The Anxiety of Influence
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Bloom's central thesis is that poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintained with precursor poets. While admitting the influence of extraliterary experience on every poet, he argues that "the poet in a poet" is inspired to write by reading another poet's poetry and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing poetry, and, therefore, weak. Because poets must forge an original poetic vision in order to guarantee their survival into posterity (i.e., to guarantee that future readers will not allow them to be forgotten), the influence of precursor poets inspires a sense of anxiety in living poets.
Thus Bloom attempts to work out the process by which the small minority of 'strong' poets manage to create original work in spite of the pressure of influence. Such an agon, he argues, depends on six revisionary ratios, which reflect Freudian defense mechanisms and the tropes of classical rhetoric. Later books, especially Kabbalah and Criticism and A Map of Misreading connect each ratio to the Kabbalah.
Before writing this book, Bloom spent a decade studying the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. This is reflected in the emphasis given to those poets and their struggle with the influence of John Milton. Other poets analyzed range from Lucretius and Dante to Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery.
In The Anxiety of Influence and other early books, Bloom claimed that influence was particularly important for post-enlightenment poets. Conversely, he suggested that influence was not as much of a problem for such poets as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. He since has changed his mind, and the most recent editions of The Anxiety of Influence include a preface claiming that Shakespeare was troubled early in his career by the influence of Christopher Marlowe.