Sunday, October 8, 2006

Review: Library of America’s "American Religious Poems"

Any time Harold Bloom has a hand in editing a book of poems, it's an event. In this case, it's an anthology of religious poems from Library of America -- American Religious Poems -- and he stretches the definintion of what we might think of religious poetry in ways that feel important. The book comes in at 685 pages with over 200 poets, so I'm guessing that he was very inclusive in his selections.

Here is a bit of the review that appeared as a web-only exclusive on Newsweek/MSNBC:
The book, coedited by Jesse Zuba—not only a Yale Ph.D. candidate but a multi-instrumentalist with the jazz-funk jam band Alcibiades Jones—covers more than 200 poets; but Bloom’s introduction is mostly a celebration of Walt Whitman: “a new kind of religious bard,” “our prime shaman,” a writer more “vital and vitalizing” than Proust or Joyce, and author of the single greatest American poem (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”). He touches on Emily Dickinson—for Bloom, Whitman’s only peer—whose “conceptional originality ... is dwarfed only by Shakespeare’s,” and on Hart Crane, “her greatest disciple.” Bloom knows how over the top all this is: “I do not fear being called hyperbolical, since the Critical Sublime is precisely that.” And I can’t imagine he cares that other readers may find Crane’s prophetic-archaic mode unbearable: “O harp and altar, of the fury fused,/(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)/Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,/Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry …”

But just what is their work (and Wallace Stevens’s and John Ashbery’s and Jorie Graham’s) doing in an anthology of religious poems? They’re certainly not devotional poets, like Edward Taylor—the closest to John Donne and George Herbert early America ever got—or monitory poets, like fellow Puritan Michael Wigglesworth, whose earnest “Day of Doom” has such lines as “Thy best enjoyments are but Trash and Toyes/Delight thyself in that which worthless is.” Bloom can only justify the anthology’s title by redefining “religious” in the way his own 1992 book “The American Religion” did: as he tries to explain it now, the American religion “makes obsolete most distinctions between theism, agnosticism and atheism.” Something like Unitarianism, maybe, a tiny bit like Pentecostalism (Bloom became so interested in “spirit-filled churches” that he attended several services), something like Whitman’s ecstatic spiritualism. In other words, what Christian fundamentalists or ultra-Orthodox Jews would consider irreligious and blasphemous. But Bloom says it, so it must be so. His poets include Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as all the whatevers; he also has American Indian songs and chants and African-American spirituals. “The Criteria of Political Correctness,” he writes, “I dismiss with weary contempt.” Go ahead and laugh, but I’ll bet the Great Enjoyer really does enjoy it all.
I just added this book to my wish list at Amazon. I already have a couple of very good anthologies of religious/spiritual poetry, but this is a can't miss book. Follow the link above and you can get this at Amazon for around $26 instead of the $40 cover price.

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