[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Paglia) 'Break, Blow, Burn': Well Versed

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'Break, Blow, Burn': Well Versed
New York Times Book Review, 5.3.27


By Camille Paglia.
247 pp. Pantheon Books. $20.

    CLEARLY designed as a come-on for bright students who don't yet know
    very much about poetry, Camille Paglia's new book anthologizes 43
    short works in verse from Shakespeare through to Joni Mitchell, with
    an essay about each. 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. ''Having had his epiphany,'' she says of the sonnet
    ''Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,'' ''Wordsworth moves on,
    preserving his solitude and estrangement by shutting down his expanded
    perception.'' Nothing elementary about that.

    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. She has always
    regarded them, with good reason, as examples of humanism's perverse
    gift for attacking itself, and for providing the academic world with a
    haven for tenured mediocrity. 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. But you couldn't doubt her love of it. 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. From a woman who sometimes gives the impression that she
    finds reticence a big ask, this is a sure index of her subject's
    importance to her, and one quite likely to be infectious. 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. If she doesn't make a poem sound like something dangerous,
    at least she makes it sound like something complicated. 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 . . . work.'' To a reader from outside
    America, she sounds tremendously right about this, but inside America
    her view is likely to go on smacking of subversion for some time to
    come. 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. Even
    ''The Divine Comedy'' is a poem in the first instance, not part of a
    body of work; and even in Shakespeare's plays there are passages that
    lift themselves out of context. (''Shakespeare the poet,'' she says,
    ''often burns through Shakespeare the dramatist, not simply in the
    great soliloquies that have become actors' set pieces but in passages
    throughout his plays that can stand alone as poems.'') The penalty for
    talking about poets in universal terms before, or instead of, talking
    about their particular achievements is to devalue what they do while
    fetishizing what they are.

    This insidious process is far advanced in America, to the point where
    it corrupts not just the academics but the creators themselves. John
    Ashbery would have given us dozens more poems as thrilling as his jeu
    d'esprit about Daffy Duck if he had never been raised to the combined
    status of totem pole and wind tunnel, in which configuration he
    produces one interminable outpouring that deals with everything in
    general, with nothing in particular, can be cut off at any length from
    six inches to a mile, and will be printed by editors who feel that the
    presence in their publication of an isotropic rigmarole signed with
    Ashbery's name is a guarantee of seriousness precisely because they
    don't enjoy a line of it. Paglia, commendably, refuses such cargo-cult
    status even to Shakespeare.

    Working chronologically from then to now, the book starts with him:
    Sonnet 73, Sonnet 29 and the Ghost's speech from ''Hamlet,'' each
    individually explicated. The Ghost's speech counts as a poem because
    we not only experience it as an especially intense and coherent
    episode, we remember it that way. A poem's demand to be held in the
    memory counts for a lot with Paglia. Notably sensitive to language,
    rhythm and technique as devices for getting meaning into your mind and
    making it stick, she persuades you, throughout the book, that she has
    her poems by heart, even if she doesn't favor the idea of memorizing
    them deliberately like a trainee spy scanning a room. Her readings of
    Shakespeare are close, fully informed by the scholarship and -- a
    harder trick -- fundamentally sane, thus auguring well for her
    approach to Donne, whose Holy Sonnet XIV supplies the book's title.
    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. (''We
    follow the path of the all-too-human quester as he advances toward
    God, then retreats in confusion.'' That ''we'' could be a bit
    optimistic, but she might get lucky.) 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. In her exemplary analysis of Shelley's ''Ozymandias,'' for
    example, she could easily have referred to the last scene of ''Planet
    of the Apes,'' when Charlton Heston looks up at the Statue of
    Liberty's head just as Shelley's ''traveler from an antique land''
    looked up at the truncated legs of stone. 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 she calls Yeats's ''Leda and the Swan'' ''the greatest poem of
    the 20th century,'' she makes one of her few sweeping statements. It
    isn't a bad one, but it doesn't do enough to offset an equally
    sweeping question from us. 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. Making a solid
    attempt to pin down the sliding meanings of Wallace Stevens's little
    poem ''Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock,'' she brings in exactly the
    right comparison: a piano piece by Erik Satie. She compares the poem's
    ''red weather'' with a Gauguin seascape: right again. These
    comparisons help to define the Post-Impressionist impulse from which
    all the verbal music of Stevens's ''Man With the Blue Guitar''
    emerged, while incidentally reminding us that Paglia, before she made
    this bid on behalf of poetry, did the same for painting, and with the
    same treasury of knowledge to back up her endeavor. But above all, her
    range of allusion helps to show what was in Stevens's head: the
    concentration of multiple sensitivities that propelled his seeming
    facility. ''Under enchantment by imagination, space and time expand,
    melt and cease to exist.'' Nobody has a right to a creative mind like
    his. It's a gift.

