March 26, 2014

Harold Bloom: “Emerson Speaks to Me”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immortality in American poetry and prose has never been in doubt. In his philosophy of self reliance, the “American Plato,” it is said, invented the American mind, and maybe the American religion ...

harold bloomRalph Waldo Emerson’s immortality in American poetry and prose has never been in doubt. In his philosophy of self reliance, the “American Plato,” it is said, invented the American mind, and maybe the American religion in this nation of sturdy believers. The keeper of the literary canon, Harold Bloom, calls Emerson a “living presence in our lives today.”

This podcast is a short excerpt from Emerson Redux, a full hour show on Ralph Waldo Emerson created in 2006.

 

By the Way • November 18, 2013

Good news for dear friends!

We’re putting the band back together, in a new world. With the peerless producer Mary McGrath, we’re bringing Open Source back to our first radio home, WBUR in Boston. Drawing on our roots in New ...
Thanks to Barry Blitt and The Atlantic

Thanks to Barry Blitt and The Atlantic

We’re putting the band back together, in a new world. With the peerless producer Mary McGrath, we’re bringing Open Source back to our first radio home, WBUR in Boston. Drawing on our roots in New England and our interest in the wider world, we’ll be doing a weekly evening program (Thursday nights at 9, rebroadcast on the weekends), re-launching radio and online conversation as challenging, as engaging, as various, as irresistible as we can make it. 

Strange thing: all of us have changed in this mobile, digitized, smartphone and twitter world. Stranger still is what hasn’t changed:  New England as an American capital of ideas, teaching, learning and research – of thinking! – as it has been since Emerson’s heyday in the 1830’s. The Hub today is a hive of hives – in the brain sciences, health care delivery, every kind of tech and biotech, also music, poetry, security studies, economics, in all the great branches of human exploration. President Obama had it right in his speech after the Marathon: we live in an iconic American city, and our creative and intellectual diaspora excels in every field of human endeavor all over the world. Boston’s late mayor, Kevin White called it a “small town of international significance.” Our goal, drawing on the almighty human voice and the many extensions of modern media, is to make radio talk as bracing and smart as this Global City we’re living in. 

Our website, radioopensource.org, is central to our new project. We will be expanding Open Source’s online platform of podcast conversations on the widest range of solid stuff, local and global, that people talk about: books old and new, music of all kinds, culture in general, and, of course, politics. We will be sharing our podcasts with WBUR, and at the same time we’ll be counting on a growing radioopensource community, as we always have, to help shape our discussions, sharpen the questions and make connections where others haven’t even noticed the dots.

Mary, Zadie & Chris

Mary, Zadie & Chris

Will you join us in this conversation? Will you help sustain it? We’re installing our first PayPal donate button on the site. In the new media landscape it takes a community as well as a public radio station to kickstart and support a mission like this one. Please give that donate button a try! And while you’re at it, sign up for our newsletter. 
 
The sweetest discovery in the twenty years Mary and I have been working together has been that we could actually build a living chain of listeners — a pulsing coral reef of conversation on the radio and the Web. And all of us could sustain a sensibility of open-minded hunger and enthusiasm around strong call-in talk with a tuba soloist and the Tulip Lady, as well as with Eddie Palmieri and Toni Morrison. The best thing we’ve done is build that far-flung network of loyal enthusiasts. We are hugely grateful to you, and proud to have done it together. At the start of a renewed adventure, we’ll be cheered more than ever by your support and encouragement. 

Podcast • May 24, 2013

Iyer Dyer & Doty is not a Law Firm

This one won’t be on the final exam, but in the spring clearance from the Key West Literary Seminars I didn’t want to let it go. Seriously funny Englishman-at-large Geoff Dyer, American Poet Mark Doty ...

Dyer Doty Iyer close 2

This one won’t be on the final exam, but in the spring clearance from the Key West Literary Seminars I didn’t want to let it go.

Seriously funny Englishman-at-large Geoff Dyer, American Poet Mark Doty and globalist Pico Iyer and are testifying about the writers who inhabit writers — in their cases, respectively, D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman and Graham Greene. We’re dropping names and having fun here with a genial crowd… but what’s more memorably instructive in the end than artists talking about the inner voices of their ancestors? As in conversations past with Harold Bloom on R. W. Emerson and the great Schmuel, Dr. Johnson. Or Dave McKenna speaking about his ideal, Nat Cole, the only pianist who could “bend” a note and play the tones in-between. Or Sonny Rollins, in humble astonishment that he had actually made music with the geniuses Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt. Or Roy Haynes talking with Ben Ratliff about Jo Jones.

