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

Bohumil Hrabal

The current issue of The New York Review of Books has a nice essay by Charles Simic on Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. I have not read Hrabal, but I have seen the wonderful film Closely Watched Trains, based on his novel of the same name, three times. Here’s a passage Simic quotes from Hrabal’s Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, written in the 1950s but not published in Czechoslovakia until 1965:

“Things are getting much better, doctor,” said Bárta, the loader. “Christian Europe is consolidating.”

“What Europe?” asked the doctor of philosophy derisively. “And what d’you mean ‘Christian’? It’s more Jewish than ever before….”

“It is Christian,” said the merchant.

“That’s crap,” said the doctor of philosophy, raising his hand. “At one end of the spectrum you’ve got one brilliant Jew, Christ, and at the other end, you’ve got another genius, Marx. Two specialists in macrocosms, in big pictures. All the rest of it is Mother Goose territory.”

From later in Simic’s essay:

“I don’t actually write,” Hrabal once said in his talks with readers. “I cut, and then glue the cut-outs together into collages.” Short scenes and stunningly original bits of poetic description alternate to create a lyrical mood and convey the state of mind of the hero adrift in a grim and impoverished metropolis. A streetcar rumbles by with a few dead men inside hanging by their hands. A pedestrain stumbles to his knees and tries to ignite a cobblestone…. In a church the Mother of God’s hands are locked in cement so she can’t cover her son’s eyes…. Strolling by the river where the city appears to walk on its hands, he wonders why the cars are driving along the river upside down, their wheels in the air as though sledding along on their roofs, and why passersby greet each other as though they were scooping water into their hats.

How am I ever to make headway with contemporary writers when I am forever vainly trying to catch up to the Hrabals I have missed up to now? Ah, another project…

Celebrating National Poetry Month with Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley’s posthumous poetic reputation is the most volatile and hardest-fought-over of the last 150 years. Eminent modern critics have agreed with one another that he is all but totally worthless, an opinion held in his own time by Charles Lamb and developed later by Carlyle and Arnold. T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, Allen Tate, and W.H. Auden are typical of the majority view in modern criticism that prevailed until recently. Their Shelley is a bad craftsman and an adolescent.

This is not even good nonsense. Shelley is a central influence upon Beddoes, Browning, Swinburne, Yeats, Shaw, and Hardy. His urbane control is the crucial element in his poetry. He is a superb craftsman, a lyrical poet without rival, and surely one of the most advanced skeptical intellects ever to write a poem…. His poetry has never had total appeal among literary people because it is idiosyncratic enough to be menacing. Also, to be honest, certain readers always will be alienated by Shelley’s dissent in political, religious, and sexual matters. An yet he stands as the modern lyrical poet proper. (Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language)

Fragment: Milton’s Spirit
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I dreamed that Milton’s spirit rose, and took
From life’s green tree his Uranian lute;
And from his touch sweet thunder flowed, and shook
All human things built in contempt of man,–
And sanguine thrones and impious altars quaked,
Prisons and citadels…

Celebrating National Poetry Month with Emily Brontë (1818–1848)

I am not inclined to make top-ten lists of poems, novels, authors, films, much less pick out any one as the favorite. If I were to single out a poem that touches me at least as much as any other I know, it would be Emily Brontë’s “Stanzas.” Through a series of stark, arresting images, with distinctive diction and a rhythm that carries it from opening line to conclusion, the the poem expresses a fiercely independent spirit, rejection of conventional morality, religion, and authority, and a certain hardheadedness, the poet’s determination to walk where her own nature would be leading. I recognize in her a kindred spirit.

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

A brief biographical and critical sketch of Emily Brontë by Siobhan Craft Brownson can be found at Poetry Foundation.

Celebrating National Poetry Month with Han-shan

Han-shan, Cold Mountain, lived in the mountains of the T’ien-t’ai range of eastern China during the Tang dynasty, putting his life sometime from the early seventh through the early tenth centuries. He takes his name from the remote, rugged place where he made his home after turning away from family, friends, and society at the age of thirty. Nothing conclusive is known about his biography. What we have are legend and the poems.

