The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Frost, edited by Harold Bloom. HarperCollins, March 2004. $34.95
The poems I have chosen to memorize over the years answer to an odd mixture of social occasions and opportunities. When asked to perform a poem at nonacademic parties, I have found Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” not among the poems Harold Bloom includes in The Best Poems of the English Language (2004), to serve me best. My audience is not literary, but it can still readily grasp the capacity of sound and syntax alone to generate narrative meaning. Meanwhile the poem can be embodied in gesture and expression, so the mysterious power to incarnate words may also be on display. As a longtime poetry teacher, moreover, I have not found it possible to get through a semester without quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover.” The plosive excesses of his sprung rhythm haunt a wide range of poems whose effects become audible in the wake of this most extreme example of English’s capacity for alliteration. On the other hand, though I am equally committed to, coembedded with, Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall,” I prefer to recite it to myself. I am not entirely sure why—perhaps because it is one of very few poems that offer me consolation I can accept. “Márgarét, áre you gríeving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” And, finally, like many steeped in high literary traditions, I have some favorite pieces of doggerel whose capacity to burlesque literary ambition and bring it down to earth is a necessary cultural and personal antidote. My all-time favorite remains H. H. Lewis’s “Thinking of Russia”:
- I’m always thinking of Russia
- I can’t keep her out of my head.
- I don’t give a damn for Uncle Sham.
- I’m a left wing radical Red.
Lewis’s rude little quatrain, needless to say, finds no place in Bloom’s recent hyperbolically titled The Best Poems of the English Language, though Bloom’s anthology is no less of a challenge to its readers’ sensibilities than Lewis’s poem is. The pressures to number the company of the elect presumably prohibit Bloom’s or anyone else’s version of Lewis—perhaps a favorite limerick—from getting into the book. But it is worth remembering that the pleasures of the poetic always exceed prevailing standards for excellence. Bloom tells us he has compiled the book he has always wanted to have by his side. Will anyone feel the same? Surely it is as much a compilation of our favorite poems we would want by our side on that proverbial desert island as it is whatever the best of the best poems might be. The personal favorites collection each of us might assemble would not be transferable to other readers. Neither, for that matter, would anyone’s large collection of “best” poems match anyone else’s. Bloom certainly knows that. Indeed he sees his enterprise as a corrective to rampant bad judgment and nonaesthetic criteria. The difference in part is that Bloom believes he has got it right. I might take on a “some of the best” anthology, but nothing could convince me my taste was divine. If Bloom harbors any such doubt, he has successfully suppressed all public evidence of it for many years.
It is not just that different readers—and different historical periods—evidence different tastes, interests, and standards. It is also that history has bequeathed us so many different poetic styles, voices, forms, rhythms, and subjects that contests between them are undecidable. You could of course decide in advance that the best poems have to be sonnets. Or you could rule out satire. Or you could choose bests in many different categories of form and content—the best love poems, the best villanelles, and so forth. If no one consistent aesthetic standard is likely to encompass even a single reader’s reasons for experiencing poetic pleasure, the aesthetic variation out there in the field is still greater.
What Bloom has done in this curious collection is to combine idiosyncratic preferences in tone and subject matter with large exclusionary categories. The glaring omissions that will immediately strike most contemporary readers derive from Bloom’s scorched-earth policy toward women and minority writers. The 1996 edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry includes over twenty women poets from the beginning of English poetry to the year 1819, the year Bloom’s first female poet was born. Here are the names of the women poets included in the Norton and the year each was born: Anne Askew (1521), Queen Elizabeth (1533), Isabella Whitney (ca. 1540s), Mary Sidney (1568), Aemilia Lanyer (1569), Mary Wroth (ca. 1587), Anne Bradstreet (ca. 1612), Margaret Cavendish (1623), Katherine Philips (1632), Aphra Behn (ca. 1640), Anne Killigrew (1660), Anne Finch (1661), Lady Mary Wortly Montagu (1689), Mary Leapor (1722), Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743), Hannah More (1745), Phillis Wheatley (1753), Helen Maria Williams (1761), Joanna Baille (1762), Mary Tighe (1722), Felicia Dorothy Hemans (1793), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806), and Emily Brontë (1818). Their names are not to be found in Bloom’s table of contents. In their place he repeats his notorious complaint, first broadcast in a Boston Review essay, that “extrapoetic considerations of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and assorted ideologies increasingly constitute the grounds for judgment in the educational institutions and the media of the English-speaking world” (13). He offers instead what he calls a search for “the Sublime,” for instances of “Loftiness.”
