The pleasures of poetry
BY JOHN FREEMAN
John Freeman is a writer in New York.
March 27, 2005
The Hubba-Bubba pink cover art on her new book notwithstanding, Camille Paglia is courting a lower profile these days. "Oscar Wilde was a huge influence on me," says the firebrand on a recent Thursday at the Philadelphia College of Art, where she has taught for two decades. "He believed in the strong critic, and I've done that. I'm there in most of my books; boy am I there. With 'Break, Blow, Burn,' however, I tried to make myself as invisible as possible."
It might sound like an odd statement coming from the author of "Sexual Personae," which put its stiletto heel on the throat of mainstream feminists and kept it there for much of the '90s. But Paglia, 57, insists she's not showing a kinder, gentler side, or making nice. After all, "thanks to Madonna," she says, "the whole pro-sex wing of feminism which had been ostracized since the '60s came back with a vengeance. And we won. We won massively. Now, Catherine McKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, you hardly see their names anywhere."
No, by her estimates those battles are now border skirmishes. What Paglia wants to do next is get Americans to read poetry again. And so we have "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads 43 of the World's Best Poems" (Pantheon, $20). "This took me five years," Paglia says, dressed tidily in a check blazer and jeans, hair sporting the trademark feather and wave. "Along the way I've encountered so many people in the publishing world, in magazines, who said to me, you know, 'I always keep up with the new novels, but not poetry.' These are really literary people, and even they feel poetry no longer speaks to them."
So Paglia has put down her Molotov cocktails and picked up the lyre to sing the praises of 43 poems, ranging from Shakespeare and Wordsworth to Sylvia Plath and Gary Snyder. An essay follows each poem that explains the poet's significance and then proceeds to describe what is interesting, unique and, yes, pleasure-giving about the poem. "The child-like pleasure principle is crucial to approaching art," Paglia says. "If you don't approach art like that, then you don't know anything about how it's made!"
Paglia first encountered poetry as a child, and even tried writing it well into her late teens. She suspects this early appreciation came from a certain Italian-American culture of good craftsmanship. "All four of my grandparents were born in Italy; my mother was born there. From my earliest years, they gave me little objects from the Vatican, little statuaries, a sense of stone-cutting, and basket-weaving, and wood-working. No matter what your job was during the day, there was a sense of the made object."
In "Break, Blow, Burn," Paglia approaches poetry with a similar kind of reverence for craft, noting, for example, the way Shakespeare strings a sentence along in Sonnet 29 to create a palpable tension, leaving it unrelieved until the poem's final rhyming couplet, "For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/ That then I scorn to change my state with kings." It is no accident that the book's title comes from a poem by Donne. "I've always loved that poem," says Paglia, "in part because he compares God to a potter."
In addition to craft, the other qualities key to Paglia are spontaneity and improvisation. It's why she has chosen Shakespeare and Joni Mitchell as the two bookends for "Break, Blow, Burn," and it's also why she continued reading poetry past the age when most Americans put it down. "Poets who had a big impact on me in the '60s were beatniks, these folks who got drunk and messed around and were hobos and eccentrics. But then as colleges began to have more of these creative writing programs, poets retreated to a world of their own. They became more and more insular, and their world became more and more professionalized."
Paglia puts some of the blame for poetry's further marginalization on critics' shoulders, too. "Thanks to 25 years of post-structuralism in our elite colleges, we have this idea now that you are supposed to use your pseudo-sociological critical eye to look down on the work and find everything that's wrong with it," Paglia says, talking so quickly she has to pause and take a deep breath before continuing. "The racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism. This style of teaching just nips students' enthusiasm in the bud."
A professor for more than 34 years, Paglia has structured "Break, Blow, Burn" like a class in reading poetry, but it also feels like a strange kind of greatest-hits collection. William Blake rubs shoulders with Chuck Wachtel; California poet Wanda Coleman nuzzles William Carlos Williams. Paglia admits her selection is a bit eccentric, and she wishes it could be longer.
"I searched and searched for the [right] Bukowski poem," Paglia says, revealing her predisposition to some old favorites. "But I couldn't find it. I found a lot of poems where there is great stuff in the poem but no truly great poem." From beyond the grave, Bukowski has no reason to sniff, however. Other poets who didn't make the cut include Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery and virtually every living American who has won the Pulitzer Prize.
Instead, we get the classics, and happy surprises, and poems by folks such as Paul Blackburn, whose "The Once Over" describes a subway car traveling downtown, its passengers enraptured by the image of a beautiful woman. "It has been condemned for sexism, as you can imagine," Paglia says, once again treading across controversy's high wire. "But this to me is a classic poem of my time. There's a mysterious girl in a beautiful dress, and everyone is staring at her. That's it. That's the entire thing. It's so wonderful, the way he captures that moment, and that's the purpose of reading poetry - which is that it teaches you to notice what other people don't notice. To find significance in the insignificant."
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