warren ellis versus harold bloom’s bardolatry (plus philip k. dick, booze, fathers & cave paintings)


Stories, Drinking and the World

 

Written in June of 2005

 

The literary critic Harold Bloom once said that we weren’t fully

human until Shakespeare began writing: that Shakespeare

completed our sapience. Which is both interesting and stark, utter

bullshit. Stories are what make us human. They’re an advanced form of

play. Cats have play. Sometimes very sophisticated, dramatised forms

of play. But they’re not communicated or externalised. So far, only

humans use stories to dramatise the way they see the world.

 

And we’ve always had them.

 

Go out to the ancient standing stones at Callanish in the Orkney

Islands, at sunrise. You stand in the middle of the stone circle and turn

to follow the sun. From that position, the sun is alternately occluded

and revealed by the curves of the surrounding hills. The sunrise is

dramatised as a struggle. As a performance. Shadows fall and twist

around you like spokes, until the sun claws free of the hillside and

sends light right down the middle of the circle and on to your face.

Walk down the great processional avenue to Glastonbury Tor, and

you experience a similar effect. The walk is designed to sequentially

reveal and present aspects of the surroundings, until the Tor is brought

out of the backdrop to stand in front of you. It’s intended as a religious

experience—a walk that becomes an experience of mystery and

revelation. It’s a plotline.

 

Cave paintings are comics. Standing stones are art installations. It’s

all stories.

 

And I don’t mean that in an ethereal Gaimany “the world is made

out of stories, mine’s a nice cup of tea” kind of way. I mean that we

make the world into stories. From scratching our perceptions of the

day into cave walls to dramatising the landscapes we’re born into, we

make the world into stories to make living in it all the sweeter.

 

Millions of us, every day, add art into our daily mundane experience

of the world by playing a personal movie soundtrack into our ears.

I knew a guy who’d put a tape into his car’s player and would

wait until Lemmy tore into “Ace Of Spades” before standing on the

accelerator and pulling out into the street. I must’ve nearly died a

hundred times because of that bastard.

 

An acquaintance of mine had a Lemmy story. He was living in an

apartment building in New York, and heard a terrible banging outside

his door. Going out into the corridor, he found Lemmy, throwing

himself into the walls, gripping a huge wooden spoon in one hand.

Lemmy, he said, why are you outside my door with a wooden spoon?

You know how some people have a little silver coke spoon? Lemmy

said. And then he held his wooden ladle up like it was Excalibur and

yelled, This is MINE!

 

Which brings me to drugs, which accompany storytelling

cultures. Being southern English, my own culture is an alcoholic one.

Mead culture. I’m from a village that began as a Norse settlement.

Thundersley. It translates from the old English as thunder clearing or

Thor’s clearing. It was a small centre of worship for Thor. There was

and is another Thundersley, fifty miles north, and the old story was

that every Thursday Thor would fly over both of his English clearings.

Thundersley was all forest and weir, back then. When I lived there, the

weir has been paved over, and the only trees in the centre of the village were around the school I went to, on a gloomy tree-lined alleyway called Dark Lane. A dramatised little passageway. We still do it. Over in rural Rayleigh, five miles away, there’s a road called Screaming Boy Lane. I’ve never found out why it’s called that.

 

My dad told me about that. He never found out either, and it was

one of those things that bugged him to his grave. He was one of those

people who stories happen to. He was a drummer in the Sixties. One

night after a gig, a couple of Liverpudlians came up to him and asked

if he wanted to join their band, as they were without a drummer at the

time and on the promise of playing some gigs in Germany

 

“I can’t think about that too much,” he used to say.

 

He was in the Household Cavalry, the Queen’s mounted soldiers,

and once responsible for giving the Queen a horse with the shits to

ride during a public event. He was in the Merchant Navy, and once

imprisoned on Fiji for accidentally jumping ship—said prison being a

thatched hut that he was asked to return to at night, if he’d be so kind.


