Tag Archives: Harold Bloom

Tuesday Poem: “Of Mere Being,” by Wallace Stevens

John Gould and R. Bowdler Sharpe: Paradisea Decora, Salv. et Opdm. (Grey-chested Bird of Paradise), from Birds of Asia

John Gould and R. Bowdler Sharpe: Paradisea Decora, Salv. et Opdm. (Grey-chested Bird of Paradise), from Birds of Asia.

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Of Mere Being
Wallace Stevens

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
How do we read a Wallace Stevens poem?

Three things are required:

  • First is silence. A quiet room or a lonely park in winter.
  • Second, one must have the time and patience to re-read a poem a dozen times, and then repeat the process two or three times more.
  • Lastly, one must be close to death.
  • Of course by this last requirement I don’t mean close to death in the degenerative sense of the phrase, or near death in the temporal sense (although Wallace was very near death when he wrote the poem, having died not long afterward). Nor do I mean a proximity to death, or an acquaintance with death, as in having experienced the death of a loved one, or having, in times of despair, contemplated the idea of taking one’s own life.

    Rather, I mean death must be a close friend, a companion, spouse, relative, a fellow traveller, a part of one’s journey through the world, and even of one’s sense of contentment with the world — like the gentle breeze drifting through the branches of a palm. Or a blackbird on a snow-covered tree-branch (a popular Wallace motif; see Edward Pico’s cleverly composed multi-media version of Wallace’s blackbirds). Something pleasant, non-threatening, common and welcome; but very familiar, always there.

    Somewhat reluctantly pushed into the relationship by Harold Bloom, I’ve become more familiar with Stevens during the course of these Tuesday Poems (this is the third Stevens poem I’ve posted). The more I get to know him, the more my admiration soars; the more I find myself in the company of a supreme adventurer, a superlative American hero.

    “Of Mere Being” is perhaps one of the greatest adventure poems ever written. Let’s be clear: Discovery is not about finding a new and distant truth. It’s about reporting back. With the long, yawning, longing tones of the first stanza (palm/-yond/bronze), Stevens travels as far as anyone ever has — to the edge of reason, the yawning edge of space — and witnesses the inexplicable.

    “Of Mere Being” is 75 words long. If we crack the poem into two equal halves, 37 words in one half (from “the palm at the end” to “you know then that”), and 37 words in the other half (from “not the reason” to “dangle down”), the remaining word in the core of the poem — or put another way, the milk in the center of the palm tree’s nut — is, appropriately, the word “it.”

    There’s no use trying to define this “it,” for it’s beyond human comprehension. We’ll never figure it out. Aware of its futility, Stevens serves us the romantic image of discovery — palm trees, soft winds, exotic birds. What useless scraps of language must Captain Cook have employed in describing his travels! Or poor Omai (or Mai), the first polynesian to travel to London; how he must have struggled, back on his island of Huahine, trying to express his “it”.

    Poetry is the reporting back after one’s distant travels with the Muse. In the last words of “Of Mere Being,” so different in tone than the previous 11 lines, Stevens sends a kind of telegram from the unknown, a last and futile attempt to convey the “it” in the language of rhyme, alliteration, music, euphony. He’s been to the edge of space. He’s seen the shiny bird. “The fire-fangled feathers dangle down.”

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    Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom, Riverhead Books, 1999, 745 pages

    Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom

    Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom

    The further one ventures out of this world and into the Shakespearean universe, the more one feels the inadequacy of certain cerebral equipage.  Your most insulated jackets, your thickest snow boots won’t shield you from the icy temperatures of Macbeth.  No sunscreen, of even the highest SPF, can block the searing sun of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  There’s no oxygen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or maybe there’s too much oxygen— and what’s that strange gas everyone seems to be breathing in Twelfth Night?  Gravity exists, of course, a severe and fundamental gravity in King Lear and Hamlet, but it torques and twists and transmutes the world like nothing we’re accustomed to.

    One requires, alas, no less than the literary equivalent of NASA to design a proper suit, one which can hold up in the watery, or windy, or sometimes fiery — but always extreme, always shifting and temporally unusual  – conditions one finds in a work by William Shakespeare.

    If anyone would know how such a suit should be designed it’s Harold Bloom, one of the most accomplished and important literary scientists of all time (right up there with his cross-epochal lover and soul-mate, Dr. Johnson). But in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom approaches the greatest of all writers – “greatest” being a superlative which one can safely and liberally employ (as Bloom does, exuberantly, in a variety of ways) when writing about Shakespeare — from a different, or rather reverse and astonishing angle.

