I took a class on Contemporary American Poetry with Harold Bloom in the Spring of 1979, my last term as an undergraduate at Yale. Harold considered any living poet to qualify as “contemporary”; it was in that class I first encountered the work of several poets who would come to mean much to me, including Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill. Though it was supposed to be a selective “seminar,” Harold let in anyone who wanted to take it: he didn’t believe in denying access. What I remember most vividly about the class is how, every week, he would be most interested in focusing on some passage in a poem, or some aspect of the poet’s work, that he didn’t understand: this or that continued to puzzle him, after many rereadings, and he wanted our help in figuring it out. Harold was the best close reader of poetry I have ever encountered, and of course we rarely offered something he hadn’t already thought of, but if we did he was immensely grateful, and expressed this eloquently. I think Harold thought of himself, first and foremost, as a teacher, and I have never seen one more dedicated. He told me he intended to teach until the end, and he did: he taught his final class, via Skype, the Thursday before he died.
When, more than twenty years after I had studied with him, I first saw him again, he claimed to remember me. This seemed implausible, as I had barely spoken in a class that had nearly forty people in it. But he said, “I remember your eyes. The eyes do not change.” As he was Harold, one couldn’t put anything past him. We became friends during the last ten years or so of his life, after I found out, somewhat to my surprise, that he admired my poetry. I went up to see him in New Haven a few times, though the visits were sometimes hampered by how much discomfort he was in toward the end. He was very kind to me, always concerned about how I was doing personally, and calling me “young man” (I am sixty-two) and “son,” which no one has called me since my father died. It was with some trepidation that I realized he expected me to bring new poems to these meetings, so he could see what I was writing. When I did so, it felt rather like consulting the Oracle at Delphi. At first I was confused by watching him look at them, since he didn’t seem to read, just flip pages. Then he would say something that went straight to the heart of what a poem was up to. Eventually I realized that he wasn’t merely turning pages, he was reading: he had a truly photographic memory, and somehow would take in a whole page at a glance. It was preternatural, almost supernatural, and more than a little scary. One felt in the presence of an intelligence of a different order entirely.
Much of what I know about poetry I learned from reading, or misreading, Harold. Specifically, my whole sense of intertextuality, an important component of what I do, is influenced by his analysis of the hidden dynamics between poems. This was not, pehaps, the easiest theory of the art for a young poet to try to absorb, and it took me a long time to put what he taught me to something like use. But in the long run I found his thinking and writing about poetry both demystifying and enabling. If influence is inevitable, there is no point in being anxious about it: I came to believe that the best way to deal with it was to go straight at it. If one is condemned to be a ventriloquist, one might as well embrace it. Whether my attempts to do so stand as a tribute of sorts to him is not for me to say, though I am heartened that he seemed to approve of them. But, whatever their value, I could not have written many of the poems I’ve written without his instruction, for which I am deeply grateful. He encouraged many poets, and his affirmations were profoundly validating. The art has lost a true friend, and a truth-telling one. We are poorer for his absence, though rich in all he has left us.
Also by Joseph Harrison (see all)
- The Compromised Ventriloquist - February 9, 2020
- Remembering Harold Bloom - February 6, 2020