[Paleopsych] John Derbyshire: (Paglia) Poetry's Plum Gone to Hell
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Thu Apr 14 13:50:02 UTC 2005
Poetry's Plum Gone to Hell
Book Review by John Derbyshire
The Washington Examiner
March 27th, 2005
Break, Blow, Burn
By Camille Paglia
Pantheon Books, $20
What is the use of writing about books?" asked America's greatest
poet, "excepting so far as to give information to those who cannot get
the books themselves?" I had better confess up front that I am of the
same mind as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and that what goes for books
in general goes twice over for poetry. I love to read it, but I don't
much want to read about it. Break, Blow, Burn therefore fell on stony
I don't say this with any pleasure, as persons I trust have for years
been telling me that the celebrated professor Camille Paglia is, on
balance, a Good Thing. But I'm sorry to report that her book bored me
Break, Blow, Burn is a collection of 43 poems by 28 poets, with
commentary following each poem. It is intended, the author tells us,
for "a general audience." The poems are short and the commentaries
mostly less than four pages.
Only English-language poets are included. I applaud her choice:
poetry in, or from, other people's languages has no place in an
enterprise of this sort. In fact, of the 20 post-Samuel Coleridge
poets she has chosen, 18 are American, the exceptions being Ireland's
W.B. Yeats and Canada's Joni Mitchell.
The strongest impression I came away with from this book was of the
sheer beggared awfulness of modern American poetry. It is simply no
good. That is why nobody quotes it, and nobody outside the academy
reads it. I do a fair amount of socializing with decently
well-educated Americans, and can clearly recall the last three
instances in which someone quoted verse at me unprompted, at couplet
length or longer. The poets quoted were Kipling, Kipling and Poe.
It is, for example, hard to see why anyone would bother to memorize,
or even just remember, the opening lines of "This Is Just to Say" by
William Carlos Williams: "I have eaten/ the plums/ that were in/ the
icebox." Perhaps I am missing something. Perhaps Williams' poem has
hidden depths. What does Paglia say? "At one level the succulent,
fleshy fruit is a makeshift proxy for the opulent female form," she
writes. "The first stanza takes us backward into the dark recesses of
the icebox, where the plums nest like eggs... the 'delicious'
fruitiness of the final images has the tactile lushness of a kiss."
Uh-huh. All of Paglia's commentaries are like this: fantastic
extrapolations and plonking symbolism, usually of a succulent, fleshy
nature, utterly humorless and reeking of estrogen.
Theodore Roethke's "The Visitant" ends, she tells us, "with an aching
sense of men's incompletion, their anguished separation from the
maternal body, to which they vainly try to reconnect through the
deceptive medium of sex." In Gary Snyder's "Old Pond": "the bird is
the unembellished voice of nature itself Snyder's modest, flute-like
substitute for the authoritarian boom of the Judeo-Christian God."
And here we are on "Kubla Khan": "If Coleridge is thinking of the
cleft or gorge as vulval, then his 'mighty fountain' forced up by the
earth with 'fast thick pants' is blatantly ejaculatory."
Reading this book was like flipping through one of those pretentious,
absurd catalogs you get when visiting an exhibition of the sillier
kind of fashionable art. I even had a fleeting suspicion that the
whole thing might be a spoof a send-up of ponderous academic
over-interpretation. No, the author is in earnest. Paglia has opened
a window into the precious, self-referential little world of literary
For this poetry lover, it was a glimpse of Hell. And what is burning
in that hell is our poetry, for a thousand years the greatest glory of
the English-speaking people, but now dead, smothered under the horrid
rotten mass of literary academicism. We must have done something very
terrible to have our birthright taken from us, to see it suffocated in
dust like this.
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