As usual I am pining naively in the writers’ chat for my own William James or some magisterial successor who might explain Americans to themselves in a universal frame today. But the writers are reminding me of the contradictions in all these affinities. What we don’t have these days, and maybe don’t want, is a “synthesizing voice.” It’s one of England’s great achievements, Geoff Dyer slipped in, not to have a Bernard Henri Levy on the premises. If we had Whitman and his democratic vistas in our midst today, Doty says we might ignore him as his own generation did, or celebrate his worst poems, not his best. If by a miracle Graham Greene had been announced in the lobby of our theater, Pico Iyer insisted he’d have sprinted away because to meet his inspiration “would simplify, not deepen, my understanding of the man.” Odd, then, that everybody wanted to sit down with the subject that made Geoff Dyer famous — the inexhaustibly contentious, inconsistent and sometimes monstrous D. H. Lawrence, remembered as “a man who burned like an acetylene torch from one end to the other of his life” and elsewhere as “the man who could write brilliantly and awfully, in the same sentence.” Geoff Dyer gets the last line on the perplexity of writers’ affinities: “… but one would have thought it a huge privilege to be on the receiving end of a lashing from Lawrence.”

Podcast • November 10, 2011

Harold Bloom’s Moby-Dick

Harold Bloom is giving us a one-man performance of a one-act play. He invited us months ago to his class at Yale on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and finally here it is and here we are. ...

Harold Bloom is giving us a one-man performance of a one-act play. He invited us months ago to his class at Yale on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and finally here it is and here we are. Because this is Harold Bloom on stage, himself the “living labyrinth” of literature, his jazz-like solo improvisation is endlessly allusive — to Lear (“81 years old, my age”), to Macbeth and other Shakespeareans; to Yahweh, Job and Prometheus; to the canonical American writers from Emerson, Hawthorne and Henry James to Dickinson and Frost, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane; to the 20th Century novelists Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner. But only Walt Whitman sits at the pinnacle with the author of Moby-Dick. “These are the two great American books,” Professor Bloom is remarking on our way into Harkness Hall, “Leaves of Grass in its various editions, side by side with this miracle of a book Moby-Dick, almost flawless, I think. What else is of that eminence?”

How strange, he adds, that Whitman and Melville, exact contemporaries in the ambience of 19th Century New York, never acknowledged each other. “I don’t know what to call them. They’re not ships. Whales maybe, leviathans — passing in the night and never taking note of the other. And yet I can no longer read one without reading the other.”

Moby-Dick is not a novel,” Professor Bloom remarks. “It is a giant Shakespearean prose poem, quite deliberately.” And Captain Ahab of the Pequod is no more villain than hero. He is an Emersonian figure, “self-reliance gone mad.” He is a dark hero on the Greek scale, our American Prometheus. It’s not the least of Melville’s genius that Moby-Dick is new on every reading. Not the least of Harold Bloom’s genius is that, having read the book hundreds of times, he never teaches it quite the same way. He is speaking here, with barely a written note, in a classroom with about a score of Yale undergraduates. He reminds me of Sonny Rollins playing his tenor horn, drawing on a lifetime of memory and imagination, devotion and practice.

To have these ferocious killers of the natural world, these great hunters of whales, who, after all, in relation to these harpoons, are at a terrible disadvantage — except for this great monolithic vast Leviathan, straight out of Job — it’s very unfair. And you can feel, at times, submerged in the book, Melville’s own horror at what is happening. And of course we know what the ultimate consequence of this is, the decimation now of these great beasts, who are, by the way, mammals: warm-blooded breathing creatures like ourselves, almost destroyed now, for all our “Save the Whales” campaigns… There has to be, though I don’t understand it myself, some peculiar inverse ratio between the trope of whiteness in this book and the horrible paradox that these killers — including the gentle Starbuck, still the best lance out of Nantucket, the bravest man in a boat, and the fearful Ahab — are Quakers: opposed to war, to this day, opposed to conscription. Although I always remember President Richard Nixon was a Quaker. Heaven help them all, and us. What should we do with the paradox of a hunt in which we cannot possibly be on the side of the human hunters, Quaker or not, and have to be on the side of Moby-Dick, even though that goes against the deep Biblical symbolism which is involved? And Melville is all too aware of this…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon at Yale University, October, 2011.

