Archive for the 'House Red: Literary and Intellectual' Category

Poems: The Home of the Heart

This poem was composed in 2001 or 2002 as I thought of trips back to Irmo, South Carolina.

“The Home of the Heart” previously appeared in Tryst.

The Home of the Heart

When last I was home, I stopped by
The church of my childhood
To be for a moment again
With the ones who are gone —
Buzzards, in a line perched
On the steeple above the red door,
Looked down on the graveyard below
And corn field beyond green
And shooting skyward in the spring
And gleam of the glistening sun —

I want to run like when
I was nine years old and
Sweat poured from me —
We chased balls, each in its season,
With grim and determined delight —
I lived even then in books
More than among friends
And took so much for granted
That has disappeared
All swallowed up in time —
I am amazed how
Much of it remains with me —

Through the hours of this day
And darkness of my night
When everything is thrown
Out of joint, I am astounded too
My little poems remain —
The moon in a flowered skirt
With a suggestive slit
Way up her shapely thigh —
A mountain with a great, green beard
And goof smile like an old and holy man
Come all the way from China
With a zafu strapped on his back —
A violinist whose fingers burn
The way a poem, a painting,
A concerto burns memory
Into my fevered brain —

Chance rhyme and metaphor,
An axe wedged in a block of wood,
Icy wind scatters oak leaves
At the dark end of this brief winter day
We think of as life — Born
Of books and romance
Immensity of sky
The passing of all things
The tenderness of your touch
And learning too late too little of love,
What are poems next
Everything that is gone
And so much that never was?
I long to bring it all back home —
A shard of memory that lies
With those bones in the red earth and
Shadow of that little church on the hill —

Today I linger in the maple shade
And memory of your so beautiful eyes
And the impossible belief in me
Held for one bare moment in this
Chorus of eternity and ending —
We are redeemed — such as we are —
By kindness — Your welcome of me
Into the home of your heart
Is much part of all that beauty
These little poems hold dear
For whoever among us
May notice — and remember —
With each breath that quivers
The spring air —

Francine Prose, Harold Bloom, and the Canon

We court peril when we comment on books we have not read. Many of us do it. I have and almost certainly will again. Without time enough to read everything, at best we fall back on trusted critics and reviewers for information about writers and books on which we have occasion to comment. At less than best we echo what we have heard, what is in the air, common knowledge, received wisdom, a practice that can be treacherous.

Recently my long-time friend Connie Venuso referred me to a New York Times Sunday Book Review “Bookends” column with the provocative headline Who Should Be Kicked Out of the Canon? It seems that Bookends is a weekly feature where two writers take on questions about the world of books. I suspect that Connie brought this piece to my attention because I have recently written about Harold Bloom in this space, and Bloom is among the foremost champions of a Western Canon that has been under cultural assault for several decades. Thank  you.

Francine Prose is author of more than twenty works of fiction, Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard, and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, where I enjoy her essays and reviews. Of the fiction, I have read only the novel Blue Angel, which I quite liked. I like Francine Prose and hold her in high regard, but I think she just gets it wrong here about Bloom:

One problem with trying to decide who should be kicked out of the canon is that I’m never exactly sure who is in it. I’ve always felt that the canon was like the guest list to a secret party, a roster drawn up by covert hosts at some undisclosed location. I know that Harold Bloom wrote a book in which he ruled, quite definitively, on which writers do and don’t belong. But not having read his book, I have only some vague memory of the brief controversy that erupted when someone noted how few women Bloom included.

Depiction of the canon as guest list to a secret party, a roster drawn up by covert hosts, is a little lightweight but could be let pass. What she said about Bloom, though, did not seem quite right. As it has been more than a few years since I read The Western Canon, I revisited Bloom’s introduction, titled “Preface and Prelude,” the opening chapter, “An Elegy for the Canon,” and his “Elegiac Conclusion”; I found my instinct confirmed.

Bloom states explicitly, more than once, that the canon is not a mere list of books, and neither he nor anyone else can establish definitively what writers and works belong to it.

No one has the authority to tell us what the Western Canon is, certainly not from about 1800 to the present day. It is not, cannot be, precisely the list I give, or that anyone else might give. If it were, that would make such a list a mere fetish, just another commodity.

Not that this deters Bloom, unabashed apostle of bardolatry, from offering one categorical list, a list with a single name:

Shakespeare is the secular canon, or even the secular scripture; forerunners and legatees alike are defined by him alone for canonical purposes.

…there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever…. Shakespeare remains the most original writer we will know.

Bloom’s brief is not to establish a definitive canon but rather to argue for the principle of canonicity, that some writers and works offer a greater reward for the time and labor devoted to reading them. Canonical works are marked by strangeness, memorability, and a demand to be reread. Canonical status is bestowed not by professors of literature or critics, no more than it a matter of social relevance or ideological correctness, but by later writers seeking to overcome earlier writers who influenced them.

Poems, stories, novels, plays come into being as a response to prior poems, stories, novels, and plays, and that response depends upon acts of reading and interpretation by the later writers, acts that are identical with the new works.

Ideological defenses of the Western Canon are as pernicious in regard to aesthetic values as the onslaughts of attackers who seek to destroy the Canon or “open it up,” as they proclaim. Nothing is so essential to the Western Canon as its principles of selectivity, which are elitist only to the extent that they are founded upon severely artistic criteria.

The Canon is not eternal and unchanging; it is not cast in stone or codified by Bloom or anyone else. There is broad  consensus about the canonical status of some writers, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, for instance, with degrees of contention about who belongs and who does not as we move out from this core, especially as we approach the present. Writers pass into and out of fashion. As Prose notes, Alexander Pope was considered indisputably canonical not so long ago, while today his status is open to debate, if he has not fallen away altogether. I am not so much concerned, and I think Harold Bloom is not so much concerned, with whether this or that particular writer, with the exception of Shakespeare, is to be considered canonical as with the criteria and principles on which a work should be judged, which always comes down to aesthetic values, strangeness, memorability, the demand to be reread.

A fair portion of The Western Canon is taken up with Bloomian polemic against what he terms the School of Resentment, “who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change.”

