Here in Hell
Professor Bloom reminds us of the origins of the term aesthetic in "perceptiveness"; what we make of his argument depends on just what we think "perceptiveness" means. Bloom wants to place the aesthetic in a kind of pure realm, free of social or historical pressures-in paradise, as it were, where perennial, indelible values rule: harmony, order, the subtle, infinitely pleasing, endlessly varied shadings of meaning made by the artful arrangement of words.
I'm reminded of a statement of Auden's, who wrote that a poem should be "a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering. . . ."
But "perceptiveness" suggests more than an acute awareness of language and form. It connotes an equally acute eye toward reality, which is for all of us a social affair, a collaboration between the interior and the external. Auden goes on to say, "At the same time we want a poem to be true . . . and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly." Into the paradise of euphony, the good poet must introduce hell. Broken paradises are the only kind worth reading.
The poets Bloom loves brilliantly inhabit this intersection of heaven and hell-earth, that is. It is with them, I think, that his impassioned argument goes thuddingly and misleadingly wrong. How can he suggest that Crane or Bishop, Swenson or Merrill developed "without being impeded by ideological demands"?
To suggest that their work has no social context or content-that it is not a response to "the pressure of reality"-is not to elevate them but to diminish them, to relegate poems which embody profound struggles to a kind of mere beauty devoid of the scarring (and deepening) intrusions of Hell. The inferno, in this case, is the arena of desire-with all the questions of control and of (I know, I'm tired of the word too) identity which are attendant upon it.
Here is Hart Crane's "Reply":
Thou canst read nothing except through appetite
The poem begins with an act of instruction about reading: Crane couldn't be more directive in letting us know that the poem has to do with desire. The sort of longing in question is specified in lines three and four, which seem not just a generalized description of men in cities but a specific evocation of the ways in which eye contact between men (who usually avoid the direct gaze of other men on the street)is the beginning of "conviviality . . ." That ellipsis, like every such omission in Crane, is telling.
In the second stanza we see that one man's bliss is another's shame; we aren't on the even terrain of pleasure between equals here, but within a construct of sexual life which requires a top and a bottom, a user and a used: a man, in the terms of Crane's day, and someone who acts "like a woman." To do so is shameful, of course, yet it is the source of bliss, and the poem yokes the two in line six. In the final line, "shame" is answered-replied to?-by "fame." "Fame" here is more than reputation; as in "Lycidas," where Milton says "Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soul." Fame is something more like spiritual triumph, the flourishing of the soul.
The poem's title leads us to think Crane is responding here to a challenge or question; he needs to articulate this relation between bliss and shame, to seek some kind of resolution. The poem may be read as a metaphysical quest, but it begins in the body, in experience shaped by the prohibitions and possibilities with which twentieth-century America structures the expression of desire. The conjunction of bliss and shame is hardly unique to homosexual men, but I'd argue that their immediate proximity, their inseparability, is unique: the project of "Reply" is to enact the undoing of shame, to move towards one moment of communion, with the sleeping lover (pointedly not the waking one) when these opposing terms may be yoked or dissolved in a transcendent union.
Is the poem in any way lessened by reading the opening lines as a description of cruising? By an understanding of the psychic situation out of which it arises? Does my discussion of the poem's social/political situation diminish it?
Crane himself has instructed us: Thou canst read nothing except through appetite. I think he means what he says. To my mind, reading through the lens of desire makes the poem's breadth greater, its passion more available, its struggle to reconcile self-loathing and joy more poignant, the final line's resolution that much more hard-won. And if we refuse to read through the lens the poet demands, what's left? "Pure" poetry, disembodied idea?
This poem leads me to suspect that the exact converse of Bloom's statement is true: White Buildings wouldn't have been possible if aesthetics were autonomous. Its hard-won beauty is indebted, paradoxically, to the deforming forces of social reality, of ideology.
Here is May Swenson, whom Bloom rightly identifies as underrated, opening a
poem called "Her Early Work":
No one could tell
Like Crane before her, Swenson instructs us as to how the poem is to be understood; thinking of "her early work" requires that we consider those poems' relation to what she's writing now. The poem is a meditation on the closet, on the danger and allure of veils, and if read in terms of an asocial aestheticism it is inscrutable.
