Learning to Read Good Poetry as It Should Be Read

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Learning to Read Good Poetry as It Should Be Read


Byline: Larry Thornberry, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

CamiIle Paglia has never been known as a conservationist. But her latest book, "Break, Blow, Burn," is an attempt to help preserve a badly endangered species, the reader of poetry who has no connection with academe. Ms. Paglia - a university arts and literature teacher for more than 30 years - says in the first sentence of her introduction that her new book is for a general audience. So acute readers who've either given up on poetry or who've never cared much for it at all, should consider giving it a try. This well-done, small book may remind them, or convince them in the first place, that poetry can be a rewarding and occasionally intense intellectual, philosophical, personal and aesthetic experience.

There's probably never been a huge readership for poetry (yes, I know, 19th century Brits loved their Wordsworth). But Ms. Paglia says this readership has come to the edge of extinction because of the arid way in which poetry is currently written and taught. In "Break," Ms. Paglia has chosen what she considers to be 43 of "the world's best poems" for close reading for the purpose of "revealing beauty and meaning in literature."

Wow. Beauty and meaning in literature. What a concept. ("Gosh, Professor Paglia, you mean literature isn't just Sociology Lite - and it's purpose isn't just to show what a mess straight, white males have made of the world?") Of course beauty and meaning are what so many of the theory besotted and politics obsessed boors who teach in American university literature departments these days say literature does not and cannot have. So Ms. Paglia's close explication of text is retro and a great relief from the current philistine approach to poetry, and, as is always the case with Camille Paglia, a pleasure to read.

Those familiar with Ms. Paglia's work - her long treatise on culture and the arts, "Sexual Personae," and her two essay collections, "Vamps & Tramps" and "Sex, Art, and American Culture" - know that she's an unfailingly entertaining and often incisive cultural polemicist. She's almost a category of her own, occupying no previously known position on the ideological spectrum. She's been a humanities professor at northeastern colleges since about when Studebaker went broke, though there is no trace of the academic drudge in her writing, which is always in a sprightly vernacular. She describes herself as a secular humanist, an atheist, a feminist and a lesbian.

A pedigree like Paglia describes makes her a leftist, right? Well, sort of. She has more good things to say about homosexuality, pornography and the current culture than your average red state Republican car dealer or junior banker. And she doesn't understand economics any better than your Aunt Eunice (who led a sheltered life). But she's also been critical of various wholly owned subsidiaries of the cultural left: whiney, anti-male, play-the-victim-card-every-time-and-at-all-costs feminists; surly, close-minded gay activists; and humanities professors who try to replace art with politics. She even said on a television appearance that her favorite TV program is "Monday Night Football." (How many straight, Republican women would say this?)

With an equal opportunity approach like this, perhaps Ms. Paglia's only remaining constituency is readers who enjoy intelligent, honest analysis expressed in clear, graceful writing, a good deal of which readers will find in "Break. …

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