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The Japanese have a term for it, which translates in English to “living national treasure.” The phrase clearly applies to Yale professor and literary critic extraordinaire Harold Bloom, now 80, who is known for his outsize intellect and fearlessness in voicing his opinions. This has made him both loved and hated, not always in equal measure. As a university teacher since the Fifties, Bloom spent many years in the academy during the period when the notions about the most important books in world literature were widely revised, often to the detriment, he believes, of both professors and students. In a metier in which practitioners are not usually particularly prolific, he has written 39 books. His latest, which came out this month from Yale University Press, “The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life.”
In it, he reexamines his signature thesis that writers suffer from an “agon of influence,” in which they seek to outdo those who have proceeded them. “The stakes in these struggles, for strong poets, are always literary,” he writes. “Threatened by the prospect of imaginative death, of being entirely possessed by a precursor, they suffer a distinctly literary form of crisis. A strong poet seeks not simply to vanquish the rival but to assert the integrity of his or her own writing self.”
Interspersed with meticulous reassessments of the important figures in literature are anecdotes of the living writers he has encountered. In the mid-Sixties, for instance, W.H. Auden, who was scheduled to give a reading at Yale, came to stay with Bloom and his wife of more than 50 years, Jeanne. The poet walked in wearing a frayed overcoat with no buttons, which Jeanne insisted on mending, and carrying an attaché case with a big bottle of gin, a small one of vermouth, a plastic cup and a pile of poems. After being given some ice, he asked Bloom to remind him what his fee was. When told it was $1,000, he said it wasn’t enough and he couldn’t possibly read. So the critic phoned the college master and said that Auden insisted on double his allotted honorarium. Reluctantly, the master agreed. When Auden was informed of the change in payment, he smiled and then everything went beautifully.
Bloom famously places William Shakespeare at the center of the canon of English literature. New York’s Morgan Library currently has on display a Jacobean portrait that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust believes to be the only painting made of Shakespeare in his lifetime, which had hung unrecognized in an Irish country house for centuries. But Bloom doesn’t really buy this attribution. “I think it’s very dubious,” he says. “He’s a dashing caballero, but I have grave doubts that that could be Shakespeare.…They have no real evidence.”
Bloom also doesn’t like most filmed versions of Shakespeare, except, he says, Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” the great Japanese director’s 1957 version of “Macbeth” and “Ran,” his 1985 version of “King Lear.” He once debated this notion on a panel with critic Frank Kermode; Kermode apparently said, “But they’re not in English.” Bloom’s response: “That’s the point.” He says, “Kenneth Branagh in particular is a low point, glitzy, like a musical by Cole Porter — a bad musical by Cole Porter.”
The critic considers Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to be enormously important, and he says, “I teach both of them all the time. I find Dickinson blindingly, bewilderingly difficult. I always end up with a headache after teaching her for two hours.…After Shakespeare, she has the most original mind of the poets writing in the English language.” Whitman, he notes, “reinvented poetry, not so much the outer form, which doesn’t count for much, but the way he puts himself into the poem. The tactile intensity of it is astonishing. In his poem, ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ he all but literally reaches out to you and hugs you.”
Bloom has an easy familiarity with the greats of literature and often speaks of them as if they were still living, which to him they are. As a young boy, he was a lightning fast reader. “I’m a sort of freak,” he says. “I’ve slowed down now, I fear. But I guess it gave me an unfair advantage in the profession I adopted.”
When he was young, Bloom also memorized poetry for fun, and, after years of teaching Shakespeare’s plays, still knows them, most of “Moby Dick” and many of the other poems he teaches by heart. He believes that his extraordinary memory may be the result of Talmudic-scholar ancestors. He writes in longhand in green ledger books, using Pentel pens; he says he doesn’t know the difference between an iPad and an iPod — [“I’m hopeless”] — and Jeanne handles his e-mail for him.
But Bloom’s passion for the giants of English and American literature doesn’t mean that he isn’t interested in living writers. His devotion to poet John Ashbery’s work is well-documented; he writes extensively about him in his new book. Among younger poets, Bloom singles out Henri Cole, whom he calls “a wonderful poet, difficult, elegant, very restrained and very unhappy.” He mentions the conflict in Cole between his Roman Catholic faith and his homosexuality, adding, “You would think by now that he wouldn’t torture himself about that, but poets are very strange.”