- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

BREAK, BLOW, BURN: CAMILLE PAGLIA READS FORTY-THREE OF THE WORLD’S BEST POEMS

By Camille Paglia

Pantheon, $20, 247 pages

REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY

CamiIle Paglia has never been known as a conservationist. But her latest book, “Break, Blow, Burn,” is an attempt to help preserve a badly endangered species, the reader of poetry who has no connection with academe. Ms. Paglia — a university arts and literature teacher for more than 30 years — says in the first sentence of her introduction that her new book is for a general audience. So acute readers who’ve either given up on poetry or who’ve never cared much for it at all, should consider giving it a try. This well-done, small book may remind them, or convince them in the first place, that poetry can be a rewarding and occasionally intense intellectual, philosophical, personal and aesthetic experience.

There’s probably never been a huge readership for poetry (yes, I know, 19th century Brits loved their Wordsworth). But Ms. Paglia says this readership has come to the edge of extinction because of the arid way in which poetry is currently written and taught. In “Break,” Ms. Paglia has chosen what she considers to be 43 of “the world’s best poems” for close reading for the purpose of “revealing beauty and meaning in literature.”

Wow. Beauty and meaning in literature. What a concept. (“Gosh, Professor Paglia, you mean literature isn’t just Sociology Lite — and it’s purpose isn’t just to show what a mess straight, white males have made of the world?”) Of course beauty and meaning are what so many of the theory besotted and politics obsessed boors who teach in American university literature departments these days say literature does not and cannot have. So Ms. Paglia’s close explication of text is retro and a great relief from the current philistine approach to poetry, and, as is always the case with Camille Paglia, a pleasure to read.

Those familiar with Ms. Paglia’s work — her long treatise on culture and the arts, “Sexual Personae,” and her two essay collections, “Vamps & Tramps” and “Sex, Art, and American Culture” — know that she’s an unfailingly entertaining and often incisive cultural polemicist. She’s almost a category of her own, occupying no previously known position on the ideological spectrum. She’s been a humanities professor at northeastern colleges since about when Studebaker went broke, though there is no trace of the academic drudge in her writing, which is always in a sprightly vernacular. She describes herself as a secular humanist, an atheist, a feminist and a lesbian.

A pedigree like Paglia describes makes her a leftist, right? Well, sort of. She has more good things to say about homosexuality, pornography and the current culture than your average red state Republican car dealer or junior banker. And she doesn’t understand economics any better than your Aunt Eunice (who led a sheltered life). But she’s also been critical of various wholly owned subsidiaries of the cultural left: whiney, anti-male, play-the-victim-card-every-time-and-at-all-costs feminists; surly, close-minded gay activists; and humanities professors who try to replace art with politics. She even said on a television appearance that her favorite TV program is “Monday Night Football.” (How many straight, Republican women would say this?)

With an equal opportunity approach like this, perhaps Ms. Paglia’s only remaining constituency is readers who enjoy intelligent, honest analysis expressed in clear, graceful writing, a good deal of which readers will find in “Break.” Readers will also find that in addition to cultural and political matters, she knows and care a great deal about poetry.

Ms. Paglia’s choice of “Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems” contains classics such as two of the best-known sonnets of Shakespeare: “That time of year thou mayest in me behold,” and “When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes.” She shows us how Shakespeare, even in the midst of story-telling in his plays, gives us incomparable poetry such as in the Ghost’s speech to Hamlet:

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand

Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,

Cut off even in the blossom of my sin,

Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,

No rek’ning made, but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.

Other household names appear among Ms. Paglia’s 43 — Wordsworth (“The world is too much with us; late and soon”), Yeats, Marvell, Coleridge, Dickenson, Whitman. When she gets into the 20th Century the picks become more eccentric. We have Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell as well as “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath. But we also have Jean Toomer, Rochelle Kant, Ralph Pomeroy and others that even English majors from the recent cognitive age might not recognize.

The style is to present the poem in full, followed by an explication of two to five pages. These essays are intelligent and charming. For the most part Ms. Paglia resists the temptation — as few in the lit biz today are able to do — to use the poems to support her political and cultural views. She does her best to give us Wordsworth according to Wordsworth. It may be difficult to justify some of her 20th century picks as being among “the world’s best,” but there is no doubting the sincerity of her attempts to plumb such depths as these poems have (their shallows being obvious enough).

Even though Ms. Paglia describes herself as an atheist, she treats religious themes in poetry respectfully, as in her essay on John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV,” from which we get the line containing the seemingly peculiar title of the book. Donne calls on the Lord:

That I may rise, and stand, o’rethrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.

Some of the 20th century works are more Rorschachs than poems. Take William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” (please), a 16-word poem that Ms. Paglia parses with a two and a half page essay.

But aside from examples of this sort and perhaps the inclusion of a few less than substantial modern works, “Break, Blow, Burn,” is a serious and respectful treatment of an important art form that has been receiving pretty shabby treatment — especially from academics, who should be protecting and nurturing it — for far too long. Poetry is a kind of experience that can’t be gotten anywhere else, and an experience that rewards the time of thoughtful people. If I haven’t convinced you of this, my bet is Camille Paglia will.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.


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