Harold Bloom’s jeremiad is an action in the theater of the mind. So strident is his counter-polemic– against the “hucksters,” the “rabblement of lemmings” of theory and chic political persuasion– that we cannot but conjure up an adversary worthy of the rhetoric. I am drawn, as I read, into the sturm und drang of it all, even though when I look up from the page it all has the quality of a fever dream.
But this is precisely its power and attractiveness. Bloom has mustered his resources to create an action, to make a scene. And whether or not his specific criticisms really obtain– they seem at least a little overblown to me– the heat of the event is what matters. Bloom concludes by quoting his beloved Emerson to the effect that poets are “liberating gods,” much more important for “stimulating us through . . . tropes, than afterward, when we arrive at the precise sense of the author.”
That’s it exactly. Never mind the final justice of what Bloom proclaims, there’s justice enough to warrant the outcry. Bloom, while perhaps not so spectrally thin as Don Quixote, is, like him, a “knight of doleful countenance,” taking up arms on behalf of what he calls “the autonomy of the aesthetic,” a cause now at least as imperiled as the Don thought chivalry to be.
That Bloom sees fit to raise his cry in the high hyperbolic way he does tells me more about the state of what might be called our “cultural conversation” these days than it does about the state of poetry. To be noticed, heeded at all, it seems one needs to tabloidize– framing a difference of aesthetic beliefs as a death struggle, a Thermopylae. And the gambit worked– Bloom has snared the public’s attention. I have heard the essay talked about in various quarters now, and here it is, subject to further commentary in theses pages.
Some similar sense of fuss-of buzz-attended Joseph Epstein’s “Who Killed Modern Poetry?” and Dana Gioia’s “Does Poetry Matter?” essays, leading me to wonder whether poetry is not being just a little bit used– damselized– by her ardent defenders. She is always the pure maid whose honor has been besmirched, creating just coincidentally an occasion for her knights to show any onlookers their fighting skills and moral zealousness. I haven’t seen anything comparable, really, with the other literary genres.
Tabloid techniques or no, I do at a gut level side with Bloom, agree not only with his assertion of the “autonomy of the aesthetic,” but also that “a literary critic has no political responsibilities, as a critic.” Not because politics don’t matter, or because literature cannot be shown to impinge on the larger social world–obviously it can– but because I believe the primary (and now imperiled) relationship is that between the poet and the language; that the subject matter is finally, as T. S. Eliot believed it to be, a bone thrown out to keep the watchdog busy while the burglars do their work. In other words, subject matter is secondary; it is in the service of the aesthetic, which is not the disengaged frou-frou thing it sounds like to some, since in this case the aesthetic is also the metaphysical. Poetry renders up-arrestingly-the music of consciousness; it enacts, always as if from scratch, the primary mystery of sounds combining to make sense. Private, personal sense and not the sense of public events, which requires that language be used from a different, a collective, register. No one can prevent the other sort of poetry (here loosely called “political”) from being written, of course, but neither can anyone compel the inner reader– that tireless vigilante– to unselfconscious recognition, that uneasy prickling, that tightening through the chest, that certifies the genuine poetic transaction.