Or take Bishop. I can't think of a poem which better illustrates the dialogue between the primacy of subjective perception (individuality) and the pressure of the external (community) than "The Moose."
The bus rider-alone, really, despite the polis of her fellow riders-loses herself in the landscape out the window during daylight, but in the dark she's most aware of her fellow passengers' voices. It's no accident that there is no "I" in "The Moose"-the presiding intelligence, the subjectivity at work here, is beautifully permeable, imaginatively entering foxgloves and salt marshes and, of course, the conversation going on behind her. The old couple talk in the back of the bus, reciting a gloomy family narrative which keeps everyone in place; they recount the ineluctable history of death and drink and generation. The voices claim to understand both life and death, and their certainty is both appallingly small-minded and hugely comforting, since it offers the safety of agreement in the face of unassimilable mystery. But it's a comfort our speaker can't take seriously; in the domestic landscape of such certainty everything's peaceful, even "the dog/tucked in her shawl."
But when the moose appears, apparition of otherness, the speaker is almost
as inarticulate as her fellow passengers. She says, "high as a church,/
homely as a house"; they say "It's awful plain." Neither description
seems to evoke the physical presence of this big fact. She's unspeakable, finally.
In the poem's central lines
Why, why do we feel
we meet the first use of "we" in the poem; a new community's been fused, not one based on the false certainties of the old people in the back of the bus. Their narrative excluded the speaker, who doesn't seem so sure what life and death are like, who loves the security of their story even though she can't believe in it. (Is it too much intrusion of the biographical for us to know that she took to drink, that she went to the bad?)
I'd argue that Bishop's parentheses indicate that it is not so much the joy that fascinates her as the fact that all feel it; a moment of commonality, when certainties are banished, when the mutual recognition of what can't be said creates a fleeting unity, allows an exile to join a group. In this way the most beautifully subjective of poems, full of gorgeously evoked perception, is a deeply social poem as well, a meditation on joining community, both longed-for and held at a distance. The experience of entering into it comes as a gift, a mystery, a not-to-be-repeated moment of strangeness and surprise.
The idea of aesthetic autonomy is a fantasy. It's like going into a flower shop and believing that the flowers you buy have no qualities but color and shape, that they exist only to be arranged. The flowers have a local habitation and a name; they grew in specific places; they have characteristics, relations, histories. In their fields and their foliage, in their particular situations, the flowers are elements of a world. Who named them, hybridized them, grew them, sold them? Who owned the land? Who decided which were desirable? The flower arrangement is pretty, but the poetry resides in the whole complicated story, the web of relations.
The aesthetic is not now and never has been autonomous. If it were, no poetry would be possible but language poetry, which denies the validity of representation and questions the very notion of subjectivity. To represent is to enter into a pact with the devil, with the powers of this world: it is to let the world help write the poem.
Nothing more boring than aesthetic autonomy.
Is it merely an accident that so many of the poets Bloom admires are homosexual men and women?
I don't wish to claim what the religious Right might call "special rights," but isn't there something suggestive here? Has character-or aesthetic response, the depth of "perceptiveness"-been shaped by the degree of external pressure? Consider Ashbery's slippery refusal of a single sense of self, or Merrill's mannered surface, his deeply significant decor.
Do these point to a poetry formed by exile, censure, by a lack of prescribed pattern, by instability or freedom?
The grain of truth in Bloom's argument is, of course, that none of these poets avail themselves of an easy political rhetoric-or of a political rhetoric at all. They understood how little a public language had to offer them. This is matter of particular consequence to American poets, as the vocabulary of our public discourse is painfully, endlessly dumbed down. This poor thin lexicon seems designed not to be commensurate with the problems and questions of our common life.
And one can't imagine any of Bloom's heroes saying, "Because I am a homosexual man . . ." or "I am a lesbian orphan and therefore . . ." They are concerned with embodying the texture of subjectivity. Their poems enact the process of perception, and therefore received language and thinking are antithetical to them;they are concerned with how it feels to be alive, the particular stuff of our moments in the world. In service of that project, everything received is resisted and questioned.