You become part of your father’s story, and you can feel like maybe

you haven’t done enough to live up to his stories. My dad was an

unpublished writer, and I didn’t realise until late on that he felt that

he’d become part of my story, and that he loved it. I’d phone him on

my mobile from other Countries, places he’d never visited, or had only

seen once. From my usual hotel in San Francisco I can see Telegraph

Hill, where he’d gone during his single trip there. I called him from the

black shoreline of Reykjavik. Our stories, then.

 

Dad and I had similar histories in our drinking. Both woke up

in our late teens/early twenties finding ourselves doing a bottle of

something in a single sitting without trying. For the rest of his life,

I never saw him have more than a small can of beer at Xmas. I just

control mine, ferociously. I know to the drop the point at which I can’t

return from, and can fine-tune my drunkenness so I don’t wake up

naked and halfway up a tree. Again.

 

Read the rest…

from harold bloom’s anxiety of influence: clinamen, or poetic misprision & milton’s paradise lost

Clinamen, which is poetic misreading or misprision proper; I take the word from Lucretius, where it means a "swerve" of the atoms so as to make change possible in the universe. A poet swerves away from his precursor, by so reading his precursor’s poem as to execute a clinamen in relation to it. This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves. . . .

 

. . . Shelley speculated that poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress. Borges remarks that poets create their precursors. If the dead poets, as Eliot insisted, constituted their successors’ particular advance in knowledge, that knowledge is still their successors’ creation, made by the living for the needs of the living.

 

But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor ]ohnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read: "This is dead, this is living, in the poetry of X." Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect. Milton’s Satan, archetype of the modern poet at his strongest, becomes weak when he reasons and compares, on Mount Niphates, and so commences that process of decline culminating in Paradise Regained, ending as the archetype of the modern critic at his weakest.

 

Let us attempt the experiment (apparently frivolous) of reading Paradise Lost as an allegory of the dilemma of the modern poet, at his strongest. Satan is that modern poet, while God is his dead but still embarrassingly potent and present ancestor, or rather, ancestral poet. Adam is the potentially strong modern poet, but at his weakest moment, when he has yet to find his own voice. God has no Muse, and needs none, since he is dead, his creativity being manifested only in the past time of the poem. Of the living poets in the poem, Satan has Sin, Adam has Eve, and Milton has only his Interior Paramour, an Emanation far within that weeps incessantly for his sin, and that is invoked magnificently four times in the poem. Milton has no name for her, though he invokes her under several; but, as he says, "the meaning, not the Name I call." Satan, a stronger poet even than Milton, has progressed beyond invoking his Muse.

 

Why call Satan a modern poet? Because he shadows forth gigantically a trouble at the core of Milton and of Pope, a sorrow that purifies by isolation in Collins and Gray, in Smart and in Cowper, emerging fully to stand clear in Wordsworth, who is the exemplary Modern Poet, the Poet proper. The incarnation of the Poetic Character in Satan begins when Milton’s story truly begins, with the Incarnation of God’s Son and Satan’s rejection of that incarnation. Modern poetry begins in two declarations of Satan: "We know no time when we were not as now" and "To be weak is miserable, doing or suffering."

 

Let us adopt Milton’s own sequence in the poem. Poetry begins with our awareness, not of a Fall, but that we are falling. The poet is our chosen man, and his consciousness of election comes as a curse; again, not "I am a fallen man," but "I am Man, and I am falling" — or rather, "I was God, I was Man (for to a poet they were the same), and I am falling, from myself." When this consciousness of self is raised to an absolute pitch, then the poet hits the floor of Hell, or rather, comes to the bottom of the abyss, and by his impact there creates Hell. He says, "I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell."

 

There and then, in this bad, he finds his good; he chooses the heroic, to know damnation and to explore the limits of the possible within it. The alternative is to repent, to accept a God altogether other than the self, wholly external to the possible. This God is cultural history, the dead poets, the embarrassments of a tradition grown too wealthy to need anything more. But we, to understand the strong poet. must go further still than he can go, back into the poise before the consciousness of falling came.

