Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Something I Read #6 – Harold Bloom

— To note: three words in a phrase set off by dashes near the end, and a note at the end was added after first posting
— second note added 10/28/2014


From my observations of MFA world and the culture of pop-poetry that it has been participant in creating, and of articles written by members and defenders of that culture, it seems to me the contemporary culture of poetry is greatly flawed if not marked by an inability to discern between good and bad poetry (good and bad literature). Though, immediately I admit that it is undeniable that the terms "good" and "bad" are wholly insufficient if not misleading – which is why I try to avoid using them. Eliot in his essays makes the distinction between "sham" and "genuine" poetry: a distinction I have found very useful. In this essay, "The Breaking of Form"{FN], Bloom uses the distinction between "weak" and "strong" poetry (and "weak" and "strong" reading): taken from within the context of the essay, something I am also finding very useful.

[FN] The essay is found in Deconstruction and Criticism (Continuum, 1979). ------------------------------------

The essay falls back for grounding upon a group of Bloom's books (beginning with Anxiety of Influence), which I have either not read or not read any time recently, so I know I am not as fully engaged with ideas as can be had. But nonetheless it is proving an interesting read. Here are three, inter-related moments from early on, where he sets up and gives substance to the ideas of "weak" and "strong":

Whether one accepts a theory of language that teaches the dearth of meaning, as in Derrida and de Man, or that teaches its plenitude, as in Barfield and Ong, does not seem to me to matter. All I ask is that the theory of language be extreme and uncompromising enough. Theory of poetry, as I pursue it, is reconcilable with either extreme view of poetic language, though not with any views in between. Either the new poet fights to win freedom from dearth, or from plenitude, but if the antagonist be moderate, then the agon will not take place, and no fresh sublimity will be won. Only the agon is of the essence. (4-5)

The surprise stems from reading historians as inevitable as Burckhardt, philosophers as influential as Schopenhauer, scholars as informative as Curtius, and most of all from reading Freud, who is as indescribable as he is now inescapable. These writers, who are to our age what Longinus was to the Hellenistic world, have defined our Sublime for us, and they have located it in the agonistic spirit. Emerson preceded all of them in performing the same definition, the same location for America. These literary prophets teach us that the Greeks and the Renaissance were fiercely competitive in all things intellectual and spiritual, and that if we would emulate them, we hardly can hope to be free of competitive strivings. But I think these sages teach a harsher lesson, which they sometimes tell us they have learned from the poets. What is weak is forgettable and will be forgotten. Only strength is memorable; only the capacity to wound gives a healing capacity the chance to endure, and so to be heard. Freedom of meaning is wrested by combat, of meaning against meaning. But this combat consists in a reading encounter, and in an interpretive moment within that encounter. (5)

Perhaps, in common parlance, we need two very different words for what we now call "reading." There is relaxed reading and alert reading, and the latter, I will suggest, is always an agon. Reading well is a struggle because fictions and poems can be defined, at their best, as works that are bound to be misread, that is to say, troped by the reader. I am not saying that literary works are necessarily good or bad in proportion to their difficulty. Paul Valéry observed that "one only reads well when one reads with some quite personal goal in mind. It may be to acquire some power. It can be out of hatred for the author." Reading well, for Valéry, is to make one's own figuration of power, to clear imaginative space for one's own personal goal. Reading well is therefore not necessarily a polite process, and may not meet the academy's social standards of civility. I have discovered, to my initial surprise, that the reading of poetry has been as much idealized as the writing of it. Any attempt to de-idealize the writing of poetry provokes anger, particularly among weak poets, but this anger is mild compared to the fury of journalists and of many academics when the mystique of a somehow detached yet still generous, somehow disinterested yet still energetic, reading-process is called into question. The innocence of reading is a pretty myth, but our time grows very belated, and such innocence is revealed as only another insipidity. (5-6)

Rather than italicizing text within the quotations, let me pull the three key moments out from the above:

  • Either the new poet fights to win freedom from dearth, or from plenitude, but if the antagonist be moderate, then the agon will not take place, and no fresh sublimity will be won.
  • What is weak is forgettable and will be forgotten. Only strength is memorable; only the capacity to wound gives a healing capacity the chance to endure, and so to be heard. Freedom of meaning is wrested by combat [. . .].
  • Reading well is therefore not necessarily a polite process, and may not meet the academy's social standards of civility.