    Students expecting a poem by Maya Angelou will find that this book is
    less inclusive than the average lineup for Inauguration Day. But there
    is a poem by Langston Hughes; and, even better, there is ''Georgia
    Dusk,'' by Jean Toomer. A featured player in the Harlem Renaissance of
    the early 1920's, Toomer transmuted the heritage of Southern slavery
    into music. So did the blues, but Toomer's music was all verbal. 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. Toomer sounds to
    me like a bridge through time from Elinor Wylie, whom Paglia doesn't
    mention, to Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, neither of whom she
    mentions either.

    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. But it can't. It can only be underpowered. If
    she had paid the same pinpoint attention to the complex interplay
    within Toomer's four-square quatrains as she pays to William Carlos
    Williams's free verse in ''The Red Wheelbarrow,'' she would have been
    able to show how a superficially mechanical form can intensify
    conversational rhythms by the tightness with which it contains them.
    It would have been a useful generosity. Hecht's reputation was injured
    when Helen Vendler found his forms limiting. On the contrary, they
    were limitless. As for Wilbur, his fastidiously carpentered postwar
    poems were part of the American liberation of Europe. Whether that
    liberation was a new stage in American cultural imperialism's road to
    conquest remains a nice question. 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. If
    we want a book to do more than what it does, that's a condemnation. If
    we want it to do more of what it does, that's an endorsement.

    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. The short poem by Frank O'Hara should have been marked with a
    caveat: anything longer by the same poet will be found to have a lot
    less in it, because the urge to find a verbal equivalent for the
    apparent freedom of New York Abstract Expressionist painting led him
    to believe that he could mean everything by saying anything. 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.'' But Paglia knows why, and how, those lines are magnificent:
    and in Lowell's case, among her specific remarks, there is a general
    one that typifies her knack of extending an aesthetic question into
    the moral sphere. Lowell's ''confessional'' streak insulted his loved
    ones. The same question is posed again by Sylvia Plath's ''Daddy,'' an
    agonized masterpiece by which Paglia is driven to a stretch of
    critical writing that stands out for its richness even in a rich book.

    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.'' A still more awkward truth
    is that the manner of Plath's suicide helped to set up her husband,
    Ted Hughes, as an abuser of women. Paglia defends Hughes against
    Plath, a defense that few feminists have dared to undertake. She also
    defends Plath's father against Plath, which might seem a quixotic move
    in view of the poem's subject matter, but does help to make the point
    that Plath, by calling her father a Nazi and identifying herself with
    millions of helpless victims, was personalizing the Holocaust in a way
    that only her psychic disturbance could excuse. Leaving out the
    possibility that Plath might have been saying she was nuts, Paglia
    does Plath the honor of taking her at her word. But you can't do her
    that honor without bringing her down off her pedestal. The poet used
    her unquestionable talent to say some very questionable things, and
    there's no way out of it. 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. It's a handy trait for the sort of
    thinker who can't see an orthodoxy form without wanting not to be part
    of it. 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. It's a view I share, but at least
    Madonna manufactured herself. 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''? How many pancake brains could
    do what Heche did with David Mamet's dialogue in ''Wag the Dog''? 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. That might be right,
    but people aren't necessarily deluded when they want a ban on the sort
    of gun that can kill a dozen people in half a minute. Waiting until
    everybody is sexually functional would be a long time to hold your

    NOR does Paglia's useful conviction that feminism, as an ideology, is
    as debilitating for individual responsibility as any other ideology
    make it true that women are now out of the woods. 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.'' On the contrary, it was a moronic moment in the
    history of exploitation movies made by people so untalented that they
    can't be convincing even when they masturbate.

    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 2002 lecture called ''The Magic
    of Images.'' In the same lecture, she put down the marker that led to
    this book: ''The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of
    words.'' She can say that again, and let's hope she does, in a longer
    edition of a book that shows her at her true worth. When you have
    proved that you can cut the mustard, it's time to cut the malarkey.

    Clive James's most recent book is ''As of This Writing: The Essential
    Essays, 1968-2002.''

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