For more than 50 years Harold Bloom’s name has been synonymous with the study of literature, from his groundbreaking book The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and its sequel A Map of Misreading (1975), to definitive studies on Shelley (Shelley’s Mythmaking, 1959), William Butler Yeats (Yeats, 1970), and Wallace Stevens (Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, 1977) among others. His collections of essays, critical introductions, articles, anthologies, and editions have been as voluminous as they have been widely influential—establishing Bloom as not only a major authority on literary studies, theory, poetics, American and English poetry, but also as perhaps the most recognized and productive critic writing today.
In the 1980s, Bloom shifted away from academia toward a larger, commercial audience, adopting Samuel Johnson as his principle model of balancing the tension between opinion and knowledge, writing in a style tailored not for fellow academics and theorists but for intelligent readers of all ages. With The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994) and Shakespeare: Invention of the Human (1998), Bloom attained a celebrity status usually reserved for authors of pulp fiction and children’s fantasy novels. As far as “household names” still exist in this country, Bloom remains an immediately recognizable iconoclast, dissenter to and critic of French theory, multiculturalism, and the general politicization of literature regardless of the approach or stance. He has lamented what has happened to English departments, the increasing menace of the Internet and publishing houses, while becoming a department and publishing house himself, committed to what he calls aesthetic standards, canonical literature, and above all, the imagination.
Still teaching at Yale as he has done for five decades, having had thousands of students (several dozens of whom are now established critics, professors, and authors in their own right), Bloom cares less for polemics than for returning to the concerns he has made central to literary studies since the beginning of his career: how does an original, enduring work come about? How does the imagination of a single mind change how we view the rest of literature?
Adam Fitzgerald: I was particularly struck while reading your new books—last year’s Till I End My Song and The Anatomy of Influence, released this month—by how frankly they address a sense of lateness in life. They share a deep sense of the elegiac, even a sense of finality.
Harold Bloom: Don’t say finality! [Laughs] They ended their song, but I would like to stay around as long as possible. You know what John Ashbery said? “Well, this is the first time I’m glad not to be included in an anthology!” They are indeed late books. On July eleventh, I will be 81.
F: Till I End My Song gathers the last poems of deceased poets, many of whom you knew. Perhaps these friendships explain why the book reads like such a personal anthology of poetry.
B: Oh I can’t do anything that isn’t personal. That was true when I started publishing in 1957. I am nothing if not personal, that’s why a lot of people don’t like what I do. I don’t see any point to literary criticism or literary editing unless it’s as personal as poetry, or some varieties of the novel, the story or drama. Literary criticism is either part of literature or shouldn’t exist. I teach, think, read and write personally. What else could I be? What are we all here for? Objectivity is a farce. It’s a myth. It’s shallow. Deep subjectivity is not easy—it’s very difficult—it’s what you try to educate people into.
F: Another reason you’re so antithetical to T.S. Eliot’s stance as impersonal poet and critic?
B: Oh, he’s a fake about that. The man’s a strong poet because of his personality, a High Romantic imagination with power over rhetoric and diction. His supposed stance as poet and critic is completely bogus. I’m tired of talking about him. You can’t educate people if they don’t want to understand the truth about Eliot. I had to fight my way through the academy. The reason why I’m no longer a professor of English is that in 1977 I had enough of them, and they had enough of me. I went to Yale Corporation, saying you have to make me a University Professor. They resisted first but then relinquished when I said I would leave. And like Coriolanus I cried out, “I banish you!” and walked away.
F: Reading The Anatomy of Influence, one of the things that struck me was that I felt it was your most personal act of criticism yet—it abounds with memories of your first discoveries of authors, not to mention certain editions, teachers, relationships you’ve returned to throughout studying, and devoting yourself to, literature for an entire life.
B: You get older. It’s why I’m writing the book that I am now, called The Hum of Thoughts Evaded in the Mind. I’ve crossed the boundary from criticism to autobiography, though it won’t talk about my wife or my sons. It will talk about the growth of mind and spirit in an individual, teacher, critic, reader. It’s a reader’s memoir, really. And besides, I’m guided always by the divine Oscar Wilde—like myself a sublime discipline of Walter Pater—who said, “Literary criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography.” I would say, “The only civilized form of biography is literary criticism.” So it goes in a circle.
