Illustration: Fox writing with a quill pen (1852) Courtesy of The New York Public Library
THE RENAISSANCE COURTIER and author Philip Sidney described poetry as "that which, in the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges." The four centuries between the publication of his Apology for Poetry and the present day might as well be four millennia. It's easy to argue that poetry, which for Sidney referred broadly to literary activity, has been under attack since at least Plato and always seems to survive and even thrive in the face of resistance. Some even look to a brave new world of possibility for literature in a digital age. Still, it's hard not to be discouraged in the face of an intensifying crisis of faith in the value of both literature and education. What can be said about the importance and function of literature in what seem, to many, increasingly bleak times?
Few literary critics achieve or maintain the kind of cultural visibility that Harold Bloom, Marjorie Garber, Marjorie Perloff, and Helen Vendler have sustained for decades. Bloom has taught for most of his career at Yale, Garber and Vendler at Harvard, and Perloff at Stanford; each publishes with a major commercial or university press. All make claims for the potency and primacy of the literary, if often in radically different ways. Bloom and Vendler champion the poetic tradition approached through close textual analysis, though Bloom prefers grand narratives and Vendler taxonomy. Like Bloom and Vendler, Garber values the tradition, but for her, literature offers problems not just for interpretation, but for public policy. Bloom and Perloff are enthralled by genius and the importance of artistic legacies, though Bloom's veneration of classic literary works seems at odds with Perloff's preference for the latest forms of innovation. These publications function as summations of these influential critics' careers; the inadvertent cluster they form also provides a snapshot of our tenuous moment in the history of literature.
For nearly 40 years, Harold Bloom has delivered the gospel of influence. In a trinity of important works — The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), and Agon (1982) — Bloom laid out a theory of poetry dependent upon a complex psychology that obtains between poets in the literary tradition. Bloom has invested a lifetime in this tradition, and the titles of his many books alone indicate a strong preference for prescription rather than description: The Western Canon, Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, The Best Poems of the English Language, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, and — most unambiguously — How to Read and Why.
Bloom describes his latest effort, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, as his "final reflection upon the influence process." Bloom's now familiar theory concerns itself with the sources of creativity. Great poems emerge when poets transcend the anxiety produced by the towering achievements of the past. To write definitive, canon-changing works is to creatively "misread" the triumphs of precursors, generating a new ...read more