As I read Harold Bloom’s essay in my Manhattan apartment, a deep rumbling began from the southwest: Walt Whitman whirling in his Camden grave. “Above all else, a very difficult poet,” Bloom calls him, fond as he is of above; but the difficulty Whitman poses, beyond the unraveling of synechdoches, is in the shattering of verse conventions with a voice of radical intimacy and inclusion, inseparable from that rabblement, of which Bloom speaks with such contempt. Stevens and Eliot are great poets, but they are not the inheritors of this, and it is disingenuous for Bloom to claim so. You can have either your assailed aesthetic tower or your Walt Whitman, but not both.
Bloom’s test for canonical poems also seems disingenuous: “I have reread them with pleasure and with profit.” This is as concrete as he gets about the particulars of his aesthetic preferences; it seems to me that if this were his only criterion, his introduction would have been an admiring preface and not a panicked jeremiad. “They will surge up and we may be overcome,” he writes, which hints at another criterion, plain but unspoken: that the poems he values are made by his chosen few and not by this terrifying many-the numbers,” “the rabblement,” “the Resenters,” the unnamed taxidermists of the 1996 volume creating their “Stuffed Owl of bad verse”– of which I should say I am one.
He is right to discern the surging, the end of what he calls “a continuity of aesthetic appreciation and cognitive understanding that more or less prevailed from Emerson until the later 1960s”; it is history he hears, the end of colonialism, the beginning of a world in which those heretofore only spoken of may also speak. Caliban and Shylock, the voices of Stevens’s “nigger cemetery,” and of Eliot’s mocked Jews, the trivialized women and the silenced poor, may now begin to be heard. It is a thrilling time to be a writer and a reader. God bless May Swenson and James Merrill and John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons; and God help us if their ranges and concerns represent all of poetry in our time.
I was born in 1961, and I still go to the poets to make my soul; but my soul is not Harold Bloom’s. The world in which it was forged, constituted as it is of lightning changes, seems to have made my soul unrecognizable to him. Mediocrity does not come from diversity or multiplicity; most of all it comes from conventionality, from fear of the risk, the strange, the new, all amply demonstrated in Bloom’s essay. “No thing can be more malignant than a disease of the spirit that sincerely regards itself as virtue,” he writes, and on that we agree. May the revolution of which he is so frightened continue. May poetry continue to make itself new.