How might a woman embody the sublime? To what form of loftiness might she aspire? Perversely, the first poem by a woman, five hundred pages into Bloom’s anthology, gives us one version of his answer:
- Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
- He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
- He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword …
It is Julia Ward Howe’s 1862 “Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” which did indeed become the unofficial anthem of the Northern Army in the American Civil War. Summoning symbols of transcendent patriarchal power to the army’s side, the poem bids men to die “While God is marching on.” Women, it seems, can aspire to bless the state. It is a text, incidentally, that cannot be read aloud; it can only be sung, lest lines like “They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps” or “As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal” lead one to falter. The poem belongs in any historical anthology of American poetry, for it is lodged in the heart of the country and exists in scores of versions rewritten for new occasions. But is it one of “the best poems of the English language”? When editing the Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford 2000), I found I could not bring myself to include it because it has, to my ears, too many bad lines. For me, then, aesthetics trumped history in this case, which is Bloom’s self-declared principle as well. You may judge on which side the truth falls.
“Battle-Hymn of the Republic” initiates a whole series of problematic Bloomian decisions about women’s poetry. Our memory of both 19th- and 20th-century poetry in English has been thoroughly overhauled over the last thirty years, and a whole series of women poets have been reevaluated and recovered. The results include both poems of significant historical and cultural interest and poems that rank as major achievements. Bloom ignores most of these writers, but on the few occasions when he does include their work, he often refuses what we have learned about it and renews their incorporation within male condescension.
Thus Edna St. Vincent Millay gets doubly undermined. First Bloom tells us, “I confess to finding her more interesting as a life story than as a poet” (929), the traditional way of dismissing her. Then he prints only “If I should learn, in some quite casual way,” a sonnet that is not only antiromantic—Millay’s most notable mode—but also self-undermining for its female speaker, who reports that if she learned of her man’s death, she would not “cry / Aloud” but rather attend to “Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.” Bloom might well have paired it with a Millay poem debunking male subjectivity or, still better, used one of Millay’s powerful poems in which an articulate female speaker opts for cold and sophisticated romantic deflation. Those, moreover, are the sonnets more intricately in dialogue with their Renaissance predecessors. But Bloom is willing to set aside his thirty-year preoccupation with issues of influence and literary allusion to choose a Millay poem that is not as good as a number of her others. He simply cannot help himself.
Bloom set a remarkably counterproductive limit to his collection, drawing a line in the sand at the year 1899. No poet born later would gain admittance. The calendar has a certain cultural logic, to be sure, one that exceeds the merely arbitrary, but it does not map onto literary history except by way of a willful misreading. There are dates that set meaningful—if always debatable—limits to literary periods, but a birth date of 1899 has instead an irrational impact. It does not stop before modernism, but it does not carry through until modernism’s conclusion either. The British have often felt Yeats’s death in 1939 on the eve of World War II combined literary and political history in a way that decisively signaled the end of an era. In the United States we have both the arrival of the Beats and the emergence of confessional poetry in the 1950s, both of which overturn Eliot’s mask of impersonality and place literary modernism decisively in the past. One may choose earlier events, like the use of the atomic bomb or the revelation of the Holocaust, to close the modern period, but a birth year tells us little about literary history.
