The Madness of King Harold

Let's suppose for a minute that Harold Bloom's "theory of poetry" is correct. Let's suppose that a young poet is creatively blocked by the awareness of, the spectre of, the influence of the great poets of the past. A young poet cannot move forward into the New because he is too busy comparing himself to his precursors, and comparing his own poems to the great precursor poems. Let's suppose that's true. Let's suppose also that the most common way a young poet breaks through this creative blockage is by imagining a flaw in the work of the great precursor, by deliberately misreading the great precursor poem(s) and then writing a poem of his own that "corrects" the "flaw" in the precursor, psychically diminishing the precursor in the eyes of the young poet, who is then able to move forward and become some future young poet's precursor. Let's say Bloom is right, and this is all true. Let's further say that my concern with craft and my lack of concern with any precursor novelists and my non-efforts in the way of modeling my work on any precursor novels is either self-delusion because artists aren't conscious of the process, or because I’m a minor talent so I don't actually know what the greatness of the precursor novelists is and I'm blind to those elements of their work which would creatively block me if I was talented enough to be properly intimidated. I can accept being a minor talent. So let's say I accept all of this, that I have no beef with Bloom's theory of poetic influence.

The problem is that I'm reading a book Bloom wrote, The Anxiety of Influence, in which he might lay out this theory. This book is a mad book, a disorganized nonlinear book whose language is vague and contradictory. The narrative chases its own tail around what is mostly an empty space where clearly-defined terms and theses ought to be. That's my problem. Bloom bezels and prolixes for page after page, saying "this is the anxiety of influence" but failing, again and again, to supply an actual this. He does not say whatever it is he is saying. He spends a lot of time spinning a metaphysical metaphorical tale about the poet as caught in the duality between the spiritual world and the empirical world, and he invokes the Muses and tells us that weak poets are Adam and strong poets are Satan (Paradise Lost as a metaphor for poetry, which is fine because I'm sure Milton's Christian metaphors were bound up with ideas about the mind and art) until Satan becomes merely a hack, an imitator of God and loses his originality. That's all a good time and Bloom's writing is breathless, breakneck, totally insane and full of fun for the reader. None of it tells us what "anxiety" or "influence" mean, though. None of it relates directly to the historical process of poetic influence, or how a poet becomes a poet. Bloom does not directly confront his subject matter in The Anxiety of Influence. I am told that he does spell out what he's really talking about in some other books, but the thing is, the book I'm reading is The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom talks around and around and makes many vague claims without demonstrating that there is any reason to believe those claims or even, frankly, making clear what his claims are. The theory that I am willing to accept, the theory I talk about in the first paragraph of this post, may be behind all the lunacy and poorly-formed argument-in-the-form-of-a-severe-poem that makes up The Anxiety of Influence, but there's no way to discover that by reading the book. The reader must cobble together Bloom's meaning piece by piece, and can never be sure that this meaning is actually Bloom's meaning. That is my beef with Mr Bloom, and that is why I find myself reading The Anxiety of Influence as a novel, because it makes sense if Harold Bloom is Charles Kinbote or Charles Arrowby. The book does not make sense if Harold Bloom is a respected professor and theorist.

No one, so far, has been able to point to a passage within The Anxiety of Influence where Bloom either makes his theory of poetry clear, defines his terms, or shows any reason to believe his claims. I don't dispute the theory, but I do say that Bloom has written a bubbling mess of a book that says almost nothing. It is a sparkling incoherency about poetry, built around the central claim that poetry is dying. "The death of poetry" is one of the few clear passages in the book. Unless Bloom means that as a metaphor, too. I can see why this book is so influential: a reader can fill it with whatever meaning he likes, because Bloom obfuscates, dances, babbles and whirls but he does not say.

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