F: You start a chapter of The Anatomy of Influence with the tale of your teacher, the scholar William K. Wimsatt, returning one of your papers, writing you were a Longinian critic, which he abhorred.
B: I always remember my revenge on my dear teacher when I dedicated The Anxiety of Influence to him. I brought it to him and he said “What is this!” I said to him, “You won’t like it, Bill.” “Well what am I supposed to do with it?” I told him, “Read it, and, if you want to, write me a note.” He did read it and then sent me a note. (He was a huge fellow, seven feet tall and broad: quite an imposing, gruff presence, but warm and affectionate within.) He said, “I read the surprising dedication and then read the book. I suppose this book entitles you to be the Plotinus to Emerson’s Plato, yours sincerely, William K. Wimsatt.” Which is both a compliment and way of saying, “I don’t want any of this!”
F: There’s a sense of deep, even agonistic, friendship that abounds in the book: from stories of you driving across Brooklyn Bridge with Kenneth Burke and talking about Whitman; long-distance phone calls to A. D. Nuttall; walking with Paul de Man in New Haven. The book is also dedicated to John Hollander, a lifelong friend and colleague of yours at Yale.
B: Paul and I couldn’t agree about anything, but we were close friends. Tony Nuttal and I never met, but we were pen pals until he died suddenly. And ah, Uncle Hollander, it’s very tragic what’s happened to him, now permanently in a wheelchair. When the first copy comes, I’ll phone up him and Natalie and bring him one. We were always very close, and always will be. Kenneth was a kind of second mentor to me after I gave up Northrop Frye, who was furious after I sent him The Anxiety of Influence. He sent me back a cold note: “Dear Harold, I’ve read through it, and I’ll be honest, I don’t like it. There’s no such thing as influence anxiety. Literary influence is just something that happens, it’s transmission, and whether or not it causes any anxiety in the later figure, it’s just a matter of temperament.” I wrote him back and said: “Dear Norry, I don’t care if it causes anything in either person, I’m only concerned with how the tropes, the stance, the movement and the rhetoric of the literary work manifest the tropological equivalent of anxiety.” I should add that my title has nothing to do with Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism: it’s purely an allusion to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.
F: Frye you discovered as an undergraduate at Cornell, and talk in an old interview about reading his book A Fearful Symmetry close to sixty times in a row, wounded with awe.
B: From 1947 to 1957, I was Frye’s disciple and then we were close friends. On my 37th birthday, I woke up from a terrible nightmare, something almost out of Blake’s Four Zoas. It featured a covering cherub pressing down upon me. Very frightening stuff! No doubt, a Freudian interpretation would be very different. I sat at this table and had a shocked breakfast with my wife. She said, “Well don’t bring it to the breakfast table!” So I spent the next three days writing a ferocious dithyramb, which six years later after much revision became the first chapter of The Anxiety of Influence. [The Anatomy of Influence] essentially is an attempt to get away from the complex, intricate mappings of both that book and its sequel, A Map of Misreading.
F: Why “get away from”?
B: Because they’re not humane. In old age, one wants criticism—like teaching, reading, and writing—to not just be humanistic but humane. It has to be about literary love in the first place. Which is to say, this is after all a book about love. A curious thing for a Gnostic and therefore for an anti-Platonist to be saying, but there it is. It’s a book about what it is to fall in love with poems.
F: So you see this new book as somehow correcting or perfecting the work you’ve begun so much earlier, regarding influence?
B: Though the earlier volume has never gone out of print in English and has been translated into thirty languages, it’s a very strange and difficult work. The Anxiety of Influence is a poem really, a prose poem. I wouldn’t want to go back to read it again. I couldn’t figure out what the guy was saying in the second half of it. It’s not me any more. There’s no point in defending any book you write. Even this book, The Anatomy of Influence, took me many years to write. I started it in 2003, and it’s being published eight years later. I missed whole terms because I was in a hospital, or rehab, and this is the refined, pared down version of a book maybe two and half times as long as this. There’s no point in writing long books anymore. You can’t write an Anatomy of Melancholy anymore, and I set out to write a version of that. But you can’t do that. Not that I know what this book is. Any book you write doesn’t have anything to do with who you are after it. To borrow a conceit out of that marvelous play Peer Gynt: it’s like an onion, you keep peeling away at the skin. I don’t know who wrote the earliest things that I published in 1957. That’s fifty-four years ago? It has to be, yes. I wouldn’t dream of reading my earlier work. I can’t even read Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and The Western Canon any more, because they were written in the 1990s. Evidently, they’re useful educationally, but I can’t read me, there’s no reason anyone should read their own work.
