Thursday, January 6, 2011

For them to read when they're in trouble \ And I am not - the authority of Harold Bloom

If I were to continue the theme of What I Want To Read That I Am Not Reading, what would I write about today?  Poems of the Spanish Golden Age?  Or anything from Renaissance Italy – Dante, Cellini, Machiavelli?  Machiavelli’s zippy comedy The Mandrake Root is a logical successor to all of that Aristophanes and Plautus.  Or maybe I should start a Whole New Thing – The Tale of Genji or something like that.

I’m acting like I’m dissatisfied with my actual reading, with the often thrilling Les Misérables, or the sly Barchester Towers, or the amusingly skeptical Maupassant.  No, no.  The mind wanders, that’s all.  If only I had the concentration, and the time.

Harold Bloom has a new book out – when is that not true – on exactly this theme.  Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, an anthology of English-language poems on the theme of loss, death, aging, and sorrow.  I assume that the original editorial idea was to create something for the Consolation Market.  Whether this book is exactly that, I don’t know.  What consoles Harold Bloom may not be universal.

Having said that, the quality of the poems in the book is so extraordinary that I sometimes felt a sense of injustice.  Take the greatest poets in the language, select a single poem – I could do this.  Who could not do this?  I could even publish it – The Amateur Reader’s Favorite Poems, ed. Amateur Reader, Wuthering Expectations Press, 2011.  Please see this extraordinary post by the Caustic Cover Critic – one can actually do such things now.

The fact is, though, that even if my book would have poems as good, which it would, since picking a good poem by Keats or Housman is not so hard, it would not have the weight of Bloom’s book.  Harold Bloom has authority.  Not authority of taste, heaven help us, but real expertise based on decades of reading poetry, writing about it, teaching it.  He knows more about English poetry than almost anyone.

Bloom’s rhetoric can be pompous, pure gasbaggery, or it can be subtly wise.  Each poem in the book has a little introduction, a page or two, with bits of biography, close reading, and judgments handed down from the throne.  The book is nicely organized so that readers driven starkers by Bloom’s tone can easily ignore every word he writes and simply read the poems.  I thought Bloom was pretty humble in this book, actually.  He’s writing, implicitly, about his own death.

What was I doing for the last two days – what am I doing on Wuthering Expectations – besides asserting my own authority, however small?  How can the amateur propound on the merits of Greek literature, or the complete works of Nabokov?  Well, I read them, that’s step one.  Most people have not.  If I read them well, carefully, attentively, with reflection, I move ahead again.  We could argue about whether I have actually done that.  The evidence will be in the next step, when I write about them in some sort of evaluative or critical way.  Now I have done something that almost no one has done.  A small number of true experts, Professionals, scholars have an expertise that dwarfs mine.  So do a few amateurs who have made a more serious study of Aeschylus, Nabokov, etc.  I respect their authority, and benefit from their expertise.  Then there's me and my peers, many of us merrily blogging away.

I have wandered into more of a Why We Blog post than I had intended.  This is actually a Successful Resolution post.  I have not read all of Bloom’s book, neither all of the poems nor all of the Bloom.  It’s going back to the library.  It's hardly the kind of book that one should read through, although I kinda want to.

The title is from “They Say My Verse Is Sad” by A. E. Housman, a great favorite of mine, perhaps even a consoling poet.  Bloom writes almost nothing about it.  You'll see why.  It perhaps defeats expertise:

They say my verse is sad: no wonder;
   Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity, and sorrow,
   Not mine, but man’s.

This is for all ill-treated fellows
   Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read when they’re in trouble
   And I am not.


  1. So impressive the way you're coming out in the new year slugging and smoothly driving the ball over the fence every time. Brings on the sports metaphors, apparently, as in my last note.

    Seque to not reading mountaineering lit, or not now but soon. Any LitWWI notes, as I'm beginning to explore at my place? And are we to assume that Framely P. will follow B. Towers, and the ecclesiastical sextet will be swiftly dispatched? It's good fun stuff.