There are two unstated but no doubt significant motives underlying Bloom’s decision. First, it prevents him from confronting the need to pay reprint fees. Poems published in 1922 or earlier are now in the public domain, as are poems by writers dead for seventy years or more. T. S. Eliot, born in 1888, published The Waste Land in 1922. Hart Crane, born in 1899, died in 1932. The Waste Land and The Bridge are now in the public domain, as are Robert Frost’s and Wallace Stevens’s early work. The absence of anything from Eliot’s Four Quartets may have more to do with the fact that it is expensive to reprint than with any claim that it just isn’t as good as “Battle-Hymn of the Republic.” As I argue at length in Office Hours (2004), reprint fees can kill off an anthology substantially devoted to the 20th century. Bloom might well have acknowledged this problem rather than disguising it.
The other reason for setting the 1899 cutoff date is more sinister. It helps Bloom to eliminate much of the Harlem Renaissance. In Bloom’s mind, those of our African American poets who did not much like the United States have apparently returned to where they or their ancestors came from: “If poets born in the twentieth century were included here, many would be from Canada, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa” (xxv). No mention of Native American poets, no mention of the black poets who radically transformed the sonnet into a form for political protest or incorporated blues and jazz rhythms into poetry for the first time, all innovations requiring us to broaden our aesthetic horizons.
When Henry Louis Gates introduced the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, he remarked that simply winning attention for Melvin Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) would justify the entire book. The poem is partly a black rejoinder to The Waste Land, offering an alternative set of literary and historical allusions from worlds that do not impinge on Eliot’s imagination. When I reprinted it in Anthology of Modern American Poetry, I commissioned a remarkable set of annotations from Edward Brunner, making it fully accessible to readers for the first time. There is some doubt about when Tolson was born. It may have been 1899, but 1900 is more likely. So Bloom can hide behind the inanity of the calendar and consider Tolson barred by law. Sterling Brown, born in 1901, and Langston Hughes, born in 1902, are luckily ruled out of contention as well. And so Bloom’s “best” poems are by white poets. It was the implacable authority of the calendar, folks; Harold had no choice.
But as the list of women poets from earlier periods demonstrates, Bloom had no small measure of choice even within the limits he set for himself. Lola Ridge, born in 1873, could also rewrite the Renaissance sonnet for the modern age:
- What if the heat of this enormous hive
- Plotted and combed with fire, shall not suffice,
- To stay the bleak offensive of the ice …
Amy Lowell, born in 1874, wrote some of the most powerful and metaphorically inventive love poems of the century: “I parted you from your leaves, / Until you stood up like a white flower.” Mina Loy, born in 1882, wrote “Songs to Joannes,” which is now widely regarded as one of the major achievements of experimental modernism. Angelina Weld Grimké, born in 1880, wrote love poems and protest poems, often haunting and intricate. In Anne Spencer’s “White Things” we have one of the towering poetic indictments of whiteness; she was born in 1882.
Grimké and Spencer were also black, but Bloom had James Weldon Johnson (1871) and Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872) as options as well. But perhaps the most outrageous omission of an African American poet—within Bloom’s own announced standards—is Claude McKay, born in Jamaica in 1889. McKay broke with the sonnet tradition in 1919 and continued to do so for another two decades. If Millay rearticulated centuries of rhetorical eloquence to a feminized irony, McKay did the same for anger. His full poetic output is only available now, in his Collected Poems, edited for the first time by William Maxwell and published in 2004. His ground-breaking sonnets, however, have been reprinted in anthologies for more than fifty years. Here is “Mulatto” (1925):
- Because I am the white man’s son—his own,
- Bearing his bastard birth-mark on my face,
- I will dispute his title to his throne,
- Forever fight him for my rightful place,
- There is a searing hate within my soul,
- A hate that only kin can feel for kin,
- A hate that makes me vigorous and whole,
- And spurs me on increasingly to win.
- Because I am my cruel father’s child,
- My love of justice stirs me up to hate,
- A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled,
- When falls the hour I shall not hesitate
- Into my father’s heart to plunge the knife
- To gain the utmost freedom that is life.
