The Reader in Love
McDowell, Robert, The Hudson Review
The Reader in Love
READING CAMILLE PAGLIA YEARS AGO inspired me, for the first time, to entertain the probability that God is a woman. Enchanted by her intelligence, eloquence, cheerful aggression, wisdom, literate dexterity, and toughness, I wondered what more one could ask of God? It helped, too, that she was sexy and funny, genuinely funny. Camille Paglia. Her name even sounds like poetry.
Now, as if to prolong and deepen my rapture, Paglia returns in Break, Blow, Burn1 to an early love, presenting her readings of forty-three of the world's best poems, as determined by Her.
Her introduction is a generous cocktail of biographical data, instruction, and face-slapping. Don't be alarmed. They're good slaps. Right away she clears up any potential ambiguity by telling us that her book is intended for a general audience. She defends the method she'll use on the poems-close reading, or "explication of text," which "not only is the best technique for revealing beauty and meaning in literature but is a superb instrument for the analysis of all art and culture. Through it, one learns how to focus the mind, sharpen perception, and refine emotion." She shares her own student quarrels with New Criticism, describes how she supplements her use of it with psychology and history, and laments its waning relevance. "Its destruction by the influx of European post-structuralism into American universities in the 1970s was a cultural disaster from which higher education has yet to recover."
She is generous in her comments about her own introduction to poetry. Beginning with her high school days and discovery of poetry (she loved Hopkins and Millet and loathed Frost), Paglia cites her key influences as an interpreter of poems. She describes the deep impact Arthur M. Clements' class on Metaphysical poetry and John Milton had on her, and her conversion experience in four courses taught by Milton Kessler, a student of Theodore Roethke whose "theory of poetry was based on sensory response and body rhythms . . . His classroom explications were dramatic, celebratory, and ingeniously associative, bringing everything to bear on the text." Harold Bloom, her third mentor, shared many of Kessler's qualities. Both men "seemed to me more visionary rabbis than professors." She describes her break with Bloom over the importance of Pop Culture in contemporary literature and cites as an example her commentary on Plath in this volume.
Finally, she confides that her "attentiveness to the American vernacular-through commercials, screwball comedies, hit songs, and AM talk radio (which I listen to around the clock)-has made me restive with the current state of poetry." Decrying the chummy, insular behavior of contemporary poets, she declares her independence: "I have no such friendships and am a propagandist for no poet or group of poets."
Having cleared that up, Paglia proceeds to the poems, beginning with two sonnets by Shakespeare and an excerpt of the Ghost's speech in Hamlet and concluding with Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock." Most of the poems get three-to-four pithy pages (longer attention is given to Walt Whitman-8 pages-and Sylvia Plath-10 pages) showing us how they work their magic in the ear, heart, and head.
I hasten to add that three or four pages of Paglia's close readings are better than entire volumes of analysis by a lot of contemporary poetry critics I can think of. In less time than it takes to read the average menu, one's knowledge of the poet's culture, time, historical impact, and personal life are enhanced to the degree that one experiences an intimate connection with artist and commentator. One also feels, dare I say it? One feels as if one has just had a hell of a good time learning something.
Honestly, how often can we say that after reading a poetry critique? The last time I enjoyed a book of poetry criticism this much I was seventeen and wishing the pages of Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age would never come to an end. …