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They have the heights.

My last year of college, I took a class taught by my advisor Ken McClane called "Contemporary African-American Poetry." It was by far the best course I took at Cornell, not only because it was a relief to finally get to read poets of color, but because we were allowed--nay, encouraged--to evaluate their writing on its face instead of being told we must love/respect/revere it simply by dint of the fact that it was being taught in a university.

Ken decided halfway through the semester to pull a fast one on us, though, handing out a copy of Harold Bloom's introduction to the 10th anniversary Best of the Best American Poetry anthology, an essay called "They have the numbers; we, the heights", a nauseating tirade in which he whines about the inclusion of writing by women, people of color, queers in university curricula and explains why he has ignored in its entirety the 1996 edition of that anthology, edited by Adrienne Rich. Here's a fun excerpt:
That 1996 anthology is one of the provocations for this essay, 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.
I was, how you say, incensed, and for my final paper for that class, I wrote the essay pasted below. (If you bother to wade through it--it's long--do be gentle, as I wrote it nearly a decade ago--good lord.)

They have the heights; but then, they built their own pedestal

According to preeminent literary scholar Harold Bloom’s essay “They have the numbers; we, the heights,” his introduction to The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997, “authentic American poetry is necessarily difficult. Indeed, it is our elitist art, though that elite has nothing to do with social class, gender, erotic preference, ethnic strain, race, or sect.”1 If this is true, then it must be mere coincidence that virtually all of the poets who make up the Western canon are white, male, upper class, and straight-identified. The literary elite must simply have in common an amazing capacity for greatness and nothing more. They have been elevated to the status of gods within the universities and throughout the larger culture purely on the strength of their creative merits. And those not represented in the canon, specifically those who happen to be women or poor or black, et al, have not been included only because their writing did not merit widespread attention or acclaim. The fact that they are not white or male or wealthy has nothing to do with it; that is yet another mere coincidence.

Removing poetry from the realm of reality—separating it from the context in which it was written—is a useful tool for ignoring and denying the influence of reality on poetry. The imagining of poetry as simply an “aesthetic” pursuit with no responsibility to or grounding in reality provides a useful lens; it conveniently appears to those using such a lens that the less desirable aspects of society have not affected them or their art. They are immune from the pervasive social forces of racism and sexism, classism and heterosexism. They are not only remarkable in their ability to write good poetry, and recognize good poetry when they read it, but they are morally and intellectually superior to the masses.

Bloom believes that the true masses, however, are “the multiculturalists, 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.” Those who have not so much fallen prey to social evils as they have to what Bloom dubs “cultural guilt” which manifests in their crusade to seek out and analyze to death the various evils in every musty corner of Western civilization. They will leave no stone unturned. They will not rest until they have freed themselves of cultural guilt by uncovering and destroying every type of oppression imaginable. And now, they would destroy that “elitist art”—which for so long has been impervious to the social evils afflicting the rest of society. They would destroy poetry by locating it within the realm of reality, by projecting upon it “identity” and its associated politics, by writing poetry that is not, because of its social awareness, aesthetic.

Bloom claims that the poets he has chosen for The Best of the Best Bloom relies on Walter Pater’s definition of “Aesthetic”: “Pater simply meant ‘authentic’ or ‘good,’ since he kept in mind always the Greek meaning of aesthesis: ‘perceptiveness.’” If good or authentic poetry is perceptive poetry, then does it not follow that poetry that is aware of the world, poetry that is perceptive of reality, is good poetry? Could it be possible that poetry that is not removed from the social condition, but is instead influenced by and founded in it, is authentic? And since America itself is much more diverse than the Western canon of literature, could it be possible that outside the canon exists authentic poetry written perhaps by some sexual or racial minority? But if that were the case, then the moral and intellectual superiors—those arbiters of literary greatness—would have failed; for why, in the name of great literature, would “aesthetic” poetry ever be ignored? Bloom feels that this is not the case, that he and his peers are wholly capable of objectivity in their reading and judging of poetry. During the last thirty years, however, the universities have become, in Bloom’s words, “travesties;” they attempt to house every variety of “studies” as “sources of aesthetic and cognitive values” for the evaluation of poetry. These “cultural studies” scholars attempt to view poetry through the lens of the world. In so doing, they question the authority of the literary old guard, who insists that its study of poetry has never been shaped by the oppressive values that are so pervasive in the national psyche.

