Letter to the Editor
Re: Harold Bloom’s The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997.
published in The Boston Review
For years now, Harold Bloom has been voicing his despair about the state of literary studies in the U.S., and here he again he takes the high ground, denouncing “the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp-followers, afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists” who have turned our universities into “travesties.” Bloom’s enemies have scoffed at this Jeremiad, but surely he is right to denounce a situation where Wordsworth’s Prelude is held to be suspect because its author ostensibly “‘betrayed” his early allegiance to the French Revolution,” or where anthologies of seventeenth-century English Literature place Lady Mary Chudleigh and the Duchess of Newcastle on a par with Jonson and Milton. “If representation-by-category is to be the law of the universities,” Bloom asks not unreasonably, “. . . what ‘minority is to be excluded?” And again : “If what Walter Pater called ‘Aesthetic criticism’ dies, then what he termed ‘Aesthetic poetry’ must in time die also, since we will cease to know good from bad poetry.”
Bloom’s Exhibit A, in this particular instance, is the Best American Poetry 1996, the one volume he has refused to draw upon in selecting The Best of the Best. This is the volume edited by Adrienne Rich, whose name Bloom unaccountably refuses to so much as cite. “It is,” he says of the ‘96 anthology, “of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet.” Here I think Bloom gives voice to the dismay many of us felt when Rich’s selection appeared. Too many of the relentlessly PC poems in this volume are maudlin, self-righteous, boring, and ultimately just plain incompetent; I would add that Rich’s rant against contemporary culture in her own Introduction seems as unaware of the basic facts of economic life in late twentieth-century America as it refuses to acknowledge the genuinely radical poetry now being written.
I can understand, then, that Bloom is disheartened by such recent manifestations of what he calls the “Culture of Resentment.” But I am not sure it is enough to respond to that culture by citing large chunks of Emerson and Whitman or by invoking Shakespeare as our tutelary spirit. To begin with, I would argue, Bloom is himself partly responsible for the shift from aesthetic (or formalist) criticism to the “cultural” model he denounces. For despite his current endorsement of the aesthetic position, Bloom’s own perspective, at least from The Anxiety of Influence (1973) on down, has been much more thematic than formal or structural or linguistic; indeed, its central thrust has been primarily Freudian. Why Freud and not Marx? Why the vocabulary of clinamen and tessera and apophrades rather than, say, the Russian Formalist vocabulary of faktura and “making it strange” or the Bakhtinian vocabulary of dialogism and heteroglossia? And why the admission of Wordsworthian and Emersonian poets into the pantheon at the expense of poets of rival persuasions, beginning with Eliot, who, like it or not, has had such a seminal influence on Bloom’s own favorite “spent seer,” John Ashbery?
I would argue that the insistence on the Romantic paradigm as the paradigm has made Bloom curiously impervious to some of the most exciting poetry now being written. And that even in the case of his favorite modernist poet, Wallace Stevens, his refusal to deal with matters of sound, rhythm, and syntax in Stevens’s “poems of our climate,” has not exactly helped to pave the way for an aesthetic criticism. Indeed, the psychology of tropes that is central to Bloom’s readings has a way of bringing us back to thematic motifs outside the materiality of the poetic language itself. Why is Ashbery’s Three Poems written in prose, not verse? One would never know, reading Bloom on Ashbery. Such “technical” details are evidently judged to be irrelevant.
Accordingly, his own contemporary canon, as instanced by his choices in The Best of the Best, strikes me as curiously restricted. The Romantic line, however attenuated that line has become in the poetry of, say, Irving Feldman or Jonathan Aaron, is preferred to the countercurrents represented by Robert Creeley or Michael Palmer (each included in five of the ten annual anthologies), and by any number of poets from Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein to Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian, Clark Coolidge and Rosmarie Waldrop, who are currently being read and studied in countries as diverse as Brazil and China, Austria and Australia.
Of the ten “Best American” anthologies, the one least represented in Bloom’s own selection is the first (1988), edited by John Ashbery, from which Bloom takes no more than six poems. From this volume, Bloom might have chosen Rae Armantrout’s genuinely “aesthetic” “Bases,” Cooldge’s “A Monologue,” or Creeley’s “The Dream.” From the ‘89 volume (edited by Donald Hall, hardly a drum-beater for the avant-garde), Bloom might have chosen Palmer’s “Sun,” one of the celebrated and widely translated poems of the decade. What “aesthetic” reason can there be for omitting “Sun” and including Molly Peacock’s “Have You Ever Faked an Orgasm?”. whose first section, “My College Sex Group,” begins with the lines:
All my girlfriends were talking about sex
And the vibrators they ordered from “Eve’s
Garden” which came with genital portraits
of twelve different girls. (p. 223)
“Remarks,” as Gertrude Stein so nicely put it, “are not literature.” Reading Peacock’s oh-so-clever piece about her sex life, real and imagined, I can’t help thinking of Frank O’Hara’s wise and witty admonition against “forced feeding”: “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too.” Certainly the movies (or television) could handle this material with equal aplomb.
Again, if we are to have an “aesthetic criticism,” then it seems to me imperative to follow Pound’s dictum: “Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.” By this criterion, the loose blank verse of George Bradley or Brigid Pegeen Kelly featured in The Best of the Best seems less than indispensable in a selection of seventy-five poems.
My own hunch is that Bloom is perfectly aware of the limitations of his chosen texts. Again and again in his Introduction, he comes back to the names of his beloved dead: Emerson and Whitman, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill. Ashbery and A. R. Ammons excepted, he can’t seem to work up enormous enthusiasm about the living. Indeed, it is as if his distaste for contemporary academic life has undermined his willingness to move outside the ivied walls or outside the sanctuaries of the mainstream presses to look for poetic material. “It is ironical,” he writes, “that, in this bad time, American poetry is of a higher quality than our criticism or teaching of poetry.” But why is it ironical that poetry should be of a higher quality than the teaching and criticism of poetry? And when has it ever been different?
James Laughlin has often reminded us that at the Harvard he left behind in the late twenties, when he went to Europe to seek out Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, the Professor of Poetry was Robert Hillyer and the other Harvard “star” of the moment was Archibald MacLeish. Stevens had already published Harmonium, Williams, Spring and All, and Crane, Voyages, but this was the situation, even as, in the late sixties, John Ashbery was a total unknown in the university as compared to, say, Anne Sexton.
As critic and cultural commentator, Bloom clearly enjoys the role of Agon; he is openly combatt ive, outrageous, and contrary. But as an anthologist of poems, he strikes me as curiously conservative and cautious. There is nothing in The Best of the Best that is likely to shock or surprise readers. But there is also little to convince them that this is (which, to my mind, it is!) a great and exciting time for poetry. For our most vital poets are not, as Bloom suggests, belated Romantics, holding on for dear life in the hostile sea of the Culture of Resentment, but a very different Visionary Company more consonant with the currents of the century to come.