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Down from the Summits
Donald Revell

    "I have no mockings or arguments. . .
    I witness and wait."

--Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"


I very gladly understand a different imagination in Bloom's exemplars. A discipline of silences instead of summits prizes patience over point of view. A doctrine of humility instead of mastery accomplishes vision unrestricted to elites. Beginning as he does with an epigraph from Thucydides spoken by a Spartan commander, Bloom cannot but fail to hear the deeply Quietist strain in his best beloved poets or to appreciate the unaggressive means by which their musics rise. Myself, I most honor those for whom poetry is a sublime recourse from struggle and mastery. What truth could Whitman's'spirited witness and waiting find in Bloom's proposal of our living "greats" as being a remnant merely? What worth could Walt discover in the notion of readerships not a-making but surviving barely? And what pleasure could our first poet, the wild lover of transience and hap, possibly take in the restriction of his posterity to "formalists"? The broad welcome of witness and waiting reaches beyond such recognitions.

    Thus let thy power, which like the truth
      Of nature on my passive youth
    Descended, to my onward life supply
      Its calm-to one who worships thee,
      And every form containing thee,
      Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
    To fear himself, and love all human kind.

--Percy Shelley, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"

And how, delighting in Shelley's ecstatic self-effacement here, can I accept as Shelleyan pronouncement Bloom's "'We believe in ourselves, as we do not believe in others' is a truth that makes us wince, but no one can ever write a good poem without it?" Like Whitman's waiting, Shelley's fear of self commends the greater poem of the world and of plural, unhierarchized humanity. "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" is not the offertory of an elitist; it is much more than the repetition of a poet's eponymic mind. And the solitude which Bloom rightly imagines as the originary circumstance of poems does not, however, of itself endorse The Self. Shelley's belief believes in an "onward life" truly far away from the confines of identity.

And truly, Bloom's zealous aestheticism is a confinement even more strict than that of Self. By placing poetry and all its beautiful attainments in an aesthetic elsewhere far above accident, spontaneity, and the wild (multiculturalism is a wilderness too), he places them precisely nowhere, and nothing is more confined than nothingness. Such affected sobriquets as "the divine" Oscar Wilde and "the sacred" Emerson emblematize a denatured practice of poetry. They could only outrage the poet and philosopher who preferred, ultimately, a snowstorm to a sermon.

    . . . nature does all things by her own hands,
    and does not leave another to baptize her but
    baptizes herself."

--Emerson, "The Poet"

Emerson's poet invites the worlding of the world, and he allows the process to carry the poem and all its words away into their native, natural wildness.

    And so it was I entered the broken world
    To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
    An instant in the wind . . .

--Hart Crane, "The Broken Tower"

In its entirety, Bloom's essay is a cruel misreading of the sense and sensations of his favorite Modernist, Hart Crane. In Crane, poetry is a tender entrance to brokenness, not to an Empyrean. In Crane, the energy of vision is supplied by love, not by struggle. And in Crane, the substance of vision is instantaneous, never, as Bloom would have it, a "difficult transcendence" managed by mastery.

Passionately but mistakenly, Bloom argues poetic value away from its elements and out of its moments. His exaltations are reductive as they deny the quiet and careless courage that leads a poet to a vision of this world. I leave the last words to a poet whose greatness Bloom and I equally, delightedly esteem:

    And you see, both of us were right, thoughnothing
    Has somehow come to nothing; the avatars
    Of our conforming to the rules and living
    Around the home have made--well, in a
    sense, "good citizens" of us,
    Brushing the teeth and all that, and learning to accept
    The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,
    For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
    Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
    Making ready to forget, and always coming back
    To the mooring of starting out, that day so
    long ago.

--John Ashbery, "Soonest Mended"

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review

 



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