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Monday, May 9, 2011

Life-Cycle of the Poet-in-the Poet: Harold Bloom and the Writer’s Struggle for Existence

In an age which treats literature as a pretext for studying other things like ideology, culture and society, Harold Bloom (b.1930), one of the most ‘original’ and fascinating literary theorists of the later half of the twentieth century,  provocatively places literature at the centre of his theorizing. In many ways he reminds us of Northrop Frye’s dictum that literature alone is the primary context for literature. However, unlike Frye or Eliot, Bloom often collapses, in Wildean manner, the distinction between ‘critical writing’ and ‘creative writing’.

Bloom revives the Eliotian theme of the relationship between ‘tradition’ and ‘individual talent’ in a dramatic manner, this time, using Nietzsche, Freud, Vico, Emerson and Oscar Wilde.  He aims to ‘de-idealize’ this relationship on the one hand ( “more than ever, contemporary poets insist that they are telling the truth in their work, and more than ever they tell continuous lies, particularly about their relations to one another, and most consistently about their relations to their precursors” )and propose an approach to practical criticism on the other. In Bloom’s theory, tradition is not a benign and empowering presence but something of a threat and a challenge to new writers in the west. For Bloom, one of the functions of criticism is to make a good poet’s work even more difficult for him to perform…… as all that a critic, as a critic, can give poets is the deadly encouragement that never ceases to remind them of how heavy their inheritance is.” A exceptionally prolific writer, some of his most significant books are The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1976), Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages (1994), How to Read and Why (2001), How to Read Poetry (2005) and more recently The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (2011).

In ‘Poetic Origins and Final Phases’ which is the first chapter of A Map of Misreading (1975), Bloom points out that the relationship between the poets ,or,  in his words ‘the poets-in-the-poets’,  is that of rivalry and hostility, as they all are trying to achieve ‘immortality’ by securing a place in the canon. Bloom says, ‘poetic strength comes only from a triumphant wrestling with the dead, and from even more triumphant solipsism.’

What makes this rivalry very bitter is the fact that the new poet (‘ephebe’) starts writing poetry by reading his favorite poets only to discover that his poetry is not really his own original work but only a ‘response’ to the works of earlier masters. Thus he suffers from the ‘anxiety of influence’. His love for poetry of the masters which ‘inspired’ him to write in the first place becomes an obstruction in achieving his own place in the canon. The new writer suffers from the ‘burden of belatedness’. His love turns into hatred. The struggle (‘agon’) of the ‘ephebe’, and the precursor poet according to Bloom, is analogous to the Freudian notion of oedipal conflict. “Initial love for the precursors’ poetry is transformed rapidly enough into revisionary strife, without which individuation is not possible”, Bloom notes. The birth of the poet-in-the-poet or the process by which a poet is reborn as a poet is what Bloom terms as ‘poetic incarnation’. The poetic incarnation, in Bloom’s view, results from poetic influence. Bloom sees influence as ‘the giving that famishes the taker’. This influence is ‘catastrophic’ and dualistic as it starts out as love and ends up as conflict. Bloom note that this influence has almost nothing to do with verbal resemblance between two poets or even stylistic resemblance. In strong poets, it works in the depths, “as all love antithetically works”.

The link, the antithetical dependency, between the precursors work and ephebe’s own is that of ‘misprision’.  If he is a weak poet, then either he sacrifices his talent or he sacrifices his originality, but if he is a ‘strong poet’ he struggles against the overwhelming influence of the precursor poet in order to give birth to his own voice. The ‘ephebe’ ‘misreads’ his master to produce his own works. The ‘ephebe’ deploys six ‘revisionary ratios’ or strategies to misread the precursor’s poetry. Taking a shot at Wordsworthian notion of poetry, Bloom points out ‘A poet is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.’

In ‘Poetic Origins and Final Phases’,  Bloom allegorically and metaphorically notes that the poets are born by the side of ocean- the ocean of already written poems which is the feast that ‘famishes the taker’. Then, they move onwards to ‘the land by a drying up of the oceanic sense’. True poets are born because of ‘desiccation combined with unusually strong oceanic sense’ and poetry like sexual love, is regressive – a drive back to ocean. In contrast to the mass of smaller and weaker poets, the strong poet has in his first voice, ‘what is most central in the precursors’ voices. Bloom notes that towards the end of their careers as poets, the strongest poets become obsessed with origins and return to the origins in the end. To make his point, Bloom analyzes the tropes of ocean and desiccation in the strong poets like Shelley, Wordsworth, Swinburne, Beddoes, Auden, Hardy and Wallace Stevens and demonstrates how older Hardy and Stevens returned to Shelleyian vision, their ‘poetic origin’ towards the end of their lives, and hence are the strongest English poets of the twentieth century.

Bloom simplifies his argument by saying, ‘poems…are neither about ‘subjects’ nor about ‘themselves’. They are necessarily about other poems; a poem is a response to a poem, as a poet is response to a poet, or a person to his parent. Trying to write a poem takes the poet back to the origins of what a poem first was for him, and so takes the poet back beyond the pleasure principle to the decisive initial encounter and response that began him….Only a poet challenges a poet as a poet, and so only a poet makes a poet. To the poet –in-the-poet, a poem is always the other man, the precursor, and so a poem is always a person, always the person of one’s Second Birth. To live, the poet must misinterpret the father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is re-writing of the father. But who is the poetic father? The voice of the other, of the daimon, is always speaking in one; the voice that cannot die because already it has survived death-the dead poet lives in one. In the last phase of strong poets, they attempt to join the undying by living in the dead poets who are already alive in them. This late Return of the Dead recalls us, as readers, to a recognition of the original motive for the catastrophe of poetic incarnation…….Literary, poems are refusals of mortality. Even poem therefore has two makers: the precursor and the ephebe’s rejected mortality.’

 Harold Bloom, ‘Poetic Origins and Final Phases’, in David Lodge and Nigel Wood ed. Modern Criticism and Theory’, 2005 (fourth reprint)

David Lodge and Nigel Wood ed. Modern Criticism and Theory, Delhi: Pearson Education, 2005, 235-247

For more on ‘revisionary ratios’ click here