 

When Satan or the poet looks around him on the floor of fire his falling self had kindled, he sees first a face he only just recognizes, his best friend, Beelzebub, or the talented poet who never quite made it, and now never shall. And, like the truly strong poet he is, Satan is interested in the face of his best friend only to the extent that it reveals to him the condition of his owncountenance. Such limited interest mocks neither the poets we know, nor the truly heroic Satan. If Beelzebub is that scarred, if he looks that unlike the true form he left behind on the happy fields of light, then Satan himself is hideously bereft of beauty, doomed, like Walter Pater, to be a Caliban of Letters, trapped in essential poverty. in imaginative need, where once he was all but the wealthiest, and needed next to nothing. But Satan, in the accursed strength of the poet, refuses to brood upon this, and turns instead to his task, which is to rally everything that remains.

 

This task, comprehensive and profoundly imaginative, includes everything that we could ascribe as motivation for the writing of any poetry that is not strictly devotional in its purposes. For why do men write poems? To rally everything that remains, and not to sanctify nor propound. The heroism of endurance — of Milton’s post-lapsarian Adam, and of the Son in Paradise Regained — is a theme for Christian poetry, but only barely a heroism for poets. We hear Milton again, celebrating the strong poet’s natural virtue, when Samson taunts Harapha: "bring up thy van,/ My heels are fetter’d, but my fist is free." The poet’s final heroism, in Milton, is a spasm of self-destruction, glorious because it pulls down the temple of his enemies. Satan, organizing his chaos, imposing a discipline despite the visible darkness, calling his minions to emulate his refusal to mourn, becomes the hero as poet, finding what must suffice, while knowing that nothing can suffice.

 

This is a heroism that is exactly on the border of solipsism, neither within it, nor beyond it. Satan’s later decline in the poem, as arranged by the Idiot Questioner in Milton, is that the hero retreats from this border into solipsism, and so is degraded; ceases, during his soliloquy on Mount Niphates, to be a poet and, by intoning the formula: "Evil be thou my good," becomes a mere rebel, a childish inverter of conventional moral categories, another wearisome ancestor of student non-students, the perpetual New Left. For the modern poet, in the gladness of his sorrowing strength, stands always on the farther verge of solipsism, having just emerged from it. His difficult balance, from Wordsworth to Stevens, is to maintain a stance just there, where by his very presence he says: "What I see and hear come not but from myself" and yet also: "I have not but I am and as I am I am." The first, by itself, is perhaps the fine defiance of an overt solipsism, leading back to an equivalent of "I know no time when I was not as now." Yet the second is the modification that makes for poetry instead of idiocy: "There are no objects outside of me because I see into their life, which is one with my own, and so ‘I am that I am,’ which is to say, ‘I too will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present.’ I am so much in process, that all possible movement is indeed possible, and if at present I explore only my own dens, at least I explore." Or, as Satan might have said: "In doing and in suffering, I shall be happy, for even in suffering I shall be strong."

 

It is sad to observe most modern critics observing Satan, because they never do observe him. The catalog of unseeing could hardly be more distinguished, from Eliot who speaks of "Milton’s curly haired Byronic hero" (one wants to reply, looking from side to side: "Who?") to the astonishing backsliding of Northrop Frye, who invokes, in urbane ridicule, a Wagnerian context (one wants to lament: "A true critic, and of God’s party without knowing it"). Fortunately we have had Empson, with his apt rallying cry: "Back to Shelley!" Whereto I go.

