On Reading Poetry with Harold Bloom
Updated: Feb 8, 2019
I strove with none, for none was worth my strife. Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art: I warmed both hands before the fire of life; It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
—Walter Savage Landor, "On His Seventy-fifth Birthday"
"Poetry is the crown of imaginative literature, in my judgment, because it is a prophetic mode." —Harold Bloom
I come to the literary critic and scholar Harold Bloom much as I come to the poets who mean the most to me. At his best, and maybe at my best, Bloom speaks to me and sometimes for me just as Wordsworth and Keats, Rimbaud and Eluard, the sublime Emilys, Dickinson and Brontë, and other poets speak to and for me. It is not exactly the same, but I am convinced there is something to the comparison.
Recently I have been returning to poetry a bit more, not that I ever left it, in particular to certain short poems and passages from longer poems that I once had committed to memory. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly and easily the poetry came back to me. A few nights ago I picked up again Bloom's little book How to Read and Why. In the chapter on poems he makes the case for memorization, "a first crux in how to read poems":
...wherever possible, memorize them. Once a staple of good teaching, memorization was abused into repeating by rote, and so was abandoned, wrongly. Silent intensive readings of a shorter poem that truly finds you should be followed by recitations to yourself, until you discover that you are in possession of the poem.
I have found this to be a rewarding practice and recommend it heartily. Bloom discusses "On His Seventy-fifth Birthday" in a section devoted to Housman, Blake, Landor, and Tennsyon. I have read the book several times and the chapter on poems more than that, so I must have read the Landor poem on a number of occasions. This week it struck me as never before. Maybe because I am nearer my seventy-fifth birthday than ever before.
Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864) seems to have been something of a character. Bloom remarks that his "frequent literary feuds and incessant lawsuits ironically confirmed his middle name." In The Best Poems of the English Language, an anthology he edited, Bloom tells us that Landor's life had been and continued to be an "endless series of lawsuits and controversies with parents, wife, children, friends, and strangers" right up to his death near the age of ninety. We might thus take the poem's statement that he "strove with none" as a bit of poetic license, a reminder that the truth of poetry does not lie in slavish adherence to mere facts.*
Why read poetry? I know no better answer than the one given here by Bloom:
There is a shock of recognition when we read Walt Whitman at his strongest. Poetry, at its best, does us a kind of violence that prose fiction rarely attempts or accomplishes. The Romantics understood this as the proper work of poetry: to startle us out of our sleep-death into a more capacious sense of life. There is no better motive for reading and rereading the best of our poetry.
*In these benighted times I am compelled to note that this statement about the truth of poetry has nothing to do with the Kellyanne Conway theory of alternative facts. Just saying, for the record.