OCTOBER 4, 2011
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 kind of poetry that both preserves and overcomes all past literary history. Though the core idea seems simple enough, Bloom has made his name by elaborating a multistage process, invoking various vocabularies of anxiety and defense (psychoanalytic, gnostic, and otherwise) to map the path of various poetic ephebes towards greatness.
Bloom dwells in the grandeur of tradition not merely as a refuge from the caprices of recent literary and cultural criticism. In his hands, the canon is a weapon, which he wields as “a last-ditch defense of poetry, and a cry against being subsumed by any ideology.” The Anatomy of Influence is the Summa Theologica of a capacious literary mind eager to self-assess, to self-canonize, and to have a final say in the face of anticipated irrelevance. “As a literary critic,” Bloom admits near the end of this book,
I am a kind of archaic survival, a dinosaur, and I particularly favor the brontosaurus, an amiable enough monster. I do not believe that poetry has anything to do with cultural politics. I ask of a poem three things: aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, and wisdom.
One of Bloom’s primary fascinations has always been himself, and The Anatomy of Influence is not merely about his signature theory of anxiety, it is riven through and through by Bloom’s own anxiety about his legacy in what he calls a “Disinformation Age.” While early in The Anatomy of Influence Bloom complains that contemporary visual culture will destroy information, he then expresses fears that information itself now flows too rapidly. Still, contradiction is not the particular vice of The Anatomy of Influence. It might be a much more interesting book if it were. Instead, Bloom’s latest work is felled by repetition, name-dropping, and a rigid insistence on systematicity. Bloom tells us (many times) that he fell in love with Hart Crane at the age of 10, that he once met Wallace Stevens, who surprised him by reciting the opening lines of Shelley’s “Witch of Atlas,” that scholars should not call Shakespeare’s late plays romances, that critics are as wrong about religion in Shakespeare as T.S. Eliot was wrong in his evaluation of Hamlet, and that Frost, Moore, Bishop, and Merrill are exceptions to the rule that all American poetry is touched by the influence of Whitman. (The book is peppered, too, with oft-repeated references to friendly lunches, teas, drives, phone calls, and such with the likes of Kenneth Burke, Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee Williams, F.O. Matthiessen, John Ashbery, Gershom Scholem.)
Bloom imagines that, although The Anatomy of Influence treats authors he has discussed — extensively and often — elsewhere, it will still “render [his] appreciations fresh and not reliant upon earlier formulations.” At the same time, he freely applies his specialized theoretical vocabulary — “ephebe,” “daimon,” “agon” and so on — as if the reader were already versed in his system. Bloom’s grazing over the territory of his earlier books — Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, and The American Religion among them — sometimes helpfully sets out the major premises of his thought. More frequently, these ventures devolve into conversations with himself about himself — virtually incoherent for anyone who hasn’t made “Harold Bloom” a subject of study:
For me Shakespeare is the Law, Milton the Teaching, Blake and Whitman the Prophets. Being a Jew and not a Christian I need not displace the Gospels. What could a literary messiah be? When I was young I was baffled by modernist or New Critics. So unreal now are their polemics I cannot recapture my fervor against them. Turning eighty had an odd effect upon me that seventy-nine did not. I will no longer strive with Resenters and other lemmings. We will be folded together in our common dust … I remind myself that my stance always has been Longinian rather than philosophical, in the modes of either Plato or Aristotle.
Later, in a chapter entitled “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction of the Romantic Self,” the poet’s power to name (and the power of the poet’s own name) occasions yet another self-reflexive moment:
“Naming” (as in Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin) is closer to the real concerns of literature. I am moved here by my own splendid name of “Bloom,” particular since my personal favorite among Whitman’s poems is “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Perhaps it’s too easy to catalogue Bloom’s lapses in The Anatomy of Influence. I admit my own response is a brand of disappointment born of admiration. I can think of few in whom literary language and literary history so deeply reside. It’s impossible to say where Bloom’s mind ends and poetry begins, and I suspect he may be one of the last of a certain kind of reader, that however his particular conclusions and ambitions strike us, we will be poorer when such readers are no more. Bloom’s song of himself does indeed, in its more sublime moments, bring Whitman to mind, and The Anatomy of Influence is most lively in its final third, where Bloom explores Whitman’s legacy in American poetry. He concludes that section with potent final sentiments: “Poetry is not, cannot be therapy, but in a time when all spirituality is tainted by political exploitation, or by the depraved cultural politics of the academy and the media, a few poets can remind us of a more authentic spirituality.” Bloom may be more than a little Lear-like in this final treatise on influence, but his anxiety of inconsequentiality sparks powerful if fleeting moments of a near-prophetic strain.
Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature begins with the noted 2004 NEA survey,Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which seems to confirm a sharp decline in reading rates for men and women of all ages and races. Garber neither attacks nor defends the conclusions of the report. Rather, she inquires into its assumptions, noting that works of nonfiction had been excluded from the category of the “literary” in this report and that the very question of what constitutes “literary” reading can only be answered by inquiring into the vicissitudes of the term “literature,” which “over the centuries in England, the U.S., and indeed in France … has changed from a personal attribute or characteristic (something one has) to an institution and a product (something one writes or knows).”
Garber argues that “it is high time to take back the term literature,” that “the very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute,” and that we need “to return literature to the center, rather than the periphery, of personal, educational, and professional life.” In championing the useless, the counterintuitive, the frustration of meaning, and the interminability of interpretation, Garber revisits the themes of her Academic Instincts (2001) andPatronizing the Arts (2008), which pose similarly large questions about the nature of scholarship and the cultural role art plays in the academy and at large. After more than a dozen books on topics ranging from Shakespeare to bisexuality to real estate, Garber’s tactics are familiar. Her approach is eclectic, encyclopedic, historical, and often anecdotal. The Use and Abuse of Literaturetraces the history of defenses of poetry from Horace and Plato to Sidney and Shelley, before considering how thinkers as varied as Immanuel Kant, Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde, and Karl Marx understand the “use value” of literature.
Where does this grand tour leave us? Too often in a land of slogans masquerading as manifestos, a land populated by encyclopedic instances strung together with ever-more slender filaments of cliché. “Poems and novels,” we’re told, “do not have answers that are immutably true … they raise questions, they provoke thought, they produce ideas and generate arguments, they give rise to more poems and more novels.” Works of literature exist for the sake of “the rich possibility of interpretation — the happy resistance of the text to ever be fully known and mastered — is one of the most exhilarating products of human culture.” We are told that “Literature is neither a fixed category nor a predictable trajectory for an individual work, author or mode”; that “literary analysis … does not damage but tends to strengthen the status of the texts being analyzed”; that poetry is alive and well — and that it is as likely to come from below as from above, from the streets and the mikes to the iPods — and indeed, from the political energies of poetry — as it is from, say, the appointing of state poets laureate or the composition, once every four years, of a made-to-order inaugural poem.
It’s hard to believe there are teachers of literature who have not deployed such sentiments, making Garber’s assertions seem glib and not particularly fresh. It is a struggle to understand who Garber imagines to be her audience for this book. What she describes as the contribution of literary studies, “a close and passionate attention to the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action,” seems unlikely to convince anyone to move literature from the periphery to the center of American culture. If toothless, however truthful, sonorities about the complexity, difficulty, and wonder of literature could restore literary studies or literary reading to cultural prominence, no doubt this would have happened by now. But Garber is right to suggest that literary critics should do what they do best, and she is at her own best when she takes this advice.
Garber is, after all, a significant interpreter of the works of William Shakespeare, including two wonderful recent titles, Shakespeare After All (2004) and Shakespeare and Modern Culture (2008), which perfectly marry her passion for literature and her encyclopedic cultural attentiveness. Shakespeare After All may indeed be the best general overview of Shakespeare’s works written by a scholar for a general audience published in decades. Shakespeare and Modern Culture is equally lively and continues the story scholars have been telling since Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary about the ways in which Shakespeare’s works live on, transform, and tangle themselves up in contexts far distant from the Renaissance stage. Patronizing the Arts made a more successful transition from the interpretation of art to arts advocacy, but perhaps The Use and Abuse of Literature falters over an even more intractable problem. These are dark times for the advocacy of literature and the humanities. Contemporary disdain for the literary, as Garber points out, has a complex history, and even a casual reading of this legacy reveals that both sides used to deploy arguments of extraordinary intelligence and eloquence. No more. As interest in literature wanes, so too, it seems, does the capacity to make or understand invigorating arguments.
Helen Vendler has spent her career as a champion of the critic’s traditional role, dedicated to evaluation, taxonomy, and ever-closer close readings. Her studies of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Keats’s odes, and the poetry of Stevens, Yeats, and Herbert have been extremely influential — as were, at one point, her reviews of contemporary poetry. The last decade has seen Vendler swerve from reviewing back to reevaluations of canonical poets, which has resulted in the publication of an astounding six books in the last seven years, covering Yeats, Milton, Keats, Eliot, Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Herbert, Ashbery, and others.
Vendler’s latest study investigates poems often, if not always, written to address the twilight of life. Vendler begins by relating an Irish funerary custom:
When you find yourself bedridden, with death approaching, you rouse yourself with effort and, for the last time, make the rounds of your territory, North, East, South, West, as you contemplate the places and things that have constituted your life.
