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In the Literary Jungle

A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers

by Hugh Kenner
Knopf, 221 pp., $8.95

In Radical Pursuit: Critical Essays and Lectures

by W.D. Snodgrass
Harper & Row, 364 pp., $10.00

A Map of Misreading

by Harold Bloom
Oxford, 206 pp., $8.95

An act of attention”; “a minute obligation to fact”; “the witty transit through minute predilections”; “through cluttered tidiness, the reader must move like a cat.” The phrases are Hugh Kenner’s and they describe and characterize the poems of Marianne Moore. But they also describe, and even enact, the criticism of Hugh Kenner, and they do something to explain why his chapter on Marianne Moore should be the best thing in his new book. Kenner combs the world like a critical Sherlock Holmes, isolating details, making distinctions, collecting verbal and technological specimens. Recalling Miss Moore’s comparison of the feel of a snake to the feel of rose petals, he registers both the pose and the precision in that conceit: “It was perhaps too poetic a remark to make its point, but she never allowed a fear of being thought poetic to deter her from accuracy…. In her poems, things utter puns to the senses.”

Unlike Holmes, though, Kenner doesn’t always solve the case; doesn’t always even see that there is a case, and his work easily deteriorates into fussiness and gossip. It is interesting that he should know, for example, that the middle names of Hjalmar Schacht were Horace and Greeley, but having committed that particular act of attention, Kenner simply turns his attention elsewhere. Similarly, the catalogues of nearly simultaneous events which appear in The Pound Era, floated by irony and by a sense of energies shuttling between the events themselves, degenerate in A Homemade World into flat and quirky statements. Compare these two evocations of 1904. From the earlier work:

The Great Train Robbery had been filmed the year before, the Ford Motor Company had been founded, and Orville Wright had been airborne for twelve seconds…. In what was still St. Petersburg Ivan Pavlov received word of a Nobel Prize for his work on the physiology of digestion, and Igor Stravinsky the judgment of Rimski-Korsakov that his talents were less well suited to law than to music. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life appeared that year in Vienna (and Peter Pan in London). In Dublin there was much action. The Mechanics’ Institute Playhouse and what had been the adjoining city morgue were connected and at year’s end opened as the Abbey Theatre. On June 16 a man who never existed wandered about the city for eighteen hours, in the process sanctifying a negligible front door at 7 Eccles Street….

and from the new work:

James Joyce commenced A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1904, the year after two Americans, sons of a bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, had flown on man-made wings at Kitty Hawk.

Dedalus, you see. Flying. Mr. Wright senior is just padding. Kenner’s taste for technology has lured him into triviality. Or perhaps, having the clues but not the case, the master detective is looking for the missing mystery, and hopes to find it in such raids on the insignificant.

This is the chief flaw of A Homemade World. Kenner, who is so much at home in Pound’s imagination, and so brilliant when he lets his own imagination have its fling, as he does in The Counterfeiters, writes about American literature as if he were an anthropologist visiting a particularly alien and unattractive tribe. There are dazzling local observations, but the general thesis—that American literature is in some way especially homemade—is confirmed only by the case of William Carlos Williams, who said as much, and is then bolstered up by capricious readings of Stevens and by sentimental (although generous) assertions about Louis Zukofsky, while it is actually denied by the book’s most perceptive moments, when Faulkner is connected with Mallarmé, Marianne Moore with Ruskin, and best of all, Hemingway with Walter Pater.

Kenner quotes the opening of A Farewell to Arms—“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains”—and simply reads it: “We shall never experience any of this again, runs the undercurrent below these…sentences…. Meanwhile the permanent things, even those, ache with transience; for though the pebbles and the sunlight will endure we shall not see them with the same eyes again.” This is Pater’s melancholy, to be followed by Pater’s response, the creation of a “wholly aesthetic basis” for your values. Style is the thing, and Hemingway becomes a cousin of all those “forlorn aesthetes,” Dowson and Symons and Oscar Wilde, Pater’s heirs.

