Harold Bloom joyfully presents the very best poems in English

On Books

March 14, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

I have been moving books between one house and another, doing a quinquennial cull to donate to libraries. In flux, I can't make a firm census of the poetry books I cannot bear to do without, but there are no less than 60. A good number go back to childhood and undergraduate days.

Many are anthologies. There's a 1953 printing of the 1939 edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse. The one I have owned longest is Rainbow in the Sky, collected and edited by Louis Untermeyer in 1935, 484 pages of poems chosen for young people. It's fine, delightful, sometimes serious, stuff -- and I believe I read every page at least a dozen times before I turned 12.

I have just spent 20 hours or so wandering among the treasures of the brand-new The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, selected and with commentary by Harold Bloom (HarperCollins, 1,008 pages, $34.95). Seldom have I had so concentrated and various an experience of delight.

Bloom is the intellectual crown jewel of Yale University, and its Sterling Professor of Humanities. Former Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard, in 1999 he was given the Gold Medal for Belles Lettres by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he is a member. A MacArthur Prize fellow, with this volume, at 73, he has completed his 30th book. Among the most important have been The Anxiety of Influence (1973), The Western Canon (1994) and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998). Bloom is, I argue and many others agree, the greatest critic of literature in English writing today. Along with Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis and at most a couple of others, he's the greatest of the 20th century.

He begins here with Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and ends with Hart Crane (1899-1932), who Bloom writes "was my first love among the great poets, and like Blake he gave me a lifelong addiction to high poetry." Chronologically in between are 106 other poets.

It's a very personal collection -- "the anthology I've always wanted to possess," he writes. A sweeping together of the best of anything invites quibble and debate. I am sure that if I spent 20 more hours comparing Bloom's with other compendiums, I would come up to my own arguments for omissions and inclusions.

To read Bloom's insights here is to bask in the emanation of genius. As entertaining and erudite as his choices of the works he most loves are, the book's overriding strength is the guidance it gives, in context and comprehension.

His opening essay, "The Art of Reading Poetry," is crisp, strong and nourishing even to an inveterate reader. What is the purpose of reading poetry? Bloom writes, "I think that poetry at its greatest ... has one broad and essential difficulty: it is the true mode for expanding our consciousness. This is accomplished by what I have learned to call strangeness." And this he defines as "a felt change in consciousness." He persuasively insists, "The work of great poetry is to aid us to become free artists of ourselves."

And what makes a poem great? Bloom answers: " 'Inevitability,' unavoidable phrasing, seems to me then a crucial attribute of great poetry. ... As you read a poem there should be several questions in your mind. What does it mean, and how is that meaning attained? Can I judge how good it is? Has it transcended the history of its own time and the events of the poet's life, or is it now only a period piece?"

Among the poets he most enthusiastically celebrates is Walt Whitman, whose work fills 44 pages and who Bloom concludes, "along with Emily Dickinson, is one of the two great American poet-originals." He devotes a modest 24 pages to Shakespeare, whom Bloom calls "my mortal god," 20 to William Blake, 27 to William Wordsworth and 17 to Wallace Stevens.

The heart of the enterprise is that Bloom has fun with virtually every line of poetry that he cites. Famously, he is in person Falstaffian -- a sort of human cornucopia of joy. Always, he celebrates "quests for the transcendental and extraordinary, however secular." Throughout this book -- which he mainly produced as he recovered from triple-bypass heart surgery in the autumn of 2002, there is gleeful celebration of the ecstasy of language, imagery, intelligence -- and life.

Bloom's capacity to recall immense amounts of poetry gives him -- or gives us -- two marvelous beneficences. One is that he is a wonderful teacher, tracing allusions and references, some perhaps entirely unconscious, from one poet to another. He can identify this intermingling with precision and concision that is fascinating. The other capacity is that he recognizes cultural patterns and influences where few others -- at least few others I have ever known or read -- can. This is the cornerstone of his famous and splendid book, The Anxiety of Influence.

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