Tag Archives: Books

‘It fill the sky to beat on an airy shell’

Long neglected, Léonie Adams wrote a chiseled verse that, published at modernism’s peak, hearkened to a Pre-Raphaelite splendor. Her friend Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower” bore a heavy debt to Adams’ “The Bell Tower,” posted below.

I have seen, O desolate one, the voice has its tower,
The voice also, builded at secret cost,
In temple of precious tissue. Not silent then
Forever – casting silence in your hour.

There marble boys are leant from the light throat,
Thick locks that hang with dew and eyes dewlashed,
Dazzled with morning, angels of the wind,
With ear a-point to the enchanted note.

And these at length shall tip the hanging bell,
And first the sound must gather in deep bronze,
Till, rarer than ice, purer than a bubble of gold,
It fill the sky to beat on an airy shell.

Happy November.

Where the Sontag Falls: A reconsideration

I was one of those readers attracted to Susan Sontag not long after she published her widely reviled squib about the 9-11 attacks. Men in their twenties often perform their steeliness, thus the implacability of her denouncement of sentimental responses made me wonder where Sontag had been in my life. Bully for me — you get Sontag in your twenties or you don’t at all. Continue reading

Harold Bloom — RIP

From Sam Tanenhaus’ review of Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence:

The revelation came in Bloom’s “misreadings” — the linkages he found. He made the reader see how John Ashbery really had emerged from Wallace Stevens, just as Stevens had from Whitman; that Browning harbored the ghost of Shelley; that Tennyson issued from Keats. The point was not that “father” and “son” sounded alike. Much of the time they didn’t. The affinities occurred outside the familiar realm of echoes and allusions, of intended references.

Bloom’s theory, he explains in his new book, was the offshoot of his own reading habits, principally his freakish capacity for memorization. He discovered it in childhood, and it never left him. In the early 1960s, he “memorized at first hearing” W. S. Merwin’s “Departure’s Girl-Friend,” a poem of some 40 lines, after Merwin gave a reading at Yale. And even now “I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory.”

When I met Harold Bloom at a Miami Book Fair event in 2000. during which he promoted How To Read and Why, I asked him to inscribe his favorite verse from his favorite poem in my copy of The Western Canon. I expected a Wallace Stevens excerpt, and he did not disappoint. The bulbous eyeballs, as ponderous as a turtle’s, oozed shut; the head rolled backwards; and the Great Man sort of exhaled the final line from “Sunday Morning:” “Downward to darkness, on extended wings.” Disappointed by its predictability, I quoted my favorite (“The fire burns as the novel taught it how”), buried in “The Novel,” one of his least recognized poems. His head shook as if at a grad student who will not accept the final answer proffered him. Later, thirty minutes into his lecture, he left the crowd spellbound with a recitation of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” — from memory. A performance in the classic sense: Bloom’s stentorian bullfrog tones hurling the lines at us (I HAVE BECOME A NAME FOR ALWAYS ROAMING WITH A HUNGRY HEART!). At its conclusion no one dared applaud; our clothes were soaked.

In graduate school, I learned from professors to regard Bloom as a sort of Falstaff of lit crit, which, of course, would have tickled him. Too late. They disliked his facility; he had made a show of Reading Everything. He wrote, or, like a seventeenth-century Flemish painter, used apprentices to write expansive prefaces for his Modern Critical Interpretations series on Austen, James, Conrad, Roth, et al, even for his enemies. A Yale man to his bones, he scorned the uncluttered but jargon-infested minds of his colleagues. A proselytizer who reveled in camp (he called me “dear”) and argued for the centrality of Melville, Lionel Johnson, and Hart Crane’s queerness in their strongest work, Bloom loved trolling the students in what he naggingly called the School of Resentment, a portmanteau for writer and scholars who dared to write in explicit terms about their gender, race, and sexuality. He preached the virtues of promiscuous, happy reading — of experimenting for the purpose of developing what he called interiority — but recoiled at any hint of a tract which demanded special pleading. To meet Bloom’s Freud-indebted theory about anxiety of influence was to transcend the personal; great writers like Spenser, Milton, Austen, James, and Woolf, Shakespeare above all, finished an incomprehensible confidence game whereby their iambics and prose rhythms osmosized lusts and ambitions.

Call it a not so clever reapplication of the New Criticism that Bloom professed to dismiss. Or call it a kind of conservative originalism: the poetry is what I say it is. Asserting oneself as the I AM distinguishes the great artist from what he called “period pieces,” the unforgiving category into which he cast Robert Lowell, Philip Larkin, George Orwell, and Sylvia Plath (he valued Shelley over the other Romantics). As he aged he conceived ever more novel ways of shitting on Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker; he went so far as to call the Rich-edited 1996 volume of The Best American Poetry  “of a badness not to be believed.” The critic who in the same introduction referred to himself as a “lifelong aesthete” was credibly accused by Naomi Wolf of sexual harassment. A mind that wrestled with the complex ironies in Thomas Mann’s fiction could not imagine artistry that fashioned an essential text out what he called grievance. Nor could he, I suppose, handle grievance in life. 

At the library last weekend I recognized the pull he still exerted over me when I pulled The Anatomy of Influence (2002) from the shelf to read what he’d written about the late W.S. Merwin, whose poetry I was slow to appreciate. As usual he prized the stanzas in which Merwin flexed his he-man muscles and crushed the ancestors who threatened his aesthetic realization. But I often agreed with his excerpts, and I didn’t disagree now. Harold Bloom loved James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, but too often he wheezed like another Allan Bloom. Those hardcover essay collections,  with the cover sketches of the novelists and poets that intimidated me in high school and college, will remain on shelves so long as libraries exist; but the young care not about performing their ablutions before stumbling over something called transcendence, not when they can read “The Mask of Anarchy,” Three Guineas, and The Color Purple for the pleasure they instill and the righteousness they inspire. Sighing heavily against changes for which his capacious erudition didn’t train him, Bloom was an Old Testament prophet rather than a critic, an Ozymandias whose mighty works may crumble into desert dust.

Ranking Henry James novels

A quote in Harriet the Spy, the opening sentence of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady — it began then. I liked the English firmness of his name, the specificity of the title. Not until two summers later, a month before starting high school, did I investigate. Its subtleties may have eluded me, but I was old enough for its crash course on the ash and ruin of a loveless marriage and how malefactors sheathe their contempt in beautiful sentences; the collection of a rich supporting gallery helped too. Over the years I picked off one novel after another, often returning for seconds and thirds, The Princess Casamassima most recently. Only his debut Watch and Ward and the putatively minor late period novel The Outcry remain untouched. Continue reading