 

Contemplating Milton’s meanness towards Satan, towards his rival poet and dark brother, Shelley spoke of the "pernicious casuistry" set up in the mind of Milton’s reader, who would be tempted to weigh Satan’s flaws against God’s malice towards him, and to excuse Satan because God had been malicious beyond all measure. Shelley’s point has been twisted by the C. S. Lewis or Angelic School of Milton Criticism, who proceed to weigh up the flaws and God’s wrongs, and find Satan wanting in the balance. This pernicious casuistry, Shelley would have agreed, would not be less pernicious if we were to find (as I do) Milton’s God wanting. It would still be casuistry, and as discourse upon poetry it would still be moralizing, which is to say, pernicious.

 

Even the strongest poets were at first weak, for they started as prospective Adams, not as retrospective Satans. Blake names one state of being Adam, and calls it the Limit of Contraction, and another state Satan, and calls it the Limit of Opacity. Adam is given or natural man, beyond which our imaginations will not contract. Satan is the thwarted or restrained desire of natural man, or rather theshadow or Spectre of that desire. Beyond this spectral state, we will not harden against vision, but the Spectre squats in our repressiveness, and we are hardened enough, as we are contracted enough. Enough, our spirits lament, not to live our lives, enough to be frightened out of our creative potential by the Covering Cherub, Blake’s emblem (out of Milton, and Ezekiel, and Genesis) for that portion of creativity in us that has gone over to constriction and hardness. Blake precisely named this renegade part of Man. Before the Fall (which for Blake meant before the Creation, the two events for him being one and the same) the Covering Cherub was the pastoral genius Tharmas, a unifying process making for undivided consciousness; the innocence, pre-reflective, of a state without subjects and objects, yet in no danger of solipsism, for it lacked also a consciousness of self. Tharmas is a poet’s (or any man’s) power of realization, even as the Covering Cherub is the power that blocks realization. . . .

. . . I arrive at my argument’s central principle, which is not more true for its outrageousness, but merely true enough: Poetic Influence  — when it involves two strong, authentic poets,— always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. . . .

. . . My own Idiot Questioner, happily curled up in the labyrinth of my own being, protests: "What is the use of such a principle, whether the argument it informs be true or not?" Is it useful to be told that poets are not common readers, and particularly are not critics, in the true sense of critics, common readers raised to the highest power? And what is Poetic Influence anyway? Can the study of it really be anything more than the wearisome industry of source-hunting, of allusion-counting, an industry that will soon touch apocalypse anyway when it passes from scholars to computers? Is there not the shibboleth bequeathed us by Eliot, that the good poet steals, while the poor poet betrays an influence, borrows a voice? And are there not all the great Idealists of literary criticism, the deniers of poetic influence, ranging from Emerson with his maxims: "Insist on yourself: never imitate" and" Not possibly will the soul deign to repeat itself" to the recent transformation of Northrop Frye into the Arnold of our day, with his insistence that the Myth of Concern prevents poets from suffering the anxieties of obligation?

 

Against such idealism one cheerfully cites Lichtenberg’s grand remark: "Yes, I too like to admire great men, but only those whose works I do not understand." Or again from Lichtenberg, who is one of the sages of Poetic Influence: "To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation, and the definition of imitation ought by rights to include both." What Lichtenberg implies is that Poetic Influence is itself an oxymoron, and he is right. But then, so is Romantic Love an oxymoron, and Romantic Love is the closest analogue of Poetic Influence, another splendid perversity of the spirit, though it moves precisely in the opposite direction. The poet confronting his Great Original must find the fault that is not there, and at the heart of all but the highest imaginative virtue. The lover is beguiled to the heart of loss, but is found, as he finds, within mutual illusion, the poem that is not there. "When two people fall in love," says Kierkegaard, "and begin to feel that they are made for one another, then it is time for them to break off, for by going on they have everything to lose and nothing to gain." When the ephebe, or figure of the youth as virile poet, is found by his Great Original, then it is time to go on, for he has everything to gain, and his precursor nothing to lose; if the fully written poets are indeed beyond loss.