I began my teaching career nearly forty years ago in an academic context dominated by the ideas of T.S. Eliot; ideas that roused me to fury, and against which I fought as vigorously as I could. Finding myself now surrounded by professors of hip-hop; by clones of Gallic-Germanic theory; by ideologues of gender and of various sexual persuasions; by multiculturalists unlimited, I realize that the Balkanization of literary studies is irreversible. All of these Resenters of the aesthetic value of literature are not going to go away, and they will raise up institutional resenters after them. As an aged institutional Romantic, I still decline the Eliotic nostalgia for Theocratic ideology, but I see no reason for arguing with anyone about literary preferences. This book is not directed at academics, because only a small number of them still read for the love of reading. What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read.

And why do we read? Certainly not so that we will be better people and better citizens. Bloom is at much at odds with “right-wing defenders of the Canon, who wish to preserve it for its supposed (and nonexistent) moral values,” as with the School of Resentment.

The study of literature, however it is conducted, will not save any individual, any more than it will improve society. Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves. Subsequently, he may teach us how to accept change, in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change.

Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or harmful citizen. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.

As for Prose’s charge that the list Bloom does not give does not include enough women, to the extent this holds water at all, the paucity of women is a function of historical marginalization of women, and other groups. These exclusions are our cultural loss, books and poems we will never have. This loss will not be ameliorated by denigrating the dead white males whose works still matter to us, nor by including writers for the sake of gender and other inclusivity when they do not measure up aesthetically. One need only read Bloom on Emily Dickinson, in any of a number of his books, or on Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, to see that he champions strong women writers with the same enthusiasm and vigor as he does men. Conversely, he resists including women, or members of other marginalized groups, without good reason, and that reason always comes down to aesthetic values.

I am not familiar with Parker, a contributing editor at The Atlantic who has written for Slate, The Boston Globe, and Arthur magazine. Parker would boot Wordsworth from the Canon, not just or even primarily because he has no affinity for Wordsworthian sensibility—which for him “means stony and humorless and moralizing”— or for authorship of “The Prelude,” a work of “almost geological boredom,” but for his unfair and unkind treatment of his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, laying blame for Coleridge’s “spiraling off into opium and German philosophy” on Wordsworth’s criticism of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads.

Well, now, serious charge indeed. Opium is one thing, but German philosophy, that is really hitting bottom. I speak from grim experience, having spiraled into German philosophy myself from time to time. How seriously Parker expects to be taken is up for grabs. He seems to be writing at least somewhat tongue in cheek.

I once found Wordsworth pedestrian and deadly dull, epitomizing a sensibility altogether at odds with what drew me to poetry. I was well into my forties when I first began to recognize extraordinary passages in “Tintern Abbey” and other poems written up until about 1807, after which Wordsworth’s poems are pretty much without exception stony and humorless and moralizing until his death in 1850. Neither bad poems nor bad behavior, not even Wordsworth’s artistic crime against Coleridge, negate the earlier works of indisputable sublimity that place Wordsworth in the first rank of poets writing in the Western tradition.

I do not want to make too much of all this stuff. The Bookends feature, to judge by this entry, seems more akin to a bullshit session at happy hour than occasion for serious treatment of the topic of the day. I imagine Prose and Parker dashed off their contributions without a great deal of reflection. This is light entertainment, and they seem to have approached it as such. Nonetheless, Francine Prose’s remarks about Harold Bloom perpetuate misrepresentations and inaccuracies that are “out there” in the realm of what “everyone knows,” and they should be called out as such. That the Times let it slide is typical of that once great paper. While Prose’s exercise in Bloom bashing, fashionable sport in certain circles, is inconsequential next to the paper’s recent sloppy reporting about Hillary Clinton, “sloppy” being a generous characterization, its publication without demurral reflects editorial standards that fall more than a tad shy of rigorous.


Looking back at “On the Approach of My Fiftieth Birthday”

I take a peek back as my sixty-third birthday approaches. Once after a reading two women told me they had seen all the films alluded to in this poem. We all got a kick out of that.

On the Approach of My Fiftieth Birthday

On the approach of my fiftieth birthday,
I teeter on the brink of adulthood
and dubious maturity. Disinclined
to genuflect before the Dow,
indifferent to possessions, but for books
and running shoes, downwardly mobile
and marginally employed,
I remain at heart
a card-burning member
of the Far Left lunatic fringe.
I take my stand—
poet by choice and by chance—
chained to the wings of the sky.
Moonburned my brain cobbles
a lyric of grace. A mythics
of rebellion adorns
my beat portfolio. Rumor and fate
tolerate these ruins of rhyme.
I take my stand
with Milton and Blake—
of the Devil’s own party—and know it.

I take my stand, my history writ
in the solitude of rented rooms
and the clangor and crush
of bars where I have done time,
arm in arm with friends
more stranger now to me
than the ones whose names
I do not know.
There on the flickering
silver screen of memory,
we hoist a pint to entropy
and hoist a pint to beauty
and step out to face
what demon-dog waits us each
at the crossroads in the deep
dark of our night.

I write my history
to discover my history
in the song and dance of time.
Words faded on delicate pages,
frayed and gray, bound by broken spines,
fill the shelves of dimly lit
back basement libraries of the mind
where I roam—a student—
for the duration.
I write my history.
Dostoevsky at the roulette table is true
as Dostoevsky when
he imagines the Grand Inquisitor
and Bukowski at the typer
no more nor less true
than old Hank recklessly eyeballing
that college chick whose eyes are flares
that bathe her face with a halo of promise
that reveals nothing.

I write my history
and stand minute before
those sculptures in the garden
Au Musée Rodin,
those chunks of bronze
whose eyes are flares that bathe
insensible stone with breath and reveal
the mystery that remains always behind everything.

I write my history
in the magic and dark of the cinema
when Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson
lose themselves in one another in Persona,
when Batiste the mime
leaves wife and son behind
and pushes desperately through
the festival crowd and cries
“Garance! Garance!”
and loses her again,
when Bacall tells Bogart how to whistle,
when young Jeanne Moreau
races across that bridge
with Jules and Jim in breathless pursuit,
that is my history.
When the children cry out to Alyosha,
“Karamazov, we love you! Hurrah for Karamazov!”
when Rimbaud goes out in the morning
with a look so lost and a face so dead
that perhaps those he passes do not see him,
that is my history.

