Sunday, June 13, 2004
At some point, all readers have been disappointed by an anthology's selection. If you're Harold Bloom, there's a simple solution -- create your own.
Never one to hedge his bets, the literary critic has edited "the anthology I've always wanted to possess," a 1,000-page behemoth humbly entitled "The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost" (HarperCollins, $34.95).
Shakespeare, Tennyson, Yeats. You can't argue with the quality of his picks, the majority of which will not surprise. What separates Bloom's offering from existing anthologies has more to do with his commentary than his choices.
Taken on their own, his opening essay, "The Art of Reading Poetry," and his introductions to each poet could form a neat sampler of literary history, tracing English-language poetry's course through centuries-old lines of influence.
His tone at once erudite and conversational, Bloom mixes snippets of the poets' lives with close textual readings, focusing on allusion and figuration and as he searches for "inevitability" -- one measure of poetic greatness.
Along the way, the controversial critic has his share of fun.
The longtime Yale University professor claims to have "retired from polemic." Happily, this proves little more than a "rhetorical fiction" -- of a different nature than the one he so adroitly outlines in his essay on Walt Whitman, a difficult poet who projects accessibility.
At times, you can almost hear Bloom gleefully sharpening his knives.
On Ezra Pound's failings: "Pound's major poetic work is 'The Cantos,' which seems to me to anthologize badly, nor do I have much esteem for them, or for Pound, whether as a person or poet."
On Matthew Arnold's reputation: "Arnold, long admired both for his poetry and for his literary criticism, was not particularly good at either."
On Lewis Carroll's fondness for preadolescent girls: "He was fortunate in his era: one fears that a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford, might now have to confront the Sexual Harassment committee (whatever these covens of harpies are now called in Britain)."
Nor is Bloom stingy with his praise. Of Emily Dickinson's cryptic lyrics, he writes, "Though I read and teach her constantly, I remain a bewildered idolater, struggling to understand her enigmatic sublimities."
While sarcastic asides lend Bloom's essays punch, his passion for text-based exposition gives his writing its great heart. Poetry is serious business for Bloom, who scorns democratic or politically correct concerns when it comes to art's purpose.