The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Harold Bloom 1973

Bloom died a few weeks ago at the age of 89, perhaps the most influential literary critic of our time.  Teaching at NYU and Yale, he wrote widely about poetry, Shakespeare, and the Western Canon while aggressively dismissing the modern schools of feminist and Third World literary circles which he derisively called the ‘literature of resentment’.  His more than 40 books were influential in both the academy and for the reading public.  I especially was greatly influenced by his book, ‘How to Read and Why’ which I credit with starting my eclectic and deep reading as an adult.  Another one of my favorites among his books is a ‘gathering of final poems’ by 100 influential poets published in 2010 as ‘Till I End my Song’.  As an homage to this literary giant, when I learned of his death, I decided to read what academics consider his most influential work and one of his earliest books, ‘The Anxiety of Influence’.  It was only my respect for the author that enabled me to get through the 156 pages of dense and almost undecipherable prose in this slim volume.  Bloom develops the theory that all great poets (included in that group were the Romatic poets Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, and Browning, their precursors Homer, Milton, and Blake and the modern poets that followed them Stevens, Eliot, Yeats, and perhaps Roethke and Ashbury) achieved their greatness through addressing the influence of their precursors.  He outlined the six ways  (using Greek terms in a nod to Homer) in which the new poet (the ephebe) is influenced by his (you will note that there are no women poets in any of his lists!) precursor drawing heavily on Freud and Nietzsche:  1)Clinamen or a poetic misreading where a poet swerves away from his precursor 2)Tessera which is completion and antithesis where a poet gives his precursor’s work another meaning 3)Kenosis which is a breaking-device used to empty out his precursor’s work 4) Daemonization which is a movement towards a personal Counter-Sublime by doing away with the uniqueness of his precursor 5)Askesis which is a movement of self-purgation to attain solitude by truncating his precursor’s work 6) Apophrades which is a return to the dead in which it appears that the young poet has written the precursor’s work and not vice versa.  If you are not totally confused by now, try reading the whole book which is nearly entirely obscure.  By the end of the book, I was extremely grateful that I had become a scientist and not an English professor.  Worth reading if only, and perhaps only, for the definition of a poet as one who begins by ‘rebelling more strongly against the consciousness of death’s necessity than all other men and women do.”  Bloom was a great reader, critic, and thinker, but read one of his other books, not this one which like his six categories, was nearly all Greek to me.

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