Harold Bloom, Collecting 'Religious Poems'

Literary critic Harold Bloom has co-edited a new anthology called American Religious Poems. In a conversation with Linda Wertheimer, Bloom elaborates on the premise of his book and notes some unexpected examples.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A new anthology of American religious poems comes out next month. It's assembled and edited by Harold Bloom. He is the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale and has written most recently a book called Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.

Harold Bloom joins us from his home in New Haven. Professor Bloom, thank you for taking this time with us.

Professor HAROLD BLOOM (Yale University): Thank you very much, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Because you start from the premise that this collection is American, there - obviously there are no psalms, there's no John Donne, there's no European devotional poetry of the sort that we're all familiar with. But the anthology begins with the Puritans, Ann Bradstreet, Roger Williams and others and continues chronologically. The first section, it seems to me, is the most devotional set of poems in the book.

Prof. BLOOM: I think that is absolutely true. There are a few devotional poems that come all through the anthology, right down to the current day. The breaking point is really first the development of New England Unitarianism, and then the extraordinary transformation of that Unitarianism by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the prophet, the theologian of what I would want to call the American religion.

WERTHEIMER: Well, he set - I suppose you could say he set a tone for a kind of whole view of American faith and possibility, a view of the New World.

Prof. BLOOM: Emerson was the prophet of this. His greatest disciple was Walt Whitman, who did indeed break with the entire tradition of European poetry, Emily Dickinson a kind of dissident disciple who was - by the way, anyone who has the feeling that Ms. Dickinson was in any orthodox way a devotional poet, I will chant aloud one very brief poem, which is part of the representation of her in this volume.

Heavenly Father, take it to thee the supreme iniquity fashioned by thy candid hand. In a moment contraband. Though to trust us seemed to us more respectful, we are dust. We apologize to thee for thine own duplicity.

WERTHEIMER: Now if you can include a poem like that in this anthology, is there sort of a shorthand version of the standard for religious poems in the anthology?

Prof. BLOOM: Well, that might be difficult to find, except that towards the end of it I include a number of poems by a young woman poet - I think she's just turning 40 now - from Louisiana, named Martha Serpas, S-E-R-P-A-S. She was expressing herself, I think, with extraordinary intensity, written long before Katrina.

But here is, I think, something of that sense of American religion in American poetry in a brief poem by Ms. Martha Serpas called Psalm at High Tide.

Rain on the river's vinyl surface, water that glitters, water that hardly moves, its branches witness to trees, to fronds, leaves, crab floats, pilings, shopping carts, appliances. The divine earth takes everything in its wounded side and gives back wholeness. It bears the huddled profane and endures the soaking, venerated in its wild swirls, the river fixed with wooden wears radiant in misshapen glory.

There in the flood that she has prophesying, there in the Katrina-like washing away, the earth is divine again. Its side is wounded almost like the side of the Christ in the Crucifixion. There in that moment of catastrophe, she can still see a kind of exultant and radiant and spiritual kind of a light.

WERTHEIMER: Looking at the old Spirituals and at the hymns with which you end the book, any particular ones that you'd like to single out?

Mr. BLOOM: I suppose - I suppose one that has always made a special appeal to me is the one beginning I know moonrise.

I know moonrise. I know star-rise. Lay this body down. I walk in de moonlight, I walk in the starlight to lay dis body down. I'll walk in de graveyard, I'll walk through de graveyard to lay dis body down. I'll lie in de grave and stretch out my arms; lay this body down. I go to the Judgment in de evening of de day, when I lay this body down. And my soul and your soul will meet in de day when I lay this body down.

I find that has extraordinary aesthetic dignity.

WERTHEIMER: Harold Bloom with Jesse Zuba edited American Religious Poems. It's a new anthology. It comes out next month.

Harold Bloom, thank you very much.

Mr. BLOOM: Thank you very much, Linda, dear.

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An Anthology by Harold Bloom

by Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba

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