’s elitism, there is something more pernicious at the heart of Rich’s socially purposive criteria. It is merely tiresome to watch her stick the usual pins into the usual dolls, or to have her refer to white poets as white and to black poets as Black. It’s more than tiresome to have poets sorted into census categories. But what is sorely irresponsible is for her to pretend that a bad poem is good, or even worthy of being remembered. Her anthology is overloaded with news that won’t stay news. By chance, the alphabetical arrangement of poems puts first, and thereby throws into a sad but entirely symptomatic prominence, a poem entitled “The Tombs” by Latif Asad Abdullah, a (presumably black) inmate in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison (and not a political prisoner; he’s serving twenty-two years for first-degree burglary). His poem was first published in what seems to be the prison newspaper. None of this matters in the slightest-especially when I think of the sublime literature written in prison by the likes of Raleigh or Wilde or Genet. What matters is the utter banality of the poem itself. I quote its middle two stanzas:
In the tombs,
Gestapo customs replace once human kind.
Oh! Sensitivity, why have you left my soul,
abandoning me to be with moral excellence?
In the tombs,
administrative mummies wrapped
in barbaric cloths.
Eyes, a mirror of psychopathic inclinations,
Oh! Compassion, please return!
What a clutter of clichés, sentimentality, confused syntax, and flailing gestures. Worse, it’s so “literary.” Those apostrophes to Sensitivity and Compassion are downright campy, and might seem at home in an Ashbery parody. I fail to see how this sort of dreck will prompt prison reform, or come to be linked with Keats. Rich’s book is littered with such nonsense, poems almost invariably characterized by those two slick qualities the road to Hell is paved with: energy and earnestness.
I don’t believe, as Bloom does, that Rich made her selections on the basis of a poet’s race or gender. I think she thought more of a given poem’s subject: that it must bear witness or address an issue. This kind of thinking closes the gap between social responsibility and propaganda. Many great poets, from Vergil to George Herbert, have been political flatterers of an Establishment. But in this country especially, we prefer the detached, even anarchic eye: an Emerson or Thoreau, a Whitman or Dickinson, Stevens or Lowell. Sadly, for most of Rich’s favorites, the underclass has become its own Establishment, the outsider has grown cozy with his automatic assumptions, the goal has dwindled from engaging the imagination to pricking the conscience.
Thomas Hardy once said that the poet’s business is to show the sorriness underlying life. Not merely the sorrow–t he lacrimae rerum-but the shabbiness and despair. I suspect Bloom would agree, and point to Hart Crane’s riffs on the cityscape or to Elizabeth Bishop’s mirrory solitude. After all, he properly links “aesthetic” with “awareness.” Hungry for spirit, poems swallow the world. The best poems– that is to say, the poems that last, that shake or soothe the soul-are all addressed to the future, are manifestoes of one, sing a high-strung music of the nerves. They loaf. They riddle. They don’t react, they think. And their readers remember Blake’s remark that the true minority are the talented.
Oh, and in the end, of course, the question that remains is this: Are there seventy-five poems in any year, in any decade, that will last? If you are eagerly nodding, then add “forever” to the question. Still nodding?