Friday, April 16, 2004

Harold Bloom at B&N: 'scorched earth' policies, and Tom O'Bedlam

UPDATE/CORRECTION: A helpful reader tracked down the source of the "scorched earth" line Bloom used. Apparently it is from a hostile review, from the Virginia Quarterly Review. (I haven't confirmed the existence of the review.) However, since the phrase was not after all unprovoked, I now understand better where Bloom was coming from.

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I got to see Harold Bloom at the Yale Barnes & Noble yesterday. It was actually a bit of an accident, as I had simply gone into their coffeeshop to read some photocopies I had just made in the library. (His new book, The Best Poems in the English Language, is huge and expensive -- $34.95 -- but luckily Amazon has it at a good discount. Here is a Review from the Toronto Globe and Mail.)

(As a side note: there is something surreal about the whole idea of Harold Bloom, the doyen of poetry, reading at a Barnes & Noble [ok, it's also the official Yale University Bookstore]. But that cognitive dissonance is a story for another day.)

Bloom was standing at a podium, with about 70 people crammed into a space meant for half as many. I was forced to stand at the back. Bloom's voice is very soft when he isn't reciting, so it was difficult to hear (judging from the number of craned necks, this would have been a problem anywhere in the room). The last time I saw him speak was at a graduate conference at the University of Virginia in 1999. There he was seated, but he spoke at a microphone and read his lecture on King Lear with vigor and theatricality. Here he was standing, unamplified, and he reserved his theatrical voice for the poems themselves, so many of his outside comments about the poets or poetry were barely audible.

It was to me unfortunate that Bloom started the reading with a preemptive strike, saying that the selection reflected his "scorched earth policy" toward "black and women poets." To my knowledge, no one has yet criticized him for this particular selection. But the real question is: Why "scorched earth"? The belletristic phrase implies that the culture wars are still in full swing (maybe they are), and suggests that Bloom doesn't like these poets because they are black and/or female, and not simply because he doesn't find the work of the particular poets in the canon who fit the category so compelling. Since Bloom insists on aesthetic quality as the only criterion for canonizationin in the preface to this book, as in many public statements since the publication of The Western Canon, one wonders at his evaluation here on the basis of social identity (gender/race) rather than poetic genius. (He might have said: "The choice of poems in this anthology reflects my scorched earth policy towards bad poets.)

Now, on issues of aesthetic value I have relatively little in common with Bloom. My "Best Poems in the English Language" would have Agha Shahid Ali, Nas, and Harryette Mullen, and probably a lot less Spenser. But it seems to me that multiculturalism's attack on elitism sometimes forecloses the pleasures that elite culture (i.e., the Canon) can offer. Bloom's sacralization of Shakespeare, Shelley, et al. is misplaced, but there's nothing reactionary or anti-critical in knowing one's Shelley (esp. considering his life & politics). Indeed, close attention to serious literature can offer many rewards, not all of them visible from the outset. This, in a nutshell, is the attitude I take when I teach Joyce, Woolf, Shaw, Yeats, Eliot, and Lawrence, which I happily do every year.

In short: I may not have rushed to buy Bloom's book, but I stayed to hear him read.

(And what about the Naomi Wolf controversy? Not a whiff of it at the reading. I don't know if I have anything to add to what has already been said, but a thread is starting over at Critical Mass on the sexual harassment sequence in Coetzee's Disgrace. Bloom is mentioned.)

Which brings me to the poems themselves.

Bloom read aloud some interesting and wonderful poems. He began with the anonymous renaissance writer known as Tom O'Bedlam ("Tom O'Bedlam's Song"; a modernized version here), by John Cleveland ("Marc Antony"), by Percy Bysshe Shelley (from "Triumph of Life"), by Keats ("This Living Hand"), by Thomas Meadows ("Song of Stygian Nights"), and by Walt Whitman (didn't get the title), among others.

I found the Tom O'Bedlam the most surprisingly moving of the group, perhaps because it is so wild and free:

Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys
Bedlam boys are bonny
For they all go bare and they live by the air
And they want no drink nor money.

The poem is, as the rapper KRS-One might put it, "criminal minded":

I went down to Satan's kitchen
To break my fast one morning
And there I got souls piping hot
All on the spit a-turning.

There I took a cauldron
Where boiled ten thousand harlots
Though full of flame I drank the same
To the health of all such varlets. [varlet=whore]

My staff has murdered giants
My bag a long knife carries
To cut mince pies from children's thighs
For which to feed the fairies.

No gypsy, slut or doxy
Shall win my mad Tom from me
I'll weep all night, with stars I'll fight
The fray shall well become me.