Friday, March 09, 2007

And you read your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost -- a Poetry Friday post

So many poets. So very many poems. And that's just in the current anthology I've been wandering in and out of, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, "Selected and with Commentary by Harold Bloom."

It looks like this, only instead of bright green, the color in the box on the cover (and on the spine) is a periwinkle blue:

It's heavy enough to hold a screen door open in a stiff wind, just as any good anthology should be. And it's full of wonderful poems by wonderful poets, although one could argue about how much emphasis various poets are given. For instance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, considered by many to be the finest female poet in Victorian England, has precisely one poem. She is one of eleven female poets in this book containing the work of 104 poets. Nice to see that just over 10% of the poets represented were female, I suppose. The poets are organized by year of birth, from the early years of English poetry (Chaucer, 1343) to 1899 (the birth year of Léonie Adams and Hart Crane).

But before you get to the poems themselves, you come to "The Art of Reading Poetry", described by the publisher as "a substantial and significant introductory essay" which "presents Bloom's critical reflections on more than a half century devoted to reading, teaching, and writing about the literary achievement he loves best, and conveys his passionate concern for how a poem should be interpreted and appreciated." (Quoted material here taken from the "From the Publisher" bit at the Barnes & Noble website.)

I've not met Mr. Bloom (nor do I believe it likely I ever shall), but I can tell you now that if he teaches his courses at Yale with the same "passionate concern" that infuses the essay, then his classes must all be stunned into inaction by their recognition that they are woefully ignorant in all the important ways one apparently must be in order to actually read and truly appreciate poetry. Their startled sense of profound ignorance is, perhaps, lessened by their appreciation of Bloom's supreme confidence in his own correctness and, dare I say, genius.

If you're thinking I found his essay to be a tad pretentious, nay, pompous, then you are correct, and have earned yourself 20 points. Take another 20 points if you believe I'm going to give concrete examples, because here they are:

The salient points of the essay are as follows:

1. "Poetry essentially is figurative langage, concentrated so that its form is both expressive and evocative. Figuration is a departure from the literal, and the form of a great poem itself can be a trope ("turning") or figure."
He then tells us that the "four fundamental tropes" are "irony, synecdoche, metonymy, and metaphor." As if we didn't already know that. Or, more to the point, as if anyone but a cloistered intellectual would understand what he meant. Seriously? Just because one knows the big words doesn't require one to use them.

If he'd said that the four techniques most commly used in writing poetry were irony, symbolism, and metaphor, more readers would understand him. And yeah, I boiled it down to three things, and here's why: synecdoche and metonymy are both forms of symbolism, where one word or phrase stands in for a different concept. In synecdoche, a more inclusive term is used to describe a lesser inclusive term, or vice versa (e.g., "law" instead of "policeman", or "head" instead of "cattle"). In metonymy, "an attribute or commonly associated feature is used to name or designate something, as in The pen is mightier than the sword." My thanks to the Webster's II New College Dictionary for making clear what Mr. Bloom chose to obfuscate. Don't believe me? Here's his take on metonymy: "In metonymy, contiguity replaces resemblance, since the name or prime aspect of anything is sufficient to indicate it, provided it is near in space to what serves as a substitute." Even knowing the definition of metonymy, I'm hard-pressed to sort out Mr. Bloom's definition.

Moving on:

2. "Language, to a considerable extent, is concealed figuration". With him so far? Poetry is figurative language, and language is concealed figuration. Thus, poetry is figurative concealed figuration. Thereafter follows a discussion on the clever use of words that have their roots in other languages, all of which he presupposes the particular poets were fully aware of (an assumption that I, as a practicing poet, find questionable). Let's move on.

3. "Greatness in poetry depends upon splendor of figurative language and on cognitive power" Seriously? That made sense, and I can't even say I disagree with the assertion. What follows, however, is a presumption by Bloom that poets build their poems based on the memory of prior poems, whether consciously or subconsciously. In the particular case Bloom cites where Shakespeare echoes and mocks and/or elaborates on something Christopher Marlowe said, he's undoubtedly correct. But let's see what comes next:

4. "The art of reading poetry begins with mastering allusiveness in particular poems, from the very simple to the very complex." Here's where his theory gets interesting, and, quite possibly, runs amok. Because he presupposes that, in many cases, if he finds a phrase or idea in two poems, the latter must have been alluding to the one written earlier. Which assumes that all poets are terribly well-read, and not only that they've read prior poems, but that they invoke the themes, ideas, and words within them on purpose.