F: Though a large part of this new book is about the influence of a mind on itself, which should include literary criticism such as you practice it.
B: But it’s only a trope, the idea of the mind influencing itself, a trope taken from the great mind of Paul Valéry, who was as powerful a thinker about poetry as he was a great poet. This book is not about the influence of younger and middle-aged Bloom on old Bloom, that’s part of the book I’m writing now. This is something else; the four divisions make that clear. The first is on “Literary Love,” the second is on “Shakespeare the Founder,” the third on “The Skeptical Sublime,” which fascinates me, Lucretius and Epicurianism, since any sublimity we have right now has to be very skeptical right now. This is why Leopardi and the other people are there. It fascinates me that every time I spent any time with Wystan Auden we had the same fight. He couldn’t stand Shelley, Whitman or Wallace Stevens. One day I said to him, “Sir, it’s no accident that all of them are Lucretian.” He said, “Yes, I can’t stand Lucretius either!” Of course he couldn’t. The Christianity was deep in him, though free of any of the atrocious attitudes found in his mentor, T.S. Eliot. He was always a good comic poet, though I must admit I never liked his poetry.
F: Even “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”? One of his great poems.
B: Oh my god, it’s awful! Whatever the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any Western language [was], no matter what he was, he wasn’t “silly.” He was stupid in many ways, fascistic, pseudo-aristocratic, but he is a great, great poetic rhetorician.
F: So what’s at the center of this new critical work of yours?
B: The book’s really about two poets: Shakespeare and Walt Whitman—not very often brought together.
F: You write, “I have written about all of them before, in widely scattered books and essays, but I strive here to render my appreciations fresh and not reliant upon earlier formulations.” I wonder how difficult that is, considering how much you have written on each of these poets?
B: Everything’s richer. Even the depiction of the tally is richer, deeper than anything I’ve been able to arrive at before. It all started for me with Hart Crane—“O, upward from the dead / Thou bringest tally.” I was always very struck by that. I started remembering “tally” everywhere in Whitman. But then Crane was an astonishingly creative as well as critical intellect.
F: This obsession with tally, which you retell in the book conversing with Kenneth Burke about.
B: Yes, to which Kenneth replied, “But they’re all tallies.”
F: Why has Kenneth Burke been so neglected, almost forgotten?
B: Though I don’t read him these days, Kenneth is permanently in me, and through him I understood if you are concerned with the interpretation of literature, and if you are concerned with, particularly, the appreciation of poetry—I like that grand old Paterian word “appreciation”— above all else I learned form him: if you don’t appreciate it, don’t write about it. Kenneth was the crucial figure for me in my transition between The Anxiety of Influence and The Map of Misreading because he reviewed the first book and then the others, so we became very close friends. He was a strange old fellow by then. Everybody’s been now neglected. Trilling and Blackmur. Kenneth is a difficult and strange critic, he was always unfashionable and he always will be. Look, I have no illusions. I will die, in no more than ten or a dozen years from right now, if I’m lucky. I would be very surprised if in fifteen or twenty years from now, except for people who knew me personally, like yourself, if anyone reads books by me. Unless you’re Dr. Johnson or William Hazlitt, Walter Pater or John Ruskin, criticism has a very brief lifespan—it will always be supplanted by other criticisms. That’s the way it should be. Very few critical works actually join the canon of literature. And I don’t have any illusion about myself.
F: But isn’t that what you strove for in your own writing, to join the canon of literature through writing criticism?
B: Never until after I got so ill, around my 70th birthday: in books like Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?; in this book, The Anatomy of Influence; in the book I am writing now, The Hum of Thoughts Evaded in the Mind. Over there on the shelf is Hazlitt and the great Doctor, and I read them every morning. I’ve edited Pater, I’ve edited Ruskin. I know a great deal of them by heart.
F: What puts Johnson and Hazlitt so far above the rest?
