May 26, Edward rated it it was amazing When I first read that Camille Paglia was working on a book about poetry my mind screamed: Nooooo!!!! What is she thinking? I had previously read rumors that she was penning a sequel to Sexual Personae that focused on contemporary society and the spectacle of paganism inherent in seemingly mundane events such as football games; I believe there was even a statement by her to that effect. But no, what she had been laboring on for years was not a tome-ish SexII but rather a slim pink book When I first read that Camille Paglia was working on a book about poetry my mind screamed: Nooooo!!!!
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Pantheon Books. The essays do quite a lot of elementary explaining. Readers who think they already know something of the subject, however, would be rash if they gave her low marks just for spelling things out. Even they, if they were honest enough to admit it, might need help with the occasional Latin phrase, and they will find her analysis of individual poems quite taxing enough in its upper reaches. She flies as high as you can go, in fact, without getting into the airless space of literary theory and cultural studies.
Not that she has ever regarded those activities as elevated. This book is the latest shot in her campaign to save culture from theory. It thus squares well with another of her aims, to rescue feminism from its unwise ideological allegiances.
So in the first instance "Break, Blow, Burn" is about poetry, and in the second it is about Camille Paglia. One measure of her quality as a commentator is that those two subjects are not in the reverse order. In view of her wide knowledge, her expressive gifts, her crackling personality and the inherent credibility problems posed by looking too much at her ease on top of a pair of Jimmy Choos, it is remarkable how good Paglia can be at not putting herself first.
From this book you could doubt several aspects of her taste in poetry. She is humble enough to be enthralled by it; enthralled enough to be inspired; and inspired enough to write the sinuous and finely shaded prose that proves how a single poem can get the whole of her attention.
My own prescription for making poetry popular in the schools would be to ban it -- with possession treated as a serious misdemeanor, and dealing as a felony -- but failing that, a book like this is probably the next best thing.
Students grown wary of pabulum might relish the nitty-gritty. The term "a poem" is one we have to use, because our author is strong on the point that a poet should be measured by individual poems, and not by a "body of. One can only hope that the subversion does its stuff. Good poems are written one at a time: written that way and read that way. This insidious process is far advanced in America, to the point where it corrupts not just the academics but the creators themselves.
Paglia, commendably, refuses such cargo-cult status even to Shakespeare. But her sensitivity to George Herbert is the best early sign of her range of sympathy.
With Shakespeare, Donne and Marvell she has merely to convince her students, fresh from their gender studies, that a poet could call a woman his mistress without belittling her.
With Herbert she has to convince them that a poet could feel the same passion about God. One of her best attributes is well brought out: her refusal to modernize the past. Her thorough background in cultural history -- the Italians, who should be proud of her parentage, would call her preparatissima -- is always in play. Her entertaining wealth of up-to-date pop-culture allusion is merely the top dressing, and she is usually careful not to strain after a faddish point.
I was rather expecting her to. Perhaps she has realized, however, that the pace of forgetfulness is always accelerating, and that we have moved from an era of people who have never heard of Shelley to an era of people who have never heard of Charlton Heston.
When the book moves toward modern times, it moves toward America. Whatever happened to the Old World it left behind? After Coleridge a bold and convincing interpretation of "Kubla Khan" , Yeats is the last European, living or dead, to get an entry. There are probably copyright reasons for choosing nothing by, say, Auden, and meanwhile there is the compensation of the way she can treat great American poets as accomplished artists without merely abetting the worship of icons.
This coolly enthusiastic emphasis shows up clearly in her detailed admiration for Emily Dickinson. Paglia can see the epic in the miniature, an especially important critical gift when it comes to a poet who could enamel the inside of a raindrop. One would be glad to have a complete Dickinson annotated by Paglia. An utter contrast of destinies, it would be a meeting of true minds. Paglia, too, has a kind of solitude, though it might not sound that way. The media attention she attracts does little to modify her opinions.
That might be partly why she attracts so much of it. The proud motto of every suckerfish is: we swim with sharks. But the most threatening thing about her, from the American viewpoint, is that she refuses to treat the arts as an instrument of civil rights.
