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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