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

Ric Vrana (1952–2016)

Broken Word was an open mic poetry series that began on Alberta Street before relocating to the basement of the Blue Monk on Belmont, where it was hosted first by Chris Ridenour, then Becca Yenser, and finally if memory serves, had Doug Spangle taking a turn at the end. Then the weekly poetry reading was displaced by belly dancers. C’est la vie, as the saying goes.

I began showing up at Blue Monk in summer of 2007 on Curtis Whitecarroll’s recommendation. One evening Curtis introduced me to Judith Pulman. It so happened that I read a poem with a reference to the scene with Alyosha and the children at the close of The Brothers Karamazov. When I returned to the table where we were seated, Judith said, “You like Dostoevsky?” I replied that I do, whereupon she told me that she studied Russian in college and had lived and traveled in Russia. Broken Word at Blue Monk was a scene where random and not so random encounters of this kind were not rare. The room always had a plentiful share of interesting, intelligent, talented people. Amber Leffler, Tommy Gaffney, Christine Homitsu White, and Meagan Grace Elliott are a few who come readily to mind. Ric Vrana is another.

Ric came over with Broken Word when it moved from Alberta, where he owned a house in the neighborhood. I do not recall who introduced us, if indeed there was a formal introduction. Ric tended to meet people easily. It may be that no introduction was needed. My habit was to arrive a bit early, find an open slot at the top half of the sign-up sheet, ensconce myself at a table with a glass of wine, and unwind a bit as poets drifted in on what Curtis refers to as “poet time.” At some point, probably sooner rather than later, Ric and I ended up among a group of people seated around a table, I with my red wine, most of the others with a PBR, talking about poems and books and art, politics and culture, and baseball.

On the Monday after Easter Mary Slocum called to tell me she saw a note on Facebook that word from Astoria was that Ric had died. Later that day Ric’s daughter and son, Maria and John, posted a more detailed note on his Facebook page informing us that he died on Saturday from complications as a result of cancer, a diagnosis he received only two weeks earlier. The news left me shaken. No doubt I was not alone. Ric seemed to know everyone, and he touched everyone he knew in the just the best way imaginable.

I was fortunate to be able to attend a memorial held at Cerimon House in Ric’s old Alberta neighborhood at the end of April. The poetry scene was represented by Doug and Christine Spangle, Neal Anderson, Mf Mcauliffe, Christopher Luna, Toni Partington, and James Honzik, among those I know. Also in attendance were more than a few of Ric’s colleagues from Portland State University, where he had been an adjunct professor teaching courses in urban planning while working at Tri-Met, Portland’s public transit agency. Earlier in his life Ric took a crack at an academic career only to find that he did not care for certain aspects of it that lay outside the classroom. He taught because he loved teaching. The adjunct role was perfect for him.

After Broken Word at Blue Monk came to an end, Ric invited me to join him on a monthly trek across the Columbia River to Vancouver, Washington, where he had happened on a lively poetry scene. We rendezvoused after work, and he drove us up in the rush-hour traffic, giving plenty of time for good conversation, at which Ric was a master. That lasted until he was downsized out of his job at Tri-Met during one of the agency’s periodic budget crunches. He soon landed a job with the City of Warrenton on the coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, mapping out their infrastructure. He enjoyed that job and living in nearby Astoria, where he soon became a prominent figure on the poetry scene as founder of the monthly Port of Call open mic.

Ric described himself as “yer average leftist patriot, born on the Fourth of July and critical of every kind of authority. OR… a middle aged, grumpy single father of two teenagers overeducated and underpaid and a frustrated ‘artiste’.” He was politically radical and believed devoutly in the idea of public service. As  a young man in Akron, Ohio, he became engaged in union activities, an engagement he continued throughout his life. In 2015 he was elected President of the Clatsop/Tillamook Central Labor Council. When I think of Ric, I think of the enthusiasm with which he spoke of public transit and urban planning, an enthusiasm that matched his passion for poetry, literature, social justice, and baseball, and I think of the pride and love that shined through when he talked about Maria and John.

Ric had two bad ankles and assorted other physical ailments. Pain was no stranger to him. He did not dwell on this. Nor did he hide it. It was simply part of who he was, a man always curious, always learning, meeting people, hiking, swimming, and gardening. In 2014 Maria embarked on a trip through Europe after college graduation. Ric joined her in Prague and looked up relatives in the Czech Republic whom he had first looked up on his own trip through Europe twenty-eight years earlier. He told his children, “It’s impossible to be bored. I’ve never had a boring day in my life.”

This statement by Ric printed in the program for the memorial seems to me a fitting way to remember him, as one good memory among many.

I do not belong to a church, and therefore a church does not belong to my death. But I like the idea of a memorial service of a kind that brings together a lot of people who knew me in various ways. Such a gathering could feature music, recitals of poetry, pictures, videos and, hopefully, a lot of drinking. Have a party.

Ric was a good person and a dear friend. He is missed by many.

An open mic reading in honor of Ric Vrana will be held Tuesday May 31, 7 p.m. at Port of Call bar, corner of 9th and Commercial, Astoria, Oregon. Sign-up starts at 6:45 p.m. Hosts are poets Jim Dott and Florence Sage, former MCs of Monday Mike at the River Theater.

By and About Ric Vrana

Occupy: Lessons, Fall 2011

Ric’s Little Czech Trip

Ric’s Poems

Ric’s Rants

Robot Man, Elohi Gadugi Journal

Talking Earth Anthology, Poems by Ric Vrana

David Matthews, Celebrating a New Collection of Poems by Ric Vrana, 12 July 2011

Florence Sage, Reading for Ric, HIPFISHmonthly, page 12, May 2016

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

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