Monday, March 18, 2013

Strong Opinions

The Best Poems of the English Language? Who could resist opening an anthology so named to see what's in it? Especially when it has the name of Harold Bloom on the front cover. It's typical of this giant of a critic's eternal self-confidence, of course, that he should name his selection the Best Poems. He begins with Chaucer, born around 1343, and ends with Hart Crane, born in 1899, and admits that by setting the latter limit, he is evading the difficult task of choosing the Best Poems by poets born in the twentieth century. Into his chronological net fall 108 poets (aside from Anonymous), with 24 given "in something like their full abundance." The 24 include poets that Bloom has always championed: Shakespeare, Milton, the major Romantic poets, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, and Hart Crane.

No anthology is without its critics over who is in and who is out. Such quarrels are par for the course. Bloom himself throws down the gauntlet in the first words of his Introduction when he declares that since the book is intended for personal use, irrelevant to its purpose are both literary history and considerations of political correctness. What he means by "political correctness" becomes clear when he continues, "The best poems published by women before 1923 are here, chosen entirely on the basis of their aesthetic value." The first woman to appear in the anthology is Julia Ward Howe, represented by a single poem "Battle-Hymn of the Republic." But what about the writing of eighteenth-century women, recovered by such ground-breaking anthologies as Roger Lonsdale's? Are we to believe that not one of their poems has "aesthetic value"? That not one of them is better than the jog-trot of "The War-Song of Dinas Vwar," included as one of two poems by Thomas Love Peacock? Whose fourth stanza begins:

We there, in strife bewildr'ing,
Spilt blood enough to swim in:
We orphaned many children,
And widowed many women.

This strange bias in selection makes Bloom's aesthetic judgment seem more idiosyncratic than authoritative. In the introductions to individual poets, Bloom shares biographical facts such as his early love for Hart Crane, and his growing appreciation for the Pre-Raphaelite poets such as the two Rossettis, William Morris and Swinburne (all represented by at least two poems). He does not seem to see, however, that these personal notes, charming though they are, suggest that aesthetic standards are not absolute and universal, but inflected by personal experience and cultural context. Yes, I too believe that the selection of poems for such an anthology must be based on aesthetic value, but I am not at all certain that my judgment should be taken as the yardstick by everyone.

Bloom's taste is broad and his judgment deep. The poems that he has selected are to be savored. He includes lesser known names but personal favorites like George Darley, Jones Very, John Brooks Wheelwright, Lionel Johnson and Leonie Adams. A number of his introductions to the poets or particular poems are really essays. In them, he still challenges preconceived notions. He considers, for instance, T. S. Eliot's "Preludes" to be his best work. Marianne Moore, he argues less controversially, is at her best in her long collage-poem "Marriage," which he judges, unexpectedly, as better than "The Waste Land." Some readers may find his constant comparisons of poets, and of a poet's poems, irritating. I think these comparisons provoke critical thought and discussion.

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