Certainly the fact that these writers should have European antecedents does nothing to diminish their Americanness—that fact, and a whole variety of responses to it, is part of what it is to be an American. What seems flimsy is Kenner’s notion of the homemade. It is true, as Kenner suggests, that Fitzgerald sometimes blurred his writing by a kind of provinciality, that Moore and Zukofsky are eccentric; that Stevens’s idea that you can believe something only when you know it’s a fiction is “subtle doctrine,” as Kenner calls it. But I don’t think the concept of the homemade will tie these instances together—the last one seems almost excessively cosmopolitan, and what does eccentricity have to do with provinciality? Kenner is on firmer ground when he suggests that the American writers of this century have sought to remake language, that they have seen language not as a heritage but as a code, as a lexicon of possibilities. Joyce displays a unique linguistic virtuosity, but the American virtuoso, Stevens say, makes discoveries about language. ” ‘The Woman Who Blamed Life on a Spaniard’: there is no procedure for thinking of a title like that. You find it by turning over stones.”

Kenner himself finds his insights by turning over stones. That is how he comes across the exposed quality of Fitzgerald’s prose, that spareness which reveals lapses that “we should barely discern amid the cadences and crescendos of a more opulent manner, for instance Conrad’s.” Kenner also comes across the structural similarity between The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night; and across the peculiar ontological status of Williams’s red wheelbarrow, separated by the spacing of the poem into its components (wheel and barrow) and given a very curious imaginative location. The poem can be read aloud, but you can’t imagine a situation in which anyone could say what is says: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.”

Try it over,” Kenner invites, “in any voice you like: it is impossible. It could only be the gush of an arty female on a tour of Farmer Brown’s barnyard.” And then try this, on the other hand:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Kenner finds such good things by turning over stones that it seems ungrateful to complain that the patches left by the turned stones don’t make a pattern or a meaning. But an interesting question now emerges. Kenner, it seems, can’t get from his details to a larger picture unless he finds, as he did in The Pound Era, a perfect place to stand. Perhaps this is true of all critics, and the distinction of Lionel Trilling, for example, may lie above all in his sense of where he is, in his gift for finding the vantage point he needs.

Criticism is full of failed leaps toward generality, and it is good to see W.D. Snodgrass, undaunted, line up to try his hand at things like the Industrial Revolution (“Work became a burden, an imprisonment; the modern itch for fun was born”); political theory (“Raskolnikov and his story may indeed stand as exemplifying the history of revolutionaries and their actions in the Western World ever since the French Revolution”); and cultural diagnosis (“In the name of self-expression, the average man will create a world of total sameness and conformity”). These attempts are not encouraging, though, and the appearance of “the average man” is downright depressing.

I admire the impulse behind Snodgrass’s essays a great deal—he wishes to connect literature with the most familiar and unknown (unknown because familiar) experiences of daily life—but the essays themselves issue too often in helpless, narrow simplicities: “If Dante had ever become closely acquainted with the human, physical Bice Portinari, wouldn’t he probably have found her ill-tempered, neurotic, as hard to live with as most humans?” Homer’s Achilles is “driven by the self-centered passions of a spoiled three-year-old. Could it have been different with Hitler? Stalin? General MacArthur? With the Wall Street tycoons? With men?” Can we imagine Dante’s Francesca living happily with Paolo, if her husband were magically put out of the way? “Do we seriously believe she would be more faithful to him? Too plainly most of us are equally unhappy with whomever we marry….”

Most humans; most of us; Snodgrass’s all too frequent use of the demotic “we” is meant to suggest we are all in the same boat. What it actually suggests is that Snodgrass doesn’t know how time-bound and tiny his boat is. We are all neurotic, spoiled, aggressive, unfaithful and unhappy: such a projection of middleclass American worries on to the whole of literature is amazing, and can probably be performed by honest and decent men only with the assistance of Freud and his tempting myths of the darkness of the psyche. Snodgrass looks into his heart, or for that matter into his remarkable poems, finds there such apparent universals as repression and guilt and resentment and angst, and by an imperceptible slip in his logic, mistakes his heart for the world. No doubt it is true that neurosis, aggression, unhappiness, and the rest lurk everywhere, in some form or another; but that is not the same thing as saying that everyone is neurotic, aggressive, and unhappily married.

