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The Anxiety of Influence

Excerpts from two reviews of this book are also available.

Anxiety book cover

In his first major contribution to theory, Bloom challenges the commonplace notion that literary tradition is a benign and empowering source of influence on modern poets. Instead, Bloom argues, for poets since Milton the achievements of their great precursors are barriers to their own aspirations to originality. "Influence," Bloom insists, "is Influenza - an astral disease," and against its threat, strong poets learn to protect themselves by "misreading" their predecessors. Such "creative misprision" operates through six techniques, or "revisionary ratios," which together form the foundation for Bloom's manifesto for a new "antithetical criticism."


revisionary ratios
1. Clinamen, which is poetic misreading or misprison proper...This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves.

2. Tessera, which is the completion and antithesis...A poet antithetically "completes" his precursor, by so reading the parent poem as to retain its terms but to mean to them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough.

3. Kenosis , which is a breaking device similar to the defense mechanisms our psyches employ against repetition compulsions; kenosis then is a movement towards discontinuity with the precursor. The later poet, apparently emptying himself of his own afflatus, his imaginative godhood, seems to humble himself as though he were ceasing to be a poet, but this ebbing is so performed in relation to a precursor's poem-of-ebbing that the precursor is emptied out also, and so the later poem of deflation is not as absolute as it seems.

4. Daemonization, or a movement towards a personalized Counter-Sublime, in reaction to the precursor's Sublime...The later poet opens himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent-poem that does not belong to the parent proper, but to a range of being just beyond that precursor. He does this, in his poem, by so stationing its relation to the parent-poem as to generalize away the uniqueness of the earlier work.

5. Askesis, or a movement of self-purgation...The later poet does not, as in kenosis, undergo a revisionary movement of emptying, but of curtailing; he yields up part of his own human and imaginative endowment, so as to separate himself from others, including the precursor, and he does this in his poem by so stationing it in regard to the parent-poem as to make that poem undergo an askesis too; the precursor's endowment is also truncated.

6. Apophrades, or the return of the dead...The later poet, in his own final phase, already burdened by an imaginative solitude that is almost a solipsism, holds his own poem so open again to the precursor's work that at first we might believe the wheel has come full circle, and that we are back in the later poet's flooded apprenticeship, before his strength began to assert itself in the revisionary ratios. But the poem is now held open to the precursor, where once it was open, and the uncanny effect is that the new poem's achievement makes it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it, but as though the later poet himself had written the precursor's characteristic work.

antithetical criticism
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. Criticism then necessarily becomes antithetical also, a series of swerves after unique acts of creative misunderstanding. The first swerve is to learn to read a great precursor poet as his greater descendants compelled themselves to read him.

The second to is read the descendants as if we were their disciples, and so compel ourselves to learn where we must revise them if we are to be found by our own work, and claimed by the living of our own lives. Neither of these quests is yet Antithetical Criticism. That begins when we measure the first clinamen against the second. Finding just what the accent of deviation is, we proceed to apply it as corrective to the reading of the first but not the second poet or group of poets...Summary - Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety. Poets' misinterpretations of poems are more drastic than critics' misinterpretations or criticism, but this is only a difference in degree and not at all in kind. There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry. Critics are more or less valuable than other critics only (precisely) as poets are more or less valuable than other poets. For just as a poet must be found by the opening in a precursor poet, so must the critic. The difference is that a critic has more parents. His precursors are poets and critics. But - in truth - so are a poet's precursors, often and more often as history lengthens.

© 1973, Oxford University Press. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973; 2d ed., 1997.


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