Podcast • July 5, 2011

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 ...

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.

Podcast • January 11, 2010

Terry Teachout’s Pops: Culture-Changing Genius

Terry Teachout‘s fine reconsideration of the man called “Pops” solidifies Louis Armstrong’s standing as not just the greatest horn player since the angel Gabriel, but an all-transforming artist at the level of James Joyce or ...

Terry Teachout‘s fine reconsideration of the man called “Pops” solidifies Louis Armstrong’s standing as not just the greatest horn player since the angel Gabriel, but an all-transforming artist at the level of James Joyce or even Shakespeare, and a black American freedom fighter of character and conscience, too.

Louis Armstrong’s power to astonish was never in doubt. Hoagy Carmichael, the songwriter of “Stardust” and “Georgia,” dropped his cigarette and gulped his drink the first time he heard Louis, barely out of his teens, in 1921. “Why,” Hoagy moaned, “isn’t everybody in the world listening to that?” Over the next 50 years the whole world heard Louis, and marveled, but there were always questions, too: Could honky-tonk music from red-light New Orleans get standing, really, with Schubert and Bach? Was Louis in artistic decline after the Twenties? Was he an Uncle Tom in all that Satchelmouth clowning?

All the modern answers as Terry Teachout documents them are over the top now in favor of Louis Armstrong. Listen to the testimonies his fellow horn players Ruby Braff and Wynton Marsalis gave me on Louis’s legendary centennial, July 4, 1900: that if Louis wasn’t actually God, he was at least proof of God. His grandeur, complexity and consistency as man and artist seem now beyond question. Harold Bloom, keeper of the cultural canon and an astute jazz listener, too, pairs Armstrong with Walt Whitman as the greatest American contributor to the world’s art, the genius of this nation at its best. It turns out we could believe our ears after all.

CL: You refer to him at one point as a middlebrow genius, which I think is awfully good, but spell it out.

TT: I used that phrase because Armstrong is a guy whose favorite band leader was Guy Lombardo, a guy who just liked a good tune, who happened to be a culture-changing genius. And he didn’t see why you couldn’t like Guy Lombardo and Caruso and the Beatles and Barbra Streisand, and Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton — he just thought it was all music.

The picture on the cover of my book was taken by Philippe Halsman in 1965. It is an outtake from a session that was photographed for the cover of LIFE, this very famous photo that everybody’s seen of Armstrong with his eyes popping and the horn pointing outward and he’s dressed in this tux. He looks wonderful and he looks like the Armstrong we all know.

In this photograph, Armstrong’s just standing there with a very enigmatic half-smile on his face, holding his horn, dressed beautifully, looking like a man who knows something that maybe we don’t know, a man who knows his complexity, the complications of his own personality, who has seen the world as it is and in a very deep sense has accepted the world as it is.

Armstrong is a man who is at peace with himself. At the very end of his life he sent a letter to a friend that I quote at the end of my book, where he says that ‘my whole life has been happiness and I love everybody.’ And he wasn’t kidding, he really wasn’t kidding.

That kind of acceptance of the fundamental realities of life, not meaning that you don’t want life to be changed, but that you accept the world as it is, and decide that you’re going to make the best of it, that’s really at the heart of his character, and I think of his genius too. It allows him to take in all things in his music and his art, the sadness, the beauty, the joy, the comedy, and make them one.

Terry Teachout in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 8, 2009

Podcast • December 3, 2009

Whose Words These Are (17): Henri Cole

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3) The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got his Southern speech and, in what sounds like sadness and irony, “a knack for solitude.” Poetry was the place where as a young gay man he worked through yearning and anger to astringency and order. French, Armenian and English were the languages of his home growing up in Virginia in the sixties and seventies. “And hearing this braid of languages regularly spoken,” he has written, “heightened my sense of words as a kind of loge in which desires were illuminated, memory was recovered and poems would be assembled.” On publication of The Visible Man in 2005, Harold Bloom pronounced Henri Cole “a central poet of his generation. The tradition of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane is beautifully extended … Keats and Hart Crane are presences here, and Henri Cole invokes them with true aesthetic dignity, which is the mark of nearly every poem in The Visible Man.”

