The Art of Reading PoetryHarold Bloom’s lunch meat-thin book (that I picked up for a song at Half-Price Books) is like an eyedropper of nitroglycerine. This amalgamation of observations and elucidations booms and reverberates with intellectual stimulation. It’s better than the average graduate dissertation at one-tenth the size.  I don’t know that reading poetry is an “art”.  Understanding poetry may be. This book certainly makes a case for it being art. Bloom’s writing style is an art form in itself. He’s read so much and it shows. I sense that in his more convoluted sentences, the ones with dashes and semi-colons, clauses within clauses and all manner of noun phrases, he’s still holding back information. His dry prose bleeds intent.

AoRP succeeds in explaining the cavalcade of “tropes” and image architecture that is poetic language. Teaching English itself is an extraordinary experience because the language is so flexible, so multi-purpose…so maneuverable! Teaching English poetry is like showing students how to build a Rube Goldberg — to create an elaborate simplicity.  It’s interesting that Bloom describes language as “concealed figuration”. I hear an echo of Orwell’s “Why I Write” when he explains how writing conceals intent and distorts the truth. In the case of poetry, language “exploits” using figures of speech. Take "exploit" how you will.

I feel sorry for people who live and think like cement wheels. Poetry is nothing to them. Not worth a second glance. A doorknob is more useful than an ode. People whose minds are like popcorn or flowers can be reached by poetry. This book, for all its good intentions, will probably not reach cement wheel people. Bloom’s sentences are too luxurious, his vocabulary too celestial. And….AND he does my absolute favorite Bloom-thing: he makes adjectives out of people’s names. Heehee! I love it! Blakeian, Yeatsian. Epic! Mozartean, Popean! Stop! You’re killing me!

One of the things I like best about the writing in this book is that in several instances, Bloom talks about poetry like it’s music. It’s an auditory treat. He uses the language of music to opine on Blake, Pope, and Milton. It’s a real pleasure to read. Another reader-friendly trait is that it all sounds like a lecture – but a good lecture, with lots of examples. Too many examples, probably. It’s a really, really thin book. If it was any thinner, it would have only one side. It’s thinner than Funny Jokes to Make You Popular by Franz Kafka. Whole pages are given to long poems and index of poems.

If you are afraid of poetry, this is a decent book. It’s thin. It’s not intimidating – until you open it and start reading. Then watch out. You’ll be blinded by the light (hey, that would make a great song title…).  If you are okay with poetry, beware of phrases like “a benign haunting in poetic tradition.” “Repressed reference is a defense against overinfluence.” Qoi? Then it’s so cute how he comes back down to earth: “I can chant Poe by the yard, from memory…”

“Arnoldian”! Woo-Hoo! THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about!

The word “inevitability” shows up a lot. Since he paints poetry in musical terms, I take that to mean a “resolve” as in a musical resolve — when a melody comes back to the note where it started. Every image or figure that comes next should strike the reader as natural, inevitable. Not jar as jazz might. Although, if you jar and make it work, that is good poetry too. Maneuverability.

From reading all the shameless name-dropping throughout the book, I get the impression that Bloom read Critical Theory Since Plato, or more likely, has read everyone in it. It feels good to think of Longinus and Wimsatt, and Pope being quoted by Bloom. I feel connected to good ideas. It gives me perspective and that great feeling you get from riding the same wavelength with another mind, a mind I greatly admire.

April is National Poetry Month.

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"Books are, let’s face it, better than anything else."

Nick Hornby~The Polysyllabic Spree



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