This gives an intriguing vocabulary of ideas to the culture of pop-poetry and to the idea of that is valuable in the pursuit of poetry. Curious to me in this particular moment is the usefulness of the idea of active reading being irrelevant to the text, which relates directly to the ability to discern good from bad poetry. For an active reader, a reader who, in Blooms terms, approaches a text within an agon with the text, will not placidly accept a weak text. The agon is not, as with a strong text, an agon of meaning, it is agon of strength. I would argue that the very essence of the contemporary culture of pop-poetry (indeed of contemporary literature) is dependent upon avoiding such agonistic reading, dependent upon a culture of readers who only read "relaxedly," never questioning the strength or weakness of the work in front of them. To read with strength includes the question of whether the work itself strong, and deserving of a strong reading. My accusation of MFA culture, one I would expect MFA culture would of its own embrace – if it indeed had any strength – and consider requisite to their being, is to ask whether they themselves are teaching strength: especially agonism in reading, which must precede agonism in writing.

If I may rewrite:

Writing well is not a polite process,
and may not meet the social standards of civility.

Weakness breeds weakness for fear of comparison. Rephrasing Bloom, can it be said that the strong literary work inherently and willingly affronts a culture of weak literature with middle fingers raised? After all, to dare strength requires rejecting the acceptance of weakness. [On this sentence, see the note beneath the double line, below.]

Here are some questions for pondering:

  • How much of the so called avant-garde of the last decades and their so-called "theoretic" bases is designed to avoid that very confrontation?
  • Can it be said that such writing as LANGUAGE and conceptualism – even New Formalism – at their core is an attempt to find and more importantly justify a body of literature without having to confront the question of strength?
  • Is the pop-poetry culture's interests in politics and social issues also a means to create and justify poetry through avoiding the question of strength? (For example, this, what recently appeared on my FB feed.)


I realized after posting that there is a critical part of the idea of "strength" that is inherent to Bloom and the above – and to everything I have written here and more importantly on the Poetry Daily Critique blog – that is not explicit within the above. That aspect is the recognition that "strength" is not a position but an action. A writer or reader who writes or reads from strength need not be writing or reading from the top of the literary learning curve. What marks strength is not position on the curve but action upon the curve: it is the strength of climbing.

Note added 10/28/14:

The sentence as presented above was my second version. The first version was . . . . I will use the phrase "slightly more violent" than the one above. (And I do mean only slightly.) But I did not trust the reception of the sentence and went to the one presented, even though with consideration I did not fully trust that one either. A comment by a FB friend on the posting as a whole indirectly confirmed the weakness of the passage, but not for the reason I expected. His comment was something in the manner of "Is Bloom saying that strong literature must be offensive?"

No, that is not what Bloom is saying. But, then again, it is. What the comment reminded me – especially as regards the passage above – is that there are two sides to the event: the side of the act of the strength, and the side against which the act of strength is being performed. To write with strength is to break away from the normative, to (here using Bloom's image later in the essay) push away other literature to stake out a place for one's work where – and by which – it can declare its value, its merit.

From the side of the author, that act of writing is an act of strength, of independence, of individuation (both of the work and of the author through the making of the work). It is an open rejection of the whole of the current, established culture of literature that demands "to write literature is to write like us," rejection also of its promised rewards. (Writing that sentence I noticed that to speak it in such language is to position it as the opposite of "selling out.")

While such a description as an act of strength will usually be seen as aesthetically liberatory, from the other side, from the side of culture, it will be seen as offensive: the gesture of raised middle fingers will be seen as an offensive, vulgar, demeaning gesture. Which it is, undeniably. All three.

But that is the nature of dominant cultures. That which rejects it is offensive; that which dares to rise above it is demeaning, that which dismisses what it holds proper is vulgar. Yet, if you are to demand of yourself that your literary journey will be actions of strength and rejections of cultural passivity, of cultural acceptance of mediocrity and normalcy, that is what you are doing, and that reception is what you risk.


  1. Harold Bloom is the critic I have most fallen in love with, who has illuminated my own life by my continual reading of him and his teachings. I think that it is also good to note that when he does talk about reading, he follows a few more techniques as well which come from some of his other books like How to Read and Why, a book which I credit for saving my life. In it he says that we should listen close to Dr. Samuel Johnson's advise that we should clear our mind of cant in order to be better readers. Also, Bloom suggests that we should not try to change our neighbors by what we read. In addition to this, Bloom summons another of his favorite guides, Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A scholar is a candle by which the love and desire of all men will light." As a solitary reader myself, Emerson is great, but Bloom brings forth also Emerson's idea that "It is the same nature that reads that writes." There is a sense that Emerson's "to be a good reader, one must be a good inventor," is always on his mind for Bloom thinks of literary criticism and interpretation as an art, something we invent in order to read well. Thanks for your words on my favorite critic. - Billy McBride

    1. And thanks for the reply.

      Bloom is also one of my favorite thinkers in literature. I have a small number of his books, and I think not a one have I read through: which speaks to my relationship to him. He is far more a companion in exploration for me (like Emerson, who I read similarly) than a 'teacher' (to use a not quite correct to the moment word). And I never want to exhaust that companionship.

      I don't have _How to Read and Why_, though. Your prompt leads me to picking it up . . . . .