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Editorial from PN Review 161

Editorial from PN Review 161
Harold Bloom, writing in the Boston Review in 1998, after decades on what had come to seem an exclusive and specialised highway, took the exit for Plainville. He got out of his vehicle and started walking up Main Street, as if he was just any citizen. Again he wanted to align himself with "the common reader", making it his mission to speak for (because he has not always been able to speak to) such a creature. He cautioned against "the multiculturalists" whom he characterised as "the hordes of camp followers afflicted by the French disease" (by which I take it he meant theorists, a category with which he enjoys certain affinities, and also the champions of immigrant cultures anathema to his sense of canon), "the mock-feminists" (by which I take it he meant feminists), "the commissars" (I am not sure who he meant, given his commissarish inflections here), "the gender-and-power freaks" (gays? masculinists? Republicans?), "the hosts of new historicists and old materialists"... in short, everyone whose stake in literature is underpinned by a concern he does not share, a concern which is in some way, especially in the institutions of learning from which Bloom and others draw their living and core readership, privileged, and underwritten by a "cultural guilt" to which they are "hopelessly vulnerable". Bloom"s conservatism is at once defensive and triumphalist.

Triumphalist because it has triumphed: he has become a popular writer in and outside the academy. The seven-figure advance he is rumoured to have received for Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (1998) is material evidence that he has come a long way from Shelley"s Mythmaking (1959) and the resonantly-titled, specialised books that pave the way towards The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) and The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994). What should trouble the common reader, as it does the specialist, is the potential reductiveness of Bloom"s conservatism, and the wider, specifically vulgar conservatism it feeds into.

We are familiar with the culture of contempt that rises out of an impatience with the foreign, the strange and unfamiliar, which dismisses what is obscure or alien in terms that, transposed to our political culture, would reek of a culpable intolerance. As against this, Bloom identifies a self-denying "School of Resentment", and what it resents are the very elements of which its culture is made. The "dead white male" culture, the "white Anglo-Saxon protestant" culture, and those educated within them, once afflicted by such resentment, try to walk away from themselves, both in the academic world and within the cultural industries. This School he holds responsible for the levelling down of editorial standards, the relativising of, for example, the principles of selection for modern anthologies. Poets who want to be included, he suggests, deliberately position themselves at various sanctioned margins, because postures of marginality, which may have nothing at all to do with the actual poetry written, but may concern ethnicity, antecedents, gender or sexual preference, are postures of defence against conventional or traditional standards of judgment.

Bloom"s polemic, using metaphors of madness, disease and cure, goes too far. It deadens the resonance of his conclusions. "The madness that contaminates our once high culture cannot be cured unless and until we surrender our more than Kafkan sense that social guilt is not to be doubted." Those tempted to sell out on the grounds of guilt must interrogate that guilt, a source of political and cultural inertia, with the same vehemence with which they interrogate cultural givens. "No thing can be more malignant than a disease of the spirit that sincerely regards itself as a virtue."

This leaves no room for those whose cultural radicalism stems not from guilt but from a committed understanding of, for example, modernism, or feminism, or colonialism and its aftermath. Why deny that in Caliban there lurks a figure of considerable complexity, whose meaning changes in time? The freedom we once had in which to enjoy these texts is challenged: we are required to justify our pleasure, to apologise for our understanding. Bloom is right: cultural guilt is no basis from which to engage in cultural politics or to promulgate educational policies; doctrinaire multiculturalism can disable a host culture and contribute to the culture of contempt. On the other hand, there is the other hand.
*

But not, it would seem, for Dr Neil Astley, whose anthology Being Alive: a sequel to Staying Alive was recently published. He has well and truly settled in Plainville, and he is aggressive on behalf of what he takes to be its inhabitants. His constituency is distinct from Bloom"s: Bloom has the illusion that normal folk might still read Shakespeare, or Ashbery, but Astley is under no such misapprehension. His readers bring nothing into the world but a disappointment with the way poetry was taught or sold to them in the past and an abiding hunger for the real thing, which he sets out to satisfy.

The poetry he advocates is, he reassures us, characterised by "emotional power, intellectual edge and playful wit", which seems unexceptionable until he proceeds to erode those categories. We are limiting ourselves to "thoughtful and passionate poems about living in the modern world". The past is no longer too much with us: it is not with us at all; and the modern world is suddenly a single place in which we all equally belong, regardless of geography, history, tribe, language or dialect. Dr Astley likes the prayer-book rhetorical formula of threes: good poems "touch the heart, stir the mind and fire the spirit". The Trinity is close at hand, that spirit, but only fleetingly, in an inadvertent echo. There is considerable inadvertency in the introduction to this as to earlier anthologies edited by Dr Astley and commented upon in these columns. "Many of the poems seem almost alive to the living world..." Eh? The works Dr Astley doesn"t enjoy are "too clever for their own good" or "too simplistic in their sentiments". He has endeavoured to balance "heart-rending, gut-wrenching poems of explosive power with gentler, playful, witty, thought-provoking poems of tenderness and sensuality". He resorts to Housman"s test for poetry, the bristling of the beard during the morning shave which left I.A. Richards in a state of disbelief that a clock could be set so far in the past.

"These poems make the reader less settled yet more whole, more alert to the world, more alive, more in touch with being human." No mistaking it: his mission is religious and moral, poetry has the power and authority of scripture in a secular age. Some readers may feel cajoled, with Dr Astley"s evangelical hand pressing on their heads to compel them into a kneeling posture: "...make the reader...". There is nothing here about form, about language or languages, about process; instead we have a missionary keen to colonise his new or renewed readership with decorums, right attitudes, impregnable canons. He longs for establishment. The religion of relevance here has one of its most unreflecting and confident champions. He is also disarmingly candid. "Staying Alive," he tells us, "was my response to the findings of a readership survey." And this new anthology is the product of further market research. There will be a third anthology, entitled Being Human, in a couple of years" time: if you have suggestions, let Dr Astley know. He has become less an editor than a lightning rod or a wind-sock, something responsive to elements in the drab, anti-Modern English weather.

Under the ten specious thematic divisions of his book ("Taste and See", "Men and Women", "Being and Loss", "Mad World", "Ends and Beginnings"), are there good poems? Of course there are. Are there bad poems? Yes: badly written, manipulative, emotionally or politically dishonest. What the book lacks is an editorial intelligence. No doubt Bloodaxe has another best-seller on its hands, giving Dr Astley the means and the righteous energy to continue his campaign against those poets, critics and readers who do not endorse his faith or share his mission. There are readerships and there are markets. There is selling poetry, and selling poetry out.

-- Michael Schmidt (10/08/2005)

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