I was an undergraduate student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and I was reading the novels that we all read — Woolf, James, Conrad. These are novelists who, you might say they’re novelists of the interior – and that kind of transcript of the interior life in the novel somehow got me interested in how some version of that is achieved in a concentrated way in poetry. I grew up in a military and Catholic household, so I was used to rigid structure and passion you might say, the passion of the mass and the structure of conforming military uniforms. My brothers were jocks and I didn’t really have a way to be myself, I guess I was probably looking for a way to be a man or masculine in some different way, and somehow poetry entered my life and it gave me a way to have a conversation. It made me sociable, I wasn’t very sociable — I was a pretty shy undergraduate so it made me sociable…

In Boston, now his home base, Henri Cole is reading to us mostly from his latest collection, Blackbird and Wolf (2007). Listen to his “Dune” and consider Colm Toibin’s observation that “The self in his work is explored as a diver might explore the ocean bed, it is ready to be surprised, frightened, puzzled, while the world above the water is noted with something close to calm and half-remembered acceptance. Cole’s poems at times display an amazing eloquence and command of form, but they are usually also impelled by sorrow, by dark knowledge, by pleasure, by the body and its discontents, and by history and what it has left us. It is not surprising that he has invoked the language of prayer as being an early influence.”

Our Proust Questionnaire

Q: Who is your favorite all-time fictional character?

A: I remember reading a French novel called The Wanderer when I was a young man, by Alain Fournier. I don’t remember the character’s name, but let’s just call him the Wanderer.

Q: What’s the quality above all that you look for in a poem?

A: Two qualities: there has to be a commitment to emotional truth, and there has to be a little concerto of consonants and vowels.

Q: What is your idea of a perfect poem?

A: Almost every poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s. James Merrill has a poem called “The Broken Home” that I love. In the Merrill poems, the thing I like so much is the combination of a high register of speech with total colloquial moments – I like that the poem has a range that can go from very high to very demotic in a few short lines.

Q: Who do you write for?

A: I don’t think too much about it. I am more committed to the truth and sound thing. If you think about too many people in your head, that’s like having a bunch of guns pointed at you, and that will censor you I think. When I write a poem, I hope to be in conversation with Merrill, who hopes to be in conversation with Cavafy or Whitman, and it goes back and back to Horace. But I guess I am also aware of the need to push all of that out of my head and just write the poem that I want to write.

Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other media? Who is doing the work of Henri Cole’s spirit in a different way?

A: I am probably most nurtured by visual art. I love Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Vija Celmins, Alice Neel. I’ve collaborated with two great visual artists, Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith. Visual artists tend to be freer than writers are. Writers seem to have more boundaries – maybe it’s because making art is more physical, but they just seem freer. Also in relation to public events, speaking to the moment in history.

Q: What is the talent that you would most love to have, that you don’t yet?

A: I would love to be able to fly. I would love to be able to sing and fly like a bird. That would be fantastic.

Q: How would you like to die?

A: Alone, in a way that is not painful for anybody that loves me.

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: Empathy.

Q: What is your motto?

A: I like Henry James’s motto. “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”

Henri Cole with Chris Lydon in Boston, 11.20.09.

Podcast • November 13, 2009

Whose Words These Are (15): Bloom’s Hart Crane

We’re in the “living labyrinth” of Harold Bloom’s astonishing memory here. The great sage of New Haven is walking us through the dark, dense maze of his first and favorite poet, Hart Crane (1899 – ...

We’re in the “living labyrinth” of Harold Bloom’s astonishing memory here.

The great sage of New Haven is walking us through the dark, dense maze of his first and favorite poet, Hart Crane (1899 – 1932).

Take this as a sort of companion piece to go with Helen Vendler’s reflections on her own “closest poet,” Wallace Stevens.

There’s a preview, too, of Harold Bloom’s next big book, coming in Spring, 2010, just before his 80th birthday. Living Labyrinth: Literature and Influence will reconsider his famous grand argument in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) about poets and their precursors.