Bloom believes that there is no “room for the false generosity of Affirmative Action in the judging of poetry. Printing, praising, and teaching bad poems for the sake of even the best causes is simply destructive for those causes.” It is true that the proliferation of bad poetry is destructive; however, never in Bloom’s article does he give any evidence that the poetry of Laetitia Landon and Aphra Behm, for instance, is bad. Perhaps he has enough prominence as a literary scholar that we can merely accept his iron fist of criticism without question, but is teaching the poetry of these female poets an exercise in “affirmative action” because the poetry itself is bad or because the poetry was written by women? Bloom never specifies in his essay. He himself criticizes the institution of tenure in universities since “it becomes pernicious when faculties are crowded with ideologues who resent Wordsworth even as they resent Shakespeare.” Yet, it is Bloom’s “tenure”—both at Yale and in the larger realm of the literary world—that lends such authority to his unexplained but immediate dismissal of writers like Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Moreover, Bloom misrepresents the practice of “affirmative action” in his condemnation of writers who fall outside of the white-European-male club. Affirmative action is not a game of “representation-by-category” as Bloom would have it; neither is it some form of reparation for the “insulted and injured.” Affirmative action, despite the misappropriation of it by Bloom and the gaggle of bitter neo-conservatives who keep crying “reverse racism” and preferential treatment, is a measure to insure that those who have been consistently excluded from certain institutions on the basis of their race or gender are evaluated instead on the basis of their merit. Affirmative action does not translate into the hiring or admission of an unqualified candidate for a job or university. It means that this candidate will supposedly receive fair consideration. Unfortunately, Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Executive Order 11246 may only be enforced in the workplace and university admissions (until the neo-conservatives win and set civil rights back more than thirty years). Civil rights legislation may end de jure discrimination while it does nothing to halt de facto discrimination since the minds of the people cannot be legislated.

In her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?,” psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum discusses the psychology of contemporary racism. Sociologist George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness provides impressive discourse on racism that portrays it not only as an institution that disadvantages people of color, but also as an institution that confers unearned and unfair privileges onto whites. The two books provide honest insight into the historical and contemporary manifestations of racism. In her thought-provoking defense of affirmative action programs in college admissions and hiring, Tatum cites recent studies which give evidence that despite the assertions made by the majority of whites (first, that racism is no longer a national problem and second, that they themselves are not racist), racial bias does in fact affect their judging of racial minorities.

Bloom never leaves the door open to the possibility that racial bias has affected, and is currently affecting, the judging of poetry and could therefore be partly responsible for the lily-white reading lists in the universities. Tatum’s analysis of “aversive racism” and the research findings of three social psychologists could shed some light on Bloom’s naïve position that poets from excluded groups have produced sub-standard work as opposed to being treated unfairly by critics and publishers alike. The studies that Tatum cites suggest that bias could very well affect the chances of a person of color being hired or admitted to a university. By extension, it may be presumed that this holds for whether poets will be published, taught, or praised for their work. According to studies conducted by John Dovidio, Jeffrey Mann, and Samuel Gaertner, “the existence, both of almost unavoidable racial biases and of the desire to be egalitarian and racially tolerant, forms the basis of the ambivalence that aversive racists experience.” These whites do not see themselves as prejudiced, but “if an action can be justified on the basis of some factor other than race [italics added by author], negative feelings toward Blacks will surface. In these ambiguous situations, an aversive racist can discriminate against Blacks without threatening his racially tolerant self-image.”2 Bloom sees himself as an objective lover of poetry whose judgments are based only on aesthetic standards, standards that have been set by the masters of English literature such as Blake, Shelley, and Whitman. Perhaps when Blooms sees “affirmative action” at work in the judging of poetry—poets of marginalized groups receiving attention and praise for “bad poems”—his judgment of those poems is not quite as objective as he would like to think.

Aside from bias against marginalized groups factoring into Bloom’s opinion that the work of these poets is “bad” and therefore unworthy of being read or taught, bias in favor of poets who happen to be white, male, straight-identified, or upper-class could also be partly responsible for their having been included and maintained in the Western literary tradition to the exclusion of others. Bloom’s “sense of the aesthetic” is what he believes to be the objective norm; however, Lipsitz writes, “as the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations.”3 The same could be said for maleness, heterosexuality, and wealth. In “They have the numbers,” Bloom mentions the poets whom he considers the greatest of all time: they are all white—and, apparently, Anglo; only a negligible number are women; and one of his most fervent arguments is against the critics who attempt to “assimilate the Self-Reliant Whitman into what calls itself the Homosexual Poetic.” If one considers the race, gender, and sexual orientation of the poets who are so widely praised as exemplars of fine poetry, then there appears to be an unspoken set of criteria for becoming one of the aesthetic elite. When Bloom questions whether it is worth remarking that Shakespeare and Dante were both European males, one wonders exactly what he means. If it is an attempt at humor based on Bloom’s perception that every possible “minority” is now being studied in the universities, then it is a bad joke; across the nation, English departments as well as most humanities departments remain overwhelmingly Eurocentric in both their curricula and their faculties. Indeed, it must be a bad joke for otherwise, and perhaps regardless, Bloom is exposing the powerful forces at work: whiteness never has to speak its name—until its supposed inherent supremacy is somehow threatened. Then, whiteness—and maleness—must assert themselves as obvious criteria for inclusion in the Western canon.

This is not to say that Shakespeare does not deserve his place in the literary tradition, but it is possible that a woman or gay or Asian-American poet somewhere who deserves acclaim as well has not received it because that person does not meet the unspoken criteria. Adrienne Rich quotes Charles Bernstein in an epigram to The Best American Poetry 1996: “[A]s long as social relations are skewed, who speaks in poetry will never be a neutral matter.”4 Those who publish and those whose works get published; those who teach and those whose works are taught; those who decide which poets merit praise and those who are acclaimed will always reflect the biases of the society. There has never been a time when aesthetic poetry has not been closely linked to the social context in which it was written.

