Sunday, 19 August 2012

Overview of “From the Anxiety of Influence” and “Six Revolutionary Ratios” written by Harold Bloom

When you take up this essay one aspect that comes up is how Bloom was influenced so strongly by the concept of intra-poetic relationships. A poet takes up, leaves off, deviates or elaborates through his new poem on some poem of his contemporaries or predecessor. Poetic misinterpretation occurs when a poet misses the meaning of a poem he reads and bases a new poem on his interpretation of a former one. Which means, as per quality, though the former poem was not perfect, the latter is even worse.

It is really interesting to juxtapose Bloom’s views of poetry with that of Shelley as found in “A Defence of Poetry”. Shelley speaks of poetic language as ever changing the meaning of symbols and metaphors. For him this was a positive fact as language would be stagnant otherwise. Bloom on the other hand, thrusts on the importance of holding a symbol and bringing out its meaning to the full even while mistrusting imagination as it may lead to misinterpretation of the original symbol.
Background on ‘A Meditation upon Priority and a Synopsis’

Bloom’s main objective was to describe poetic influences and give some insight into intra-poetic relationships. Bloom believed that we hold a highly idealized notion of how one poet can help form another which isn’t always the case. According to him, poetic history and poetic influence are one and the same thing. Poets do not read other poets correctly by virtue of being poets themselves. It is the misrepresentations that lead to creations of unfilled imaginative space.
The Anxiety of Influence defined

When a poet reads a work of literature he might be influenced by it and this influence can lead both to imitation or a work on a slightly different plane than what he has read. If we were to look at the case of Oscar Wilde in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” we see this influence working negatively. His lyrics are too closely entwined with the entire English Romantic period. Perhaps because of this realization, Wilde’s incidental remark on influences quite cryptically defines the anxiety of influence in a nutshell.
“Influence is simply a transference of personality, a mode of giving away what is most precious to one’s self, and its exercise produces a sense, and, it may be, a reality of loss. Every disciple takes away something from his master.”

Later in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ Wilde has a softer view this where he associates immortality to the exercise of influence:
“Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.”

While influence works both consciously and unconsciously, there have been writers like Stevens who felt that the product of their efforts was whole unique and that they have not been influenced at all. To quote Stevens on one such instance:
“While, of course, I come down from the past, the past is my own and not something marked Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc. I know of no one who has been particularly important to me. My reality-imagination complex is entirely my own even though I see it in others.”

“I am not conscious of having been influenced by anybody and have purposely held off from reading highly mannered people like Eliot and Pound so that I should not absorb anything, even unconsciously.”
While this is all very well, one has to admit that influences act upon us in all fields of life and it would be too hypothetical to assume that we could consciously decide which to accept and which to reject.  Nor can it be possible that poetic influence exists only in “furiously active pendants” to quote Bloom; like Eliot and Pound. This belief itself is another species of melancholy or anxiety principle.

Poetic Misprision
“But poetic influence need not make poets less original; as often it makes them more original, though not therefore necessarily better.” (Bloom)

To truly study poetic influence, one can’t just go down the path of history. To understand poetic misinterpretation, it is necessary to study the life of the poet as a poet. And as Freud pointed out the family romance with its loves-hates, when studying it through a life-cycle view, the relations between poets too has to be considered.
Nietzsche and Freud

Bloom was influenced greatly by the German philosopher and the Austrian psychoanalyst. It is Nietzsche that provides Bloom with food for thought regarding the ascetic aspects of an aesthetic temperament. Freud and his defense mechanism on the other hand, are a parallel to the revisionary ratios Bloom propounds about intra-poetic relationships. 
There is no second chance in poetry. If a poem that has been written before fails to catch the point, due to poetic misinterpretation the second attempt at coming to the point is even worse. Bloom here brings in Freud’s concept of substitution. A substitute can in no way replace what one misses at first chance; in Bloom’s words: Poets as poets cannot accept substitutions, and fight to the end to have their initial chance alone.

Nietzsche and Freud have held too much faith in phantasmagoria (imaginative fancies) for according to Bloom, art is not all that simple. A poem is just not the flight of fancy of one poem as it has roots in earlier works and any misinterpretation along the line can cause serious deviations. The original source of inspiration itself also may not be perfect so we have the picture of an artist’s fight against art.
Six Revisionary Ratios

(1)    Clinamen
Poetic misreading (misprision) which means the poet swerves away from his precursor not intentionally but by a misreading or Clinamen of it. This may appear to be a corrective measure as the poet modifies what he feels needs to be changed, for a more accurate finis. Thus, the poem may be like the former one upto a certain point after which it moves away in a new direction.

(2)    Tessera
Completion and antithesis in which the poet uses a symbol of a parent- poem completing what it aims at but reads the symbol in a another sense than what it was supposed to convey. And using this new sense of direction and the symbol in the parent-poem, executes a new poem creating an antithesis.

(3)    Kenosis
Breaks away from repetition and aims at a discontinuity, if the precursor took a view of poetry as divine and poet’s as god-like for example, his successor will gradually move away from this construct and place poetry as an activity of the mind with poets as philosophers.

(4)    Daemonization
The poet believes that the parent-poem has inspired him while he writes his new poem but the inspiration comes purely from imagination. However, due to his felt inspiration from the parent poem, he incorporates elements of it into his new poem taking away some of the uniqueness of the earlier work.

(5)    Askesis
The poet adds a part of his own imagination to the poem making it different from the rest of the poems and thus, affects also the parent-poem by making it stand apart from the new poem.

(6)    Apophrades
Returning to the dead or a full circle, here it seems as if the poet is back where he started i.e. the parent-poem but there is a difference. The essence of the poem makes us believe that it is the same poet who has written the former parent poem as well instead of merely borrowing from it. The characteristic style of the precursor has been imbibed in the new poem.

“If to imagine is to misinterpret, which makes all poems antithetical to their precursors, then to imagine after a poet is to learn his own metaphors for his acts of reading.” (Bloom)

Every poem is thus, a misinterpretation of a parent-poem and a poem isn’t overcoming anxiety; it is that anxiety. Bloom felt the same applied to criticism too and so there can be no interpretations only misinterpretations which make criticism a species of prose poetry. For Bloom, Poetry is the anxiety of influence and is misalliance, misunderstanding and misinterpretation personified.
In poetry there is both contraction and expansion for the ratios of revision are contracting while the actual making of a poem is its expansion. Good poetry must have the revisionary ratios along with freshness of perspective.


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