Camille Paglia: Break Blow Burn

Camille Paglia’s Break Blow Burn was published in 2005 by Pantheon Books; the subtitle of the books is “Camille Paglia reads forty-three of the world’s best poems”.  The Penguin-Random House promotional site states:

America’s most provocative intellectual brings her blazing powers of analysis to the most famous poems of the Western tradition—and unearths some previously obscure verses worthy of a place in our canon. Combining close reading with a panoramic breadth of learning

Having read the book during a mostly pre-occupied state over the course of the past week, I’m not sure that I value the work that Paglia put into the analysis and criticism.  I’m torn by conflicting sentiments on that. Let me explain by focusing first on the part of the book that I did find encouraging and valuable – the introduction.

Among other things, Paglia’s introduction functions as a criticism of recent (perhaps even current) poetry criticism, poetry production and the general poetry environment.  I want to capture the whole culture, process and production of poetry as  “Poetics”. The Break, Blow, Burn by Camille Pagliainstitution of poetry is, for me, named Poetics. Based on the  the current dictionary definition(s) of the term poetics or the common practice of others to collect these distinct areas under a single term, I may be on my own page here.  But that’s OK for now.

In her introduction, Paglia writes several things that I find myself supporting – despite the fact that these comments are a decade and a half old and that her ideas may have moved on from where they were in 2005. In the scale of time that Poetics operates within, a decade and a half is not that long.  Consider that Paglia’s poetic analysis reaches back centuries to consider “the world’s best poems”…on a human level, Paglia may have subsequently changed her views.

Taking the book at its face value when I read it….

To lead the introduction, Paglia states “This book is intended for a general audience.”  That is the first sentence.  I applaud this.  All poetry and much Poetics should be, at some level, “for a general audience.”  Paglia’s introduction then goes on to praise “explication of text“, or what she calls “close reading“.  In other words, old-fashioned word-by-word breaking down of the poetry – and occasionally even sound by sound. Paglia’s argument is that this level of scrutiny one learns to “focus the mind, sharpen perception, and refine emotion.”

Per my earlier comment about being conflicted about Paglia’s analysis; when I studied poetry in school and even today, I frequently find this level of analysis tedious and irritating.  Note my similar comments regarding Paulin’s The Secret Life of Poems.  This type of analysis seems, to me, to be contradictory to the theme “intended for a general audience”.  I’m not sure the general audience sympathizes with the degree to which some scholars wish to zoom in.  (Special ironic note: criticism of criticism loops between this post and the Paulin post are intended).  I have to ask myself about even my own scribbling – if a person needs to dig that much to get to the meat….was it really all that enjoyable in the first place?

Paglia contrasts explication of text and New Criticism, which was a popular form of study in the 1960s, with an influx of “post-structuralism” in the 1970s.  I really can’t comment on that because I didn’t study poetry in the 60s and 70s, but it sounds an awful lot like more current arguments between post-modernism and more conservative or traditional approaches.  Paglia argues that poetry was “at a height of prestige in the 1960s” and the Poetics environment has been in a decline ever since.  A scathing passage in the introduction goes as follows:

Poststructuralism and crusading identity politics led to the gradual sinking in reputation of the premiere literature departments, so that by the turn of the millenium, they were not longer seen even by the undergraduates themselves to be where the excitement was on campus.  One result of the triumph of ideology over art is that, on the basis of publications, few literature professors know how to “read” anymore – and thus can scarcely be trusted to teach that skill to their students.  Cultural studies, for example, despite its auspicious name, has been undone by its programmatic Marxism and is a morass of misreadings or overreadings.  During the past quarter century, humanistic principles and honest practical criticism could more reliably be found among low-paid adjuncts faithfully teaching service courses at community colleges than in the vain, showy professoriat of the elite schools.

Observing the overall state of academia – semi-detached observer that I am – I’m not sure I disagree with Paglia’s assessment.  But I also can’t help but wonder why the elder leaders of these institutions so often seem to shake off any sense of responsibility for the current state of affairs.  If Paglia is old enough to have been studying poetry in the 1960s – those glory days when things were better – why didn’t she and the many others like her in all of these academic departments re-direct things so they wouldn’t have become what they are today.

