Ah, Camille. I love it when she calls me her "mentor." Let's face it: I love it when she calls me at all. Though she deeply admires my work on the Western canon, she's pretty sure that my arguments for the works of Western Civilization just aren't enough to sway the masses. As she put it, "My feeling is that the people who are against the canon are not going to be convinced by this. That is my disappointment" (source). It's nice to have a shoulder to cry on.
Talk about a poet. We edited The Wind and the Rain: An Anthology of Poems for Young Peopletogether and we're just kindred spirits. He has always defended my genius—bless his heart—saying that people just don't get me. He doesn't put it very nicely ("Harold is not particularly a good explainer" [source]), but I know he means well.
We make strange bedfellows for sure, but Bennett (Education secretary under Ronald Reagan) and I have a shared admiration for Great Books. No, not great books, but Great Books—i.e., Western classics. We both took some major heat for defending the canon. In fact, people called us the c-word: conservative (nooooo!), accusing us of longing for the good old days of liberal education before all of those feminists and multiculturalists came and mucked up the works. Bennett and I agree: these books safeguard a deep tradition and make sure we don't lose our connection to the past. Amen!
I'll never forget the day Robert invited me to lunch. I was just a timid genius teaching in the Yale English Department. I didn't even know he knew I existed! Sure we had exchanged words, but we definitely didn't see eye-to-eye on how to read literature (which in the academic world is like flashing gang signs out of your car window as you roll by real slow like). Plus his friends were my enemies. In my book Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), I say he is "one of the most important living American poets," so it's safe to say our relationship turned a corner.
I had an early beef with this poet. Well, actually more with his work, ideas, and influence, since I never actually met the guy. Still, my career as a critic has been a constant argument against this "neo-Christian critic." (Did I mention he was an anti-Semite?)
When I started teaching at Yale, I was horrified at the size of Eliot's fan club. I found his whole overly prescribed way of reading poems a real turn-off. He pooh-poohed the Romantics for being "undisciplined poets of nature" (source)—like they're just a bunch of feral animals. He failed to recognize the beauty in their rowdy ways. And then New Critics (who practiced New criticism, obvs) followed Eliot like a bunch of mindless zombies.
In the 1950s and 1960s, New Critics had succeeded in an out-and-out invasion of American universities. It was mortifying. Naturally, I concocted my own views (which was considered very risky, for academics at least). To me, Romantics had an amazing visionary nature. The Romantic hero transcends time and space, let alone forests and snowy mountaintops. Sorry, T.S.
Just a few more things about those New Critics—just so I'm clear. They think you should read a poem as though nothing exists outside of it—like, say, the author's biography. How many poets write in a vacuum?! Ugh.
Let's get a few things straight. I've always taught at Yale, and "The Yale School" was the designation for a bunch of theorists and critics who were all awestruck by Jacques Derrida's philosophy of deconstruction. So my colleagues Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and I (we're like the dream team of literary criticism, BTW) each wrote up a little piece for an anthology called Deconstruction and Criticism (catchy title, eh?). But before too long, I had to put some distance between me and that clique because I just found the fallout from deconstruction too frustrating. Plus, I kept getting really uppity—intellectually of course—with my friends, and now Derrida and I don't talk anymore. Shame. (Or not.)
Okay, so these people aren't my rivals, exactly. It's just that I don't agree with one single word they say—(to riff on Mary McCarthy) including "and" and "the." This group includes, but is by no means limited to "the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp-followers, afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, [and] the hosts of new historicists and old materialists." Zing!
One of the most maddening poets of all is that Adrienne Rich. Ugh, I can hardly utter her name! All she cares about is race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, exploitation, and political meaning! Where is the beauty? I was sickened by her editing job on the 1996 volume of The Best of the Best American Poetry, which "failed to discover more than an authentic poem or two" (source). Out with the politically correct, the academic puritans, and professorial power freaks! Just sayin'.
This literary critic is a mixed bag. Sure, he admires my work, but he got on my wick when I tried to enlarge my readership. Can you believe he actually accused me of writing too much? He said that I repeat myself and characterized my work as "adding another floor to the house when the family grows" Talk about demeaning. And he said that I repeat myself! He topped off one review by saying that I have become "largely unimportant" (source). You're not getting off unscathed for that one, Wood. I got back at him in an interview when I said "Oh, don't even mention him. He doesn't exist. He just does not exist at all" (source). Ha!
This guy just makes me want to growl. "Hotel" Hilton Kramer founded The New Criterion, so he has his very own personal highly respected soapbox to stand on. And boy does he point some bony fingers at me, calling my work unreadable and junk like that. I was pissed at him for 13 years, which I think is totally called for.
I almost feel like have to create a separate category for these people. Because, let's face it, they certainly aren't rivals. The only thing they threaten is the value of literature and culture as they exist today. You may have noticed that I have a hard time keeping my gob shut when I don't like something. Sorry if I have standards, but there's some garbage I just can't deal with. Numero uno: Stephen King. BLAH. People have the chutzpah to put him side by side with Edgar freakin' Allan Poe. That King is a commercial hack. I can hardly think of anyone worse. Oh, wait—Danielle Steel and J.K. Rowling.
Let me just take a moment to address Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. No worries, I have a barf bag in arm's reach. In the 15 minutes I spent doing a close reading of this "book," my anguish was intense. I actually compiled some notes so as to express the degree to which her writing stinks. First, no one can just go for a walk with J.K—no, he has to "stretch his legs" (source). I was marking the number of times she wrote this by etching lines on the wall like days passed in a prison. I gave up at twelve because I couldn't face the grim reality of it all. People got out their shotguns when I suggested that children are better off reading nothing at all than reading that schlock. Listen, I'm just not of the "as long as they're reading" school of childhood literacy.