Harold Bloom: On the Playing Field of Poetry

Harold Bloom, in conversation about his famous Anxiety of Influence, slips so comfortably into baseball and jazz metaphors (“tropes,” in the lingo) that I’m wondering if it’s time for the wall chart version of his literary argument — something like David Marriott’s Periodic Table of Jazz Pianists. Or perhaps an interactive game, or Wiki, drawing on a poetic equivalent of Bill James‘ reinvention of baseball statistics. “A Sabremetrics of literature, you mean?” quoth Bloom. Yes, poetry’s answer to fantasy baseball, I say, with players named Shelley, Keats, Dickinson and Ashberry.

How different, I’m asking him, was Mickey Mantle’s relation in the Yankees’ centerfield to the myth of Joe DiMaggio on the same turf (or Johnny Damon’s relation more recently to the memory of Mickey Mantle) from the creative tension between American poets Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955) and Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)? “No different,” judges Professor Bloom. Or Paul Gonsalves sitting in Ben Webster’s tenor saxophone chair in the Ellington band in the 1950s? “Absolutely no different.” Or Adele, the contemporary young British songstress with the Ella Fitzgerald intonation?

Influence, as the Sage of New Haven expounds it again in The Anatomy of Influence, is a process that begins in love and extends itself in a certain amount of narcissism and robust self-investment. It describes part of Milton’s link to Shakespeare, Nabokov’s to James Joyce, Charlie Parker’s to Johnny Hodges and Louis Armstrong, and Carl Yastrzemski’s to Ted Williams.

I am confessing that I preferred the original title for the new book: The Living Labyrinth, because it so elegantly represented not literature so much as the surging search-engine of Bloom’s overstocked head. Influence anxiety, as he likes to say, exists not between the artists but between their poems endlessly bumping into each other in readers’ memories, none vaster than his own. “Let’s face it, Harold,” I had said to him most of two years ago, “the living labyrinth is you!” He answered with a long laugh, and then: “A nice trope, my boy.”

There are more flashes of autobiography than usual in this our umpteenth conversation, on the eve of Bloom’s 81st birthday. It touches me somehow that baseball keeps popping up as a sort of alternative home of the Bloomian imagination. He’s remembering the Bronx in the summer of 1936 when Bloom’s uncle, “the splendid Sam Kaplan,” took the 6-year-old boy to Yankee Stadium, and the rookie Joseph Paul DiMaggio streaked like a gazelle onto the Bloom horizon. The inspiration is not forgotten. Bloom loves (who doesn’t?) the famous DiMaggio line when asked why he’d nearly killed himself chasing down a fly ball in a game that had already been decided: “because there might be a kid in those stands who hasn’t seen me play before.” Bloom will teach another ten years at Yale, he hopes — till he’s carried out, in any event; and he still takes speaking gigs at the New York Public Library, he explains, because there might be someone in New York “who has never seen Bloom talk before.”

I call the first section of this book literary love. I think that in order for later poets to be profoundly influenced by earlier poets, they have to begin by falling in love with the poems. But of course, like love of all kinds, if you’re fiercely enough in love, it carries its ambivalences. And those ambivalences constitute part of the phenomenon I call the anxiety of influence.

When I call the subtitle of this “Literature as a Way of Life,” I mean that. I think that there are people who love religion. I don’t. There are people who love history, I hate history. I agree with James Joyce that it’s a nightmare from which we should try to awake but we can’t. There are people who love science or philosophy. I don’t.

I think we are in a society now, for more than a century, and it will go on this way, I fear, where all our cognitive modes have failed us. My late friend Richard Rorty once said to me, “You know Harold, when the cognitive modes — philosophy, science, religion, history — fail a society, then willy-nilly, whether it wants to or not, it becomes a literary culture.” And I said, “Yes, Dick, and I’m not so sure this is good for literature, or good for society.” But I think this is what has happened.

Even now in the digital age, though we call it by different names and we adulterate the phenomenon, we live in a literary culture.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon in New Haven, June 2011.

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  • Some perspectival notes to charming ROS Harold Bloom interview:

    Harold Bloom in The Western Canon uses the term agon to refer to the attempt by a writer to resolve an intellectual conflict between his ideas and the ideas of an influential predecessor in which “the larger swallows the smaller”, such as in chapter 18, Joyce’s Agon with Shakespeare.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agon

    Professor Bloom needs to add two more levels of discourse to capture his point:

    1. The German language uses the unique word Auseindersetzung for a kind of ongoing argumentative coming to terms with applied to a forebear or exemplum or titan. This is a kind of intergenerational parsing or linking up or baton-passing and filiation-tracing a la Harold Bloom. See: die Auseinandersetzung (-en) disagreement, argument, clash; debate, discussion (about, über + acc); examination, (critical) analysis (of, mit)

    2. Peter Geyl, the great Dutch historian, uses the phrase “argument without end” which is also Bloom-esque.
    Professor Bloom mentions, in passing, the tragic Yidish poet, Jacob Glatstein (see Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse’s current eponymous book by this name).