But the joy of this conversation for me is the generous, melting demonstration of Bloom’s theory and his method — tracing (with never a glance at text or note) the spidery links from Crane’s words and images back to Melville, Yeats, Milton, Spenser, Walter Pater, and The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible; with real-life anecdotes thrown in touching Hart Crane’s friend the photographer Walker Evans, and his devotee the playwright Tennessee Williams. By the end of Harold Bloom’s living-room performance, one of Hart Crane’s most famous pieces, “The Broken Tower” makes a kind of music — madly, deeply in tune with Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco.” Listen for Professor Bloom’s laughing indulgence when I tell him that, of course, Harold, the living labyrinth is you! “A nice trope, my boy.”

Here, for before and after readings, is what Bloom calls Crane’s “death poem”:

The Broken Tower

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn

Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell

Of a spent day – to wander the cathedral lawn

From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps

Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway

Antiphonal carillons launched before

The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;

And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave

Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score

Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping

The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!

Pagodas campaniles with reveilles out leaping-

O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

And so it was I entered the broken world

To trace the visionary company of love, its voice

An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)

But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored

Of that tribunal monarch of the air

Whose thighs embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word

In wounds pledges once to hope – cleft to despair?

The steep encroachments of my blood left me

No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower

As flings the question true?) -or is it she

Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?-

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes

My veins recall and add, revived and sure

The angelus of wars my chest evokes:

What I hold healed, original now, and pure…

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone

(Not stone can jacket heaven) – but slip

Of pebbles, – visible wings of silence sown

In azure circles, widening as they dip

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eyes

That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…

The commodious, tall decorum of that sky

Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

Podcast • December 30, 2007

At Home with Harold Bloom: (3) The Jazz Bridge

Not the least of Harold Bloom's many charms for me is that he bridges poetry and jazz, to which our conversation turns. Bloom combines ardent fan-hood and that incomparable gift for assimilating and synthesizing all he's heard as well as all he's read, and making meaning of it. Bloom's theoretical work on The Anxiety of Influence was written about poets, of course, but applies in still more obvious ways to the rough evolutions in African-American music in the past century.

Not the least of Harold Bloom’s many charms for me is that he bridges poetry and jazz, to which our conversation turns. Bloom combines ardent fan-hood and that incomparable gift for assimilating and synthesizing all he’s heard as well as all he’s read, and making meaning of it.

Bloom’s theoretical work on The Anxiety of Influence was written about poets, of course, but applies in still more obvious ways to the rough evolutions in African-American music in the past century. As Bloom remarked to me:

That is because the whole jazz tradition from at least Amstrong on features what was called ‘cutting.’ And cutting is the pure instance — from the Greeks on, and it was revived by Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzche — of the agonistic spirit; the agon or the contest. The last cutting contest I heard was the rather unequal match between the extremely brave Branford Marsalis and Sonny Rollins — very brave of Branford. Of all living masters in jazz now, Rollins is surely the greatest extant… Among poets it’s always a competition. Mr. Stevens and Mr. Eliot existed at the same time. Mr. Eliot thought well of Wallace Stevens and published him in England by Faber & Faber. Stevens refused to say a word about Eliot in prose, though it entered into the letters occasionally and it was family tradition; that’s how they told me he didn’t like Eliot or his poetry. Didn’t like the fact that Harmonium had been crowded out by The Waste Land in 1922…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

Besides, Harold Bloom actually knew that elusive, suffering genius Bud Powell (1924 – 1966), the pianist who lives as large in legend as the great innovator Charlie Parker. Sonny Rollins, who played with both of them, told us last spring it was part of the unspoken lore of jazz in the 1950s that “Bird was jealous of Bud.”

Bloom haunted Minton’s and other uptown hatcheries of the new music on weekends home from Cornell in the late 1940s. Bud Powell dominated the scene on intermittent leaves from the state mental institution at Creedmoor. Bloom remembers Powell as sharply as people who played with him:

I had conversations with him. He was very tightly restrained. You had the feeling of someone who was balancing himself on a wire, knowing he could plunge over on either side. Cheerful enough, but grim underneath. Very tense. Very beautiful. He had that wonderfully stripped down face at that point. It got tormented and puffy after that, but it was rather an astonishing profile at that point… He was very literate, though he didn’t like to talk in terms of literacy.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.
hartcrane

Who but Harold Bloom would have thought to put a volume of the doomed poet Hart Crane (1899 – 1932) into the hands of Bud Powell?