 

But there is the state called Satan, and in that hardness poets must appropriate for themselves. For Satan is a pure or absolute consciousness of self compelled to have admitted its intimate alliance with opacity. The state of Satan is therefore a constant consciousness of dualism, of being trapped in the finite, not just in space (in the body) but in clock-time as well. To be pure spirit, yet to know in oneself the limit of opacity; to assert that one goes back before the Creation-Fall, yet be forced to yield to number, weight, and measure; this is the situation of the strong poet, the capable imagination, when he confronts the universe of poetry, the words that were and will be, the terrible splendor of cultural heritage. In our time, the situation becomes more desperate even than it was in the Milton-haunted eighteenth century, or the Wordsworth-haunted nineteenth, and our current and future poets have only the consolation that no certain Titanic figure has risen since Milton and Wordsworth, not even Yeats or Stevens.

 

If one examines the dozen or so major poetic influencers before this century, one discovers quickly who among them ranks as the great Inhibitor, the Sphinx who strangles even strong imaginations in their cradles: Milton. The motto to English poetry since Milton was stated by Keats: "Life to him would be Death to me." This deathly vitality in Milton is the state of Satan in him, and is shown us not so much by the character of Satan in Paradise Lost as by Milton’s editorializing relationship to his own Satan, and by his relationship to all the stronger poets of the eighteenth century and to most of those in the nineteenth. Milton is the central problem in any theory and history of poetic influence in English . . .

 

. . . we can see the final irony of Poetic Influence, and come full circle to end where we began. This clinamen between the strong poet and the Poetic Father is made by the whole being of the later poet, and the true history of modern poetry would be the accurate recording of these revisionary swerves. To the pure ‘Pataphysician, the swerve is marvellously gratuitous; Jarry, after all, was capable of considering the Passion as an uphill bicycle race. The student of Poetic Influence is compelled to be an impure ‘Pataphysician; he must understand that the clinamen always must be considered as though it were simultaneously intentional and involuntary, the Spiritual Form of each poet and the gratuitous gesture each poet makes as his falling body hits the floor of the abyss. Poetic Influence is the passing of Individuals through States, in Blake’s language, but the passing is done ill when it is not a swerving. The strong poet indeed says: ..I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell," but he is thinking, as he says this, "As I fell, I swerved, consequently I lie here in a Hell improved by my own making."

—from Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973)

 

james merrill’s ouija board: the opening of the book of ephraim

Known in popular circles as “the Ouija poet”—one who composed with assistance from the spirit world—Merrill was always most popular with scholarly audiences. As Brigitte Weeks noted in the New York Times Book Review, “Mr. Merrill’s artistic distinction is for the most part acknowledged, particularly in the academy, where he has already become part of the permanent canon. With his technical virtuosity and his metaphysical broodings, he is, like Wallace Stevens, an ideal seminar poet whose complex work lends itself to exhaustive explication.” . . . 

It was “The Book of Ephraim”—which appeared in Divine Comedies—that prompted many critics to reevaluate the poet. Among them was Harold Bloom, who wrote in the New Republic, “James Merrill . . . has convinced many discerning readers of a greatness, or something like it, in his first six volumes of verse, but until this year I remained a stubborn holdout. The publication of Divine Comedies . . . converts me, absolutely if belatedly, to Merrill. . . . The book’s eight shorter poems surpass nearly all the earlier Merrill, but its apocalypse (a lesser word won’t do) is a 100-page verse-tale, ‘The Book of Ephraim,’ an occult splendor in which Merrill rivals Yeats’ ‘A Vision,’. . . and even some aspects of Proust.” . . .

The twenty-six sections of “The Book of Ephraim” correspond to the board’s A to Z alphabet, the ten sections of Mirabell: Books of Number correspond to the board’s numbering from zero to nine, and the three sections of Scripts for the Pageant (“Yes,” “&,” and “No”) correspond to the board’s Yes & No. The progression of poems also represents a kind of celestial hierarchy, with each book representing communication with a higher order of spirits than the one before. Humans in the poem are identified by their initials—DJ and JM; spirits speak in all capitals. By the time Merrill transcribed the lessons of the archangels in book three, he offered nothing less than a model of the universe. “Were such information conveyed to us by a carnival ‘spiritual adviser,’ we could dismiss it as mere nonsense,” observed Fred Moramarco in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “but as it comes from a poet of Merrill’s extraordinary poetic and intellectual gifts, we sit up and take notice.”  

