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Katie January 22, 2013

Katie    January 22, 2013

She walked in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Met in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
Byron

Not many months but long enough to see
No foe can deal such misery
As the dear friend untimely called away
And still the more beloved, the greater still
Must be the acing void, the withering chill
Of each dark night and dim beclouded day.
Charlotte Bronte

Review of “Genius”–a literary mega-criticism

I have finished Harold Bloom’s Genius for the most part.  I skipped the Spanish writers (except for Cervantes), and a select few others whom I have little interest in.  It is not the kind of book that once “finished” I will put it away for good.  I have found myself already re-reading certain parts and will always find it useful as a resource. As for omitting the Spanish writers, I generally had little interest in non-Anglophone writers, except for the French.  That is my bias of course, since I read French; however I do see a linguistic and literary closeness between English and French that is unique.  As for including other languages, I think Bloom deviates from his core notion—that there exists an objectively valuable literary canon in which one writer influences not only his or her generation but creates a literary progeny–because I don’t see so much the impact of Spanish (Russian or other non-English) writers on the canonical English writers (again, with the exception of a very few, like Dante). Bloom even acknowledges the breakdown in shared influences between literatures in different languages when he points out that Wordsworth never made it big in France, but Poe was an author who achieved more success through translation into French than he otherwise would have known or deserved.

As for whom he included and did not, the largeness of the number calls into question whether many are great writers, really good writers, worthy of a lasting reputation, etc… instead of geniuses.  I felt at times that the term was devalued.  I think, for example, The Great Gatsby is a really good book, and it merits a place in the literary canon as it has withstood the test of time; but to me a great book does not make the writer a genius.  I don’t think Fitzgerald was a genius and I am certain that I would not put Hemingway in that category.  He bolstered his position on Hemingway to a degree by noting how the man himself achieved a certain mythic status.  If that is a factor, then Byron should have been included; even if that were not a criterion, I would have included Byron way before many others.  The Brontes simply would not have been who they were or written what they wrote without the influence of Byron; plus if anyone ever had a more engaging way with words, rhymes, meter and poignant ideas, I don’t know him or her. Bloom drops several hints that he dislikes Byron as a person (although personal animosity did not stop him from including T.S Eliot).

I liked the poetic organizing principle of a mosaic.  However, the whole Kabbalah thing was of no interest at all to me.  As I was reading along at some point I was annoyed that I was not getting any meaning from his Kabbalistic references so I went back to the opening passages to pay more attention to the explanation about his structure.  Without reproducing it all here, I offer from page xi the following passage beginning like this: “Kabbalah is a body of speculation, relying upon a highly figurative language.  Chief among its figuration or metaphors are Sefirot, attributes at once of God and of the Adam Kadmon of Divine Man God’s Image.” Good ol’ materialistic me has no truck with speculative bodies that can only be known through metaphor, thank you very much!  I also grew very weary of his use of the word “daemon”.  I did not find it expressive of the many or precise meanings that he attributes to that word and would have preferred another one from time to time.

To note a few high points, I knew nothing about Swinburne, although I had heard his name throughout my life and had seen his books around the house.  His poem about God was quite the surprise.  And for any authors whom I know well, I read his treatments of them with interest and enjoyment, admiring the particular insight that he chose and developed for each one.

As for Bloom, himself, his talent is impressive and he might stand alone; I wonder how many others could have produced such an exhaustive work.  I did feel at times that he was showing off, but he can’t help it if he’s brilliant.  He breaks his own code in a way though; he believes that geniuses need the approbation of a certain audience, in particular one that extends far into the future, yet he admits that some of his geniuses have fallen by the way side in our degraded day and age.  He blames the current sad state of affairs on universities that value a curriculum based on race, nationality, or gender rather than on “true greatness” (I am among the converted on that score).  Yet, if genius does fade, at some point the question creeps in how much is greatness objective or subjective.  Maybe that’s where the Kabbalah fits to explain how there are absolutes, albeit knowable only through cagey metaphors.

An Opinion on Poetry

 

Poetry in rhyme and meter is embroidered silk, a surging wave, a clever device, a labyrinth, a song, an elder statesman, a stained glass window, and an inspiring sister of prose.  On the other hand, a compilation of words, dubbed poetry but lacking meter and rhyme, is by comparison rick-rack on polyester, a backyard pond, a tool in the bottom of the drawer, a sidewalk, a banal conversation, a salesman, a windshield, and a stunted twin of prose.

I posted a poem by Swinburne a few days ago and I offer it here as Exhibit A, conclusive!

Of course meter and rhyme are necessary but not sufficient causes for poetry.  Words on a page that scan and rhyme, but miss the mark otherwise, own the term doggerel.

I make allowances for blank verse because it has the rhythm of meter, if not rhyme.  Meter gives the words activity and the aural interest that is the reward bestowed from the efforts at keeping to a metrical scheme.  Meter frequently, through necessity, causes changes in word order that can surprise and stick.  One advantage in writing poetry in English is that it is so word-order bound that any reversals can be arresting and memorable.  Here is an example from a fairly current song by the Strokes: “On the mind of other men I know she was.”  The word emphasis fits the beat of the song and only works if the normal word order is reversed.  Compare to “I know she was on the mind of other men” — pure prose.

There is such a thing as “poetic prose.” I take that to mean language that makes use of literary devices because the author has a concern for the sound of a phrase and a desire to give the reader a sensory experience and to draw images of intangible things.  That can go awry with yeoman writers who toil in the shop to smith their poetic phrases, but who have lost membership in the storyteller’s guild.  Much of Wuthering Heights is poetic prose.  Although more poetic than much of what passes itself off as poetry, it is still a long, engrossing story written in prose; just really wonderful prose.

I have departed from treating various facets of Stoicism to indulge in voicing an opinion that is neither here nor there for anyone. I have, then, embraced the freedom of blogging—no assignment, no oversight, and no criticism. That situation does present Stoic aspects: the benefits of solitude, self-sufficiency, and doing things for oneself.  I have a platform though, however obscure, and with all this freedom I might run rampant …oh, that would be excessive—enter my philosophy again with the golden gift of moderation.