That may be the case from time to time, but it's almost certainly not the case all of the time. Further, the intellectual posturing behind it suggests that in order to appreciate a poem, you must be well-read in poetry through the ages, so as to understand and appreciate the subtleties that Bloom is now reading into the texts, whether they were intended or not.

5. Allusion isn't the only strand in the relationship between later and earlier poems. The discussion in this section of the essay is actually about the importance of voice to a poem, with examples from nine poets, all examining a common theme.

6. "What makes one poem better than another?" Now here's an interesting question. Only Bloom sidesteps it a bit, asserting that only the truly great poems are in this book he's put together. He does, however, offer some examples of good and bad poems, and although he doesn't say so clearly, here's what I take away from it: some of what makes a particular poem good or bad has to do with its identity with a particular writer. A poem that emulates someone else or is imitative is more likely to be bad than one that is a wholly original creation. Thus, a poem by Edgar Allen Poe that is imitative of Byron isn't good -- not only because it's derivative, but also because he uses mopey, self-pitying words. A poem by Emerson, that foretells the future writings of Robert Frost, however, is seen as good: it is confident, it has layers of meaning and subtlety.

He also tracks a revision of a poem called "Luke Havergal" by Edwin Arlington Robinson. In the revised version, simple description ("The wind will moan, the leaves will whisper some --/Whisper of her, and strike you as they fall") is replaced with metaphorical language that also evokes a famous poem by an earlier poet ("The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,/Like flying words, will strike you as they fall.")

7. "'Inevitability,' unavoidable phrasing, . . .a crucial attribute of great poetry." I suppose this is one of those "a place for everything and everything in its place" sort of arguments. Bloom doesn't argue his point here; instead, he walks the reader through a reading of Hart Crane's Voyages II, which he asserts is one of the "great but truly difficult poems of the twentieth century." Bloom concludes that the poem makes enormous cognitive demands on the reader, which are compensated by its "'inevitability' in phrasing, measure, and rhythm." Because the language is so wonderful and complex, it must be a great poem, or so runs the argument.

8. ". . .poetry at its greatest -- in Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake -- has one broad and essential difficulty: it is the true mode for expanding our consciousness."

To sum up, Mr. Bloom is a huge fan of poetry who delights in reading meanings into poems. Not just the meanings of metaphors and whether the color red is symbolic of blood or revolution, but also the meanings of particular words (by examining their etymology and use throughout history) and, if he finds it, allusions (intentional or not) to the works of other poets.

Bloom's conclusion is that poetry, and in particular, great poetry, is the best way to expand one's consciousness. Now, THAT I understand. And applaud. I just wish that more of the essay had been in language that is accessible to the masses, and not in intellectual snooty-speak. While the language and tone he uses to describe the elements and interpretation of poetry reflect an unnecessarily elitist slant, I believe (or at least hope) that it reflects Mr. Bloom's long isolation in the higher tiers of academia, and not a belief that poetry is only for the well-educated portion of society.

For a more restrictive view on the subject of what poetry should be promoted or read, check out what another Yale alumnus, poet J. D. McClatchy, editor of The Yale Review, said about the efforts of the Poetry Foundation to promote awareness and accessibility of poetry. Here's what he said in an article in The New Yorker:

"The aura of mediocrity has settled like a fog over the business of the foundation. The new awards, for example. It's not the winners who trouble me, it's the categories. Children's poetry? Funny poetry? If those are a way for the foundation to carve a niche for itself, it's a shallow one and too low down on the wall. It signals a lack of ambition and seriousness that may ultimately be fatal. Ironically, they risk marginalizing themselves by appealing to people who think of the 'Prairie Home Companion' as high art. It's the culture of sidebars, poems suitable for the fronts of tote bags. The foundation seems to want to promote poetry, the way you'd promote cereal or a sitcom."

And yeah, that McClatchy quote pissed me off. It seems to mean that if lots of people can appreciate a poem, it must be crap. Or that if it's a poem for children, or it's funny, that it must be crap. And that ain't necessarily so. But that is, perhaps, a topic for another day.

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