If Bloom’s wholesale elimination of poems by women and minorities is disgusting and deplorable, however, it is not especially interesting. It is simply part of the conservative backlash against muticulturalism. In Bloom’s much-attacked Boston Review piece, he turned a military metaphor from Thucydides—”They have the numbers; we, the heights”—into a cultural claim, one intended to evoke a horde of multiculturalists about to overwhelm those few white cultural stalwarts in possession of the truth. It was reprinted as the introduction to Bloom’s The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988—1997, where he castigates Adrienne Rich for her inclusion of “enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us” (16) in her own anthology, The Best American Poetry 1996. Bloom has in mind, among others, such Native American poets as Sherman Alexie and Adrian Louis. Always convinced he has one hand securely grasping the eternal verities, Bloom regrettably has the other hand embedded in racist cultural temptations he might better have resisted. His fellow backlasher, Marjorie Perloff, lampoons most African American poets, all too political for her taste, but tries to cover herself by praising those few who write in her preferred abstract, experimental tradition. Bloom cannot do the same, since black poets do not exist in the aesthetic of his book, but, like all canny contemporary misogynists, he finds one woman to praise. In his case it is Léonie Adams, about whom he remarks, “I am unable to understand why Léonie Adams is not more read and discussed than she is now. Four of her best poems are given here, but I wish I had space for more” (936). Neither Hopkins nor Yeats, among others, gets a similar wistful “were there but world enough and time” plea for more space.
Yet the price he pays in The Best Poems of the English Language is deeper than laying himself open to charges of assembling a collection grounded in unconscious racism and misogyny. His 1899 cutoff propels him into modernism but then severely curtails its representation. The deaf ear he turns to African American and feminist music incapacitates him further. The unquestioned masterpieces in the book—and there are scores of them—are mostly altogether familiar and entirely canonical. Any of us would include them in such a book, from the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales through Shakespeare’s sonnets and Keats’s Odes to The Bridge. What matters in the end are the surprises he provides, and those are mostly surprises of omission. When they are not surprises of omission, they are, alas, too often surprises of commission, hilarious choices that leave one astonished. In the place of Amy Lowell’s enraptured love poems and Claude McKay’s towering protest poems we are offered Trumbull Stickney’s “Mnemosyne,” which Bloom aptly describes as “a perfect example of American nostalgia” (814):
- It’s lonely in the country I remember
- The babble of our children fills my ears,
- And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
- To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.
This bathos Bloom promotes to empyrean heights. One may only express relief that, if the “Battle-Hymn of the Republic” sounds in our ears as we march toward the next Baghdad, we at least have Stickney to remind us there are reasons to be embarrassed at being an American.
So why are a number of Bloom’s additions to the company of the blest such clunkers? What drives him to look elsewhere when he encounters strong poems that might well belong in his book? What unifies the poems he admires and what unifies the poems he rejects? The first clue might be recognized in the poems he chooses for the poets who are in his anthology. Herman Melville is there with his gnomic “The Portent,” which forecasts the deluge of the Civil War, and with his riveting and visceral nature poem “The Maldive Shark,” but not with “Shiloh,” “Ball’s Bluff,” “Malvern Hill,” “Memorial on the Slain at Chickamauga,” “The March into Virginia,” or “An Uninscribed Monument on One of the Battlefields of the Wilderness.” Neither in the selection of poems nor in the headnote is there anything to suggest Melville is fundamentally a poet of the Civil War. Whitman gets “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” but not “The Wound-Dresser,” “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” or any of his other Civil War poems. Tennyson does not get “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which might well have pride of place with Howe’s “Battle-Hymn.”