Snodgrass says in his preface that he never writes prose until he feels “fairly sure” that he has “something new to say about a subject.” There is a clue here to what is wrong with In Radical Pursuit, to the reason why it is interesting when it speaks to particulars, like Snodgrass’s own poems or his teaching experiences, and dull when it tackles the work of others, whether it is that of Roethke or Ransom, Lawrence or Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, or Homer. Snodgrass is precise about personal details and oddly clumsy about most of the texts he chooses to discuss. That is the mark, perhaps, of the man who has something to say about literature. Criticism, like literature itself, doesn’t say anything—at least not about literature. It may say plenty about other things, but its relation to literature is mimetic, parasitic. I don’t think, as Harold Bloom does, that criticism is poetry (although I do think a lot of irritating criticism tries to be); but it should be clear that criticism is not a statement or a set of statements, but an act, a quest, as Bloom says, borrowing the idea from Paul de Man, for images for the experience of reading.

Fame, Borges once wrote, is a form of incomprehension, and perhaps the worst. Harold Bloom’s theory of poetry has a sort of fame, at least by hearsay, and is largely uncomprehended. This is partly Bloom’s fault. If some of the more militant phrases from The Anxiety of Influence are often heard flying among the martinis, it is because he wrote them intending to provoke us. “The meaning of a poem can only be another poem”; “There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations”; “Influence is Influenza—an astral disease.” None of those sentences turns out to mean anything very surprising, and their extravagance is just a part of Bloom’s manner. Bloom constantly writes as if he were simultaneously inventing gunpowder and telling us a particularly bloodcurdling bedtime story. The story concerns what Bloom says is “the saddest truth” he knows about poets and poetry, the truth that no poet is as original as he thinks he is, that the very notion of originality is more often than not a defensive myth, designed to shelter poets from the awesome power of their predecessors. This is “dark and daemonic ground,” he says:

we need to tread on shadowy and daemonic ground, in the sorrow of origins, where art rises from shamanistic ecstasy and the squalor of our timeless human fear of mortality.

Squalor? we may murmur. Sorrow? Sadness? Yes, because in Bloom’s view poetry results from a battle to the death between fathers and sons. It is a scene of “savagery” and literature is “built upon the ruin of every impulse most generous in us.” Bloom says he finds all this “distasteful,” and I’m sure he does; but he writes about it with the relish of a vampire flexing his fangs. And beneath it all, of course, lies a deep belief in the omnipresence of aggression. Bloom thinks that while the sublimation of sexual instincts may or may not play a part in the genesis of poetry, the sublimation of aggressive instincts is “central to writing and reading poetry,” and is “almost identical with the total process of poetic misprision”—identical, that is, with Bloom’s subject. What we are reading in Bloom is a complicated and often very persuasive literary version of Ardrey’s Territorial Imperative.

Bloom is a professor of English, a member of a highly competitive brotherhood which now, in this buyer’s market, employs only the “best” people; he is an inhabitant of a country which has long fed on myths of violent and creative competition; and he can write, of Milton, that he was involved in “direct competition” with Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Dante, and Tasso, as if Milton were General Motors worrying about fading sales. (Bloom says a poet’s precursor may be a composite figure, but once you have endowed a poet with six fathers to overthrow, the family romance becomes identical with culture itself and Bloom’s “saddest truth” becomes a truism: poets are preceded by other poets.) There is an ethnocentricity here which is richer than that of Snodgrass, but not fundamentally different. Bloom has looked into his heart and his seminar, and in a profound and unexpected and unexamined way has found there an unreconstructed America, a visionary company of overachievers. This is why his theory of Oedipal poetic relations works better for American poets.

Let me be clear. I think it is true that all poets, American or not, have to cope with their poetic fathers, find their own voices; true that Milton fathered Wordsworth and that Blake and Shelley fathered Yeats. Poems are made of words, and words have a history. They have been used before, shaped into styles and manners and poetic identities. When we read a poem, we read all the other poems it might have been, if it had not managed to be itself; and Bloom’s great gift, more evident in A Map of Misreading than in The Anxiety of Influence, is for making us see and feel this cloud of presences, this insistent host of other poems haunting and threatening the poem in our hands. These are not new or startling ideas—they are all implicit in Eliot and in Northrop Frye, and indeed in the ordinary reading practice of many people, whether they have read Frye and Eliot or not. The idea of poetic anxiety was adumbrated, as Bloom acknowledges, by W.J. Bate. What is important in Bloom is the range of his reading, the availability of his knowledge (it comes when he calls it), and the inventiveness and agility with which he constructs his poetic families.

