The sentences are the most vatic and deranged in American criticism: Milton is “the Sphinx who strangles even strong imaginations in their cradle”; “To be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect”; “A poet…is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man … outrageously more alive than himself.” They are ridiculous, and then you begin to recognize your own mind in them, whether as it is or as it might be with a certain repression lifted, if you could gaze unveiled at the thing toward which your heart or imagination or ego throbbed.
Let’s say it the most embarrassing way first: you could populate a version of Joseph Campbell or Iron John with mythic and fantastical names culled from Harold Bloom’s criticism. But so too the names of actual men (men and maybe Emily Dickinson). There are ephebes and fearsome precursors, Satans and Adams, the Godhead Shakespeare, something called a Covering Cherub. His revisionary ratios like talismans or tools to be picked up upon the path. It’s a superhero story about the eloquent dead, about how, by battling literary forebears, that eloquence came into their possession.
It was, avowedly, a quest narrative, if one told in an esoteric register, its mood often shading melancholic, sometimes aggressive. The quest’s aim wasn’t health or wholeness or self-actualization (these were often as not obstacles) but filching the vision necessary to write something good. For critics, the lesson was about gleaning the hidden links—less allusive than psychic—between poems. For the young poet (he adopted the ancient Greek ephebe), it was an inducement—one rare in the critical literature—to try to learn what the person who wrote them (no: the poetic incarnation nested in the person) had to learn in order to write them. You read for clues to the operation of mind or soul or whole personhood that brought about vision fecund and vast enough to matter. You wanted what the man called “techniques of opening.”
It’s hard to recover my unformed, prelapsarian conception of the art in those first years, the ones before I’d read him. The basic terms of my inspiration were the usual. I’d been amazed by a handful of poems and wanted to write poems like them—like them but nevertheless of course my own, and thus new. As to the ideal ratio of likeness to difference, as to whether these aims stood in contradiction or in more dynamic relationship, I didn’t quite manage to ask, much less theorize. The poetic paradigm struck me as merely difficult rather than especially anxious. Before reading Bloom I’d resisted him in some inchoate way, perhaps as a figure already unfashionable and vaguely conservative in affect. Why, in my early twenties, I finally picked up The Anxiety of Influence I can’t recall. I guess I was looking for ways to think about what I was doing, even as my relative facility with thought about poetry as compared to poesis itself was already emerging as an ambivalent feature of my writing life. But there was always the hope that theory would catalyze practice.
It was obvious from the beginning that the knowledge I sought under the sign of Bloom differed from the usual objects of literary study. It wasn’t much related to the beloved poem’s apparent meaning or context, nor a matter of prosody or form (though on other levels these all mattered plenty). The locus of this search was the “poet-in-the-poet,” a quantity that for Bloom was decidedly not the person in the world (he seemed to backslide on the distinction in later years, particularly in public speech, as though it were finally easier to just celebrate authors). This inner character was acquisitive, appropriative, at once fearful and grand in its desire. Bloom spoke of “imaginations” as though they were actors independent of their human embodiment. In his talk of “triumphant solipsism,” the endless riffing on weakness and strength, it was obvious that this was not a moral discourse. But perhaps it was better to face this fact from the outset, to forgo the consoling certainty that the part of oneself that wanted to write was wholly aligned with the part that aspired to right conduct.
The voice was oracular, mournful, arrogant—the mind from which it issued prone to mania and depression. He thought his insights distasteful and sad. His two major influences combined idiosyncratically: in Emerson he found humanism in a prophetic register, and in Freud an unpalatable, de-idealizing conception of the human dispensation. If man was not the master of his own house, the poet was not master of her poem. Even when she felt most herself, other voices were stowed within her own. It was a gift to be inhabited thusly, though the gift cost something, though it might “famish the taker.”
He posited a universalism that narrowed the share of creation thought worthy of worship. He could give a singularly compelling description of the poetic task in its almost transhistorical essence, and then list the five or seven people he’d judged to have actually accomplished that task in meaningful degree. One’s own name was not going to be next in the line. The young reader of Bloom had therefore either to reject his litany as narrow and blinkered (which it was), or to admit the wound of certain exclusion. Even if you leaned toward the former approach maybe you still felt dizzy about investing yourself in a practice for which merit might be assessed so sparingly. In my own protest I was more reformist than radical: if the real number—those poets doing the true and lasting thing—was more than five was it also more than fifty? Five hundred?