Harold Bloom at Eighty-five

Yesterday was Harold Bloom’s birthday. At eighty-five he continues to read and teach the great books and poems. I turn to him as critic and teacher not only for suggestions about how to read certain books and poems, or what books I should read because they are important, the great ones, though there is that, but foremost to be turned on to good books and poems to read. It was Bloom who led me to Emily Dickinson’s breathtaking “There’s a certain Slant of light” and Emily Brontë’s magnificent “Stanzas,” among others. Yes, I might have come to them through another source or happened on them on my own. But I had not yet done so when I found them in Bloom, whose opinions are earned and merit respect, if never to be taken as the final word, because there is no final word. As Bloom the Emersonian often quotes, “under every deep a lower deep opens.”

It is with a measure of wishful thinking that I celebrate Bloom as critic and teacher at eighty-five, for his example gives hope that I might pass through the latest mid-life crisis, recover a sensibility that has been lost, and find my way to the writing of poems again. In the past I responded to mid-life crises not in the stereotypical American manner, buy a Porsche, take up with a woman half my age. The former simply held no appeal, while the latter, I should perhaps acknowledge, is more a reflection of opportunity, or want of it, than principle. No, I responded to psychical crises, when the breaking point came, with foolhardy moves, taking a sabbatical, which is to say leaving a job, living off savings, or more recently half-baked attempts to generate income through free-lance writing and editing and temp work, while I rekindled a spiritual flame diminished by what must be done to earn a living. At sixty-two there are no more sabbaticals because at this age there will be nowhere else to turn. Walking away will be for good. Nothing else is feasible. I must hang in long enough to give myself a reasonable shot at living decently in later years if I make it to them. The little essays that appear in this space represent an attempt to keep the spark alive for the moment. Bloom’s example gives hope that I may yet flourish again.

Back to Bloom. The Daemon Knows is liberally sprinkled with amusing anecdotes and illuminating asides. Why does he still teach?

Certain mornings in midwinter my wife asks me: Why at eighty-four continue teaching full-time? It is fifty-eight years since first we courted but fifty-nine since I commenced full-time teaching in the Yale faculty. I mutter that I fear breaking the longest continuity of my life. Is that my deeper motive? What can I know. The daemon only knows how it is done.

Bloom relates that classical scholar E.R. Dodds (The Greeks and the Irrational) startled him in 1977 with the question “Who is your daemon, Harold?” He goes on to say,

The obscure being I could call Bloom’s daemon has known how it is done, and I have not. His true name (has he one?) I cannot discover, but I am grateful to him for teaching the classes, writing the books, enduring the mishaps and illnesses, and nurturing the fictions of continuity that sustain my eighty-fifth year.

Coleridge, deep in daemons, looked to them for his poetic power: They gave him Kubla Khan, Christabel, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He welcomed his daemon or genius and yet feared it. An orthodox censor, his devotion to the Christian Logos, inhibited the freest exercise of his own extraordinary imagination of the poetic sublime. Though he feared it, Coleridge was an authority on daemonization. He felt daemonic urges in his own genius and regarded opium, to which he became addicted, as his career’s “avenging Daemon.” He came to regard his sexual torments—a bad marriage and unfulfilled desire for Sara Hutchinson—as daemonic.

I do not find mystical conceptions of the creative process convincing. The notion that the poem or tale somehow itself writes seems not quite right, which is not to suggest that the creative work is solely a product of conscious calculation any more than that it is the work of an unconscious postulated as an explanation for what we find otherwise inexplicable. Much goes into it. At the end we are left with mystery and figuration.

I fall back on the mystery of genius, in the traditional sense, which originally meant, and I take the liberty of quoting at length,

…the distinctive character of a place, thing or person—e.g. genius loci, the spirit of a place—and was probably considered by the Romans as the equivalent of the Gr. daimon (demon)…. By the Ren., the modern term was represented by Lat. ingenium, with the sense of “natural talent or aptitude, proficiency,” without any significant distinction between talent and g. Crucial now is the notion that the artist is born with talent; it is not an acquired skill…. Talent is beyond craft, beyond reason, even beyond the rules of art…

But the concept of g. is developed most fully in neoclassical poetics and preromanticism. Now g. becomes the antithesis of mere “talent.” By 1775, g. is unequivocably associated with inventiveness, creativity, and fecundity of imagination. G. surpasses talent just as the sublime exceeds the beautiful. (The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics)

Inherent in the inventiveness, creativity, and fecundity of imagination associated with genius must be, it seems to me, a drive or instinct or compulsion to manifest or realize itself in poem and tale, painting and sculpture, and so on. We might wonder if this drive or instinct or compulsion can be altogether characteristic of a healthy organism, contra pop formulations of creative expression as pathway to self-realization, self-fulfillment, maybe even happiness. Ah, but I digress. Again, back to Bloom:

In his On Poetry and Poets, T.S. Eliot named poetic possession as the work of the demon and urged poets to overcome this force in order to achieve individual voice. In time, the daemon (as I prefer to name it), contra Eliot, can be recognized as the god within who generates poetic power.

On a lighter note but nonetheless illustrative because quintessentially Bloom is the brief account of his experience with psychoanalysis in mid-1960s:

As my distinguished analyst said to me at the end, there had never been a proper transference…. I thought and still think that he is a very nice man, but as he wryly remarked, I was paying him to give him lectures several times a week on the proper way to read Freud. He thought this was quite self-defeating for both of us. (Paris Review)

Bloom has said elsewhere that Freud should be read not as scientist but as poet. It is Nietzsche, though, who seems much on Bloom’s mind in the pages of The Daemon Knows. I have never noticed Bloom citing him so incessantly and forcefully as here, referring to Nietzsche as Emerson’s rueful disciple, “who loved Emerson while never quite grasping him,” and describing himself as a good Emersonian gone bad to keep going:

…but he [Emerson] knew and teaches just that. His double consciousness, for me, is not mutual awareness of  reason and understanding but of Ananke (fate) and  freedom (wildness). When I remarked to my late friend Paul de Man that I attempted to restore pathos to literary tropes, he protested: “But, Harold, pathos is a trope.” Yet irony, which Paul considered the condition of all literary languages, is also only another trope. The Nietzschean-Emersonian question, for  me, is “How does meaning get started, anyway?” For Nietzsche, in the memory of pain; for Emerson, in the oppostion of  hope and memory. Where you cannot augment the foundations to increase authority, because the foundations have vanished, you have to embrace the path of power, including what Emily Dickinson called dwelling in possibility, a fairer house than prose. Her poetics of pain subsumes Emerson’s dialectical double consciousness because it takes on the burden of permanent loss.

