Poetry and Repression

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens is painfully esoteric, which means that few but initiates of modern literary scholarship are likely to have the knowledge and stamina to gauge the significance of Harold Bloom’s explorations. To outsiders, Bloom’s erudition will seem numbing, as he eclectically gathers from a host of critical ancestors and employs lofty terminology to map and explain revisionism in post-Enlightenment poetry. Moreover, Bloom’s grandiloquence is disturbing. For there is an inescapable sense that what is being created here, instead of a lucid explanation of great poetry, is another sect in the religion of literary criticism.

This is not to say that Bloom’s achievement is not significant or that his critical approach does not reveal valuable insights from which poetic study may benefit. If poetry is anything, it is the expression of relationships, and Poetry and Repression seeks to penetrate poetic relationships at every turn and find in those relationships obscure workings of the poetic self, particularly the poetic self as manifested by strong poets of the post-Enlightenment: Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Yeats, Whitman, and Stevens. Viewing poetry in a broad sense, Bloom also discusses Freud, Nietzsche, and Emerson because, for Bloom, “a poetic text ... is not a gathering of signs on a page, but is a psychic battlefield upon which authentic forces struggle for the only victory worth winning, the divinating triumph over oblivion.” Opposed on this battlefield are the forces of anteriority and belatedness in a crucial struggle from which derives the concept of poetic repression, resulting in poetic revisionism. Bloom’s previous books—The Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading, Kabbalah and Criticism—prepare the ground for his discussions in Poetry and Repression. But it is in this last book that he attempts to show the usefulness of a peculiarly Kabbalistic interpretive model as he investigates what he calls the “dialectics of revisionism.”

This investigation is wideranging and produces an incredibly complex critical apparatus. In Vico, Bloom finds “language . . . particularly poetic language, is always and necessarily a revision of previous language,” so that every poet after the first must be a late arrival. All poets select some prior traces of the language of poetry and avoid others, since they must stand in the literary tradition but also seek to shape it. This selectivity is a result of repression, so, unavoidably, the poet’s readings of his precursors are “misprisions,” or creative misreadings from which he fashions his own modes of speaking. These misprisions can be seen, in a Freudian psychological sense, as defense mechanisms. Above all, the strong belated poet actively represses influences of his precursors to establish his own rhetorical stance and, in doing so, achieves a much greater goal; for, to Bloom, “rhetoric is also what Nietzsche saw it as being, a mode of interpretation that is the will’s revulsion against time, the will’s revenge, its vindication against the necessity of passing away.”

Bloom characterizes the strong poet as a Gnostic—one who knows his subjectivity and self-consciously seeks freedom, specifically, “revisionary freedom of interpretation.” Further he sees the Gnostic as “ancestor of all major Western revisionists.”

Considering Gnosticism, Bloom ascertains that the closely related Kabbalah, especially doctrines of Isaac Luria, can serve as a model for poetic interpretation. That such models are necessary is a certainty for Bloom since “all reading is translation, and all attempts to communicate a reading seem to court reduction,” a danger any critical pattern should strive to avoid. Because of the nature of post-Enlightenment poetry, its near identity with what Bloom has elsewhere called “the anxiety of influence,” Bloom seeks “as interpretive model the most dialectical and negative of theologies that can be found.” Because of “a dialectic of creation astonishingly close to revisionist poetics” and “a conceptual rhetoric ingeniously oriented towards defense,” Kabbalah meets Bloom’s needs. Particularly significant is Luria’s story of “creation-by-catastrophe” which, according to Bloom, revises the Zohar’s dialectics of creation to a regressive process: “creation by contraction, destruction and subsequent restitution.” This correspondence between Kabbalistic signification and poetic repression Bloom further relates to the language of psychoanalysis, finding, “modes of aesthetic limitation can be called different degrees of...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Book Forum. II, Spring, 1976, p. 258.

Christian Century. XCIII, March 24, 1976, p. 292.

New Statesman. XCI, March 19, 1976, p. 364.

New York Times Book Review. March 14, 1976, p. 6.

New Yorker. LXIX, August 16, 1976, p. 14.

Times Literary Supplement. June 25, 1976, p. 775.