In the first book, Merrill’s guide is Ephraim, “a Greek Jew / Born AD 8 at XANTHOS,” later identified as “Our Familiar Spirit.” Over a period of twenty years and in a variety of settings, Ephraim alerts DJ and JM to certain cosmic truths, including the fact that “on Earth / We’re each the REPRESENTATIVE of a PATRON” who guides our souls through the nine stages of being until we become patrons for other souls. Witty, refined, full of gossip, Ephraim is “a clear cousin to Merrill’s poetic voice,” Kalstone wrote in the Times Literary Supplement 

Other spirits also appear in the poem, many of them family members or old friends who have died: Merrill’s mother and father, the young poet Hans Lodeizen (whose death Merrill addressed in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace), the Athenian Maria Mitsotaki (a green-thumbed gardener who died of cancer), as well as literary figures such as W. H. Auden and Plato. They form a community, according to Ephraim, “WITHIN SIGHT OF ALL CONNECTED TO EACH OTHER DEAD OR ALIVE NOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT HEAVEN IS IT IS THE SURROUND OF THE LIVING.” As Helen Vendler explained in the New York Review of Books, “The host receives his visible and invisible guests, convinced that . . . the poet’s paradise is nothing other than all those beings whom he has known and has imagined.” For this reason, Vendler maintained that “The Book of Ephraim” is “centrally a hymn to history and a meditation on memory—personal history and personal memory, which are, for this poet at least, the muse’s materials.”  

Aware of the incredulity his spiritualism would provoke, Merrill addressed this issue early in book one: “The question / Of who or what we took Ephraim to be / And of what truths (if any) we considered / Him spokesman, had arisen from the start.” Indeed, Vendler said, “for rationalists reading the poem, Merrill includes a good deal of self-protective irony, even incorporating in the tale a visit to his ex-shrink, who proclaims the evocation of Ephraim and the other Ouija ‘guests’ from the other world a folie a deux [mutual madness] between Merrill and his friend David Jackson.” 

In a Poetry review, Joseph Parisi suggested that Merrill used “his own doubt and hesitation to undercut and simultaneously to underscore his seriousness in recounting . . . his fabulous . . . message. Anticipating the incredulity of ‘sophisticated’ and even cynical readers, the poet portrays his own apparent skepticism at these tales from the spirit world to preempt and disarm the attacks, while making the reader feel he is learning the quasi-occult truths . . . along with the poet.” 

As the experience proceeded, Merrill’s skepticism declined. And while the reader’s may not, Judith Moffett suggested in American Poetry Review that disbelief is not the issue: “Surely any literary work ought to be judged not on its matter but on the way the matter is presented and treated. . . . The critical question, then, should not be, Is this the story he ought to have told? but How well has he told this story?” Moffett, as well as numerous other critics, believed Merrill has told it very well: “‘The Book of Ephraim’ is a genuinely great poem—a phrase no one should use lightly—and very possibly the most impressive poetic endeavor in English in this century.” 

—from the James Merrill page at Poetry Foundation

 

 
 

 

THE BOOK OF EPHRAIM

 

 

Tu credi ‘l vero; ché i minori e ‘ grandi 

                                                                   di questa vita miran ne lo speglio 

in che, prima che pensi, il pensier pandi. 

Paradiso XV 


Admittedly I err by undertaking

This in its present form. The baldest prose

Reportage was called for, that would reach

The widest public in the shortest time.

Time, it had transpired, was of the essence.

