In a statement delivered to the Millennial Gathering of the Writers of the New South, poet, prose writer, and editor Dave Smith spoke on the sound of...moreIn a statement delivered to the Millennial Gathering of the Writers of the New South, poet, prose writer, and editor Dave Smith spoke on the sound of Southern speech. He averred that it was single and singular: The way we sound the sound tells all the answers, evokes all the old mysteries, including the recognition that we are deeply and intuitively related, are in fact one thing." Furthermore, just like the King James Bible, to which he pointed as underlying that sound, Smith easily transcends any of the narrow constraints of regionalism--even nationality--while striving to render "the compulsion to tell all of the human story and the splendidly alloyed language we have made to sound that story"; or, “one sound sounds the sound.”
Harold Bloom's new book on the King James Bible reinforces, if without intent and obliquely, Smith's words about its language being a racially unifying factor in the South when all else--except food, of course--bent under the rule of Jim Crow, i.e. apartheid. Though of course Africa's musical and rhythmic traditions remain undeniable in the blues' formation, its rich double-brew comes also from mixture with a very different transatlantic culture. Parallel, if closer geographically, the Elizabethan / Jacobean English of the KJB and Shakespeare arose from the collision of Latinate French and Anglo-Saxon. Ted Hughes provided a perfect example in the foreword to my battered copy of the Ecco Essentials devoted to his countryman; indeed, he takes two lines from MACBETH and points out how the latter quite literally translates the former: "The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red."
And read. With THE SHADOW OF A GREAT ROCK, Bloom gives us a magnificent book about an even more magnificent one, less to be discussed or critiqued than savored sentence by sentence if not line by line, again like Shakespeare, who is invoked as consistently as the translators of the KJB, which celebrated its 400th anniversary last year. Bloom's recent work flares, flames, and claims a place on the shelf of anyone who cares about how words arranged on a page can possess an aural effect lasting for centuries without end, amen.
"In the beginning was the word"--writing about the always prolific professor/critic's THE ANATOMY OF INFLUENCE (Yale University Press) in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, Robert Pogue Harrison rightly remarks that Bloom's discussion of Shakespeare comprises this study's strongest section, if Bloom's greatest shortcoming--bombast--recurs in a bizarre Back to the Future moment when Blooms claims to be an influence on Shakespeare himself.
"Influence"--Bloom's obsession with the subject and the agon, through which one author must wrestle then throw off his predecessor is what causes him to slouch away from Bethlehem and its manger...or perhaps that construction's blue-robed "manager" might be the more appropriate noun. The late Adrienne Rich noted long ago that women tend to collaborate and extend the fabric, even the territory, by piecing our own work onto what has been handed down to us; or, to use Virginia Woolf's famous words, "we think back [not against, or at least not after adolescence] through our mothers." Bloom's own measure of cloth tends to straitjacket him also when it comes to Poe, Baudelaire, and Eliot. Perhaps they all seem too sickly and agon-ized to be of sufficient interest, drooping from the straight seam he has always elevated, as if strung from the highest tent-pole--Emerson-->Whitman-->Stevens. Bloom has always reserved a special antipathy for Eliot on the grounds, so to speak, of anti-Semitism, and Plath has been the target of his critical vitriol because of her appropriation of *Shoah* imagery. Other reasons suggest themselves too, however, why both poets prove too much of an agon themselves for Bloom, and perhaps Meghan O'Rourke, arguably our time's best reader of Plath, has an answer that extends past her and past Eliot to their predecessors:
"...it's the grotesquerie of Plath's imagination that may be responsible for the continuing ambivalence about her. Morbidity is an un-American quality. The great morbid writers--Poe, Baudelaire, even Rimbaud--wreathe themselves in a baroqueness that is far more Old World than New. There is no American equivalent of mal du siécle or 'spleen.' The major American poets tend toward the exuberant--Whitman, Williams, Ginsberg--or the coolly lyrical (think of writers as different as Frost and Ashbery). Even Plath's fellow poet-suicide Hart Crane was a Romantic--and his tortured jouissance seems quintessentially American, whereas Plath's cold disdain makes her seem foreign. In some sense, Plath may not be a very American writer: beneath a surface of chirpy, aspirational hopes for the life codified by magazines.... Plath was always somewhat detached from the world in which she was raised…. Our literature of disaffection tends to be the literature of melancholia..." (POETRY, Summer 2004)
That's it! Eliot and Plath are un-American! That's why Bloom doesn't like them! Surely he'd disapprove also of noir, the self-embalmed Miss Emily, and most other Southern oddities (if that's not an ontological contradiction) as well. Yet I suspect these two poets would find his willful and knowing confusion of Shakespeare and God as subversively delightful as I do, precisely because it's a rare slip in which Bloom is caught being unpatriotic too.
Yet a question remains. Harrison asks which God or gods Bloom wants us to contemplate:
"...the god that Shakespeare resembles is neither Virgil's providential god nor the benevolent Creator that shone so luminously in Dante's DIVINE COMEDY, but a darker, perhaps post-Christian God who defects from his own creation."
To criticize the critic, I'd argue that Harrison's "post-Christian God" isn't a "defector" but a Creator who remains at an a priori distance from the manifold aspects of what He--and Bloom's God is always a masculine deity--had made. "Remove" is Bloom's word, one with more accuracy because of the gap it implies, Shakespeare being, to use his own phrase, "the major dealer in ellipsis among all the great writers."
"Ellipsis." Though word, language, sense, sound--is it any wonder that the life of Shakespeare's most famous hero ends, literally, with "silence," possibly the most powerful form of speech? Bloom's own favorite book of the Bible is Jonah (http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/...). Wouldn't the quiet--but for the churn of whale guts drowning out the noise of his own voice--of such an enclosure unnerve Bloom utterly?
Only momentarily. I’ve heard him recite more of the KJB alone than any man other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., though its cadences continue to “sound the sound” in the poetry most deeply embedded not only in my ears, but my very body.*
*I am once again grateful to Ivan C. Lett at Yale University Press; also to David Lehman’s BEST AMERICAN POETRY site, whence I learned of THE SHADOW OF A GREAT ROCK’s imminent publication, and, of course, to Dave Smith. For further reading, see Lehman’s original BAP essay (http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/th...) and a spirited defense by the late and infamously atheistic Christopher Hitchens (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/fea...). (less)