One of my most intellectually formative experiences was attending a class taught by Albert Cook back in 1989, when I was an undergraduate. The topic of the day was the poetry of Emily Dickinson. He spoke at a rapid clip, making it difficult to take notes, but I was immediately mesmerized by his approach to the study of poetry. He actively speculated about the alternate forms that a poem might have taken. His observations were often voiced in the subjunctive mood, replacing a key word with its contrary, making him verge on rewriting Dickinson’s work while in the act of discovering its hidden dimensions. Though I did not begin drawing upon Cook’s approach in my own work until much later, at the midpoint of my career as a graduate student, when I was forced to get past the thought that everything significant or essential about a literary work had already been said, or that any statement I could make was hopelessly naive, the act of reconstructing a work of literature or art, which runs in the contrary direction of exposing how a work is “constructed,” offered a productive and invigorating idea of contingency, one proper to an author’s or artist’s decision in what form the work will finally take. The irony is that the critic gets closer to this internal process the more he or she usurps the position of the artist, i.e. by speculating upon how a certain work might have been otherwise. This gesture of usurpation to a certain extent resembles Harold Bloom’s idea of misreading, though the antagonism here is less a matter of Oedipal passion than Platonic sublimation, leading not to the production of more literature but to thought, or the creation of concepts, or a way of life. Plato, after all, could only hope to defeat the poets by fighting on their own territory, by outdoing them as the creator of a supreme poem, whether this takes the name of the just city or of the Ideas.
Cook seemed to know as much as the poet, knew the poem even better than the poet. Alas, I was young and foolish, and did not stick around for the whole course, but this single lecture stayed in my head for years, until I had matured enough to recognize its worth.