- Break, Blow, Burn
- Pantheon, 272 pp.
Learning to Read Poetry Again
Blest be anyone who, in this age of meretricious materialism, nascent narcissism, and hapless hedonism, returns us to poetry, to the joy of language for its own sake, for its distilled passion, and for its summons to discipline, in both writer and reader. Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn is a reading of forty-three English language poems ranging from Shakespeare’s sonnets to a Joni Mitchell lyric. Her title is from one of John Donne’s so-called “Holy Sonnets,” where he appeals to God to overwhelm him, possess him, and transform him. Paglia explains, “My secular but semimystical [sic] view of art is that it taps primal energies, breaks down barriers, and imperiously remakes our settled way of seeing.” Operating wholly within the secular city of the present, she avers nonetheless, that “the sacred remains latent in poetry.”
Anyone who has read Paglia heretofore knows that she thrives in polemic and is never afraid of a good fight. In choosing to write a book which might curiously look conventional, she is in fact throwing down the gauntlet again. “In gathering material for this book, I was shocked at how weak individual poems have become over the past forty years. Our most honored poets are gifted and prolific, but we have come to respect them for their intelligence, commitment, and the body of their work. They ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem.” She goes on to say that they have lost ambition, which may mean vision, and the confidence that they can speak to their age and thus typically “treat their poems as meandering diary entries.” “To be included in this book,” she proclaims, “a poem had to be strong enough …to stand up to all the great poems which precede it.” The reader may or may not agree with her thesis, but the reader will likely puzzle over her inclusion of Robert Lowell’s most confessional “Man and Wife” as one of her standards against which so many lesser poems are to be judged.
But the worth of this book will be found not in quibbling with her choices, for we all would come up with our own idiosyncratic list, but in whether her readings are helpful to us. I think they are, mostly. Paglia’s passion for poetry reminds one of the cliché that often the best response to poetry is to write one’s own poetry. She rightly critiques the many ideologies which have risen in recent years, especially post-structuralism with its confessional cant, precious terms, and unearned condescension, and rightly reveres the gift of the so-called New Criticism with its respect for the text and its effort to return us to what the poet actually said in the way actually said. Nonetheless, she frequently departs from the canons of such criticism for her own impassioned subjective response to the text. I find no fault with this for she is a woman unabashedly in love with her subject. In her analysis of May Swenson’s impressionistic poem “At East River,” she concludes, “For her, the artist is not a better person but someone who makes us see better.” Paglia makes us see better.
Is the purpose of literary criticism to “explain a text”? Too often, whether in classroom or in essay, the critic summarizes the content, points to the game afoot, and adjudicates thumbs up or thumbs down. Recalling Empson’s studies half a century ago that graduate students rated poets by their reputation, not their own capacity to read for themselves and form judgments for themselves, we find that too often literary critics act as if the poem is some fortune cookie which, cracked open by the critic, reveals its secret message. We are grateful to the critic for having made the “message” available to us, but do we understand the poem? Too often, then, literary criticism becomes a testimony to the subjective biases of the critic and less the provision of an entry into the mystery of the creative process. Thus, when we have explained the poem, we have not explained it.
Paglia risks all this contradiction. She affirms the deliberative neutrality of the new criticism, and yet is a passionate partisan for her own perspective. Her reading of Plath’s “Daddy,” for example is both explication de texte, subjective response, and engagement of the strong emotions stirred by the poem (I would emphasize some other aspects of the poem, plus emphasize that Plath’s unspoken complaint against her Father is that he had the bad manners to die and abandon her to her Mother, but that is my reading). Paglia successfully lets us know that war is going on, not only in the themes of the poem, in the poet’s life, but in the reader who also is not allowed neutrality in the end.
Perhaps because I was least familiar with some of her contemporary, hip, experimental poems, I found myself most learning from Paglia’s observations. She values the rich mythos of contemporary pop culture and rightly finds high drama coursing through the most mundane of images. Reading the presence of the spirit in the guise of tangible image is the high calling of the critic, the cleric, and the depth psychologist. This reading Paglia does as well as anyone and, whether one agrees with her or not, she enlarges her reader. Matthew Arnold noted that literary epochs may tend to swing between moments of creative impulse and critical consideration. He noted that, after the decades of high romanticism, he lived in an age of criticism, as do we. Paglia reminds us that criticism is also, in the hands of some, creativity of a high order, and her gift is to keep both poetry and passion in our face.