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The Pope (Alexander the poet, not the pontiff) project part I: why bother?

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

The work of great poetry is to aid us to become free artists of ourselves. —Harold Bloom

The English poetry tradition, what is now in certain fashionable circles blithely dismissed as the canon, a realm dominated by deceased gentlemen of European heritage and championed by the unwoke, made little impression on me during those early, formative years when I first had the audacity to think of myself as a poet. The Romantics were an exception, but only to a degree. I have a faint recollection of being somewhat taken with Coleridge, Blake, Byron, and Shelley in high school and penning a few dismal lyrics in imitation.

In college I majored in philosophy as it developed in the West from its origins with the Presocratic Greek thinkers, who as Plato readily acknowledged borrowed from all around them, the Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, and a host of others. My studies in philosophy were supplemented by classes devoted to European intellectual history, history of political theory, traditional Chinese thought, and sociology. The mix included only two poetry classes. A freshman honors course covered T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and Robert Lowell. Another of those nagging recollections suggests a fifth poet, possibly a woman, not Sexton or Plath, the names escapes me. None of them had much impact then or later. An upper-level course took me for a deeper dive into English Romanticism. While I had some affinity for the major Romantics, I would have gotten far more out of the class if I had taken it fifteen, twenty, or more years later, something that could be said for much of my college experience. It seems that I am always trying to make up for lost ground with the ongoing affair of my modest education.

The poems that first moved me to want to write poems came from the Beats, principally Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (another vague recollection: Ferlinghetti's "I Am Waiting" in a high school textbook). With Jack Kerouac it was not the poems but rather rhapsodic passages in his novels that helped kindle the dream of being a poet, as in this selection from my battered copy of On the Road, read many times while in my twenties:

I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow candles exploding like spiders across the stars…What did they call such young people in Goethe's Germany?

The Beats were inveterate name-droppers. Through them came introduction to a mostly European tradition of outcasts and ne'er-do-wells that ran from Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) to Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Mayakovsky, and the Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s, and beyond to Bukowski, outcast and ne'er-do-well par excellence. My poetical odyssey took a turn back to the Romantics by way of the critic Harold Bloom, who I came to in the late 1970s in fortuitous and somewhat ironic fashion when Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Paul de Man made the scene as the enfants terribles of the day, out there on the cutting edge, shocking and outraging the bourgeois establishment. This prompted me to seek out other contemporary critics and theorists whose work occupied a region where the concerns of literature, philosophy, and intellectual history intersect. Frederic Jameson, Julia Kristeva, and J. Hillis Miller come to mind, although I could not now tell you what exactly they were up to, if indeed I ever really had some inkling.

Essays by Bloom popped up in anthologies of the era and led to his books The Breaking of the Vessels, A Map of Misreading, and The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry. What came through, and I found infectious, was a love of poetry and fascination with those who wrote it. With The Western Canon (1994), How to Read and Why (2000), and The Best Poems of the English Language (2004), I came to think of Bloom as a teacher. Through him I moved beyond the Romantics to other canonical works of the English tradition dating back to Chaucer and extending up through Pound and Eliot.

As the years passed I grew increasingly sympathetic with Bloom's polemical thrusts against the "academic-journalist" network" he dubbed the School of Resentment, "who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change." Not that he was any less adamant or cantankerous in his assessment of "right-wing defenders of the Canon, who wish to preserve it for its supposed (and nonexistent) moral values." On this he was unbending: "The defense of the Western Canon is in no way a defense of the West or a nationalist enterprise.… The greatest enemies of aesthetic and cognitive standards are purported defenders who blather to us about moral and political values in literature."

The Iliad teaches the surpassing glory of armed victory, while Dante rejoices in the eternal torments he visits upon his very personal enemies. Tolstoy's private version of Christianity throws aside nearly everything that anyone among us retains, and Dostoevsky preaches anti-Semitism, obscurantism, and the necessity of human bondage.… Spenser rejoices in the massacre of Irish rebels, while the egomania of Wordsworth exalts his own poetic mind over any other source of splendor.

