I met Bloom (he had hands like big damp croissants), but never studied with him. For a while he was, at the same time, the Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. To get a flavor of his teaching, turn to Larissa MacFarquhar’s magnificent 2002 profile in The New Yorker.
“When Bloom teaches, he uncoils and grows even larger,” MacFarquhar wrote. “He seems to his students not quite in control of himself: He gets carried away, he throws himself around, he slips his hand inside his shirt and grasps his chest, he quivers with feeling. He is a superb spectacle. He worships, he adores, he falls at a poet’s feet, but not deferentially — intimately. He is rabbinical, prophetic; but he is also, in his bigness and his emotion, like a giant mother. He is disarmingly feminine: His voice, emerging out of the roomy torso, is a gentle tenor. A number of his female students find the combination of these qualities overwhelmingly, destructively, seductive.”
That last line is a reminder, perhaps, that in 2004 the writer Naomi Wolf accused Bloom of sexual “encroachment” by touching her thigh when she was a student at Yale two decades earlier. It is a charge he has denied, but many more hints emerged over the years of affairs with students.
Bloom wrote too much. By the end, he was rehearsing the same material, pressing “shuffle” on the same orotund playlists, and his work lost much of its consecrating power. Many critics turned against him. He said, memorably: “As someone sympathetic once said of my reviews, ‘It’s an invectorium.’”
“Maybe one writes to ward off death,” he commented. “I’m not sure. But I think in some sense that’s what poets do. They write their poems to ward off dying.” For Bloom, the worst part about death was surely that he could not take a book with him.