  2. Is authority something you can assert? I wonder. I have a hunch (I could be wrong) but the hunch is this, that if you engage in argument, you announce to the world that you have no authority. That's why you provide reasons for this or that pet theory or claim. Take Whitman, for instance. What has he to do with argument? Nothing. He neither loves nor hates them, but he dispense with argument entire, as he should, I suppose, being a poet. I read Song of Myself last night and found myself (not Myself but myself, me myself) bowing down before Whitman's authority. His language is so damn compelling that I believe it, I believe him, I believe the things he says, I believe that death just might be beautiful, frightened though I am of it. Authority. Hmm. By damn, I think he's got it. I suspect this is a tanget. My apologies. Kevin

  3. Ooh, that poem. I think you may be right about it.

  4. Oooh, that's good. Yes, argument, real argument, requires a renunciation of authority. When Bloom says that Hart Crane is the greatest example of the American Sublime since Whitman, or I say that X, Y, and Z are the major works of Nabokov, we are not engaging in real argument!

    And then - also quite, quite good - art, poetry is an end run (sports metaphor!) around authority. Art can even destroy authority, replace it with something else that is beyond argument, true even if we're not sure why. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

    Framley Parsonage will not follow soon. The Barchester books stretch form 1855 to 1867. Why should I be in a bigger hurry? They are fun, enormous fun. And reading Thackeray has been a huge help with them. Who am I kidding, I won't take 12 years.

    As for WWI lit, I can safely say that I am badly read there. Parade's End was last year's contribution. Oh, wait, how about Svevo, The Confessions of Zeno? You have to be patient - the WWI stuff is all at the end. But it's, um, a home run, or something. Also, S. Ansky.

    That poem - I do love Housman.

  5. Me, too (love Housman.)

    Crossing alone the nighted ferry
    With the one coin for fee,
    Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
    Count you to find? Not me.

    The brisk fond lackey to fetch and carry,
    The true, sick-hearted slave,
    Expect him not in the just city
    And free land of the grave.

    What about that "Not me."?

  6. I've recently taken up Bloom's book on the Western Cannon, and find myself enjoying it very much. He does what a good critic should do--which is, make people want to read good books.

  7. An interesting thing about "Not me",Betty, is that it takes Housman a whole stanza todecide that's what it is, which suggests he isn't as sure as he'd like to be

  8. It was not Harold Bloom who made me think of you, but Stanley Fish. (I hope you do not take this as an insult.) Right now I'm pondering writing up my thoughts on his little book entitled How to Write a Sentence, and what I most want to say about it is that you could have said it better, or at least with less fuss.

  9. I owe a real intellectual debt to Bloom, so I try not to mock him too much, although he is eminently mockable. We could find some fine examples in The Western Canon. Any of that stuff about gnostic Agons. I'm not sure, Betty, that making people want to read good books is all that a good critic should do.

    I'm not at all insulted by a comparison to Stanley Fish. He's a real authority, too, for similar reasons - a leading Milton scholar, for example. I just doubt he has read as much literature as Bloom. Who has? I don't know enough about Fish or what he reads - I know more about his sports cars and tailored Savile Row suits! He's also supremely mockable, although I believe David Lodge has that racket pretty well sewed up.

    I don't want to comment on the Housman poem, Jenny. It is too sad! The "true, sick-hearted slave" - I'll just burst into tears!

  10. The post in which I compare what you do to what Fish does in his new book is up today.

  11. I happily bought this great book on the day it came out having waited for it for years. Harold Bloom is a sage and guide for me everyday and as a common reader I have enjoyed this book from cover to cover over and over. Though he would probably not say he's much of a guide, he channels and is influenced and made by the best writers. Professor Bloom keeps most of himself out of his books we read like Shakespeare does. We know a little yielded about him but there is so much we do not know. I seek not to actually strive know him, unless I am permitted, and substitute hope in the place for knowledge. This is also a theme in the late past post-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, whom Bloom was friends with and whom he called the closest to Emerson we have when he was living. I suppose that something in me resists learning, but on days when I feel my own depressions Bloom's advise to memorize poems like "Ulysses" by Alfred Lord Tennyson has helped. I find Bloom's a great trend, and I hope that his writings do not ever become watery period pieces.

  12. william, thank you for writing that. Anyone willing to work through some of Bloom's idiosyncracies will find real wisdom. He is "made by the best writers" - exactly. In that way, he is exemplary.

  13. I had forgotten that I pilfered something from that poem until I read it again. For your momentary pleasure (or not, as the case may be), hop here.