Bloom writes that he is “one of several Emersonians who have fused him with Nietzsche.

Nietzsche learned from Emerson how to impart wisdom by provocation, not instruction. I am neither philosopher nor sage but a schoolteacher, and I keep trying to learn from Emerson how not to teach.

Neither a philosopher nor sage but a schoolteacher. Not a poet, no desire to be a poet, but a lover and teacher of poetry and poets. Imparting wisdom by provocation, persuading us to give up easier pleasures for more difficult ones, aiding “other readers in their own personal quests to find themselves more truly through the reading of superb imaginative literature,” this is Harold Bloom’s role. We are fortunate to have him.


Amy Bloom, Tea With Harold Bloom, on the Occasion of His 45th Book

Antonio Weiss, Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1, The Paris Review

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. A. Preminger & T.V.F. Brogan. Princeton Univ Press, 1993

Harold Bloom at Eighty-four: An Appreciation

The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime
by Harold Bloom
Spiegel & Grau. 524 pp. $35.00.

My first encounters with Harold Bloom came toward the end of the 1970s and beginning of the ’80s when I began to pick up books that were around in those days. The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (1963), The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), and The Breaking of the Vessels (1982) still have a place in my bookcase, alongside more recent works, a full shelf of them. In hindsight I attribute my early feeling for Bloom to a kinship with the English Romantics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that I scarcely sensed at a time when I looked for inspiration to a European avant-garde tradition that picked up at Baudelaire and ran through Rimbaud, symbolists, dadaists, and up to André Breton and the French Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s, with the American Beats somehow thrown into the mix. It was considerably later, into my forties, that I clued in that I am more heir to Wordsworth and Keats than to Paul Éluard and Robert Desnos, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, an acknowledgement that in no way constitutes disavowal of what the Surrealists, Beats, and others meant, and continue to mean, to me.

Above all else Bloom’s love of literature shines through and is infectious, one mark of a great teacher. Even at this late date, age sixty-two, a lifetime of wide reading and study, thinking much, though never nearly well enough, I come to Bloom first as student to teacher, a role I am quick to distinguish from that of disciple or follower. He finds in literature something akin to what I once thought I found, still thirst for, and from time to time sense a glimmer or intimation: “Poems, novels, stories, plays matter only if we matter. They give us the blessing of more life, whether or not they initiate a time beyond boundaries.”

From the beginning I was astounded by and more than a bit envious of Bloom’s capacity to have read and remembered so much. Poetry sticks in his memory and has done so from childhood. He came to Blake and Crane, Shakespeare and Melville, at an age when I was reading voraciously myself but in altogether different veins, history and biography, books about physics and astronomy, and always science fiction. It is with fondness that I recall Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, A.E. Van Vogt, and many more I devoured up to about my eighteenth year. They nourished love of reading and fostered an intellectual curiosity that would take me to the likes Camus and Dostoevsky, Balzac and Beckett, the films of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa, and poets of many stripes. For that alone I owe Asimov, Clarke, and the rest a debt.

Bloom tells us he has been rereading Moby-Dick since he fell in love with the book in 1940,

… a boy of ten enthralled with Hart Crane, Whitman, William Blake, Shakespeare. Moby-Dick made a fifth with The Bridge, Song of Myself, Blake’s The Four Zoas, and King Lear, a visionary company that transformed a changeling child into an exegetical enthusiast adept at appreciation rather than into a poet. A superstitious soul, then and now, I feared being devoured by ravenous daemons if I crossed the line into creation.

Quite early on I was struck by the capacity of poems in a symbolist or surrealist mode to touch and move us with evocation of emotion or feeling, a sensibility quite independent of the literal meaning of the words. Bloom captures the experience:

I was preadolescent, ten or eleven years old. I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me—in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems—though I had no notion what they were about [italics mine]. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me…. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry . . . where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it? In some, a version of the poetical character is incarnated and in some like myself the answering voice is from the beginning that of the critic.

Here I think of Samuel Johnson’s characterization of the sublime as …that comprehension and expanse of thought which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration.” Not always perhaps, but often, first we are moved by great poetry, and only later come to comprehend it.

Of The Daemon Knows, published this year, Bloom says in conversation with Amy Bloom (no relation):

“Shelley said that the function of the sublime is to persuade us to give up easier pleasures for more difficult ones. One purpose of this book is to emulate Shelley in regards to my own readers.” He wants, he tells me, to “aid other readers in their own personal quests to find themselves more truly through the reading of superb imaginative literature.” He emphasizes personal.

The Daemon Knows is repetitious, both within its pages and in the context of a lifetime of thinking and writing, but the book is more than restatement and renewed emphasis on themes most dear to its author, though it is in part that. “I can only write the way I teach: personally and passionately. And with this book, you see that there is nothing polemical, only the style of old age: trying to see what one still has to say.” (A. Bloom)

A good portion of The Daemon Knows consists of passages quoted from the authors and writings under discussion. I suspect that they are included as much because Bloom relishes the opportunity to reread and share favorite passages as to illustrate his themes and arguments. For the reader this is a treasure, something of a critical anthology of luminous poetry and prose from six pairs of American writers—Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, Mark Twain and Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot—offered up for perusal according to one’s discretion and inclination.

One can scarcely consider Bloom without getting into the culture wars, disputes about “the canon,” and what Bloom called “the School of Resentment,” opining, “I think, really, they resent difficult poetry and aesthetic splendor.” Never one to shy away from getting down into the polemical trenches, before the culture wars he took on the grand old fuddy-duddy of modernist poetics, T.S. Eliot, and his disciples.

As a young scholar-critic in the period 1957–77, I was a Romantic Revivalist, furiously battling to restore many great writers to the canon: Spenser, Milton, Blake, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, Emerson, Whitman, Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin, Pater, Wilde, Swinburne, Lawrence, Stevens, Hart Crane, and others. Many if not most of these had been exiled by Eliot and his churchwardens. When I was a child, my ear had been ravished by Eliot’s poetry, but his criticism—literary and cultural—dismayed me. At eighty-four I have calmed down: My warfare is accomplished, my grudge ebbing with the ocean of life. The prose Eliot still displeases me; I have just read through three enormous volumes of his letters and my ancient fury almost revives. His scorn for Emerson is so ill-informed that some personal bias has to be noted in it.

