Harold Bloom knew "by age eleven or twelve that all [he] really
liked to do was read poetry and discuss it." Now William de Vane
Professor of Humanities at Yale, he is perhaps best known for his theory
of the anxiety of influence, which sees the history of poetry in terms
of ongoing struggles of "sons" against "fathers";
according to Bloom, all poets create with a fear of repeating, or drawing
upon, previous poets achievements. Reminiscent as this is of Freuds
Oedipus theory, Bloom insists that he is no Freudian, and he is likewise
at pains to distance himself from such contemporary schools of criticism
as Deconstruction and Hermeneutics. He calls himself, rather, "a
fairly straightforward Emersonian": "Emerson said that the
reader or student was to consider himself or herself as the text and
all actual received texts or works of literature as commentaries upon
the reader or student....That amounts to what is regarded as a kind
of radical personalism, but it seems to me simply a pragmatic approach....Novels
and poems texts of any kindmatter only if we matter. We
come first, they come second. They are there for us, we are not there
Boston Review: What do you think the future looks like for literary
criticism in America?
Harold Bloom: Oh, I have no idea. Who am I to prophesize? I
do suspect very strongly that at this time American poetry is in better
condition than the American criticism of poetry, and that in my own
generation, John Ashbery, James Merrill, A.R. Ammons, those three at
the very least, and probably also some others, increasingly do look
like the strong successors to, say, Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop
in previous generations. But I cannot find much of great interest to
me in the criticism of contemporary American poetry. There is a lot
of critical journalism going on, but I look in vain for, say, a first-class
study of John Ashbery. I think theres a great deal of confusion
about criticism these days. As I keep saying, its obsessed with
method and that is bound to be misleading. And again as I keep insisting,
there is no method except yourself no matter who you are. And
indeed that which is called Deconstruction is curiously enough a highly
idiosyncratic self, that of my friend Jacques Derrida. But it is no
more that that, and where it is applied by others it produces some very
BR: You have said that Ammons and Ashbery as well as
Robert Penn Warren are "probable candidates for survival."
Just now you mentioned James Merrill.
HB: Yes, of course. Mr. Warren is of a previous generation.
Hes about to have an 80th birthday. Right there near you on the
table are the proofs of the new edition of his selected poems which
will be published for his 80th birthday.
BR: And what makes these poets more eternal, more likely to
survive, than others?
HB: Well, the whole question of the canonical is one I am always
much engaged in. It is very difficult to answer such a question with
a formula of any kind. Certainly one clear element in what makes for
canonical strength is a sort of generative force which aligns a large
body of recent, strong poetry with the poetry even of the immediate
past so that authenitcally, it seems both to join itself to that past,
and also to augment it or to fight it, but very much on its own terms
and on its own grounds. Another is its power of producing strong readings
which, in turn, in their own right, become fecund and engender other
strong readings. The tests for the canonical do not vary strongly from
age to age. It is a question of a kind of space or ground being a very
complex matter. The only thing Im certain of in this regard
and obviously you need to know a great deal more about what does or
does not make implicitly for the canonical in a new body of poetry
the only thing Im certain of is that all of the current wave of
what I suppose you would have to call neo-Marxism in ideological and
economic and class interests are not served and perpetuated by
the canonical process. I do not believe that to be the case at all.
I think it is rather a question of a kind of necessary internal violence
which is carried out upon us by a particular poet or group of poets.
BR: What do you think is the value of studying literary criticism,
aside from just studying literature, today?
HB: I dont make distinctions between studying literature
and studying literary criticism. Literary criticism is in the first
place a particular branch of literature, a particular genre. And in
the second place, it is one which is synonymous with literary study.
The study of literature is the reading of literature. The reading or
study of literature is the criticism of literature; there is no distinction
there. The question therefore in my view becomes "what is the value
of literary study?" to which my answer would be "literary
study is inescapable." Western culture has been founded upon literary
study ever since the Greeks made Homer into their first textbook. So
willy-nilly, we study literature whether we study it overtly or not.
It has become the canonical basis for our society. It is not possible
to study any other so-called subject without in some sense studying
literature. We are a literary culture. We are certainly no longer a
religious culture. Those who dream of our becoming a scientific culture
have largely learned that they were mistaken. We have become a technological
society, but the notion of technological culture is, I think, an oxymoron.
We are willy-nilly a literary culture. Philosophy, science, religion
have in different ways been dimmed, and as they dim further and further
and this is a process which has been remarked on for centuries
increasingly imaginative literature takes their place. I dont
say that this is a good thing, I dont know that it is necessarily
a bad thing. I only know that it is a process which is constantly increasing
in intensity and appears to be inescapable.
BR: Today, university professors must publish a considerable
number of articles and books in order to attain tenure. Some people
have commented that this leads to an excess of second-rate literary
HB: Yes, but I dont think that this is new. I think there
has always been an excess of second- and third- and ninth-rate literary
criticism, just as there has always been an excess of second- to ninth-rate
poetry and second- to ninth-rate imaginative literature in general.
I dont think this is really a factor in the over-production of
mediocre work. I think there has always been an overproduction of mediocre
work. Sometimes it is journalistic; sometimes it is scholarly or pseudo-scholarly;
sometimes it is a question of academic advancement. But I dont
think one would either improve or cause to further deteriorate the whole
level of literary discourse if you abolished tenure rules. This is not
to actually pass any opinion whatsoever upon whether or not academic
scholarship or the publication of that which passes for criticism should
or should not be a factor in academic promotion. Im not passing
any judgment on that matter. I just suspect that the human urge to expression
is such that the quantity of garbage in every age, in terms of its relationship
to the quantity of authentic work, probably does not vary greatly.
