Reviving the Love of Poetry: Camille Paglia

Although her notoriety rests on being a renegade, Paglia need not be embarrassed that her book sheds more light than heat (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

“Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems” by Camille Paglia (Pantheon).

Camille Paglia’s radical agenda is to win undergraduates (and the general public) back to poetry. Who better to do this than the renegade literary critic and author of Sexual Personae, who showed she could take up Emily Dickinson and Madonna in the same sentence, this cultural spokeswoman and media celebrity whose name even appears in her new book’s subtitle.

In Break, Blow, Burn, Paglia contends that poetry has fallen on hard times in the United States. Contemporary poets, subsidized by self-interested and academic cliques, have become affected and precious. Poetry readings are exercises in narcissism; even the current craze of “slams” amounts to a pathetic bid for attention by annexing poetry to hip-hop.

But the real culprit in poetry’s demise, she suggests, is a new generation of professors who have sold their souls to Jacques Derrida and other effete French critics. Venerating theory-about-poetry over poetry itself, these solipsists bore students with their quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo. The love of poetry is in danger of being lost.

As a corrective, Paglia considers 43 poems and, in short essays of lucid prose, parses them and intelligently explains their meaning. Mixing the canonical with the contemporary, her choices include Shakespeare’s sonnets and Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock.” This last choice is revealing. Paglia means to bring back the 1960s and ‘70s.

When hundreds would pack an auditorium to hear Allen Ginsberg read poetry

I remember those days. When hundreds of us would pack an auditorium to hear Allen Ginsberg read poetry. When radicalism and poetry went hand in hand. When Sylvia Plath was avant-garde. When Dick Cavett’s television guests included Jimi Hendrix and W.H. Auden.

In clamoring to bring back those days, then, is Paglia’s agenda really radical or reactionary? At first glance, the poets she chooses (e.g., Donne, Herbert, Shelley, Lowell and Roethke) and the poems she examines (e.g., Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”) seem standard choices for a classical anthology designed by, say, William Bennett. But Paglia mixes in some contemporary choices (Plath’s “Daddy,” for example) and makes the furious point in her introduction that the love of poetry, itself, is a radical act of cultural recuperation in the face of current mores and mediocrity.

I’m not sure my undergraduate students would buy this. They would easily size her up: the aging ’60s radical, the professor willing to wear a leather bustier to class to stir Generation X-ers from their apathy and get them reading poetry. And if the truth be known, after the pugnacious radicalism of the introduction, this book is not that flamboyant; instead, it is a solid and impressive achievement that stands with the very best American writing on poetry by Helen Vendler and Randall Jarrell. Although such a compliment might unnerve someone whose notoriety rests on being a renegade, Paglia has no reason to be embarrassed that “Break, Blow, Burn” sheds more light than it does heat.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 11, 2005).

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05. January 2017 by
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