B: Johnson defines it best. The mark of the authentic critic is converting opinion into knowledge. I think I convert opinion into knowledge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, since I’m so much in the shadow of Johnson, Hazlitt, and Walter Pater. Yet above all else, I’m really at all times in the influence and under the influence of Shakespeare, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and Whitman. Those four most. I suppose those are my poets of poets. Shakespeare, who should be everyone’s, as well as that rather special American tradition. And, of course, if it was a matter of personal passion (though Shakespeare still would have primacy over everything) the poet I love best is Hart Crane and always will be. I can’t even explain why. Somehow it seems to me that the greatest poems by Crane, “Voyages II,” “At Melville’s Tomb,” “Repose of Rivers,” the great “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge,” “Atlantis” to a considerable degree, “The Tunnel,” parts of “The Dance” and “The River,” “The Broken Tower”—I hear it seems to me not just the voice of Romantic or American poetry, but the voice of poetry itself. When I was a Cornell undergraduate, I was a Classics undergraduate major, and I took Greek and Latin each one of my semesters and have gone on reading those languages all my life. When I read Crane aloud or silently to myself, I frequently intersperse it with Pindar. Though he couldn’t have read Pindar in Classical Greek, he must have read some translation, as he called himself “The Pindar of the Modern Age.” Crane’s a celebrant, and Pindar’s the voice of celebration. Of course, Shelley is also a celebrant, and [Crane’s] much more imbued with Shelley than Crane criticism has yet realized. But then so was Eliot, though he denied it.
F: Let me read you another quote from the new book: “‘Strangeness’ for me is the canonical quality, the mark of sublime literature. . . . Strangeness is uncanniness: the estrangement of the homelike or commonplace. This estrangement is likely to manifest itself differently in writers and readers.”
B: I started talking about that years ago in The Western Canon, but I didn’t realize fully what I was saying. “And there I found myself more truly and more strange,” the very Paterian “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” [by Wallace Stevens]. What Freud means by the uncanny and canny, it’s all in one sentence of Emerson: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Think of Dante. Let us forget the Athenian dramatists, forget Pindar and Plato—in all of what can be called Modern Literature, Dante is the strangest writer, and after Shakespeare, the one who matters most. I love that moment in Joyce when his friend, the painter, asks him the desert-island question about which of the two greatest Western writers to keep: “I should like to answer Dante, but I would have to take the Englishman, because he is richer!” He is, it’s the truth. He is richer than Homer, which is astonishing. Everybody in The Divine Comedy, except Dante the Pilgrim, has achieved their final form. But Shakespeare is change. In that sense, he always remains an Ovidian poet, and in the same sense, anti-Platonic. Plato didn’t really care about our life; he was after permanent forms. He was transcendent. I don’t like him at all though he’s a very powerful prose poet, he’s a great writer, much more ironical than we realize. Dante is very great, but I don’t like him either. They both make me very uncomfortable.
F: You come back to the phrase as “Shakespearean perspectivism” at one point in The Anatomy of Influence to explore the playwright’s distinct originality.
B: Look at Antony and Cleopatra. You are entirely free to look at Cleopatra as an aging whore, and Antony at her heels, going to pieces. Or you can regard them as they like to regard themselves, as those who like them regard them, as demi-gods. It’s all up to you. Whatever you think, you’re not ultimately telling us about Shakespeare but you’re telling us something about yourself. He has a perspectivism that beggars Nietzsche’s. It’s one that you can spend a lifetime trying to get around, but you can’t really get beyond, it’s so large it contains you, like Shakespearean irony. In fact, it’s so large you that can’t see it for irony, it’s out and about you—so you’re locked inside it.
F: I’m always amazed at what he was able to produce in those incomparable fourteen months.
B: In just short of fourteen months he writes King Lear, then substantially revises it, then writes Macbeth, and as an encore, switches completely, has come to the end of inwardness and emerges in the outer world again, composing Antony and Cleopatra. It’s superhuman, yet “superhuman” doesn’t adequately describe it. You apprehend it, but you can’t adequately comprehend it—to use a Shakespearean distinction from of Midsummer Night’s Dream, itself a perfect work of art, which left a permanent wound on Milton. Milton tries to get beyond on it in Comus. The shadow of Shakespeare for Milton haunts everything—Paradise Lost, the minor poems. He just can’t shed it, even in the best shorter poem in the language, which remains “Lycidas.” Even in “Samson Agonistes” it’s there. He can’t shed it.
F: You talk about how Shakespeare almost has to depart from inwardness approaching the late works due to what the major tragedies cost him.