Suffice for now to say that my sympathies are with Bloom. Beyond that I leave issues of the canon, academic freedom, the disposition of some who call themselves progressive to dictate what we may think and say, and suchlike for another time.

The Daemon Knows is infused with a spirit of generosity, the occasional polemical aside notwithstanding. Bloom cites Oscar Wilde on criticism as “the only civilized form of autobiography” and adds, “I have aged not, alas, into Wilde’s wit but into a firm conviction that true criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir.” The Daemon Knows is in part memoir, spiced throughout with brief personal anecdotes and references, accompanied by generous tribute, to students and fellow scholars, teachers, critics, poets, friends (Kenneth Burke, John Hollander Mark Strand, Theodore Weiskel, Camille Paglia, and Angus Fletcher, among many others).

Harold Bloom has led a kind of life I have tried to live and would like to have lived better, life devoted to literature and ideas, to what I think of as the intellectual adventure. That life is never without its darkness, to which Bloom alludes from time to time. Anyone who has thought as much and deeply as Bloom knows darkness and knows that literature and art do not bring happiness. Nietzsche, he says, taught him “that memorability was heightened by suffering: a hard doctrine, but akin to Shelley’s notion that the sublime persuades us to abandon easier pleasures for more difficult engagements.”

Bloom writes that “several prolonged times when close to death, I have recited Whitman to myself as medicine. I hardly recommend my personal praxis to students or readers because what works for me may not do much for another.” I thought back a few months to the five weeks I wore a cast on my right arm that made reading while waiting at bus and rail stops on the daily commute, even once seated on bus or train, something of a challenge. For those weeks instead of reading I took to reciting to myself the handful of short poems and passages from longer poems that under Bloom’s influence I have committed to memory, some Keats and some Wordsworth, Dickinson and Brontë, Whitman, Blake, and a few others. As always, I was grateful to have them with me.

Harold Bloom too is memorable. His writing as critic always brings me back to the enchantment that the best poems and novels hold. They do not resolve our perplexities or tear away the veil of mystery. Nonetheless they offer something I would not want to be without. Again, I turn to Samuel Johnson, “Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding…” Or as Bloom puts it:

We are at last bequeathed to an earthly shore and seek memorial inscriptions, fragments heaped against our ruins: an interval and then we are gone. High literature endeavors to augment that span: My twelve authors center, for me, that proliferation of consciousness by which we go on living and finding our own sense of being.


Amy Bloom, Tea With Harold Bloom, on the Occasion of His 45th Book

Antonio Weiss, Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1, The Paris Review

Poems: The Unspoken Language and What Does It Mean?

“The Unspoken Language” and “What Does It Mean?” date from around 1980. The influences, who I was reading at the time, are clear, French surrealism and, particularly in the latter poem, Gregory Corso. “What Does It Mean?” was written after a friend posed the question about my poems.

“The Unspoken Language” previously appeared in Lucid  Moon, Poetrycafe, and the poetry blog Magnapoets, “What Does It Mean?” in Chattahoochee Review and Magnapoets, to whose editors grateful acknowledgement is made. Both poems appear in my book Notes to One Who Is Far from Here.

The Unspoken Language

la Tour Eiffel
triangles numbers consonants
naked Chagall paints
Russian soul novabright with Paris light
horses graze on blue rooftops
a wingèd fish embraces a clock
the man with one green hand plays a red violin
angel candle dream
nude on a couch and Christ on a cross
oh but what color Marc is the color of the spirit?
which letters belong to the unspoken language of love?

What Does It Mean?
(for S.L.)

when the moon is on stilts
and the midnight darkness seeps in
around the neon lights in the windows of the bar
and Hoagy Carmichael at the piano
chews on a toothpick
and does one of those old songs of candlelight and rose
when the rain dances wet and cool
upon your hair and eyes and lips
while we dance across the sidewalks and streets and rooftops and rivers
when cigarette smoke halos the bones of your face
while the chair is sad
and the sofa is beautiful
and the tarot cards waltz across the lawn
in a chorus line of brandy and fog
and when I smile
at just the right moment
and whisper
“exploding elevators
flying chimneys”
and it makes you laugh and feel better than you did before
for those few moments
what does it matter
what any of it means?

Writing about writing…a lot of foolishness out there…

A lot of foolishness gets written about writing, not all of it flowing from the pens of dunderheads. Two instances have come my way recently, one passed along by a friend, the other happened upon. Michael Lind blithely declares that poetry is a hobby or niche craft, no art at all, while designating cinema and television, pop music, genre fiction, and punditry or political commentary major arts. William Giraldi tells us that writers “yearn for…whole continents of fans, invitations to claim and cash fantastical checks.”

Perhaps I am not only out of the mainstream but even most side streams here. Both propositions strike me as sketchy. Let us begin with Michael Lind, whose biosketch at the New America Foundation portrays a man of impressive credentials and accomplishment:

…co-founder of the New America Foundation, along with Walter Mead, Sherle Schwenninger, and Ted Halstead. Lind has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic and The National Interest. Lind is a columnist for Salon and writes frequently for The New York Times and The Financial Times. He is the author of numerous books of history, political journalism, fiction, poetry and children’s literature.

Offering anecdotal evidence, Lind asserts that poetry is a craft, not an art, because it has no audience other than it practitioners:

In the course of numerous readings of my own published verse, I gradually came to the conclusion that almost everyone in the audience at a poetry reading is a poet or aspiring poet. My guess is that a majority of people who read poetry also write poetry.

The guess is unexceptional. Whether it is based on anything more than an impression, and its relevance if accurate, are subject to debate. Do all poets see what they are doing in the same light? Do all belong to the same category in anything other than an exceedingly general sense so amorphous and vaguely demarcated that it explains nothing?

Individuals write poetry for all sorts of reasons, among them as a kind of therapy, a quest for fulfillment, ego gratification, and aspects more commonly associated with the notion of poetry as an art. We read poetry too for all sorts of reasons. Poetry offers amusement and entertainment, and at its best pleasure of more elevated nature captured by Samuel Johnson’s formulation of the sublime as “that comprehension and expanse of thought which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration” (quoted in W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson, Counterpoint, 1998, p. 541).

