The Days of Bloom

In recognition of Professor Harry Bloom’s long and exemplary service, his humane teaching, and his inspiring dedication to all facets of the craft of fiction, the English department of the State University ofNew York’s College at Oneonta established the Harry Bloom prize for fiction in 1997.

He would have loved that I googled him, loved, even more, the sound of the twenty-first century search engine phrase. Professor Bloom stressed the use of words not only for their meaning, but for the uniqueness they lent to a phrase.

Way, way, back in the sixties, I was a college junior, majoring in education, and unaware of the influence he would eventually have on me. Had I known, I might have resisted or rebelled, which was my habit then with any fist of authority. But, I believe, it was Harry Bloom’s age that softened me, what I naively regarded as old. He was an interesting blend of scholar, elf and rabbi. And I often imagined him working late into the night, honing his craft, (he’d written a novel) or solemn, hunched over an ancient copy of the Talmud, reading by candlelight.

On my loneliest days, I likened his role as if he were my blood: a grandparent, a favorite uncle, a long, lost relative who had returned from battle with infinite stories to tell. Did I bleed for Harry Bloom, not the famous Harold, as many thought I’d said when boasting about my first creative writing teacher when I was only a few weeks shy of nineteen? I was already replete with psychology courses that promised to prepare me for the classroom and the responsibility of molding young minds.

The only theory that made sense to me was that the capacity to learn varied with each child; so much depended on the environment and a child’s feelings of self-esteem—a general sense of well-being. It was impossible not to identify with those principles sifted with ingredients of Freudian or Jungian psychology. I thought of my own family, back home, marveling how I’d survived, this far. I could write my own case story or two, of that, I was certain. And maybe, that is what carried me over the creaking threshold every Friday afternoon to the creative writing class taught by Professor Harry Bloom. I would find a place to express what had felt like a nagging secret and kept me so isolated.

I doubt he was older than forty-five or fifty, but I placed him in the category of grandfather. I’d always felt comfortable around older men, which may have had something to do with my childhood obsession with the story of Heidi, the invalid Clara, and her heroic grandfather¾ someone who would shield me from danger, find me if I were lost. I hoped Harry Bloom would find me.

I walked into that first creative writing class quaking with giddy excitement, though I’m sure it didn’t show. Dressed in my Friday afternoon finery, a ribbed turtleneck and matching pleated skirt, I was prepared, like most of the student body, to dash from class and rush downtown to Jerry’s Bar and Grill, where, if I were lucky, I’d meet the guy of my dreams, that dream disintegrating after one awful or awkward Saturday night date.

Professor Bloom had to know we were antsy for our weekend to commence. He adopted a painfully slow, almost southern drawl (strange, this being upstate NY) paired with facial gestures and body moves that resembled spastic mime. Thinking back now, he spoke very little, but sitting before our class of 16 students, he stared through us until we squirmed in our seats¾ so much that the splinters from the only left-handed desk nibbled through the fabric of my skirt and stuck my behind.

I watched him with nearly juvenile fascination as he carefully packed tobacco in his pipe, pressed it down, bit the stem but never once lit it. Still, the cherry-wood tobacco wafted through the air while steam hissed like an angry cat from radiators though it was nearly spring. I see his pale, hooded eyes reading passages aloud, looking up to catch one of us, sometimes me, above his metal bifocals. No matter what he read, he ended with a smile. It was clear that he loved the resonance in words, the mystery found in language. He often paused to repeat a line:
This is the way the world ends…not with a bang but a whimper.T.S. Eliot was a Harry Bloom favorite.

“What does that mean to you, Miss B?” he might say, startling me¾ tossing ice- water on what had been my sweet, mellow mood. “Just to you,” he added, watching my face deepen in mortification to a russet hue.

Sometimes, I attempted an answer, my voice utterly foreign to me. I sounded like a wounded sparrow, not, the rah, rah, sorority girl ready for Friday night, ready to rock and roll. After a few deadly seconds, he’d move on. But I’d go back to that poem later that evening or before our next class hoping to discover what I might have missed, what Professor Bloom had wanted me to know.

On those early spring afternoons, he read with undisguised gusto what he termed “the tawdry into terrible” poems of Robinson Jeffers, the unforgettable images in works by Marianne Moore, and always, he found time for the stream-of-consciousness Dickenson.

Though I’d written poetry as a child, scribbling words on the flowered wallpaper of my attic room, now I wrote on the inside of matchbook covers from Jerry’s Bar while drinking black coffee in the dungeon basement coffee shop of the college Main.

When I said I’d rewrite the poem before handing it in¾ he warned, don’t you dare, I want your poem without the dressings; regurgitated and as raw as it was meant to be. While it’s still your poem.

Halfway through the semester, we began reading fiction, short stories mostly, though I can’t remember a single one. He was a fan of the short short because of the sparseness of prose, the need to hit the reader head on, the requirement to make every single word count. A story that promised a beginning, middle, and end.

I was anxious for our first writing assignment and finished my short story in a couple of hours. I was fine once I had my opening line¾ true for me even today. One week after we’d handed the stories in, Professor Bloom strode into the class surveying us as if he were seeing our eager, puppy dog faces for the first time. He created so much tension with his gaze, I felt I had to move, do something, jump, or I might scream. I couldn’t just let him stare me down. Now he knew everything, I though. He’d read my story. He could see through me, down to the soft marrow of my bones. He’d witnessed blood pulsing through my veins. It was true. I had bled for Harry Bloom. I shifted my gaze toward the window, that I do remember, to look at the valley below, far from where our classroom sat, and where a palette of greens and gold stretched out, seamless and rolling.

I was still glancing down at my loafers when I heard his chair scrape against the slanted floor, and I knew he was standing. I looked up to see his lips forming words, though my ears blocked out every other sound. What I heard was: this, my dear students, is a short story, and Professor Bloom, without a single glance in my direction, gave me more hope than I had ever known, and the courage to try over and over and over again, that day, and the many days to follow, when he read my words aloud.