BR: Whats the value of those second- to ninth-rate critics?
HB: No value whatsoever. And I repeat one should also ask the
question, what is the value of all this bad poetry? There are literally
tens of thousands of poets writing in the United States today, and literally
thousands and thousands of them publish, and not just in magazines,
they publish volumes. Every day, literally, unsolicitedly, volumes of
poetry, published and unpublished, reach me in the mail. It is a never-ending
flow. One thing is for sure: the notion put about by poets and many
academics that even a fiftieth rate poem is ipso facto worth
more than first-rate criticism is an absurdity. To prefer, say, Mrs.
Felicia Hemans to William Hazlitt because she wrote poems and he wrote
criticism is an obvious absurdity. In the same way, I think the future
age will find that to prefer the late Sylvia Plath to Mr. Kenneth Burke
because she ostensibly wrote poems and he wrote criticism will seem
equally absurd. That remark makes clear that I do not share the current
esteem for the work of the late Sylvia Plath who seems to me an absurdly
bad and hysterical verse writer.
BR: How often are you surprised by a volume of poetry you receive?
How often do you find something really good?
HB: Maybe once a year. One gets a real surprise once a year.
And thats a good thing if you can find something once a year.
BR: Are you disappointed by todays literature?
HB: Not really. There are a few figures writing now who are
very powerful writers indeed. Probably the most powerful living Western
writer is Samuel Beckett. Hes certainly the most authentic. In
this country, it is Thomas Pynchon in prose, and as I say Warren, Merrill,
Ashbery in verse. I think there is some problem of decline. Most of
the figures who have enormous contemporary reputations in the American
novel have very mixed achievements indeed whether it is Saul
Bellow or Norman Mailer, or who you will. Pynchon, at his best is, I
think, a very remarkable writer. The current poets, the ones Ive
mentioned now, Merrill, Ashbery and so on, are remarkable poets. There
is no living figure in the worlds poetry comparable to Montalli
or to Wallace Stevens. Beckett is a major writer I think by any standards.
I think as one goes toward the end of this century there is a certain
entropy at work in the current state of the novel or poetry in German
or French or Italian or Anglo-Americans. It is not perhaps what it was
a generation ago. But how to account for that Im uncertain.
BR: Do you think it will improve?
HB: I really do not know. Clearly, Seamus Heaney is a very good
poet; he is not William Butler Years. Geoffrey Hill is a very good poet;
he is not Thomas Hardy. James Merrill is a very fine poet indeed; he
is not Wallace Stevens. I think it is true in general there is much
more of a problem in twentieth century western culture than anyone is
willing to acknowledge and much the greatest figures in all of the arts
the painters, the poets, the novelists, the composers
were all born in the last third of the nineteenth century. And here
we are in 1985. Very few of the really major figures in twentieth century
western artistic culture were actually born in the twentieth century.
I know that this is a disputable observation, but its one that
I think I would stick by.
BR: Why do you think most modern Jewish poetry is so bad?
HB: I think it is mostly very bad indeed if you mean
contemporary American Jewish poetry or even to some extent contemporary
Israeli poetry, which is by no means as good as it is held out to be.
Partly its the immense difficulty that is involved in the whole
issue of Jewish cultural transmission, and, I think, the kind of fossilization
of Jewish culture which is involved in trying to maintain a second century
formulation eighteen centuries later. Partly it is because there is
a long tradition of setting the category of the religious above and
against the category of the aesthetic, with all the problems of representation
which are involved with Jewish tradition. Partly I suppose because the
burden of belatedness which is now so great in general in Western poetry
becomes peculiarly heavy for someone who would have to accommodate the
enormous weight and complexity of Jewish history and of Jewish culture.
There are some contemporary American Jewish poets, including Irving
Feldman and John Hollander, who do manage to write very effective poetry
in a deliberately Jewish context, but they are so far at least anomalous.
They are very individual cases for the most part. However limited the
achievement of novelists like Bellow, Roth, and Malamud may or may not
be, it is very hard to see their equivalents in American Jewish poetry.
BR: Why do you call yourself a Jewish Gnostic?
HB: (Laughs) Partly for polemical reasons, partly because I
have a religious temperament and my culture is Jewish culture or American
Jewish culture. And the more deeply I read Jewish literature, from the
Bible to the present day, the more I become convinced that what we now
regard as the normative Jewish literature is essentially a fossil going
back to the second century of the common era. It is based upon a strong
reading of the Hebrew Bible, but it is not the only possible strong
reading of the Hebrew Bible. Clearly the tradition of Jewish gnosticism
which goes from at least the second century of the common era to the
present day and of which the late Gershem Scholem, who is the principal
historian and scholarly expositor and modern theoretician, represents
a very strong reading also of the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish tradition
and its one which seems to me to account much better the whole
nightmare of Jewish history than the normative Jewish religion possibly
can do. The problems of theodicy, of how to bring together the Talmudical
vision of God with the actual fate of the Jews in the twentieth century,
seemed to me insoluble whereas a Gnostic perception of God and of religion
more than adequately accounts for the dominion of evil. Its a