Consider Paglia’s statement that:

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.  They have lost ambition and no longer believe they can or should speak for their era.  Elevating process over form, they treat their poems like meandering diary entries and craft them for effect in live readings rather than on the page. Arresting themes or images are proposed, then dropped or left to dribble away.  Or, in sign of lack of confidence in the reader of material, suggestive points are prosaically rephrased and hammered into obviousness.  Rote formulas are rampant – a lugubrious victimology of accident, disease, and depression or simplistic, ranting politics…

I can’t stress how important this brief paragraph is to Poetics.  I don’t for a moment doubt or contradict the argument.  It accords with many of my own observations of poetry; indeed when Paglia further criticizes the “slam” environment that seemed to revive poetry, I again found myself sympathizing:

In the 1990s, poetry as performance art revived among young people in slams recalling the hipster clubs of the Beat era.  As always, the return of oral tradition had folk roots – in this case the rhyming of African-American urban hip-hop.  But it’s poetry on the page – a visual construct – that lasts.  The eye too is involved.  The shapeliness and symmetry of the four-line ballad stanza (descending from medieval England and Scotland and carried by seventeenth century emigres to the American South and Appalachia) once structured the best lyrics of rhythm and blues, gospel, country and western music, and rock’n’roll….

But I can’t seem to shake myself away from Paglia’s participation in the glorification of the 1960s – and of course the generation that was young at the time…..and the subsequent decades that they collectively spent in stewardship of the institutions they now discredit.  Well I suppose it is normal these days to comprehend and agree with an analysis while reserving opinion about the analyst. Meta. Meta. Meta.  As it were.

Paglia’s has plenty more bon mots to ruminate upon:

  • The modernist doctrine of the work’s self-reflexiveness once empowered art but has ended by strangling it in gimmickry.
  • Artists are makers, not just mouthers of slippery discourse….poets are fabricators and engineeers, pursuing a craft analogous to cabinetry or bridge building.  I maintain that the text emphatically exists as an object;  it is not just a mist of ephemeral subjectivities.  Every reading is partial but that does not absolve us from the quest for meaning, which defines us as a species.
  • Good writing comes from good reading.  Humanists must set an example: all literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader.  Criticism at its best is re-creative, not spirit-killing.  Technical analysis of a poem is like breaking down a car engine, which has to be re-assembled to run again.  Theorists childishly smash up their subjects and leave the disjecta membra like litter.

Each of these sentiments give me encouragement that the professoriat is not to be entirely condemned.  It does bring forth some thought to be retained.  All of this is entirely in the introduction.  One should purchase the book on the merits of the introduction alone!

As to the analysis…often  I find it boring and tedious.  It is work to follow along and this work is not always particularly fruitful or moving.  Sometimes it is and this speaks more to to my own interests than Paglia’s scholarship.  But in a book targeted to the general audience, that kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?  Hmmm.

I suspect that I disagree with several of  Paglia’s individual poetry selections.  Let’s be clear: I agreed with many of the poets selected (particularly from “the canon”) but not necessarily the poems selected.  I liked seeing Donne, Herbert, Blake and Wordsworth.  I also appreciated the selections by Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams and even Percy Shelley.  But quite frequently, I find myself disagreeing that these were the best 47 poems in English-American circulation.  I’m sure others have done the necessary work to comment on the exclusion of poets hailing from anywhere but UK and USA. I won’t make a big deal.  But let’s not fuss.  It’s just poetry.

So I’ve already noted that Paglia strays on the theme of “for a general audience” and I’ve more than hinted at my resonant frustration with academia and the people who have been responsible for it over the last few decades.  But I think Paglia also strays from her assertions about regrettable dominance of ideology over art.  Her selections of “the greatest poems” in the latter half contain quite a few that show more than a bit of ideology.  Paglia claims that Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock is “possibly the most popular and influential poem composed in English since Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” (I suppose the Nobel Prize folks got around to providing a statement of disagreement on that when they nominated Bob for a prize).  Paglia then spends too much time contrasting the performance styles of a male-band to Mitchell’s version.  Wait, wasn’t Paglia saying something about the printed page as the lasting form?

No, I can’t tolerate a decades-old (and mostly forgotten) song being offered as the last word regarding reading the world’s greatest poetry! Amazing and important things – great poetry and poetics did not end in the sixties. But I will stick to Paglia’s theme of offering up some lyrics.  Consider Glen Danzig’s “Mother” (abbreviated below) as he strives to speak for the point of view of a particular generation’s experience:

Tell your children not to walk my way
Tell your children not to hear my words
What they mean
What they say

Yeah, can you keep them in the dark for life
Can you hide them from the waiting world
Oh mother

I’m gonna take your daughter out tonight
I’m gonna show her my world
Oh father

Not about to see your light
But if you wanna find hell with me
I can show you what it’s
Till you’re bleeding

Tell your children not to hold my hand
Tell your children not to understand
Oh mother

Do you wanna bang heads with me
Do you wanna feel everything
Oh father

See Also

References and Citations

Article History

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  1. Original draft: January 25, 2018
  2. Updated October 21, 2018

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