As for audience, there is a tradition of poets’ complaints that they are not appreciated. Chaucer’s biographer Donald R. Howard gives this instance from the 14th century:

French court poetry implied an image of the poet’s role and status at court. This image became bitter too. The poet presented himself as a valued member of the court whose duty it was to speak to the prince, or the lady, or the assemblage of courtiers, most often saying what they wanted or expected to hear, saying what he was bidden to say or what he deemed to please. The poet’s place at court was as an adjunct, and it wasn’t necessarily an honored place: patronage was bestowed capriciously, admiration and rewards were given but meanly. The poet Martin le Franc, having presented to Philip the Good as fine a bound copy of his poem Le Champion de Dames as he could afford, wrote that it was not only ignored but used by various members of the court for a mat or a footstool. (Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, E.P. Dutton, 1987, p. 135)

I draw on two bits of my own anecdotal evidence that today’s audience for poetry, while by no means extensive, may not be as limited as Lind assumes. Public broadcasting in its various guises, national and local, NPR and public television, is at some pains to appeal to a young and hip audience, for instance, with references ad nauseam to PBS’s presence on Twitter and other social media. Stories about poetry and poets are a regular feature throughout the year, not just during National Poetry Month, and not just by way of Garrison Keillor. It is a reasonable presumption that these stories are presented because the PBSers believe there is a genuine audience for them, not solely as a public service. Beyond that, my experience at poetry readings differs from what Lind describes. It is not at all unusual to find in my small audience people who do not consider themselves poets but nonethless appreciate poetry, whether reading it or hearing poems read in performance, and indeed consider its presence an important component of their lives.

Popularity, the size of the audience, is Lind’s criteria for distinction between major and minor arts and between arts and crafts. This is in line with a general leveling of such things that is one mark of our culture, where popular appeal, under the guise of democratization, putting it to a vote by way of Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers, is the measure of value. Expression of appreciation for expertise, skill, and talent that rises above the run of the mill is liable to draw charges of elitism, as does writing that places intellectual demands on the reader. Do we really want to claim that pop music, genre fiction, and punditry are major arts? I can only conclude that Lind and I are using the word “art” in quite different senses. The comparison is not even apples and oranges; ’tis more like apples and broccoli.

“Another word for a craft is a hobby.” Am I being nitpicky when I point out this is just not so?

craft : an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill (the carpenter’s ~) (the ~ of writing plays) (~s such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing)

hobby : a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in esp. for relaxation (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition)

One might well pursue poetry as a craft or hobby and derive pleasure and satisfaction from it, quite possibly without the frustration, anxiety, and despair that may accompany pursuit of poetry as an art. Though they may bear the same name, these are qualitatively and categorically different pursuits.

Lind acknowledges in a lonely one-sentence paragraph near the beginning of his essay that “[t]he assignment of an art to one or another category has nothing to do with its quality. It is merely an assessment of the relationship between artist and audience.” A paragraph at the close opens with a statement better declared at the outset: “This is a horizontal ranking based on audience, not a vertical ranking based on quality or importance.” This is all rather odd juxtaposed with the rest of an essay devoted to the trivialization of poetry.

Poetry’s popularity and the make-up of its audience are topics deserving of consideration. Lind goes off the beaten track when he makes these criteria for a classification of arts, crafts, and hobbies. Popularity may not be altogether irrelevant to status as art. It is, however, a far more minor criteria than Lind suggests, and insofar as it is relevant, the audience for poetry seems to me to be wider and more diverse than he recognizes.

Now we come to the venerable pages of The New Republic—which has itself gotten some interesting press of late, but that is another matter—where William Giraldi’s review of H.J. Jackson, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame, opens with this titillating paragraph:

Writers live lives of curious contradiction. Their work succeeds only by means of a monastic interiority and lonesomeness, and yet they yearn for that work to deliver them the very things most likely to murder it: whole continents of fans, invitations to claim and cash fantastical checks. They’ve heard the warning that says celebrity is one of the toxins which contributes to a writer’s artistic contamination, but they can’t help themselves—writers spend lots of time being overlooked, and thus lots of time fantasizing about the opposite predicament. There’s no such thing as a writer who yearns to be ignored.

The last sentence I buy. The rest is plain silly. For starters, anyone writing poetry with dreams of whole continents of fame and fantastical checks is certifiably delusional and could do with counseling by a trained professional. Certainly I sometimes fantasize about generating income as a writer sufficient to buy freedom to devote the best hours of each day to study and trying to write poems, which entails freeing myself from the necessity to sacrifice a significant portion of my life to wage work. I would love to find a wider audience for my poems. But continents of fame? fantastical checks? No, my dreams are of an audience somewhat wider than what I now have but nothing like what writers of popular novels and pop songs are after. That kind of popularity would be cause not for celebration but rather a deep questioning about the quality and worth of what I am up to.

The body of Giraldi’s review is more substantive, with interesting accounts of the ephemeral and often happenstance nature of literary fame. Maybe the opening paragraph is intended to be nothing more than a teaser. He goes off the rails again when he says that our new Keats is Steve Jobs or someone like him because the world no longer cares about literature as it did when Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Keats “were undergoing their immortalization…. The cultural emphasis has shifted from one incarnation of creative brilliance to another.” There is an art appropriate to business and one to software design, as there is an art appropriate to poetry. To speak as if they are the same or equivalent, as if this is merely a shift from one incarnation of creative brilliance to another, does a disservice to each.

He nails it when he credits Nadine Gordimer with the best writing advice ever given, though others have expressed a similar sentiment:

…”a serious person should try to write posthumously,” by which she meant aim for the greats—entrust them as your gold-standard guides on the path to your own quality.

Why do some of us write or paint or dance or sculpt? It may well be that one does better to seek meaning by finding a place in family, community, and conventional work that contributes in some fashion to personal satisfaction and the greater good than in the vagaries of art. This changes nothing. Whether brass wakes to find itself a trumpet, or one chooses who one will be, scarcely matters. One goes at it because that is who one has come to be.

…Who alive can say
‘Thou art no poet—mayst no tell thy dreams?’
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions , and would speak if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue…
—John Keats, “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream”

memo from the editorial desk

Minor, nonsubstantive edits were made to this piece after it was posted.

Poems: My Boulevard of Dream

“My Boulevard of Dream” came not long after I came to Portland in 1998. The city was fresh and new. A routine stroll could be a gateway to the marvelous.