The poet and his pal Shih-te were madcap, irreverent wise men, zany eccentrics, holy fools, known for laughing at the monks of Kuo-ching Monastery, where Shih-te worked in the dining hall and swiped food from the kitchen to give to Han-shan when he came down from the cliffs to visit. The monks considered them clowns. Though legend has Han-shan associated with the monastery and the poems show his learning of Buddhist and Taoist texts, he is not said to have resided there or studied formally with a master.

Han-shan scratched out his poems on bamboo, wood, stones, cliffs, and walls of people’s houses. A provincial official who learned of him ordered the monks at Kuo-ching to collect the poems. Three hundred or so poems are attributed to Han-shan, although some scholars think that some were added by one or more other writers toward the end of the Tang period.

Two things seem sure: that Han-shan gained notoriety only after his death and that Ch’an [Zen] people, feeling kinship with him through his poems, then swiftly adopted him into the family.

Han-shan wears the mantle of untutored sage but wrote sturdy classical verse spiced with vigorous colloquialisms and clearly knew not only Buddhism but also the great Taoist texts and other mainstays of the Chinese canon. (Foster & Shoemaker, A New Zen Reader).

The poems tell us that in his first thirty years Han-shan spent time in cities, read books, and wrote poems on history. Some days he delights in the everyday Way, idling, completely free with his friends the white clouds. Other times he thinks of friends and family gone to the Yellow Springs, while he is left to face his lone shadow, eyes bleared with tears.

Six Poems by Han-shan, translated by Gary Snyder

* * *

The path to Han-shan’s place is laughable,
A path, but no sign of cart or horse.
Converging gorges – hard to trace their twists
Jumbled cliffs – unbelievably rugged.
A thousand grasses bend with dew,
A hill of pines hums in the wind.
And now I’ve lost the shortcut home,
Body asking shadow, how do you keep up?

* * *

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.
In summer, ice doesn’t melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?
My heart’s not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You’d get it and be right here.

* * *

Borrowers don’t bother me
In the cold I build a little fire
When I’m hungry I boil up some greens.
I’ve got no use for the kulak
With his big barn and pasture –
He just sets up a prison for himself.
Once in he can’t get out.
Think it over –
You know it might happen to you.

* * *

Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease –
No more tangled, hung up mind.
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.

* * *

Some critic tried to put me down –
“Your poems lack the Basic Truth of Tao.”
And I recall the old timers
Who were poor and didn’t care.
I have to laugh at him,
He misses the point entirely,
Men like that
Ought to stick to making money.

* * *

When men see Han-shan
They all say he’s crazy
And not much to look at –
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don’t get what I say
And I don’t talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
“Try and make it to Cold Mountain.”


A New Zen Reader, Edited by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker, 1996, The Ecco Press

Michael P. Garofalo, Cold Mountain Buddhas: Han Shan, 14 July 2003

Han Shan, The Cold Mountain Poems, tr. by Gary Snyder

Words from Cold Mountain: Twenty-Seven Poems by Han-shan, A.S. Kline, 2006.

Poems: If You Only Knew

“If You Only Knew” dates to the late 1970s or maybe the very early 1980s. Allen Ginsberg suggested dating compositions, drafts and revisions as well as finished poems, as a service to biographers and grad students, if memory serves. Alas, I picked up on this practice late and remain less than scrupulous about it.

If You Only Knew

Not having allowed myself dream of you
these months past,
I surrendered to a loneliness of stone,
without respite,
remote from you,
if you only knew . . .

A cloud of flowers
embraces a chimney.
A poem peers from behind a tree,
unseen, silent.
A child pursues a fog
through boulevards of capes.
I hide behind a fountain of mirrors
while you clutch at a jewel of light
fallen from a cigar
hanging from a steeple . . .

if you only knew.

This poem previously appeared in Kudzu Review and the poetry blog Magnapoets, to whose editors grateful acknowledgement is made.

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

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