Time, the very attar of the Rose,

Was running out. We, though, were ancient foes,

I and the deadline. Also my subject matter

Gave me pause–so intimate, so novel.

Best after all to do it as a novel?

Looking about me, I found characters

Human and otherwise (if the distinction

Meant anything in fiction). Saw my way

To a plot, or as much of one as still allowed

For surprise and pleasure in its working-out.

Knew my setting; and had, from the start, a theme

Whose steady light shone back, it seemed, from every

Least detail exposed to it. I came

To see it as an old, exalted one:

The incarnation and withdrawal of

A god. That last phrase is Northrop Frye’s.

I had stylistic hopes moreover. Fed

Up so long and variously by

Our age’s fancy narrative concoctions,

I yearned for the kind of unseasoned telling found

In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean

Over the centuries by mild old tongues,

Grandam to cub, serene, anonymous.

Lacking that voice, the in its fashion brilliant

Nouveau roman (even the one I wrote)

Struck me as an orphaned form, whose followers,

Suckled by Woolf not Mann, had stories told them

In childhood, if at all, by adults whom

They could not love or honor. So my narrative

Wanted to be limpid, unfragmented; 

My characters, conventional stock figures

Afflicted to a minimal degree

With personality and past experience–

A witch, a hermit, innocent young lovers,

The kinds of being we recall from Grimm, 

Jung, Verdi, and the commedia dell’ arte. 

That such a project was beyond me merely

Incited further futile stabs at it.

My downfall was “word-painting.” Exquisite

Peek-a-boo plumage, limbs aflush from sheer

Bombast unfurling through the troposphere

Whose earthward denizens’ implosion startles

Silly quite a little crowd of mortals

–My readers, I presumed from where I sat

In the angelic secretariat.

The more I struggled to be plain, the more

Mannerism hobbled me. What for?

Since it had never truly fit, why wear

The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.

Measures, furthermore, had been defined

As what emergency required. Blind

Promptings put at last the whole mistaken

Enterprise to sleep in darkest Macon 

(Cf. “The Will”), and I alone was left

To tell my story. For it seemed that Time— 

­The grizzled washer of his hands appearing

To say so in a spectrum-bezeled space

Above hot water–Time would not;

Whether because it was running out like water

Or because January draws this bright

Line down the new page I take to write:

The Book of a Thousand and One Evenings

Spent With David Jackson at the Ouija Board

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Touch with Ephraim Our Familiar Spirit.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Backdrop: The dining room at Stonington.

 

Walls of ready-mixed matte “flame” (a witty

Shade, now watermelon, now sunburn).

Overhead, a turn of the century dome

Expressing white tin wreathes and fleurs-de-lys

In palpable relief to candlelight.

Wallace Stevens, with that dislocated

Perspective of the newly dead, would take it

For an alcove in the Baptist church next door

Whose moonlit tower saw eye to eye with us.

The room breathed sheer white curtains out. In blew

Elm- and chimney-blotted shimmerings, so

Slight the tongue of land, so high the point of view.

1955 this would have been,

Second summer of our tenancy.

Another year we’d buy the old eyesore

Half of whose top story we now rented;

Build, above that, a glass room off a wooden

Stardeck; put a fireplace in; make friends.

Now, strangers to the village, did we even

Have a telephone? Who needed one!

We had each other for communication

And all the rest. The stage was set for Ephraim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Properties : A milk glass tabletop.

 

A blue-and-white cup from the Five & Ten.

Pencil, paper. Heavy cardboard sheet

Over which the letters A to Z

Spread in an arc, our covenant

With whom it would concern; also

The Arabic numerals, and YES and NO.

What more could a familiar spirit want?

Well, when he knew us better, he’d suggest

We prop a mirror in the facing chair.

Erect and gleaming, silver-hearted guest,

We saw each other in it. He saw us.

(Any reflecting surface worked for him.

