I have never met Harold Bloom in person and I never will. Given his advanced age and the unlikelihood of my making a pilgrimage to his door I accept I can only know of him what I read. A friend met Bloom and his wife in California a couple of decades ago. She found them both charming and utterly bound up in their life pursuits of literature. Mr and Mrs Bloom sound like the down-home, trans-Atlantic cousins of FR and Queenie Leavis of whom one has had visions of them determining ‘the Canon’ over the breakfast toast and marmalade. Therapy helps to erase this image. Even more so, reading Bloom on his take on ‘the Canon’ blows the marmalade off FR and Queenie’s toast.
For someone schooled on the Leavisite canon, Harold Bloom is immensely refreshing for he allows an author’s life into his consideration of the work. He has a passion for how literature and poetry shapes us, shapes our world and makes us conscious of ourselves. Bloom also is openly hostile to the post-modern(ish) reduction of literature to mere text or the appropriation of interpretation through the lens of any specific, socio-political agenda.
Bloom is highly empathetic towards the challenges that gender, race and sexuality have thrown up to the poets he gives us, but eschews reading their work as manifestos or texts, rather inviting us to see how a poet responds to their life challenges within the contexts and mores of their own times. There is something deliciously old-fashioned and ‘wrong’ about all this and it’s why I keep pursuing everything Bloom writes.
One of Bloom’s challenging tenets to us is that Shakespeare created us. Through Hamlet, Bloom claims Shakespeare gave us our inner voice. We get a taste of it in the introduction to Till I End My Song, where he describes Hamlet as:
‘the Western imagination incarnate, [knowing] he is nothing and everything in himself, yet he is poetry itself, the center of the single, most unbelievably capacious consciousness that has ever imbued a body of literature.’ p. xxiv
Reading Bloom on any and all of Shakespeare is to encounter fearless, Big Ideas that compel because of the depth of his reading and the lucidity of his argument. He is a generous and beautiful writer, never seeking to put us down as readers or to challenge our right to share in what are, quite frankly, Olympian arguments on taste.
I am less compelled by his theory on the anxiety of influence, which I think argues that great poets write from a strong misreading of their precursors. I confess I find the idea attractive but his argument impenetrable – Bloom can be like that. He wrote wonderfully on Emily Dickinson … I think … but I didn’t understand anything he said of her. The fault lies with me and I shall revisit him on Dickinson.
There is no such challenge in reading Till I End My Song which gives us ‘A Gathering of Last Poems’, each poem prefaced by a short account of why Bloom chose the poem, where it sits in ‘the Canon’ and how Bloom himself is personally affected by the poem. Bloom knew many 20th century poets and speaks with unaffected honesty about his feelings for those of his (now dead) friends he has included in the anthology.
Bloom is an avowed, non-observant Jew. He respects the observance of religions by others and appears to respect the traditions supporting religious practice, while preserving to himself the right to determine his own relationship with the numinous and ineffable. Bloom’s choice of poets not infrequently includes people who have arrived at a similar position to his own on the transcendental.
Bloom’s comment on his late friend Robert Penn Warren echoes the kind of observation he makes of a number of the poets in this anthology:
‘Warren’s characteristic poem [Heart of Autumn] is an intensely dramatic lyric, frequently devoted to moral strife within the self. A powerful moralist, obsessed with St. Augustine’s speculations on consciousness, time, and history, Warren nevertheless made clear to me his own refusal of any transcendental beliefs, including Christianity’. p. 280
Till I End My Song is almost a valedictory read of the wealth of poetry Bloom has immersed himself in over a long and productive life. Yet it is not a farewell from Bloom, for he says:
‘We turn to last poems at whatever age because we both desire and fear finalities. We want to know and not to know the extent of our temporal spans, and we hope to learn from the poets not how to die but how to stand against uncertainty’. p. xxv-xxvi
Bloom evinces little anxiety in the face of uncertainty, summoning as he can 500 years of poetry to afford him support. He rejects religion as a refuge against uncertainty and yet is not hostile to the human need to face uncertainty down, day by day. He cites Epicurus and Lucretius as key influences on the choices he made for this anthology. Of the two philosophers’ many ambitions he says:
‘The largest [ambition] was to free us from fears of death, which for them in itself was nothing at all. Liberated from heaven and hell, purgatory and limbo, we were to benefit from the demythologising of death, be it magnified by pagans or by Christians. Dying comes to all, but “death’ to no one.’ p. xxviii
Extraordinarily, Bloom stands contraposto to the Great Books of Judeo-Christianity and asserts his stance through a closer reading than most religious adherents would probably attempt. In his Jesus and Jahweh I was astonished by his assertion that Christianity in the US has ceded Trinitarianism to the more monotheistic belief in Jesus-as-only-God. As an outsider, i.e. a non-American, this explain, yet doesn’t enlighten me about America and Americans. As I suggest later we can live like them, but we will never know them (Americans that is).
