Yale is still a place, thankfully, where there are people who love and value poetry. Yet, it is very hard to describe to today’s undergraduates what it was like to be here in the 1970s and 1980s, when excitement around literary studies in general, and poetry specifically, was at its peak. In those days, hundreds of students were galvanized by literature courses, and by a number of faculty members, foremost among them Harold Bloom, who packed lecture and seminar rooms and filled the air with excitement.
In the last few days, some have asked to understand, in simple form, what Bloom’s contribution has been. First, there are few scholars whose work actually transforms a field. Bloom’s did. He altered our thinking about the poets of the past. He made us see the Romantics through a different lens. It was once customary to think of the greatest English poets as John Donne, Alexander Pope, John Keats, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. Bloom of course did not negate these, but he added to them by establishing a new canon, prominently featuring (among others) Percy Shelley, W.B. Yeats, Hart Crane, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop.
Not everyone agreed with Bloom about this canon. Over time, it has been challenged and enlarged, as is natural when someone of genius proposes a theory. But once his view caught the prevailing wind, returning to older ways of seeing poets was impossible. His view was transformative: he changed the way people saw, understood and read poets’ work.
In some cases — for example, Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop — one might even say that he was responsible for their fame, since his students, captivated by what they learned, began teaching it around the nation. Anthologies printed more of the poets he valued. Teachers taught more of their work. AP exams asked students to write about their poems. The Bloom “canon” took a central place in literary culture.
Bloom was an original mind in another way: he developed a theory of poetry that addressed the way poets work, and by the same token, how we read them. Although this is considerably more complicated than what can be described in a few sentences, he suggested that gifted poets who are trying to write great poems have “anxiety” about the greatness of the work that has preceded them.
How, for example, do poets who come after Milton or Shakespeare imagine that they can match them? Only the strongest poets, Bloom argued, ultimately are able to pass from anxiety to original self-discovery. By insisting that poets do not write mainly with reference to the conventions of genre and fashion, but are always profoundly influenced, and in some senses overcome by the greatness of what has preceded them, he opened a new way of contextualizing and understanding poems.
These were original and stunning accomplishments. But well beyond these and well beyond his books, Bloom influenced students, the campus and the world beyond Yale through the originality and force of his mind and his personality. He was a larger-than-life presence who wrote and spoke with commanding authority. He defended the power of reading not through the lens of isms or social or political thought or agendas, but through the direct experience of the reader with the book and the depth of pleasure and experience and knowledge that would come from that.
To read his powerful arguments in ”Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959)” or in ”Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (1998)” is to be plunged into the heart of the poetry and have it opened up as you had not imagined possible. To sit and hear him go line-by-line through “The Idea of Order To Key West” or a Shakespeare soliloquy, as I did as a young assistant professor, was — to use the vernacular — mind-blowing. To hear him read, or more often simply recite, a part of Hart Crane’s ”The Bridge” or Wallace Stevens’ “Auroras of Autumn” was an electrifying experience.
Bloom’s parents were immigrants, who did not even speak English, and his own first language was Yiddish. Yet, he spoke not in phrases or sentences but in whole paragraphs, in which he could convey to those who listened to the complex heart of a poem in a way that made you open your eyes, ears, mind and heart to it. In the last few years, too physically frail to leave home, he taught mostly by Skype and with his wife Jeanne welcomed into his home an endless stream of colleagues, friends, journalists, critics and — always and especially — students.
“Poetry is the essence which takes its place as life’s redemption,” Wallace Stevens said. And if there was ever one who was good at professing that, living that and persuading us of that, it was the original, inimitable, irrepressible Bloom.
PENELOPE LAURANS, a senior advisor at the University, was Head of Jonathan Edwards College from 2008-2016. Contact her at email@example.com .