B: He can’t go on in that mode. Clearly, what follows Antony and Cleopatra is very strange indeed. Cymbeline I believe is a deliberate self-parody. The crucial work of this last phase is Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. Something really is breaking loose, to use that great Kabbalistic trope, there’s a kind of “breaking of the vessels,” a catastrophe-creation. The explicit rancidity of those works is something you can’t get beyond
F: Let’s turn to the “The Skeptical Sublime” portion of your new book. Explain to me the importance of Leopardi in the frame and architecture tere.
B: I wanted him—as Valéry, Victor Hugo, and Goethe had it, as an instance of a European Romantic poet, a poet like Shelley or Hart Crane. Leopardi is a poet who is very dark. It fascinates me that Mark Strand did that lovely, heartbreaking version of his poem. It’s the way that Leopardi makes his incredibly courageous attempt, even though he knows he cannot excel Dante and Petrarch. He’s a great literary critic, as his great notebook, Zibaldone, shows. He does it by going back to Lucretius (rather than Virgil), by treating all of Latin poetry as what changes into the Tuscan of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. He is a signal instance of the modern sublime, which is always a Lucretian-Epicurean sublime as it is in Walt Whitman. It’s no surprise Whitman reads Lucretius in translation, and we know his father bought it. He comments on it. Leopardi, of all later Italian poets, is not only the greatest after Dante and Petrarch, but his sensibility is closest to that of high Romanticism in English, that is England and the United States. So far as I know, Hart Crane never mentions Leopardi, but I can’t read Leopardi without thinking of Crane.
F: How does it strike you that Leopardi’s Canti and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass are written within twenty years or so of one another?
B: They share a great deal, foremost Lucretianism. But then Tennyson is part of the story also, though he tries to fight against it. He is a poet who has a profound appeal to Whitman. Walt sent his work to Tennyson, and Tennyson didn’t really react, but I think he read it and absorbed it. You know, the whole story of the reaction of English poets to Whitman is quite something. Like Swinburne, who is first violently pro-Whitman but then turns violently against the work. Or Gerard Manley Hopkins, who says “I won’t read it” but clearly has read it. Well, he feels “he’s a very great scoundrel so I won’t read it, but it’s me.” I always felt outraged by that, this Oxford gentleman, like the very Catholic G. K. Chesterton who said in contrast to Hopkins: “We have no idea yet about what Whitman really is.” There’s a deeper holiness in [Whitman], which was my great master and friend Gershom Scholem’s reaction to him. We discussed Whitman for many hours, both in Jerusalem and around this table in New Haven.
F: Do you think there’s a more benign spirit in all of literature than there is in Whitman?
B: Well, Shakespeare, of course. But there’s every kind of spirit in Shakespeare. And, of course, that’s only part of Whitman’s story—he’s the darkest of poets in so many ways. “As I Ebb’d With the Ocean of Life” is—except for “The Triumph of Life,” Shelley’s death poem—the most despairing poem in the English language.
F: You’ve been reading Whitman for over fifty years. How does he change?
B: Oh, he changes all the time. He’s a much greater poet than we’ve apprehended, or than I can even begin to comprehend. Anthony Hecht and I, as I say in the book, used to make jokes about that with one another. Tony was tired of being described as a formalist poet. He asked me, “Who is the greatest formalist in American poetry?” And I grinned and said, “Walt Whitman.” And he said, “of course.” Whitman’s structures are immensely elaborate and formal. Poor Allen [Ginsberg], I liked him immensely as a person. I still don’t believe he ever wrote a poem, or could write a poem. He was a very sweet guy, and we loved the same poets.
F: He thought of Whitman as a great improviser, howling at the moon.
B: Walt is not an improviser. Walt himself doesn’t exist. It’s a great trope. The very title Leaves of Grass is so difficult a trope we still haven’t figured it out. Kenneth [Burke] was obsessed with it as well. He said about the title, “How about ‘leaves’ as in leavings, farewells, leave-takings?” I said I had never thought about it like that before, but it’s there. [Whitman is] always passing. It’s almost his favorite word, “passing,” which Stevens picks up beautifully in the best lines ever written about Walt: “In the far South the sun of autumn is passing / Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.”
F: In the final chapters of the book, you talk about Shelley and Browning, Yeats and James Merrill, as well as Hart Crane. You also talk about Crane’s tireless revisionism in the essay, “The Hand of Fire.”
