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Destroying the Teacher

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976
Figures of Capable Imagination. By Harold Bloom, The Seabury Press. $11.95

THE time has come. Those of us who love Harold Bloom must stop reading him. Not because he has nothing to say. It is the all-too-much he does say which threatens to engulf any critic trying to clear a space for himself in writing about poetry since Wordsworth. Bloom is what he says: an anxiety-producing influence for all critical imaginations struggling to come into their first strength. The “Primal Scene of Instruction” here replaces the primal scene. This teacher-critic comes as surely before us, and can inspire as much envy, as does any natural father. However much one thinks of Bloom, one cannot, at this late date, think too little about him.

The book which raises these anxieties, Figures of Capable Imagination (see Stevens’s “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay”), is not Bloom’s best (Yeats is) nor his most original (read The Anxiety of Influence). It is only his most recent, and swallows up a few more of the dwindling number of major figures not yet recruited to the visionary company. Coleridge, Pater, and Emerson head this newest list of precursors. Bloom shifts the place of each in literary history: the first is weak and over-appreciated; the second, influential but unacknowledged; the third, strong but misunderstood. We should stop taking Coleridge’s “organicism” seriously (it is a defense against facing up to “the processes by which poems have to be produced”) and start appreciating Pater’s vision of the privileged moment as the universal nostalgia it has become. We all know that Coleridge is a magnificent failure; the originality of Bloom’s strategy is to displace attention toward Pater as a complementary and secret success. But the real hero here is Emerson, as shown by the book’s ten remaining essays. Except for one on Geoffrey Hill (a “strong poet” in England?), they are all about American poetry, and behind every one stands what Emerson in “Circles” called “the first speaker”—Emerson himself.

Bloom adapts here to an inescapable fact of literary history: for some time the best poetry in English has been written in America. The critic of influence, carried inevitably forward from past origins to present incarnations, is compelled to invent a precursor who can account for this belated renaissance. Perhaps the most striking shift in Bloom’s career is his turn away from the tradition overshadowed by Milton (“British High Romanticism”) toward that originating in Emerson (“American Orphism”). Implicit in this clinamen— this swerve away from his own past reading of literature in English—is a growing acceptance of the concept of national identity, if not cultural determinism. Who would have thought that Harold Bloom, so passionate an advocate of all post-Enlightenment literature as “Romantic,” would find himself caught up in the impossible but tempting task of defining the uniqueness of the American Sublime?

For according to the logic of Bloom’s theory, there is room for only one father at the head of any strong tradition. Poets may suffer a plurality of influences (Yeats, Bloom’s best documented case, strives with Blake and Shelley), but literary traditions appear to conserve their (or our) energies by wrestling rather with one giant form. The “universal truth” that Emerson strove to be in Nature—“like a great circle on a sphere, comprising all possible circles”—proves to have, as his heirs emerge, “innumerable sides.” These heirs range from Whitman and Dickinson, through Stevens, Crane, middle Roethke, and the Pound of The Pisan Cantos, to our contemporaries Merwin, Ashbery, Strand, and Ammons. They are innumerable. Emerson’s influence is endlessly extendable given the doubleness of his stance (“stance rather than style is the crucial indebtedness of a poet or imaginative prose writer”) on every position he occupies. “The problem of American poetry after Emerson might be defined as: “Is it possible to be un-Emersonian, rather than, at best, anti-Emersonian?” “Any attempt to establish Emerson’s influence eventually raises the question Emerson asked of his own method in Nature: “ but where would it stop?”

It will stop only when Bloom swerves again, or when we learn to begin creatively misreading him. What Emerson needs just now is a rigorous practical criticism which defines what he is before revealing what he has, through transformation, become. We need a notation of how to read a style (we have for too long read him as pure stance) whose sameness (Emerson admitted that “In my daily work I incline to repeat my old steps”) fails to account for its force. Reading Bloom will not help here. It will very likely paralyze. He is out to preclude every general insight which a practical critic painstakingly works toward, He is becoming the great critic of speed. Like his prime mover Shelley, Bloom goes on until he is stopped, and he is never stopped! He reads poems breathlessly, in an increasingly condensed and self-reflexive rhetoric which touches upon just enough of any chosen text to render further inquiry belated. Bloom’s dust jacket declares that “this book of practical criticism exemplifies the principles set forth in Bloom’s tetralogy of “antithetical criticism”: The Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading, Kabbalah and Criticism, and Poetry and Repression.” But Bloom knows better, and knows that he has (being Bloom) better things to do. He is a prophet, not a practical critic, and his purpose is to incite more than to explicate, Bloom is no more interested in getting down to the text than Emerson is in getting down to earth: both are committed “to an enterprise that British High Romanticism was either too common-sensical or too repressed to accept, an enterprise that can be summed up in the single word, “divination,” “Bloom foretells the future by creating the contexts which future texts, try as they will, cannot avoid.

How then does Bloom read? Anyone who knows Ammons remembers “Guide.” Here is Bloom’s maddeningly swift “full-scale antithetical critique” of it:

Ammons begins “Guide” with his own version of a dialectic of images of presence and absence. Neither unity nor materiality is present, and a rhetorical irony offers us a perception without a perceiver, and arrival that has gone a station too far, and then by synecdoche is converted into a Source that is Death’s mouth, every origin suddenly being seen as a multilated part of the whole unity that is Death.

With the negative image of a reified Absolute, with direction or openings, the language of the poem moves into the psychic defenses of undoing and isolation, but only in order to recoil from this limitation so as to mount up into a daemonic Sublime, itself based upon a repression of this poet’s deepest longings. With this, the wind ceases to speak, and the poem moves into a psychic area that alternates sublimating metaphor with a sad, final projection of the wind, in which the possibility of future knowledge is lost.

That’s it. They will get it straight one day at the Sorbonne. In the meantime, Bloom has performed an important service. In his swerve toward Emerson he has found not only a way of furthering his own career but of fathering many others. The writer of whom he now most writes, is, like himself, more than capable. But those who read Bloom will remain figures incapable of imagination until they begin, as did Emerson’s first poetic heir, to honor his style by learning under it to destroy the teacher.


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