For me, reading the American literary critic, Harold Bloom, is often like wading in molasses. Intellectual molasses, to be sure, but slow going nonetheless. His writing is thick with difficult ideas and difficult words. Bloom’s historical reach, his knowledge and his understanding of the tapestry of literature far outstrip mine, so I find myself scuttling to the Net or other books on my shelf for collateral references, for critical commentary, and often to the dictionary.
Bloom’s commentaries and essays are a challenge to me because his terms of reference are so much greater than my own. Hence my appreciation of them: he makes me work, and work hard to keep apace with his quick mind. Well, perhaps not apace, more like a few kilometers back, but at least following more or less in his tracks.
I first encountered Bloom’s writing several years ago through his 1995 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he argues that the Bard “invented human attributes that we think are very much our own inventions” as well as creating our language in which to talk about ourselves. Bloom goes through each of the plays, exploring and explaining them to make his point. It’s a brilliant analysis that ranges through not only Shakespeare’s works, but other parts of the “Western canon” to underscore his ideas. I often turn to Bloom’s essay on a play before I read it to get perspective and milestones to look for within Shakespeare’s words.
A couple of years ago, I ordered his book, The Best Poems of the English Language, an anthology of poets from Chaucer to Frost. When it came, I stayed up into the wee hours reading it, then looking through my other anthologies to compare their selection of poets and poems. I was looking through it again recently as I was downsizing my library.
I have a lot of books of poetry, and most I intend to keep despite the pressure to relieve the congestion on my bookshelves. Yes, I still read poetry, perhaps not as much as I did in those younger years when I fancied I could write it, too (back in the Paleolithic of my late teens and early 20s). But I am as easily moved by poetry as I ever was, and also find it as baffling, inexplicable, contentious, beautiful, tasteless, passionate, tedious, exciting, and relevant as I ever did. However, I freely admit that what poems moved me in the past may not do so today, or at least not in the same way. I now appreciate poets who in my past I either never knew, or found leaden and incomprehensible, and wonder at my immaturity for liking those I did way back when.*
While the scope of his “Best Poems” covers an enormous, almost unwieldy, number of poets, Bloom decided to stop at those born before 1900 (to his credit, Bloom does not limit his selection to only English poets, but includes several American poets he exalts, too, but, inexcusably, he includes no Canadian poets). Although this still includes many 20th-century poets, it also means some of the century’s greatest modern poets, and some of those I consider among the best poets in the language, are missing from his collection simply for their misfortune of being born after 1899. Yes, that’s right” no Dylan Thomas!
So for me, the term “the best poems” is a marketing term; hyperbolic at best, inaccurate at worst.