The West's greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own.… (The Western Canon)

Heady stuff, n'est-ce pas? This is where I turn again to Derrida, who said of deconstruction, an arid, desiccated strategy for reading and interpreting philosophical and literary texts, that it is in some sense a pleasurable experience. For some individuals reading poems, and reading about poems and the people who write them, is in some sense a pleasurable experience even when the poems are difficult and getting through them a grind. I want to say that this is not a higher calling, that it is not intrinsically better than gardening or running marathons or enjoying cinema. There is something to that, but I also want to say that reading in the sense spoken of here is a high value and I fear, as Bloom feared, that it is being lost.

One of the amazing things about poetry, really about all great writing, is that from the depths of a poet's personal experience, her subjective thoughts, his inmost feelings, their wild imaginings, can come something that can touch, move, unsettle, disturb, or just plain amuse another person of vastly different background and circumstances. It seems to me this points to an elemental shared humanity that underlies differences of gender, race, religion, culture, DNA, and whatever else goes into making us the individuals that we are.

Last week I finally found a translator for poems by Chinese poets Wang Wei and Li Bai that a friend sent my way last year, one coming in a birthday card, the other with the Christmas card. Wang Wei and Li Bai lived in the eighth century, during the Tang dynasty. I know their names but little more. My acquaintance with Chinese literature, culture, and history is sketchy. The poems would possess greater resonance and depths for those who have been brought up in or studied that culture. The friend who shared the poems is an American of European descent, a scholar, a student of Chinese, and an outdoorsman to whom camping, hunting, and fishing are as integral to his identity as that dream of being a poet is to mine. When I read these short poems, I am knocked out by the way scene and emotion are evoked in a few lovely lines that capture something of how life is.

Li Bai

A young lady was plucking lotuses by the River Ye

She saw a visitor coming and sang songs on her boat, rowing to and fro,

She smiled, and sailed into the lotus bushes

Pretended to be shy and wouldn't come out

Wang Wei

Many Dharma followers dwell among the mountains

We meditate and chant as one

I gaze far away, towards the distant city

White clouds are all I see

There are many reasons and ways to read poems. Harold Bloom's love of poetry began in childhood. Mine kicked in later. Pleasure can be found in a poem knowing nothing about the poet and precious little about the technical aspects of poetry that engage professors and critics. Some poems send my spirit soaring. Others take me down into the muck or astound with a touch of what the Surrealists call the Marvelous, unsettle with the Romantic sublime, or convey the overwhelming effect of weirdness that Bloom found in Milton. There is also a place for writers and works that are of a lesser rank, to my mind, but nonetheless have their own worth. I think for example of the science fiction that nourished my love of reading as a boy and the crime fiction I read with its own brand of pleasure today as I approach my sixty-eighth birthday.

I do not know the source of the deep love of reading that has been with me since childhood. At its most basic reading is simply fun, in some sense a pleasurable experience, in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes greater effort is required for the sake of an anticipated, a deferred, pleasure. I think of the Western Canon as a list of books that critics, teachers, and other writers who care deeply and think much about these things believe will be worth one's while to read. Nothing on the list will or should be for everyone. The works are recommendations made by people whose opinions merit respect but never blind obedience. The list is not handed down from on high like the tablets to Moses. New works find their way onto it, others fall off. That women, people of color, indigenous peoples, and others have traditionally not been included is our loss, all those poems and stories we never got to read. That loss is remedied not by throwing Shakespeare and Milton overboard but by bringing in strong voices that have been left out. And how is a strong voice to be recognized? Bloom offers a necessary, though I think not sufficient, criterion: "One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify."

In Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Emily Brontë, Samuel Beckett, and others I find ways to think about myself as I go about the project of fashioning who I am. They aid me to become a free artist of myself. I would not be who I am if not for them any more than I would be who I am if I had not been born mid-century in the Dutch Fork area of South Carolina, raised by my mother and grandmother, two remarkable women, in a community that day in and day out in countless small ways provided examples of what it is to be a decent person.

Samuel Johnson and Harold Bloom are critics I read for pleasure and edification alike. Johnson, referring to Alexander Pope's translation of Homer, says that he "left in his Homer a treasure of poetical elegances to posterity. His version may be said to have turned the English tongue…the vulgar was enamored of the poem, and the learned wondered at the translation." Near the end of his life of Pope, Johnson asks plainly, "if Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?" For his part Bloom esteems Pope "among the strongest poets of the language" and "a Milton among satirists."

This was enough to compel a closer look. So I took up the Pope project to see what might be found.

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