My Boulevard of Dream

I stroll—downtown—in the spirit
of André Breton and the Surrealist boys,
1920s Paris, score
a copy of Le Monde diplomatique
at the tobacconist,
reading as I walk,
moving my lips as I read,
parce que mon français,
it’s not so great,
so even the hard case
wearing a belt of chains,
a necklace of syringes,
tattoos on her lips,
sees me a mumbling my thoughts to myself person
and crosses to the darker side of 9th Avenue.

Then a chance encounter
with a gaggle of kids
outside the pizza joint
just up from Reading Frenzy,
a girl with buttered hair
and ten pounds of baubles
offers to set herself on fire
for five dollars,
and a boy who could be my nephew
leaning on his yellow trumpet
tugs her jersey shirt and says
in a voice that cracks and breaks
early on the way to manhood,
sit down and eat.

It’s standing room only
at the coffee room at Powell’s,
so I continue on,
the Pearl District,
the galleries, the lofts
—elegant dining
out on an old warehouse loading dock
just up from the streetcar tracks,
a chill winter of a Portland afternoon,
drizzled out and overcast.

Around the corner from the fine wine shop,
concrete decor, très nouveau chic,
I step into Torrefazione,
order cappuccino, a double,
and settle at a table in the corner.
The ghost of Isadora Duncan
looks over my shoulder
and tugs my scarf
while I try to catch the words
that blow through my mind
and write them down
in the breath of the storm
that rises up in the unnamed
place beyond the fury
of what we think and feel and see.

I look from my journal
where the black ink scrawl
lays open my heart
and gaze out the window,
the river flow of humanity,
all those long Modigliani faces
and finely turned ankles,
but for the tattoos
straight from a 19th century European novel
where nothing is explicit
but everyone knows precisely where babies come from.

Perhaps Vivaldi is on the stereo
or Puccini,
and what gets me,
the joint is more elegant than bohemian, okay,
but it is still a coffee joint,
and Vivaldi.
I know it is too much to expect
Jean-Paul Sartre on speed
penning Critique of Dialectical Reason
at Café Deux Magots,
but someone could be sketching furiously the scene
or reading Beckett in French
or at least The New York Review of Books.

Au contraire,
it’s a cell phone and triple skinny latte crowd
out to gentrify my boulevard of dream.
A refrigerated barista
with a boyfriend from Topeka,
her cerulean blue toenails
and hieroglyph eyes,
eyes me like I am maybe
a sex fiend wannabe
or third-rate poetry geek
took a wrong turn
bound for the demimonde,
while a skinny woman,
cubist cheekbones, sun-drenched hair,
dressed like she is waiting for Mick Jagger,
dances delicate fingers on the lip
of the espresso cup
like she might have been my cousin,
she could have been my twin,
her eyes are all ennui
and see
into the life of things
and the furious pass’t the years
threaten to become.

At the table one over,
blow-dried, buffed, and suave,
immaculate t-shirts, designer jeans, Nike Air,
two fellas who spent the morning
at soccer practice with their daughters
before they hit the gym
talk startups and dot.coms
like they have stock options for brains.
The one with the diamond
in his left ear lobe,
cell phone in a leather holster on his hip,
the office—wherever—he is
and forever—
pulls a laptop from his briefcase and logs on
to do a deal.
It gets him off.
He takes a sip
from his triple skinny latte
to mellow out
and mentions how on the way home
he wants to pick up some flowers
because tonight he is going waltzing
with Matilda on her birthday

I think maybe I do not belong—here—
among these people—but
who among us knows enough—
to know enough—to know—much.
Too many are the secrets held in the heart
and concealed from the self,
how we make ourselves who we are
upon this chiaroscuro boulevard
in light and shadow—bound.

“My Boulevard of Dream” previously appeared in Tryst and Quill and Parchment, to whose editors grateful acknowledgement is made. Minor, nonsubstantive edits have been made since previous publication.

Poems: Each Day a Gift

“Each Day a Gift” dates from 2006. The prefatory stanza came from what was going on at the time and fixed itself in my thoughts. I had no idea at the outset what to do with it. The rest of the poem came later. I do not recall if I had the opening in mind as I wrote the poem proper, or if I tacked it on later because it seemed to fit. I wanted the poem to conclude on a note of resoluteness without false hope or phony optimism.

“Each Day a Gift” previously appeared in Quill and Parchment.

Each Day a Gift

She was fresh out of detox,
what I soon found would be
an ongoing affair,
the day I turned in my work ID
and office keys.
I put the knife to my throat
the night before.
“I pulled it back,” I told them.
“I just can’t do this anymore.”

The bounce of hair caught my eye, her bare legs,
the loose red skirt, and a smirk of a smile,
as she pulled back a chair, turned her eyes to
the Toulouse-Lautrec print there on the wall
near the door, and asked did I mind, as if
she knew I might, but it did not too much
matter. The place was packed, a déjà vu
kind of crowd on a je ne regrette rien
kind of afternoon. I raised my eyes from
the Sunday Times and said nothing. She took
it for an invitation and sat down.
I was thinking, if only I could be
a lone sparrow silhouetted against
the unbearable blue of evening sky,
to harken rain that might now wash away
the stain of tears from all we once held dear.

“I have been on the wagon for a week.”
The words spilled from her as she sipped coffee black.
“I do not care for it much. You can sink
in your despair or swim in your dreams, paint
a different color on your rainbow, find
a name you can use to say who you are
and what it means. One day you learn it does
not matter who you used to be. You are
just another grievous angel swept up
in a flood of fire. The cross I was brought
to bear is gone. It did not fit my needs
anyway. So what would your story be?”

Before I could answer, she said she knew
a better place, where the coffee was dark
enough to make way for the darkest mood.
I said it sounded good to me and made
my way with her out to the street, the sky
a brilliant blue, the air soft-bright and breezy,
a snowfall of cherry blossom to dust
the dragon boats stretched out along the river.

A man whose studded ears drooped to his collar
asked could I do with a good suicide
assistance guy, as he brushed stringy hair
back from his caved-in face with a limp hand
missing a finger or maybe it was
two, then suggested he could fix me up
with a woman who would do what I like.
I asked if I must choose one or the other.
He said, “It’s your life. You do what you want . . .
Some of the time, anyway.” Then the sky
grew dark with clouds that of a sudden came
and rain poured down in silver sheets that drove
us on to huddle in the gloom beneath
the bridge, where the dark protected me from
so much I knew it was best not to see.