This custom, verified with brief reference to W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, becomes a pattern for poets: “In many lyrics, poets have taken, if not a last look, a very late look at the interface at which death meets life, and my topic is the strange binocular style they must invent to render the reality contemplated in that last look.” Vendler is interested in “the problem of style” specifically with respect to the poem “that wishes to be equally fair to both life and death at once.”
Such propositions have the air of the reasonable. Death is a frequent concern of poets, and interest in twilight years and vespertinal stylistic correlatives are quite familiar, from decades-old efforts to grapple with the odd late plays of William Shakespeare to Edward Said’s marvelous On Late Style. Does Vendler’s categorization of poems as having a compellingly and classifiably “binocular” view of life and death add to our understanding?
Vendler begins by articulating the place of binocularity in Wallace Stevens’s “The Hermitage at the Center,” which she claims is a poem “that seems unintelligible as one reads it line by line” until one realizes that the poem “contains, as we eventually realize two poems that have been interdigitated — one of death, one of life, converging in a joint coda.” That is to say, Stevens writes a perfectly binocular poem if one rearranges the lines and stanzas to reveal it. What if the poem is difficult to read precisely because cordoning off life from death constitutes a certain kind of mistake that poets encounter when they anticipate their own deaths? Later, in her chapter on Stevens, she splits his poem “Burghers of Petty Death” into two columns, “Grief” and “Indifference,” dividing the appropriate lines between them. Such readings seem clumsy rather than close.
One could argue that in Last Looks, Last Books, Vendler is doing what she’s always done in reading closely and generalizing broadly. Many have benefited from her characteristically clear-sighted and capacious reading. I keep her valuable and thorough The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets close at hand when teaching those lyrics. The appeal of her method is that she makes poems seem immediately accessible, poems that might otherwise seem distant. But a particular burden is imposed by the weight of such generality: propositions about literary works so easily summarized often lack nuance. Vendler’s readings of Stevens’s last efforts in The Rock and Merrill’s A Scattering of Salts do indeed shed light on these important and recalcitrant works, but Bishop, on the other hand, is less congenial to Vendler’s concerns.
Vendler is most interesting when she is tempted to exceed her own paradigms. Of Plath, she writes, “She was always a posthumous person, but it took her years to acquire a posthumous style.” Perhaps this was the term Vendler was looking for all along, and perhaps had she set down her binoculars long enough, her deft reading might have added to a rich and ongoing conversation about those characteristically elusive twilight creations of visionary artists.
The major contribution of Marjorie Perloff’s writing has been to take seriously, and read rigorously, kinds of writing unlikely ever to appear in the writing of Bloom, Vendler, or indeed most mainstream literary critics. Perloff has always been more Pound than Eliot, more futurist than a formalist of Vendler’s stripe. Unlike Bloom, she has largely refrained from forging terminologies or systems of her own, but has worked hard to understand the way poetry is enmeshed in philosophy, painting and other arts, histories of aesthetic movements, and in various comparative, international contexts.
Perloff also, refreshingly, doesn’t blame the internet for the decline of culture or the closing of the American mind; she doesn’t even think it’s the death of poetry. Hierophant of the experimental and the avant-garde, Perloff finds method in what some might see as the madness of late 20th-/early 21st-century developments like concrete poetry, Oulipian constraint, flarf (i.e. poetry made from, or written in imitation of, email spam), and even the conceptual reframing of traffic and weather reports. The premise of her latest book, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, is quite simple: the anchoring terms that have made a certain idea of the literary possible — genius, greatness, and originality — have failed to offer ways of understanding recent literary innovation. This problem only increases with poetries rooted in citation, recycling, and other complex forms of mediation typical of the new digital age. Perloff is not blind to tradition; she characterizes these new poetries as an extension of the modernist avant-garde project. And while she rarely reaches as far back as Bloom into literary history, she does encourage us to reconsider notions like originality and creativity, which were not literary values in the times of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare.
The new book revisits the terrain of Perloff’s earlier Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1990), which she wrote before the advent of the internet. Twenty years later, it is possible to study writing produced “in an environment of hyperinformation, an environment, moreover where we are all authors.” This is a world in which the mechanisms that reinforce ideas of original authorship are often lacking:
There is usually no editor, no peer review, no critique for which one might be held accountable by anyone outside one’s particular community. In this climate, what Hart Crane called the poet’s “cognate word” begins to take a back seat to what can be done with other people’s words.