Bloom’s great New Testator to the ‘poem’ that is America is, of course, Walt Whitman. Bloom’s Whitman is Bloom’s America. Bloom is intelligently and passionately in love with his America and he celebrates Whitman as the ‘American Adam’ who contains and is unable to betray the Great Poem that is America—bounteous, fruitful, peopled (manly-peopled?), democratic and potentially free.
Bloom’s ecstasy is Whitman’s solipsistic love of himself as the American of his time. Frankly, I don’t get Whitman—I don’t understand what it means to be ‘American’ as Bloom, clearly understands it of Whitman. As an Australian, the deep and unchallengeable patriotism of Americans bemuses and almost embarrasses me. I have also struck a rock trying to read Emerson: what is important to Emerson and Whitman is not important to me and no amount of Whitman’s highly charged imagery, as homoerotic as you like it (and I do) speaks to me personally – I admit defeat, the failings are mine. I like to read Bloom on Whitman, but the passion for reading Whitman himself, fails to come off the pages to me of Leaves of Grass, for example. Walt is, well, too American and, somehow, that seems entirely right. I am not American. And I envy that Harold Bloom, at the age of 79 can write a sentence like this, that he can see his own life so deeply bound up in the life his own nation:
‘The United States, Whitman proclaimed, itself was to be the greatest poem. That capacious confidence seemed irrelevant during our years in the bush, but revives in the age of Obama. Our young will yet dream their dreams, and the old (like myself) will yet see visions.’ p. xxii
Each the poems in Till I End My Song is impossible to gloss over— each gave me pause and very often I found myself reading them out aloud to really hear what the words had to say. One of the great joys of this anthology was to be introduced to works I didn’t know from poets I admire. I thought I had a good handle on Elizabeth Bishop, yet clearly there is much more for me to read. Bloom chose to include Bishop’s ‘Sonnet’ as quite possibly her last poem. It is brief, giving us three images of freedom triumphing over uncertainty. The last image hit me as an epiphany:
‘and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror
flying wherever …’ p. 303
For me, this is what a great poem can do—tell me what I have often seen and never noticed. I know the prettiness of light striking the bevelled edge of a mirror and refracting into a rainbow, but I had never before seen a rainbow-bird ‘flying wherever’. I always will from now on and always be reminded of Bishop’s brief poem of escape and liberation from uncertainty.
I have read Stevie Smith extensively (I had thought) all my mostly adult life, yet I did not remember reading Bloom’s selection from Smith: ‘Black March’. Again, a true last poem, ‘Black March’ gives us death as an old friend, rewarding me with an image I recognise as surely as the face of an old friend:
‘But I have seen his eyes, they are
As pretty and bright
As raindrops on black twigs …’ p 276
Occasionally we read, in fiction or poetry, of a situation or image which we recognise with a shock, as if it were written directly for us alone. I know raindrops on black twigs—I know the diamond glint they throw off in winter, in stark relief to the wet, dark skeletal forms of trees. Bloom has given me a Stevie Smith I didn’t know—I ask for nothing more.
But with Bloom, there is always more. Of course, you should read this book. To read anything of Harold Bloom is to be enabled to ‘read’ with him, the great wealth of poetry he has immersed himself in throughout his prodigious life. To read Harold Bloom is to read how poetry and literature has shaped each of us, even those of us who don’t read at all.
Nicholas M Tolhurst