I actually talked to Bud Powell about Hart Crane. I gave him a copy of the old black-and-gold Liveright edition of the collected poems of Hart Crane. [Bud] was an extremely articulate and quite brilliant person. He read “The Bridge” and “The Broken Tower” at my suggestion, and “Repose of Rivers” and the “Voyager” sequence. And I told him there was a real affinity, I thought. I could not hear “Un Poco Loco” played by him, whether on the recordings — those three wonderful takes — or in person without hearing “The Broken Tower”… “The bells, I say the bells break down their tower and swing I know not where.” Because that’s what you feel is happening. Expecially when the now, alas, late Max Roach, in that extraordinary drum work in the latter part of it, particularly on the final take, the definitive take… You really feel the bells are breaking down their tower and swinging I know not where. You feel that the mind has reached its limit and is coming apart. Un Poco Loco indeed. The title is well chosen. It’s a highly autobiographical work, in a very complex way, “Un Poco Loco.” And for me it’s one of the summits of jazz. A cowbell ringing doom in the Hart Crane sense, or the Herman Melville sense.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

And who but Harold Bloom would swing the conversation through accounts of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Coltrane and Proust, around all the glories of American music, back to our starting point? “Well,” he said, “it’s Walt Whitman. The two great American contributions to the world’s art, in the end, are Walt Whitman and, after him, Armstrong and jazz. Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Mingus, what you will. If I had to choose between the two, ultimately, I wouldn’t. I would say that the genius of this nation at its best is indeed Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong.”

Thanks to Chelsea Merz for recording this interview, and to Paul McCarthy for editing it.

Podcast • December 28, 2007

At Home with Harold Bloom: (2) on the Humanities

By his own account, Harold Bloom has lost a step or two at age 77, after major heart surgery. His reading rate is not what it used to be, he says. In his early thirties, the basic Bloomian reading speed with a serious text was 1000 pages an hour; it might be less than half that today. Meaning that nowadays it could take an afternoon, not just the lunch hour, to consume War and Peace.

By his own account, Harold Bloom has lost a step or two at age 77, after major heart surgery. His reading rate is not what it used to be, he says. In his early thirties, the basic Bloomian reading speed with a serious text was 1000 pages an hour; it might be less than half that today. Meaning that nowadays it could take an afternoon, not just the lunch hour, to consume War and Peace.

harold bloom

But Bloom’s mode of reading fast, writing fast, and memorizing almost everything still verges on the freakish, and his zest for the text is undimmed, as are his combativeness, his mockery, self-mockery, and his delight in seeing himself as both king and bad-boy of his literary profession. In our long conversation this past Fall, Professor Bloom gave us a short course in memorization, in effect: “How to Memorize… and What,” starting with Tennyson’s Ulysses He reviewed what he calls the “ghastly condition,” the “sellout” and “suicide” of the “Humanities” in American universities before “the School of Resentment.” Judge for yourself the mix of passion and put-on in Bloom’s voice. And then when I insisted he give us his constructive doctine on teaching teachers — he is, after all, the Art Blakey of literature scholars, in that so many of the great ones took his training — he gave an incisive guide, naming names and first principles.

The great Hillel says: do three things. Be deliberate in judgment. Raise up many disciples. And build a hedge around the Torah.

My version of that is to say: Be deliberate in judgment. Teach many students, but make sure that they are never going to resemble one another or resemble you yourself in the slightest. That is to say, remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us in Self-Reliance: “that which I can gain from another is never tuition but only provocation.” So even with my doctoral students, every class I’ve ever taught is pure provocation. It is an attempt to make them arrive at self-tuition. This was not true of my contemporaries. This was not true of the school of Deconstruction, or of the Marxists, or the Semioticians, or of the New Historicists, the Foucault-eyites which is what they are (they all follow Foucault). This is not true of the Lacanians. They all teach a method, and people do not become themselves, but they become Paul de Man, my old friend, but not someone of whom I could approve because as I told him: “you clone endlessly.” I have never cloned, I would never try to clone… Ah, the hedge around the Torah. The Torah is for me the Western Canon, and to some extent the Eastern one as well. And the hedge doesn’t mean a fence, or a high barrier such as the Israelis now in their desperation at living in a very bad neighborhood may yet have to put up around the whole state. It means an open sort of a thing. With a hedge it can always grow. It is a natural kind of a thing. Hillel is a very good guide…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

Thanks to Chelsea Merz for recording this interview, and to Paul McCarthy for editing it.

There’s more to come in Part 3.