One of the pillars of my high school, a brilliant teacher, Mrs. B., taught English. She also taught Humanities: we studied what might be called world literature or great books, alongside music and art. Dante (in the existential Ciardi translation), Ibsen, Eliot, Bernstein’s Mass, and Irish writers from Joyce to Beckett and back.
If you happened to ask Mrs. B. about outside books, she’d tell you not to bother. She preferred what she thought of as classics. Once someone asked about the title of the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? only to be told the title didn’t matter, and later I was to understand, neither did Virginia Woolf. I specifically recall asking her about James Baldwin, a black writer I’d heard tell of-she dismissed him, telling me instead there was only one good black writer. No, one good book: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. We didn’t read that either.
I wish I could say I was horrified by her dismissals, but they were mere steps away from things people shouted at me in hallways. Coating a slur doesn’t change it; calling it literature or criticism does not remove our human compensity to categorize and our Western habit of ranking-especially when we feel threatened.
Whose shrill voice now echoes the hallowed halls? In what Harold Bloom calls the “School of Resentment,” he’s the principal, sharing the water fountain with the rest of the resenters. Dante peopled his hell with his enemies-the Inferno, besides being one of the best poems ever written, is also the ultimate revenge. Yet Dante achieves not only a higher religious calling, but also a crucial use of vernacular, of not talking down to the people while talking up to God. Bloom’s purpose is far less noble: he is picking a fight. Naming the “enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us,” making up movements where there aren’t any, threatening to retire if things do not get better become prelude to general name-calling.
Yet Bloom also seems afraid to say who edited the 1996 volume of The Best American Poetry, in which he “failed to discover more than an authentic poem or two.” If he’d come out and stated Adrienne Rich’s name instead of treating it like the unspeakable deity-a luxury we do not have with Bloom-some of Bloom’s fervor may have become clearer. He would also not have overlooked Rich’s dismay in her introduction at “how many poems published in magazines today are personal to the point of suffocation.” Instead, in an essay declaiming reductionism and proclaiming aestheticism, Bloom stoops to thinly-veiled race- and gender-bashing by reducing editorial choices to “the false generosity of any Affirmative Action in the judging of poetry.”
Of course, Bloom’s argument is nothing new. It is the age-old assertion of aesthetics: a tamer version of Oscar Wilde, or a more vehement one of Sontag’s “On Style.” Bloom may be right about reading, that it may not make us better citizens, but it does not take a theory of anxiety or Paul de Man to see that even “apolitical” aestheticism is another form of ideology. In this regard, Wilde’s idea that “all art is quite useless ” is in itself a useful charge. However, after World War II, there is a different, more difficult “uselesness” of art than Bloom admits to-what can mere words do in the face of genocide? Yet just ask Osip Mandelstam or Paul Celan-writing is sometimes survival. And too often writing is all that survives. If Bloom had stuck to what survives, and declared the need to go beyond the earnest narrative and easy autobiography of our age, his introduction might have proved as useful as his anthology.
Consider two of the fine poets Bloom does include in his Best of the Best: Jay Wright and Yusef Komunyakaa. Wright has wrongly been diagnosed (by Bloom, who wrote the afterword to his Selected Poems, and by others) with that deadliest disease: difficulty. His work, while certainly layered, is graceful and clear, especially in his love poems, or in Boleros written for saints and family. I like to think he ends the Best of the Best not just as an accident of alphebetizing, for the last lines of “The Cradle Logic of Autumn” provide a useful epiphany: “I now acknowledge this red moon, to requite / the heart alone given power to recite / its faith, what a cradled life finds emblematic.” Here Wright embraces death and beauty, birth, youth, and iconography-a crossroads of cultures. To read Wright effectively we must also be as smart as he is at reading across cultures, at not just combining but uncovering them. This seems to me the purpose of multiculturalism, not to prove supremacy but to recognize difference. “Yet even that diminished voice can withstand / the currying of its spirit.”
Yusef Komunyakaa is represented by “Facing It,” the culmination of his brilliant book Dien Cai Dau, on his time in Vietnam. This poem, about facing the Vietnam War Memorial, indicates some of his concerns: history, mortality, ambiguity. He half expects to see his own name among the dead; sees his face; sees into “the rock” with its pentecostal, perilious, and even paralyzing implications. “I’m stone. I’m flesh.” Listen to Komunyakaa describe his writing the poem:
I had meditated on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as if the century’s blues songs had been solidified into something monumental and concrete. Our wailing, our ranting, our singing of spirituals and kaddish and rock anthems, it was all captured and refined into a shaped density that attempted to portray personal and public feelings about war and human loss. It became a shrine overnight: a blackness that plays with light-a reflected motion in the stone that balances a dance between the grass and sky. Whoever faces the granite becomes a part of it. The reflections move into and through each other. A dance between the dead and the living.
We could substitute “poetry” for every mention of the monument and see how Komunyakaa’s description also makes claims on poetry as a public, participatory art form, embodying beauty and mystery in the face of death. And history-which is what Bloom ultimately misses out on; he’s too busy caricaturing the late sixties as “a Great Awakening of Rock Religion” to notice that we lost two leaders to bullets and our cities to civil disobedience. Or to notice that a black boy from Bogalusa, Louisiana went to Vietnam a reporter and came back a poet.
Speaking of history: the other pillar of my high school was a history teacher. His style, all seating charts and spareness, was quite the opposite of Mrs. B.–his room contained only flags and maps. For two decades he had gotten to school early, snow or shine, and written the day’s notes-taken from his own yellowing copy-on the board for all his classes. He filled front and back with his billowing white characters of European and American history; we’d have to copy them down, word for word. It prepared us, he said.
By the time we got to study with him, he was declining; the previous year he’d missed a few classes, something he hadn’t done in his twentysome years at the school. He was tired. Some had told him to take his last year off, then retire: he had that many paid days built up. But how could he? This Depression kid could not understand depression, never knew what it meant to quit.
He did not make it through the year; I think he got to as far as WWII. This man (for that’s what he was) who taught history as order, could not stand one ounce of chaos. When one thing was out of place, his world collapsed. Hubris, Mrs. B. might have called it.
I admired him. Like a Greek hero, or MacArthur, his strength– his unswerving, and unforgiving need for order– was also his undoing.