Though pursuing poetry meant exploring increasingly complex intellectual and spiritual postures, I suspected an essential continuity between childhood imaginative life and poetic cognition (I later learned this was a familiar Romantic trope). The sources I instinctually reached for were all things I’d felt or known growing up in the Arizona desert: endless sunlight, an inarticulate sadness, riding my bike until the boring built world broke up into something weirder and vast, inviting different registers of consciousness. This made resonant for me a rarely remarked upon aspect of Bloom’s writing of the Seventies: the way it opened, often weirdly, to landscape. “The Incarnation of the Poetic Character, if an inland matter, takes place near caverns and rivulets, replete with mingled measures and soft murmurs, promises of an improved infancy when one hears the sea again.” Poetic character was composed of “desiccation combined with an unusually strong oceanic sense.”
In my mind I often returned to a private metaphor—possibly corny—about a river. The idea was to wade out to its deep middle, where your feet no longer found bottom, where forces, forms and bodies were absorbed in the pressured density, where water had flowed since forever, its line through the land holding irrespective of flood and drought. That was the place from which I wanted to work. (That one might drown there was the risk and perhaps the point.) This became my figure for how the lone voice might relate to the voices in which it had found a model. The individual talent should try to operate not traditionally, but within the stakes of a tradition, where the kind of originality that surpassed mere newness might be possible. Eventually it was clear that to think of the aim as “originality” was to misread somewhat the metaphor’s internal logic.
Fittingly, it was impossible to say how much this conception of the art was “my own,” and how much was made of ideas I’d absorbed from Bloom (and a few from Eliot) willing themselves to expression by altered terms. In any case, the actual conditions of my endeavor were far more arid than my imagined river.
The first apparent consequence of Bloom’s influence is that my writing slowed to a drip. The exact cause may be overdetermined, but the timing is suspect. I meant to learn to write; for long stretches I was mostly learning to wait. There were whole years I eked out two or three short lyrics. Was this the difficulty inherent in reaching the river’s rushing middle or just evidence I was doing it wrong? I wasn’t sure if poetry was repression, as the man had once written, but doubtless a repression was at work. I rarely had any idea what I was doing, what I actually wanted to say, my desire to write so overwhelming any definable object or aim.
The poet knows that his own voice is tremulous and thin, that the potential honesty and authenticity of its speech do not mitigate this. But the leaps, the inhabitations, the discoveries—these could happen. The poems you loved were proof. The voice could be thrown, and if it traveled far enough maybe it would return bearing a new capacity. Bloom quoted Kierkegaard: “He who is willing to work gives birth to his own father.” Wild stuff—but what was the work? Was I doing it or merely waiting for those infrequent moments when the work seemed ready to happen on its own? I returned to the old rabbinic injunction underlined in my faded copy of A Map of Misreading: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This answered none of my questions, but it kept me going.
Part of the problem—though by necessity it would be incorporated into my solutions, such as they were—was that I no longer believed in “aboutness.” I mean that poems weren’t really about their ostensible subjects, at least not the poems I liked. Subjects were only opportunities, variously useful to the mind’s desire to find rest in sudden and unforeseen orders. At the core of the poem was the attempt—in its images, form or meditative act—to somehow embody the problems of poetic imagination. This was both a constraint and a condition of possibility, a feature and (at least in my work) a bug. The good poem was that which seemed somehow to acknowledge the resistance of the materials—not just language, but the late use of language—and pull a charge from that resistance. I was moved, for example, by the way George Oppen’s work seemed to overcome tremendous reticence, seemed almost to fear that its every word risked moral error (“Because I am not silent the poems are bad”); by the constant, barely concealed self-referentially, by turns passionate and disappointed, running under nearly everything Wallace Stevens wrote (“Poetry is a form of melancholia”); by the way Jorie Graham sought, often with desperate inflection, to recover a Romantic perceptual immediacy in which the action of the eye would be correlate to the ambitions of heart and mind (“Nobody gets / what they want. // … What you get is to be changed”). Across such apparently distinct poetic phenomena, Bloom asked you to see a unified if hidden subject. He called it “the sorrows of influence,” but one might find other words for it, different inflections.