B: Fifteen-hundred separate worksheets for “Atlantis”! I suppose they’ll all be put online. I urged my old student Langdon Hammer, when he was editing the Library of America edition of Hart Crane’s Complete Poems, to include some, but he said it simply couldn’t be done. You really have to go for yourself to the Columbia Library and hold them in your hands. At one time or another, I’ve held every Crane manuscript in my hands. We don’t have a variorum edition for Crane, though it would be a fascinating volume. We’re in a different age. No one would print such a volume now. Of course, I could never go online. I’m a dinosaur. I’m a throwback. I’m nineteenth century and we’re in the 21st century. If someone really wanted to say why bother with this book, they might say, “This is a guy who might as well be living in 1893.”
F: How is your understanding of Crane’s ruthlessly perfected and imperially polished poetry changed by the fact that he kept rewriting endlessly?
B: You don’t understand Crane. You have to keep revising him the way he revises his poems. Valéry said beautifully, “No poem is ever finished, it is merely abandoned.” And that’s true. He doesn’t ever finish. That said, the inevitability of phrasing of the greatest poems seems to me amazing. Take “Voyages,” for instance, with that startling passage that ends with “Where death if shed presumes no carnage but this single change: upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn, the silken-skilled transmemberment of song.” That’s amazing. You can follow the worksheets to see how it evolves, and the most amazing revisions are for “Voyages II”—to see how it came about. You look at the first worksheets for it and then you look at the final poem, and you blink.
F: Is Crane’s revising a way to push off and deflect his anxieties?
B: Wallace Stevens can write passages and you can call them parodies of Walt, or say they are involuntary parodies. They sound like Whitman. There isn’t a single moment like that in Crane. Yes, he uses certain Whitmanian words like “prodigal,” but there isn’t a single phrase that’s Whitman’s. The poems, not Crane himself, are troubled by what is in fact his most direct agon, the one with Eliot. In particular, I think “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” that urban, apocalyptic intensity, which is sheer genius in itself though I loathe Eliot. Crane can’t get that out of his inner ear.
F: In Till I End My Song, you include Swinburne’s lovely “A Sonnet Between Two Seas.”
B: It might very well be the last thing he wrote. It’s quite a poem. Astonishing. Another poet I include, as undervalued as Swinburne, is Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A very great mind and a great performer, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Of course, [his sister] Christina is a great poet also. In some ways the finest poem in the anthology is her poem “Passing Away”—just stunning. It’s all being done in that one rhyme. It’s a variation on The Song of Songs, and to take on the King James Version is to take on an agonistic impossibility. There are wonderful poems in this new anthology, both very well-known poems and many unknown.
F: You revise certain stances you’ve made throughout your career in these new books. One of the most surprising turns is your inclusion of Robert Lowell in Till I End My Song, poignantly admitting: “Rereading Lowell I’ve become confused, not by the poetry, but by my own mixed reaction to his work. . . . His move to confessionalism was not a fortunate development for his art. . . . I was mistaken as patient rereading has taught me . . . he survives his moment from one mannerism to another because his exacting art pivots upon compassion.” This is quite the about-face!
B: You get older. I liked Lord Weary’s Castle and Land of Unlikeness; like everyone else, I was very excited by them. Though I didn’t care for Life Studies, it wasn’t so much that book that troubled me as that the late poetry went dead for a long time. He just lost me. He was always a remarkable rhetorician, and of course he had terrible troubles in life, poor man.
F: In the “Coda” for The Anatomy of Influence you write how Robert Penn Warren once remarked that “the anxiety of influence” was a metaphor for poetry itself.
B: That’s true. I think Red was right. I didn’t realize it then. The whole phrase together simply means poetry. And “anxiety” might be the wrong word—but I don’t know what the right word would be. I think [The Anatomy of Influence] reflects my illnesses. This is not the book I set out to write, as I say in the beginning. But all in all, my thoughts haven’t changed so much. You know how it is. You’re standing up, so you put your weight on one foot or on the other. You have to.
This interview is part of BR’s special package celebrating National Poetry Month.
Adam Fitzgerald is the author of The Late Parade, which will appear in paperback this summer. He is founding editor of Maggy and a contributing editor for The American Reader. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, The New Yorker, BOMBand elsewhere. A Harriet Monroe Fellow at the Poetry Foundation, he will direct The Ashbery Home School this August. He lives in New York City.