But any subjectivity is inextricably implicated in context, time, place, in that social web which these poets resist, illumine and corroborate. You are an Elizabeth, you are one of them, why should you be one too?
Their knowledge, in other words, is historical.
Poems based on lockstep definitions of identity or simplistic politics are, by definition, bad poems, and I don't want to read them either. Poetry does not follows from theories or agendas; quite the opposite.
But I don't find myself reading those poems, not really. They aren't what my students are writing, they're not what I'm seeing in poetry competitions or literary magazines, or in strong new books of verse which are willing to take on the difficult and taxing marriage of private and public life. What's happening out there seems to me a good deal more complex.
Take, for instance, a poet Bloom admires, Henri Cole. In a fine poem in The Look of Things, Cole's speaker takes an HIV test administered by a Hispanic nurse named Angel. I cannot reconcile this poem with Bloom's statement that "every attempt to socialize writing and reading fails." HIV exists in the social world, in an economy of terms and processes defined by medicine, money, ideas; our relationship to it is of necessity a relation to the social and political realms. Try to put AIDS in a realm without "ideological pressure" and the subject vanishes, becomes unwritable.
Of many possible examples of younger poets, I'll offer one. Adrienne Su, whose first book, Middle Kingdom, was published by Alicejamesbooks, grew up in the suburbs of central California. As a citizen of our moment, her sense of what it means to be Asian American isn't in the least predictable. She's a formalist, which means these smart, funny and provocative meditations on ethnicity and language are given an extra layer of ironic grace by virtue of their design. The poems flash with wit , intelligence and a "perceptiveness" tuned to the slippery and endlessly variegated stuff of residing in multiple realms, a "middle kingdom" between fixed identities.
Still, if I were asked to generalize about the state of the art at the moment, I'd be inclined to say it isn't political enough. I'm willing to read a few weaker poems in service of the struggle to represent this country's situation on the page. So much of what is terrifying, confusing, and inscrutable about American life is too little visible in our poetry.
Bloom loves poetry, and wishes to defend what has brought him meaning and pleasure. I feel this same desire to protect the art. How can I do otherwise than acknowledge it as embattled? The stubborn individuality and privacy of reading, the quiet and transformative conversation between reader and book, is in trouble. Everyone knows this.
But does anybody really believe we can't see Parnassus because it is being overrun by Latina lesbians, or recent MFA graduates, or alums of prison writing programs? Please. That noble peak's obscured by the new megamall and multiplex, those immense ads for Calvin Klein, the cell-phone towers and high voltage wires carrying a million junk E-mails. Mass culture cares about mass money, not the stubbornly unsellable exchange between individuals which reading & writing comprises.
I don't think we can remedy this by stubbornly clinging to the difficult, noble as Bloom's rallying cry sounds. In the face of an increasingly homogenous, market-driven culture, we need readers. We need to sign up anyone we can who cares about the portrayal of human individuality, of human stories. Start anywhere, I say, read anything. The entrances to the paradise of aesthetics are everywhere, some of them homespun, some of them rough attempts to sketch a self out of whatever material's at hand. But they lead someplace: toward heightened perceptiveness. At this moment I am grateful for poetry in any permutation, in any form, even poetry I don't like. It is a sign of hope, a sign which marks an attempt to blow on the coals of an old, old fire.
To man (intentionally chosen verb!) the barricades of the aesthetic order seems too slight a gesture now. We who care about poetry need to insist, anywhere and everywhere, on its absolute value, its irreplaceability. And we need to acknowledge that it is, in essence, uncontrollable: there is no center, no commissariat, no universal judge of quality. This is not only the way it is, in our national multiplicity, but a good thing. Let a hundred flowers bloom. No one is going to win or lose, since we are not at war, not with each other. It's the life of the art we need to defend.
However, if the heaven of poetry will not allow us to think about our situation in the world, about the terrors and possibilities of the hour, then I don't want to go there, as a writer or a reader.
Here in hell (which I gather is a ways from Yale) certainty has long since eroded. Citizenship is tolerated, if not exactly encouraged. You're allowed to read the papers, even if nobody especially cares what you think. Perhaps you'll have something interesting to say about them.