What may sound odd to again emphasize is that my drama of apprenticeship only sometimes played out in the space of actual poems, much less in outward life. It was more like a vague, subterranean shifting, happening here and there in diffuse flashes of intellect and imagination, the way that over many years one might find religious faith to have slowly solidified or eroded, without particular regard to one’s intentions or efforts. But in my case it’s hard to distinguish gain from loss. Sometimes, when the poems came, it felt like grace alighting, wholly unearned. But they came infrequently, and when they did it seemed some price was paid for them, as though every door passed was no less a door shut. There was the Emerson sentence Bloom repeated like a mantra: “Nothing is got for nothing.” Criticism’s proper subject was “the problematics of loss.”
There’s a key species of potential loss in the Bloomian system, one that’s been lurking here but deserves to be broached directly: what he called lateness. What do you do with the feeling that fine poets like Henri Cole or Jay Wright (to pick a couple writers Bloom praised, edging toward the present) for all their composure and accomplishment weren’t Wordsworth or Dickinson? It feels almost a failure of tact to put it so directly, but everyone who’s made a real go at reading or writing contemporary poetry has wondered something like this. Poems would catch the enormous shadows of futurity, so said Shelley. More readily available was the past’s pale echo mixed with the desideratum of our own broken moment. As if in an ongoing, industry-wide repression, no one ever seemed to speak of lateness as an obvious condition of our collective undertaking.
“In ancient times only an individual here and there knew the truth; now we all know it, except that the inwardness of its appropriation stands in an inverse relationship to the extent of its dissemination.” In my derangement I imagined Kierkegaard casting these words into the future, where they would one day find their ultimate application as a quip about the proliferation of MFA programs. I wondered whether poetic incarnation in our time was just more widely disbursed, necessarily less intense in any one individual. And if so, should I think of this as entropy or an iteration of the equality I’d argue for in almost any other domain of life? Would this be a democratic good or a poverty of imaginative culture? Could it be both?
I was never sure to what degree my condition was historical and to what extent I was merely experiencing the problems of writing, more or less constant across the eras. Bloom quotes Thomas Mann conjuring the before times: “the ego of antiquity and its consciousness of itself were different from our own, less exclusive, less sharply defined.” One wonders if the residue of such consciousness is operative even as late as Shakespeare, of whose highly appropriative, author-unregarding practice Emerson would say that originality was not even an aim. But if this was the consciousness of the past, perhaps it would also be the consciousness to come.
Was this the horizon, at once ancient and unrealized, toward which to dream? Was an alternative psychic life of literary labor possible, one that was enabling, unanxious, less regarding of self? Was it wrong to want one? As with rich parables or figurative systems, the story Bloom tells about poetic imagination can be read in more than one direction. There’s an ambiguity that might be reclaimed if the theory isn’t allowed to calcify into a grand individualism (a calcification Bloom greatly aided). Because when you went to grasp for those great names, did you expect to contact something solid?
The modes of personhood respected by the rest of life are undermined in poetic making. A logic inhering in the material begins to suggest itself: the rudiments of soul and mind are already common property, the truth of one’s life is a tangle of known tropes. The terrain of imagination is hatched with backroads between private drives and collective form. In practice the poet toggles constantly between resisting and admitting the voices of others. Perhaps it becomes hard to know the difference. Extreme and contradictory instincts live in proximity: compared with what I love I am almost nothing; there is nothing that has ever been thought or said which does not in some respect belong to me, or I to it. To learn the voice’s capacity is to learn to inherit. What is true for a child is true, at a different depth, for the poet, who perhaps must remain a child of a kind.
All this is not, in its every tenet and emphasis, Bloom’s lesson, though it’s what he helped me to learn. But these reflections have operated at the edges of eulogy for too long. It is for us to finish our own moment, to cull from the air live tradition, to learn, always as though anew, how to do things with words. The voice the dead have is one’s own.
Image credit: William Blake, “Frontispiece to The Song of Los”