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One of the primary considerations in modern literary criticism is the question of how a poet deals with two major problems: How does he come to terms with the idea that all the great poetry has already been written, and how does he maintain his own sense of originality in the face of the influence that all preceding poets have had on him? Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence deals with these two problems and proposes a critical theory of how the truly original poet deals with his predecessors. He develops in this book a psychological model of how a poet creates himself, essentially eliminating in his own canon of works the image of the poets who have gone before him and developing a strength and originality in his own being, making it appear that the poets who preceded him were in fact his heirs and not he theirs.

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The work is in essence a meditation. Bloom begins with the simple question of how a poet functions as a creative originator while laboring under the burden of the greatness of the poets before him. From this point Bloom builds a careful psychological account of how the poet functions. This pattern for the development of the truly independent poet has roots in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Each poet considered is assumed to have had one major precursor. The pressure of this precursor’s influence must be confronted and eliminated by the emerging poet if he is not to be crushed by it and reduced to a marginal level of creativity. How the poet manages to mitigate this influence and by his own hand make his work an independent creation is Bloom’s principal concern.

John Milton is seen as the last great poet who developed a poetic voice almost entirely free from the influence of those who came before him. Yet even Milton was not totally free, since he had to contend with the influence of great epic poets such as Vergil and Homer. Seeing Milton as the most recent breaking point in the chain of poetic influence, Bloom focuses on the poets who have followed him. The poets examined are primarily British, with a few Americans included, and for the most part they are major figures from the time of the early Romantics onward. Writers who preceded William Blake, with the exception of Milton, are almost entirely ignored, although it is implicit in the book that Bloom’s concept of the poet would apply equally to pre-Romantics. The poets’ works are mentioned only briefly as examples of the obvious influence of one author on another. What is being considered is the working psyche of the emerging poet, not the literary quality of the texts he eventually produces.

The form of the book reflects a careful, step-by-step analysis of the process by which poets create their own voices and achieve greatness. The development of the poet is divided into six steps. Each of these steps is examined in an individual chapter, and each step is assumed to be dependent on the successful completion of the step that precedes it. This point-by-point development is broken in the middle of the book by a short chapter in which Bloom supports his theory of antithetical criticism. In a rather extensive introduction that precedes the main body of the book, Bloom explains the terms that he uses in expounding his theory. The entire body of work is bracketed by two short poems that serve as a prologue and epilogue and exemplify the point that the author is attempting to develop.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

Culler, Jonathan. “Reading and Misreading,” in The Yale Review. LXV (October, 1975), pp. 88-95.

de Man, Paul. Review in Comparative Literature. XXVI (Summer, 1974), pp. 269-275.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. “Way in Heaven,” in Diacritics. III (Spring, 1973), pp. 41-56.

Mudrick, Marvin. “Bloom, Bloom, Go Out the Room!” in Harper’s Magazine. CCLXV (August, 1982), pp. 65-68.

Vendler, Helen. “The Poetics of Power,” in The New Republic. CLXXXVI (February 17, 1982), p. 31.

Wieseltier, Leon. “Summoning Up the Kabbalah,” in The New York Review of Books. XXIII (February 19, 1976), pp. 27-31.

Wood, Michael. “In the Literary Jungle,” in The New York Review of Books. XXII (April 17, 1975), pp. 15-18.

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