Shakespeare indeed “so combined cognitive strength, originality, dramatic guile, and linguistic florabundance as virtually to reinvent the human” as Bloom asserts. But Shakespeare’s works were not merely “aesthetic” in the common use of the term, or, as Audre Lorde once described the traditional Western concept of poetry, “imagination without insight.”5 Shakespeare’s plays especially may have centered on characters that were uniquely human individuals, but they were often framed by his time in history. When Bloom challenges the critics who see Shakespeare’s writings as having been shaped by Elizabethan-Jacobean social energies, he asks rhetorically why those social energies “favored Shakespeare over Thomas Middleton or John Marston or George Chapman or whoever.” Perhaps Shakespeare’s greatness—as a playwright, at least—stems from his perceptiveness of the social, or human, condition as much as from his “dramatic guile and linguistic florabundance.” Shakespeare understood the function of racism in early modern Europe well enough to make Othello a Moor. He understood the irony in betraying the classical representation of black as evil and white as good; in a brilliant stroke of his pen, Shakespeare created a tragically-flawed though not inherently evil protagonist, the black Othello and a villain truly “of a badness not to be believed,” the white Iago. While it is doubtful that “the social energies of early modern Europe pulsated into his quill” to create these characters, surely those energies thrived in Shakespeare’s imagination and provided them with depth and purpose. It does not diminish Shakespeare to discuss his works within the context in which they were written; it complicates them and makes them more profound. Shakespeare transcends his status as a “pretty” poet—though perhaps the prettiest—to become one of the greatest, most perceptive cultural critics and historians of all time.

All poets are historians. Epics such as The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid are creative works that document the events that shaped a civilization.6 The Whitmanian “real me” or “me myself” epitomizes stubborn American individualism even as it attempts to defy Walt Whitman’s categorization as “one of the roughs, an American.” T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, beyond being one of the most imaginative and formally daunting poems written in the twentieth century, is undeniably a cultural critique of post-World War I Europe. “A Bronzeville Mother” by Gwendolyn Brooks is a literary remembrance of the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till; it is also a complex and highly original enterprise, whose diction and form are reminiscent of Eliot. All of these works are perceptive; their success depends on the poet’s creative handling of a situation. Still, Gwendolyn Brooks is not considered a part of the canon. She doesn’t meet the unspoken criteria for being perceived as perceptive.

The decision about whose poetry is perceptive enough to be included in the Western canon is not objective. It will always carry the biases of those with the most literary clout, critics like Harold Bloom. These biases skew their perception; poets are left out of the tradition because they happen not to be members of the canon’s present “identity club.” The canon should be more diverse than it is; this is not to say that poor poetry should be included to make up for past insults. There is, however, aesthetic poetry being written today by those who previously have not been represented in the tradition at all. To fight their inclusion on the grounds that their poetry is not aesthetic, or perceptive, while at the same time shunning their work for being too aware of the social (or human) condition is to do the Western canon a great disservice. What is at stake for Harold Bloom and the others who see poetry through the lens of the “aesthetic”? That would be the monopoly that, at the risk of sounding like one of the “mock-feminists,” the straight European upper-class man has held on literature for so long. If it is possible that other poets are capable of greatness, then the supposed inherent superiority of those already on the pedestal is called into question. Ralph Waldo Emerson illustrates perfectly the problem of the current keepers of the literary guard in what Bloom himself calls Emerson’s “dialectics of power”:

We believe in ourselves, as we do not believe in others. We permit all things to ourselves, and that which we call sin in others, is experiment for us.... [C]rimes that spring from love [sic] seem right and fair from the actor’s point of view, but, when acted, are found destructive of society. No man at last believes that he can be lost, nor that the crime in him is as black as in the felon.7

Bloom, in quoting this passage, does not see how appropriate Emerson’s words really are. Bloom’s belief in himself and lack of belief in others, beyond being an expression of his own arrogance, is the foundation of oppression. When Bloom writes that Rich’s 1996 anthology is “a monumental representation of the enemies of the aesthetic…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,” one must ask when these criteria were not operative. It is these criteria that have shaped and limited the Western canon of literature. Bloom’s mortal enemy, “the god of resentment,” Michel Foucault wrote that power is not defined so much by the ability to make others act in accordance with one’s will; it is more the ability to limit others from acting in accordance with their own. Through the repression of poets from marginalized groups, the literary elite has long exercised its cultural power. Now, however, these “crimes of [self] love” must cease, these crimes which are definitely destructive of society:

…[A] young woman, preparing to be a high school English teacher, expressed her dismay that she had never learned about any Black authors in any of her English classes. How was she to teach about them to her future students when she hadn’t learned about them herself? A White male student in the class responded to this discussion with frustration in his response journal, writing, “It’s not my fault that Blacks don’t write books.”8

It may be true that Bloom and his peers presently hold the heights, but they must acknowledge that they built their own pedestal and have pulled up the ladder behind them.

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