    Each of us, Bloom insists, or at least anyone who can engage in a discussion of Shakespeare, is a creation of Shakespeare.  That is, our very sense of self and nature, the way we reason and behave, is nothing less than our evolutionary adaptation to Shakespeare’s art.  We’ve been living and breathing and surviving in the strange and alien-seeming substance of Shakespeare from the moment of our self-awareness.  “I do not know if God created Shakespeare,” writes Bloom, “but I know that Shakespeare created us, to an altogether startling degree.”

    This heady argument – and yes, for Bloom it’s an “argument” – appears to arise more out of distress than pleasure.  Bloom has a bone, a skull you might say, to pick with Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists (“the usual suspects,” he quips) who misinterpret and travesty Shakespeare’s plays and ultimately produce what Bloom, quite wonderfully, calls “ideological jamborees.”  One can’t help cheering Bloom on here, although sometimes we see Bloom as a courageous David, other times as Ali the boxing champion, other times it’s Bloom the pit-bull in a dogfight, a crowd of academics carousing around the bloody spectacle.

    Bloom acknowledges early in his book that critics of Shakespeare, writing what they see in Shakespeare’s mirror, tell us more about themselves than about Shakespeare’s work.  Bloom, we quickly learn, is a “devout Falstaffian.”  Shakespeare, he writes, invented Harold Bloom as a parody of Falstaff.  There is, indeed, a Falstaffian fleshiness to Bloom’s book, the inflated theatricality, the bombast and self-indulgence, the stylistic rotundity – folds of repetitive flabbiness hanging over his belt – and (perhaps most of all) a sense of youthfulness in old age not unlike Falstaff’s.  And yet Falstaff would never write a book like this one.

    Bloom understands the Shakespearean illusion.  We think we see in Hamlet what everyone else sees, but it’s the reflection of our inner selves we’re witnessing.  And Bloom also knows, brilliantly, that the image of himself which he sees reflected in Shakespeare’s mirror is not what we see in Bloom.  Falstaff and Hamlet are Bloom’s favourite characters because they display a passionate charisma mixed with what he calls “inwardness” (a type of self-consciousness, self-reflection, self-revisionism).  On Bloom’s stage, where the main players include Nietzsche, Dr. Johnson, Montaigne, Chaucer, Cervantes, Beckett and a kind of Shylockian Freud , with minor parts given to Hegel, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Wilde, Spinoza, Anthony Burgess, Eliot, Hart Crane and countless others, Bloom is his own favourite character.

    Bloom, too, displays charisma and inwardness; and he knows that what he writes is both insightful and fleeting, precise and prolix, enthusiastic, laborious, accurate and yet never quite right.  At times it’s difficult to take anything Bloom says seriously, such a believer is Bloom in revisionism. A Whitehouse Secretary, a Scott McClellan type of literary scholarship. And much of what Blooms says — especially about how poets operate — is simply wrong, but being wrong, in Bloom’s production, is a temporary affair.  Give it time.  Wrongs will right themselves eventually.

    Bloom as Falstaff?  But also Cleopatra, it seems to me, with her “longing for a lost sublime,” and I hate to say it (this will hurt Bloom terribly), Henry V, because Bloom finds his strongest inspiration when fighting an enemy. Hamlet was an expert swordsman, easily defeating Laertes in their duel, but his most powerful weapon, like Falstaff’s, was his wit, coupled with his air of indifference (or “disinterestedness,” to use Bloom’s term).  Bloom is massive and lovable, sensitive, beautiful, brave and thrilling, profoundly alive, a miracle of nature, soaring loftily, jubilantly in the raging slipstream of Shakespearean studies; but he isn’t witty.

    Wit is the interpretation of words “out of frame” (to use Hamlet’s metaphor).  It is to literature what a trick of light, or a piece of camouflage, or a reflection in a window, is to a painting.  The word is not what we first think; the little shadow reveals itself to be a blackbird; the woman’s silky-seeming veil is made of alabaster; and the woman is really a man.  Anne Salmond, in her wonderful book on Captain Cook, informs us that some of the island men mistook a few members of Cook’s crew for ladies and excitedly pursued them into the foliage for coupling, only to find themselves the butts, so to speak, of a Shakespearean charade, a wonderful play of cultural wit.

    Hamlet was a cannibal (Gloucester his supper); and he was Captain Cook, too.  The Maori, who always paddled their canoes while sitting forward, believed the approaching British sailors, who paddled toward shore in a backward manner, were a convoy of faceless goblins.  Hamlet-the-Maori traded feathers for a mirror and admired his clear reflection in the smooth device.  Hamlet-the-ship’s captain awarded human dignity to the natives who ate his friends.  Hamlet was a conquistador and a slave, a native and a foreigner, a feminist, a Marxist, a multiculturalist and, at the same time, he was Bloom the “Brontosaurus Bardolator” (as Bloom urbanely, unpoetically calls himself).  He is a member of the human species, but from another country, an undiscovered country – or rather, a country discovered and observed, but beyond our comprehension, beyond our control.

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