Noons, D and I might row to a sandbar

Far enough from town for swimming naked

Then pacing the glass treadmill hardly wet

That healed itself perpetually of us—

Unobserved, unheard we thought, until

The night he praised our bodies and our wit,

Our blushes in a twinkling overcome.)

Or we could please him by swirling a drop of rum

Inside the cup that, overturned and seeming

Slightly to lurch at such times in mid-glide,

Took heart from us, dictation from our guide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But he had not yet found us. Who was there?

 

The cup twitched in its sleep. “Is someone there?”

We whispered, fingers light on Willowware,

When the thing moved. Our breathing stopped. The cup,

Glazed zombie of itself, was on the prowl

Moving, but dully, incoherently,

Possessed, as we should soon enough be told,

By one or another of the myriads

Who hardly understand, through the compulsive

Reliving of their deaths, that they have died

–By fire in this case, when a warehouse burned.

HELLP O SAV ME scrawled the cup

As on the very wall flame rippled up,

Hypnotic wave on wave, a lullaby

Of awfulness. I slumped. D: One more try.

Was anybody there? As when a pike

Strikes, and the line singing writes in lakeflesh

Highstrung runes, and reel spins and mind reels

YES a new and urgent power YES

Seized the cup. It swerved, clung, hesitated,

Darted off, a devil’s darning needle

Gyroscope our fingers rode bareback

(But stopping dead the instant one lost touch)

Here, there, swift handle pointing, letter upon

Letter taken down blind by my free hand—

At best so clumsily, those early sessions

Break off into guesswork, paraphrase.

Too much went whizzing past. We were too nice

To pause, divide the alphabetical

Gibberish into words and sentences.

Yet even the most fragmentary message—

Twice as entertaining, twice as wise

As either of its mediums–enthralled them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

harold bloom on the fading american dream and the deepening american nightmare

 

I might have thought the American Dream had ended, but the election of Barack Obama makes a difference. He invoked our national dream in his victory speech, an important citation though edged by the ill omens of financial and economic disaster both at home and abroad (I write on 20 November, 2008).

 

Like so many potent social myths, the American Dream is devoid of clear meanings, whether in journalistic accounts or in academic analyses. The major American writers who have engaged the dream—Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Henry James, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane—have been aware of this haziness and of attendant ironies. And yet they have affirmed, however ambivalently, that it must be possible to have a nation in which all of us are free to develop our singularities into health, prosperity, and some measure of happiness in self-development and personal achievement. Call this Emerson’s Party of Hope, whose current prophet and leader is the still untested President-Elect Obama.

 

Let us call the Other Side the American Nightmare, from Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville through T.S. Eliot and Faulkner onto our varied contemporaries such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. Between Faulkner and these came Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, and Ralph Ellison. Dreamers of nightmare realities and irrealities, these superb writers are not altogether in Emerson’s opposing camp, the Party of Memory because, except for Poe, Eliot and O’Connor, they shared the American freedom from dogma.

 

But they dwelled on our addiction to violence, endemic from Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab through Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, and on our constant involuntary parodying of hopes for a more humane life.

 

What are we to believe about our nature and destiny in the sea of history that has engulfed so many other nations? We make terrible blunders, of which the Iraqi War and our current financial panic are merely the most recent, and only rarely can they be mitigated. Our American Dream always is likelier to bring forth another Jay Gatsby than a reborn Huck Finn. Our innocence is difficult to distinguish from ignorance, a problematical theme throughout the novels and stories of Henry James, our strongest novelist even as Walt Whitman remains our more-than-major poet. What Whitman discerned (in Emerson’s wake) was the American Adam, unfallen and dazzling as the sun. Is that national myth sustained by the extraordinary rise of Barack Obama?

 

Eight years from now we may be able to answer that question. A country without a monarch and a hereditary nobility must find its heroes in the American Presidency, an absurd ground for such a search ever since the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, almost a century and a half ago. Emerson’s Party of Hope trusts for a reversal, in the name of the American Dream.

 

—from The American Dream, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)