The pattern persists into the 20th century. Kipling gets “The Vampire,” a poem I like because it received a feminist rejoinder, but not “Tommy,” “Recessional,” or the later “Epitaphs of the War.” Allen Tate gets “Aeneas at Washington” and “The Mediterranean,” both refreshing reminders of Tate’s rhetorical dexterity, but at the price of eliminating the canonical “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” For some writers, especially those whose work peaked as they died at war, there would seem little choice. But there Bloom’s choices become not simply strange but actually perverse. Isaac Rosenberg is represented with two rather indirect poems, “Returning, We Hear the Larks” and “A Worm Fed on the Heart of Corinth,” while his wartime masterpieces “Break of Day in the Trenches” and “Dead Man’s Dump” are nowhere to be found. Siegfried Sassoon is not represented at all. With Wilfred Owen, again, he is either to be given war poems or cast out of the book, and Bloom permits him “Strange Meeting” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” but the one poem central to every discussion of the literature of the war, Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” is rejected. Far from being a typical poem of the First World War, for the average poem was patriotic and prowar, Owen’s is also one of very few poems to manage graphic descriptions of death. Yet it clings to literariness despite the barbarity of what it witnesses. Its omission from the anthology is inexcusable. But Bloom is not fond of poems so visceral, so recklessly material. His ideal voice is Hamlet’s Polonius, as if rewritten by Hart Crane. In other words, Bloom likes philosophical platitudes refracted through layers of frenzied imagery and high rhetoric. At the end he admits “a lifelong addiction to high poetry” (942). Poetry for Bloom is about transcendent truths, the twists and turns of consciousness thoroughly abstracted from time and place. It is not just war poems he dislikes—though the absence of Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” is astonishing, for it haunts every subsequent wartime departure from a lover—but all poems tied to historical events and social struggles.
Yeats is thus here with “The Second Coming” but not with “Easter 1916” or “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Perhaps even “Leda and the Swan” seemed too physical for this editor. One would not know from Bloom’s collection that race has been a central theme in English and American poetry for a century and a half. Not that every major poem about race in America is readily available, either in anthologies or elsewhere. Aaron Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey,” the most ambitious poem about African American history ever written by a white American, has languished in a chapbook for half a century; it will finally be reprinted in Wicked Times, Kramer’s selected poems, in 2004. If there are any doubts, one may confirm that Bloom seems to have forgotten abolitionist poetry. In much the same vein, one would not know from Bloom’s anthology that labor struggles have been played out in poems even longer. Poems on governmental themes stretch back further still. Bloom asks the standard—and often dishonestly answered—question of each poem he considers: “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?” (21). But of course the ravages of war and the inequities of social life are not short-term subjects. They permeate human history almost without relief. Poems on such subjects often enough have difficulty holding onto the specifics of time and place, they seem so relevant to future generations.
“Ultimately,” Bloom writes, “we seek out the best poems because something in many, if not most, of us quests for the transcendental and extraordinary, however secular, however well within the realm of the natural” (xxvi). Why, in the light of this, he refuses to include either Hopkins’s “The Windhover” or his “Spring and Fall,” among the poems I cited at the outset, I can hardly guess, though perhaps the former is too harsh in the way it deploys its consonants; perhaps it is not sufficiently abstract and lyrical. Presumably it is the antilyrical character of her verse that leads Bloom to omit Gertrude Stein. And one assumes it is the willfully intermittent lyricism and factually irradiated character of Pound’s Cantos that explains their absence, though in Pound’s case he offers a further explanation: “The Cantos contain material that is not humanly acceptable to me, and if that material is acceptable to others, then they themselves are thereby less acceptable, at least to me” (859). But the inclusion in Pound’s Cantos of humanly unacceptable allegiances is precisely why one might want to anthologize them. They teach us what poetry can be and has been and prevent us from deluding ourselves about the nature of poetic idealization. Other omissions—among them the rejection of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”—also make it impossible to represent poets’ careers fairly or to track the very patterns of influence Bloom finds so central to poetic tradition.
Part of what recent theories that Bloom hates have taught us is that the transcendental is not transcendent. It is produced in time, by people facing difficulty and aspiration. It occurs as often as not in poems confronting specific historic occasions, just as so many abstract notions—justice, decency, faith—are formulated out of need, in the face of their historical betrayal. Part of what the poems Bloom casts into the abyss regularly do is offer the most telling and concise historical testimony possible. They do so, as Bloom recognizes for the poems he admires, by radical exploitation of the figurative power of the language. In poetry an era can sometimes be compressed into a stanza. Miraculously, it will sometimes seem that none of that era’s complications have been slighted. Extraordinary? Certainly, but the extraordinariness is of insight, compression, and representation—and of a complementary power of implication—not the extraordinary illusion of leaving lived time behind.