For he is doing something rather more complicated than summaries of his views tend to suggest. He is not studying sources, even when the source of a poem is in fact another poem. He is not charting recurring patterns of images and ideas. He is not (and this is more difficult) mapping similarities of style and tone. “Poets,” he says grandly, “need not look like their fathers,” and goes on to quote an impressive passage from Emerson, beginning, “For it is not meters, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem….”

Still, one can’t talk about poems much without mentioning style and tone and images and ideas and indeed those things are what Bloom talks about most of the time, pointing meanwhile to more elusive configurations. He speaks of “a poet’s stance, his Word, his imaginative identity, his whole being”—I know what he means, but I don’t see that this Platonic notion of poetic individuality can be of any real use to him as a critic. What is useful is the thought that poets need not look like their poetic fathers: a critic working on that basis can draw up his poetic families just as he likes. To see Whitman haunting Stevens, and Stevens haunting Ashbery, as Bloom does, is to see interesting things in both fathers and sons, without having to bother about “influence” in its ordinary meaning at all.

The most brilliant of Bloom’s critical moves is also his most perverse. It occurs at the end of The Anxiety of Influence, where Bloom, having identified five relations of sons to fathers (swerving, completing, emptying, displacing, diminishing, or in Bloom’s terms clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis), reaches his sixth “ratio,” as he calls these relations: apophrades, the return of the dead. The fathers return in the poetry of the sons, but defeated now, so that the sons seem to be the fathers’ precursors. Tennyson can seem “overly influenced” by The Waste Land. “Whitman appears at times too enraptured by Hart Crane.” This is witty, and full of interpretative possibilities. Bloom owes this insight, as he says, to Borges. But Borges merely suggested that a writer creates his own precursors. Bloom is suggesting that a writer can devour his father, and that we can watch this cannibalism take place on the page.

With this we return to Bloom’s “saddest truth,” his dark and daemonic bedtime story. I accept the truth, the absence in poetry since Milton of what Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman call “priority,” but I can’t share all that sadness largely because “who came first?” doesn’t seem to me so exclusive or so urgent a question, for poets or for anyone else. Poets have to clear space for themselves, and they do this by pushing an ancestor out of the way. But the poem is not simply an unending clearing of space, as Bloom suggests (“there are no texts but only relationships between texts”); the poem is also what fills the cleared space. We can believe, that is, that all poets have poetic fathers without believing that all poets are Oedipus, or that their poetry is shaped only (or even mainly, in some cases) by a battle with their fathers. Of course Bloom knows this too, at least some of the time. That poets are subject to influences not poetical is obvious, he disarmingly says, “even to me.” He speaks of Hardy’s wrestling with the dead as “kinder” than that of Yeats: “kinder to himself and to the fathers.” And yet he thinks Hardy the greater poet, even though Hardy’s kindness seems to clash with everything Bloom is saying about the sublimation of aggression.

A Map of Misreading adds six rhetorical tropes, six psychic defenses, six sets of imagery, and three movements of creation to Bloom’s original six ratios of revision, and these items, taken together, form the map of misreading, by means of which we can perceive the basic pattern of the lyric poem from Spenser and Milton to Ashbery and Ammons, by way of the Romantics. I complained earlier about criticism’s failure to reach generality, but I confess that a vision as large as this is a lot larger than I need. Bloom, like a good apostle of influence, is not as original as his manner sometimes makes him look, and critical fathers and cousins often stand rather awkwardly about his pages—I hear whispers from Marshall McLuhan (that urge for unabsorbed quotation), and even the odd squeak from George Steiner (who else can have written the lines about shamanistic ecstasy and the squalor of our fear of mortality?). To say nothing, of course, of Hartman, Paul de Man, Angus Fletcher, Jacques Derrida, and others, clearly acknowledged by Bloom.

But the sincerity of this book, to use a word which seems very strange in this context, the sheer care for poetry which governs both this work and its predecessor, is unmistakable and most impressive. I am inclined to reverse one of Bloom’s formulations and say that with a critic of real distinction there are no misinterpretations, but only interpretations.

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