A poet has no need of suicide
assistance, she pointed out with a smile.
All a poet needs is a bridge above
a bit of river, a boat in the Gulf
where he might remove his jacket, fold it,
place it down just so, jump into the blue,
a noose, a revolver with a bullet
in one chamber, a razor blade for blood
to scrawl one last poem on the dirty wall
of an unremarkable room in this
shabby tenement we call life.
They say everything has its season, but
when your seasons run together and all
to hell, it’s a fine mess that’s left us, Ollie.
Each day you pull back from it all,
step away from the bridge, the boat, the noose,
the revolver, the razor, and the rest,
anchor your spirit, this clod of a self,
to this patch of dark earth, this bit of dirt
and treachery your poor words are thrown up against.

The rain stopped. She stepped
out into the fragile, shivering light,
her pale, slender fingers reaching for mine.
“I am not here,” she said, “to reassure
anyone, not even myself, you know.
I could do with a face-lift for my soul.”

The little sparrow sang and broke your heart,
a fog of cigarette smoke, dream, and whiskey
coloring the night she brought just for you.
These gifts are always suspect when they come
from poets and chanteuses, but you take them
anyway, a beauty bitter and dark.
I followed her and followed her again.
There was nowhere else to go, just a promise
of mountains to the east and a pale moon
that clung to them in full daylight, Childe Roland
to the dark castle bound and must go on.

I cut my teeth on the ten thousand dreams
and left blood on typewriter keys that flashed
in the sun of mornings that will not dawn
again, gone, like a book we must have read,
a line of poetry or a melody we
almost remember when it slips like time
through our thoughts, with only hints that remain
of what was brilliant, green, gold, vermilion.
We take what we have and make what we can
of it, this dark earth, the encircling sky.

She waits for the bells that ring through the fog
where a green horse holds a clock with no hands
and the bridegroom there with his heart in his throat.
A Russian painting of geranium
bloom endures whole in her heart far beyond
its fade and passing, a bloom rich and deep
as a low-country door born from the brush
of an anonymous master somewhere
in the sixteenth century. She goes on . . .
while I navigate that drunken boat down
the delirious river, back to where
I have never been, claim those lines that hold
in my spirit like a brushfire, cleave to
the vision, make each day a gift once more.


Project for the Winter Term: Chaucer

I have taken up Chaucer as a project for the winter term. One thing led to another, as things have a way of doing. A few weeks back as I perused the Hot Titles display at the downtown branch of Multnomah County Library, A Burnable Book caught my eye. Hot title, indeed. The book turned out to be a mystery set in London in 1385. Poet John Gower is approached by his friend, courtier, diplomat, customs official, and fellow poet Geoff Chaucer, who tasks Gower with finding a mysterious book circulating about London that prophesies the death of Richard II and threatens to undermine the kingdom. The tale involves grisly killings and all manner of intrigue, subterfuge, plots, counterplots, and convoluted machinations whose unfolding make for a suspenseful read. For all that the greater pleasure lies in the wealth of social and historical detail, with a cast and characters drawn from all levels of London society, nobles and aristocrats, tradesmen and commoners, church officials, mercenaries, prostitutes, among others. Author Bruce Holsinger is a literary scholar and professor of English at the University of Virginia who writes writes on these matters with authority, concluding with a note about sources on which he drew for his fascinating portrait London culture and daily life toward the end of the fourteenth century.

Geoffrey Chaucer is one of far too many figures in the literary tradition with whom I have at best little more than a passing acquaintance, thus a fine candidate for the winter project. I began with Donald R. Howard’s Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, which is a joy to read. Not all that much is known about details of Chaucer’s life, not even for certain that Chaucer the king’s servant is also Chaucer the poet, known best for The Canturbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde. As Howard nutshells it,

The records of Chaucer’s life tell us about the affairs, largely the comings and goings, of a Geoffrey Chaucer who served the king’s court. There is nowhere in them any indication that this Geoffrey Chaucer is the same one who became famous even during his own lifetime as a poet, writer, translator, and scholar. Once could almost suspect there were two Geoffrey Chaucers, as in a metaphysical sense there were. The argument for his oneness is an argument from silence: if there had been two Chaucers in the king’s court, one a courtier, diplomat, and public official, the other a poet, both with the rather unusual Christian name of Geoffrey, someone surely would have noted the coincidence. There is, for hard evidence of his oneness, a single passage in his poetry (The House of Fame, lines 652–660) where the poet, called “Geoffrey” by the amusing Dantesque eagle that carries him into the sky, almost certainly refers to his duties as Controller of the King’s Custom and Subsidy of Wools, Hides, and Wool Fells in the Port of London. (Howard, Preface to Chaucer, xi–xii)

As is to be expected in these circumstances, Howard engages in a bit of conjecture: Chaucer might have seen this, could have read that, may have done or thought the other. This sort of thing can be annoying which indulged to excess. Howard keeps it to a minimum. Educated guesswork is supplemented by a wealth of social, cultural, intellectual and political history. We encounter figures we know from Shakespeare: Richard II, John of Gaunt, Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, later to be Henry IV. Disquisitions on courtly love, chivalry, and French court poetry are of interest in their own right as well as for their illumination on the milieu in which Chaucer lived and wrote.

I found this note about French court poets amusing. Ah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

French court poetry implied an image of the poet’s role and status at court. This image became bitter too. The poet presented himself as a valued member of the court whose duty it was to speak to the prince, or the lady, or the assemblage of courtiers, most often saying what they wanted or expected to hear, saying what he was bidden to say or what he deemed to please. The poet’s place at court was as an adjunct, and it wasn’t necessarily an honored place: patronage was bestowed capriciously, admiration and rewards were given but meanly. The poet Martin le Franc, having presented to Philip the Good as fine a bound copy of his poem Le Champion des Dames as he could afford, wrote that it was not only ignored but used by various members of the court for a mat or a footstool. (Howard, p. 135)

The challenge lies not in study of Chaucer’s life and times. That part is just reading, and quite enjoyable. The poems themselves, at which I have made only the barest beginning, are another matter. It remains to be seen if I have discipline and focus to work through the Middle English, trusting that a pleasure deferred will be my reward at the end.


The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. by John H. Fisher. Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1977). 1034 pp.

Holsinger, Bruce. A Burnable Book. William Morrow (2014). 444 pp.

Howard, Donald R. Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World. E.P. Dutton (1987). 636 pp.


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