Brow Beat

Harold Bloom’s Best of the Best American Poetry Shows Him at His Most Aloof and His Most Electrifying

Harold Bloom with a colorful background design.
Harold Bloom in 2003.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images.

When I was younger—back when I decided I was the sort of person who should try to read poetry given that I was writing so much of it—I bought something called The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988–1997. The Best American Poetry is compiled annually by a guest editor who is recruited to rifle through the previous year’s magazines (the ones that make room for poems) and assemble the better specimens. The book I bought, however, represented a further, finer culling. It sifted only its predecessors: the first 10 volumes in the series. Here, then, were poems that had survived a double gantlet. Not only was the chaff long gone but much of the wheat, too.

Actually, The Best of the Best sifted nine volumes. Yale professor, cultural arbiter, and professional lightning rod Harold Bloom, who edited The Best of the Best, and died this week at the age of 89, took no poems from the 1996 edition, and took pains to say so. “I failed to discover more than an authentic poem or two in it,” writes Bloom in his introduction, a version of which you can read here. “The series editor, David Lehman, kindly suggested some possibilities, but the poets involved had done better work elsewhere in these volumes.”

The 1996 volume was edited by Adrienne Rich, the celebrated poet and feminist, but Bloom had no bandwidth for it. Rich’s picks, he felt, were evidence of the collapsing standards he’d tried to buttress with his 1994 book The Western Canon. “That 1996 anthology is one of the provocations for this essay,” he wrote, “since it seems to me a monumental representation of the enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us. It is of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet.” The essay rattled me like a rocket blast. It was as if I’d suddenly discovered I was living in a war zone. Apparently a bloody conflict, the Culture Wars, had been raging all around me.

I didn’t know then just how conductive a lightning rod this Harold Bloom was. (Naomi Wolf, a former student of Bloom’s, had yet to accuse him of sexual harassment.) But his sentences were electric. Some of them, anyway. His intro begins with an epigraph: “They have the numbers; we, the heights.” Bloom then gestures at it the way he might a quote on a chalkboard. “My epigraph is from Thucydides,” he tells us, “and is spoken by the Spartan commander at Thermopylae.” He goes on to unpack the metaphor:

Culturally, we are at Thermopylae: the multi-culturalists, the hordes of camp-followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists—all stand below us. They will surge up and we may be overcome; our universities are already travesties, and our journalists parody our professors of “cultural studies.”

What must David Lehman, poetry cheerleader and custodian of the Best American Poetry brand, have made of these sentences, when he first read them? I certainly didn’t love the language of “freaks” and “diseases.” (Now, in 2019, it makes me wince.) But Bloom could be stirring, too.

“For just a little while longer,” he continues, “we hold the heights, the realm of the aesthetic. There are still authentic poems being written in the United States.” Who wouldn’t want to “hold the heights”—at least in the late ’90s, when it was easier to be an aesthete? Who doesn’t want “authentic poems”?

I couldn’t help but like the graveness of Bloom’s intro. The gravity of it. “My charge,” he explains, “was to select 75 poems out of 750, and not to look outside the volumes of this series. … I have made a heap of all the best I could find, where I was instructed to search.” Bloom’s precision, here, is subversive, irascible, and irresistible. It’s as if the rigorous aesthete can’t fully endorse the gig he’s reluctantly signed on to because the end product can’t possibly include all of the poems he would like you to read. A lot glances off the undergraduate mind, which can be as flimsy and flexible as a tin roof. But sometimes it finds itself electrified.

It’s easy enough to dismiss Bloom or fire off a dart tipped with the word problematic. The canon he championed was often male, mostly white, and far from inclusive. In the aforementioned intro alone, he refers to the “Saturnalia” of the ’60s and dismisses a Times writer who compares Prince to Mozart. (Mozart, for the record, should be so lucky.) Bloom exiled himself from his colleagues at Yale and came to occupy a department of one. There was no lawn he couldn’t chase you off of. (See his feelings about Harry Potter.) Plus, there’s the Wolf stuff.

But even in 2019, it’s hard to quarrel with Bloom’s bullshit detector, which took a pragmatic view of the limits of literature. “The Resenters prate of power, as they do of race and gender: these are careerist stratagems and have nothing to do with the insulted and injured, whose lives will not be improved by our reading the bad verses of those who assert that they are the oppressed.” You need to hold your nose through the caps on “Resenters” and the verb prate, but the professor has a point.

Perhaps Bloom could feel the way he felt because, as other remembrances make clear, he really did seem to have read everything. He could certainly make you feel, rightly, that nothing is more important than reading the right poem. “Nevertheless, there are poems here that should be perpetuated for future generations,” he declares in that 20-year-old intro, and you believe him. Which poems count as “right,” or should be perpetuated, of course, will never be resolved. (I, for one, think he’s wrong about many of his pet interests, from Hart Crane to John Ashbery.) But the example of Bloom’s resolve, if not the contents of his thoughts, still delivers its charge.