Without talent, no entitlement. She has the powers of discrimination to show what talent is -- powers that add up to a talent in themselves. A critical scope that can trace the intensity uniting different artistic fields is not unprecedented in America, but she is an unusually well-equipped exponent of it.
Students expecting a poem by Maya Angelou will find that this book is less inclusive than the average lineup for Inauguration Day. He was a meticulous technician, which is probably the main reason his name has faded. Paglia does a lot to bring it back, but she might have done even more.
She concedes too much by saying his "courtly, flowery diction" was more Victorian than modernist. The same might have been said of John Crowe Ransom, and with equal inaccuracy. If she has a deaf spot, it lies on that wing. Favoring, with good reason, the American vernacular, she tends to set it up as something that supersedes European formality, as if it were possible for a poem to be overconstructed. It can only be underpowered. It would have been a useful generosity. On the contrary, they were limitless.
As for Wilbur, his fastidiously carpentered postwar poems were part of the American liberation of Europe. One would like to have heard her answer.
Such a discussion would lie well within her scope. But our disappointment that she stops short is a sign of her achievement. Occasionally there is cause for worry that her young students might listen too well. Three short poems by Theodore Roethke are praised without any warning that most of his longer poems, if the reader goes in search of them, will prove to be helpless echoes of bigger names.
Ambition undid him, as it has undone many another American poet infected by the national delusion that the arts can have a major league. Nor are we told that Robert Lowell would spend the later and incoherently copious part of his career making sure that he would never again attain the rhetorical magnificence of the opening lines of "Man and Wife.
Applying her particularized admiration to rescue the poem from those who cite it as a mantra, Paglia points out an awkward truth about Plath as a feminist Winged Victory: her poetry was in "erudite engagement with canonical male writers.
Paglia defends Hughes against Plath, a defense that few feminists have dared to undertake. Leaving out the possibility that Plath might have been saying she was nuts, Paglia does Plath the honor of taking her at her word. Paglia is tough enough to accept that conclusion: tough enough, that is, not to complain when she winds up all alone.
She seems to enjoy being alone. Google her for half an hour and you will find her fighting battles with other feminists all over cyberspace.
Recording how she became, at the age of 4, "a lifelong idolater of pagan goddesses" after seeing Ava Gardner in "Show Boat," she tells us why she is less than thrilled with Madonna. Ava Gardner from North Carolina was manufactured in a Hollywood studio, as she was the first to admit. And what is Paglia doing, writing that an actress as gifted as Anne Heche has "the mental depth of a pancake"?
And what about her performance in "One Kill"? No doubt Heche has been stuck with a few bad gigs, but Paglia, of all people, must be well aware that being an actress is not the same safe ride as being the tenured university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Paglia by now should be famous enough to start throttling back on some of the stuff she is famous for. She might make a start with bitchery, for which she has a taste but no touch.
The media want snide remarks from her the same way that the Sahara wants rain. But writers capable of developing a nuanced position over the length of an essay should not be tempted into believing that they can sum it up in a sound bite.
Liberal orthodoxy will always need opposing, but not on the basis that all its points are self-evidently absurd. According to Paglia, gun abuse is a quirk of the sexually dysfunctional. Waiting until everybody is sexually functional would be a long time to hold your breath. Only the misapprehension that she can be wise like lightning could explain her brief appearance, in "Inside Deep Throat," to tell us that the cultural artifact in question was "an epochal moment in the history of modern sexuality.
But all these posturings by the madly glamorous Paglia happen only because, in the electrified frenzy of the epochal moment, she forgets that the lightstorm of publicity makes her part of the world of images. In her mind, if not yet in her more excitable membranes, she knows better than to mistake that world for the real one.
This book on poetry is aimed at a generation of young people who, knowing nothing except images, are cut off from the "mother ship" of culture. The mother ship was first mentioned in her lecture called "The Magic of Images.
'Break, Blow, Burn': Well Versed
Break, Blow, Burn