    One senses that Harold Bloom is looking for an answer within literature to Jacob Glatsein’s sense of post-Judaism where he, the poet, says: “We received the Torah at Mount Sinai and in Lublin we gave it back.” Bloom himself says that lit is a kind of Torah II or neo-Torah for him and Glatstein shows you why one needs a neo-Torah since the original one was returned to Yahweh at Lublin (Majdanek death factory). The Yiddish poet, Jacob Glatstein:
    Jewish theologians since the Holocaust have struggled to understand God’s role in the Holocaust. The American rabbi, Richard Rubinstein, argues that God is dead (or, at least, the personal God of Jewish tradition). Martin Buber speaks of an “eclipse” or of the “hidden face” of God.”

    The Yiddish poet, Jacob Glatstein, pushes the theological envelope even further. In a 1946 poem entitled, “Not The Dead Praise God” he hints that the Shoah ended God’s role in our lives. Playing on the ancient Jewish tradition that the covenant with God was accepted when all the people of Israel stood together at Sinai, Glatstein hints that the vast, communal destruction of the Jews nullifies that bond: We received the Torah at Mount Sinai and in Lublin we gave it back.

    Not the dead praise God-
    the Torah was given for the living.
    And as we all together
    stood in a body
    at the Granting of the Torah,
    so truly did we all die in Lublin.
    “Not The Dead Praise God”
    Jacob Glatstein 1946

    See: http://cambridgeforecast.org/blog2/2011/03/18/from-mount-sinai-to-lublin-jacob-glatstein-holocaust-poem/

  • nother

    It was one line/question in an essay about Falstaff by Bloom that helped me see Falstaff, Shakespeare, and Bloom anew

    “Is not Falstaff, like Hamlet, so original a representation that he originates much of what we know or expect about representation? We cannot see how original Falstaff is because Falstaff contains us; we do not contain him.”

    Later he expands on the theme:

    “Falstaff is not language but diction, the product of Shakespeare’s will over language, a will that changes characters through and by what they say. Most simply, Falstaff is not how meaning is renewed, but rather how meaning gets started.”

  • Alex

    It was interesting to hear how passionate Bloom is about baseball, but I was admittedly a little disappointed that the digression went on so long, I wish Mr. Lydon would’ve moved back to literature a bit sooner. Overall though, a fantastic interview – none of the interviews with Bloom that I’ve ever heard are as interesting or insightful as those he has with Lydon, nor is he so willing to open up to anybody else. And Lydon is so well read, so articulate, so quick on his feet when it comes to questioning, he really makes for one of the best literary interviewers around, rivaled perhaps only by Michael Silverblatt of KCRW’s Bookworm. Really a fantastic interview overall, just as all the others with Bloom.

  • I have to agree with Alex with two exceptions. I am not that familiar with Silverblatt. And, I loved the thrust and parry in the first 12 minutes of the interview. Bloom quite successfully took control of the interview during this time but with Lydon’s very wise and guiding consent. This was a textbook example of when and how to successfully give in to your guests digressions. The result was fabulous!

  • Potter

    This was very good, had some great nuggets- I couldn’t help taking a few notes (as a dutiful student) and I zoned out on the parts that did not mean much to me today because of the weather- the thrust and parry or call and response. I love Johnny Hodges too- and I like baseball- but today I was less patient more interested in Bloom on literature and his Jewishness. (He is not afraid to say he does not like Yahweh!!)

    So I would have loved to hear more about Philip Roth and why he is not so good anymore but also I loved that he ends his next book with Faulkner and will go no further. Is this about worthiness, and a deliberate judgement — being discerning and putting a hedge around the western canon?

    I agree Cynthia Ozick is a little weird and more normative but I have enjoyed a bit of her writing. From this interview one can get a good idea of what Bloom (“Harollah”) means by normative ( “a series of masks that people put on”– a wonderful way of putting it). Thank goodness I am not normative either having worked my whole life on that (most of the tough work done early on).

    But as an aphorism to guide one’s life this one, I think, cannot be beat: “it is not required that you complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This is very Jewish- in fact it is forbidden to give up on life.

    Also I am now understanding a bit better – after tossing it around upstairs – about Shakespeare. It sounded absurd at first- what we want to think about our own emotions – were originally Shakespeare’s thoughts. We learn through Shakespeare about ourselves… we see through Shakespeare. (Why we read poetry or anything – for this.)

    Well I could go on- but I am just a mostly grateful listener, not interrupting with my own questions. It’s wonderful that Bloom is still learning from his students.

    Chris I look forward to your report: Bloom on Moby Dick.

    By the way – Bloom gave Sam Tannenhaus an interview for the NYTimes a short while ago- on video. It’s was good.

  • I value the blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.