Unoriginal Genius’s introduction identifies two ways of thinking about poetry embedded in the writing of T.S. Eliot. There is, of course, the lyricism and “originality” of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the Four Quartets. The irrefutable beauty and meditative splendor of the latter’s “Burnt Norton” comes to mind:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Yet Perloff emphasizes the treasure trove of early negative reviews of The Waste Land, finding in their objections to the poem the parameters of a modernist style characterized by a maddening collision of overhead, borrowed, or quoted speech, dense literary allusion, and the use of many languages, as in passages like this:
London Bridge is falling down falling down
Poi s’accuse nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon — O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Acquitaine à la tour abolie
while the other deploys an extreme amount of citation and interpolation of found text, including citations from other languages. This latter tendency moves in the direction of visual poetry, increasingly a feature of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Perloff contends that while even Language poetry — the “radical artifice” of an earlier historical moment — sustained an investment in verbal originality, the poetics of the new century surrenders invention entirely for “appropriation, elaborate constraint, visual and sound composition, and reliance on intertextuality.”
Citation, concretism, and multilingualism lie at the heart of Perloff’s view of innovative literature today. But before diving into recent poetries, Perloff explores an earlier formation of such strategies in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a massive, unfinished, encyclopedic accumulation of entries reflecting on the development of shopping arcades in Paris that altered the architecture of the city and its commerce. Reading Benjamin as an innovatively citational poet, Perloff finds anticipations of the unoriginal genius of recent literature:
A single page of the Arcades thus gives us citations of popular song from the Napoleonic era, lyric poem, documentary prose (the travel book), and authorial commentary, as well as literary narrative. And finally — we are now at the bottom of the first A page — the list:
Names of magasins de nouveautés: La Fille d’Honneur, La Vestale, Le Page Inconstant, Le Masque de Fer, Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, La Chaumière allemande, Au Mamelouk, Le Coin de la Rue — names that mostly come from successful vaudevilles. ¤ Mythology ¤ A glover: Au Ci-Devant Jeune Homme. A confectioner: Aux Armes de Werther. (A1, 2)
Here the seemingly sober catalog of names looks ahead to the cataloging of such recent long poems as Kenneth Goldsmith’s No. 111 2.7 93-10.20.96, with its constraint-generated alphabetically organized syllable lists.
Perloff then takes up and reevaluates concrete poetry, adapting from William Marx and Antoine Compagnon the idea of an artistic arrière-garde, or “rear guard,” to explain an efflorescence of poetic strategies in the mid-20th century. “When an avant-garde movement is no longer a novelty,” she argues, “it is the role of the arrière-garde to complete its mission, to ensure its success.” This rear guard “is neither a throwback to traditional forms — in this case, the first-person lyric or lyric sequence — nor what we used to call postmodernism. Rather, it is revival of the avant-garde model — but with a difference.” Thus Brazilian concrete poetry of the mid-20th century not only reactivates the modernist avant-garde of Pound’s ideograms, but also paves the way for later poetries. Other chapters take up Charles Bernstein’s engagement with Benjamin, Susan Howe’s use of found text and foregrounding of materiality in The Midnight, multilingualism in new poetries, and the conceptualist poetry of Kenneth Goldsmith’sTraffic, which reproduces, minute by minute, New York metropolitan area traffic reports from the longest running all news radio station in the U.S., 1010 WINS.
It’s hard not to get caught up in Perloff’s zeal; I read her writing with real eagerness precisely because she seems certain that literature is alive, well, and constantly changing. Yet I also can’t help wondering if the resistance to originality and genius and the championing of what Goldsmith himself calls uncreative writing isn’t really a way of succumbing to a new and overwhelming culture of information saturation rather than engaging with it. If we learned anything from Derrida, it’s that the negation of a thing does not allow one to escape from it. Moreover, doesn’t some of this work that refutes originality still claim the prerogatives of original authorship? Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic is published under his name and not, say, anonymously. Just because “originality” and “genius” seem especially ossified does not mean that there is no longer a place for them. More genuine originality might be just what the doctor ordered, as long as that notion of originality is capacious enough to include innovative forms of unoriginality.
Bloom sinks into disenchantment with the Disinformation Age. Vendler remains unconcerned or even oblivious to it. Garber sees risk and transformation, but she never seems clear which way the winds will blow. Perloff, though, is eager to sail off into a new century full of promise and opportunity. The ever-more affordable means of digital distribution suggest that anxieties about the death of literature, literary reading, and literary studies may be premature, and the best of our critics have always tried to engage the spirit of the age rather than merely bemoaning its symptoms. Perloff’s intelligent enthusiasm is perhaps the greatest ally of the “literary” as it exists right now.
Still, if these books teach us anything it is that the work that literature does, and that literary critics can do, is frustratingly slow and accumulates gradually, even as rapidity and instantaneity are increasingly important cultural values with which literature is often out of sync. If anything, these icons of literary studies are monuments to a form of persistence that unfolds over lifetimes, and that may be the only hope literature has.