BREAK, BLOW, BURN
By Camille Paglia
Pantheon. 247 pp. $20
A volcanic mountain has labored, and brought forth a mouse: The sexy celebrity bad-girl cultural critic of the '90s has produced a flawed but serviceable brief textbook.
A professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Camille Paglia won acclaim and even notoriety with Sexual Personae (1990) whose 700-plus pages emphasized the "amorality, aggression, sadism, voyeurism and pornography in great art," from prehistory to Emily Dickinson and Henry James. Since then she has become a prolific commentator on popular culture and film. By these standards, Break, Blow, Burn is modest: It tries to introduce good, accessible short poems in English and to help readers enjoy them as Paglia does.
That is what good teachers do, and the first three-quarters of the book follows through, offering patient, vigorous and largely uncontroversial explication of poems by Shakespeare, Donne (whom her title quotes), Wordsworth, Coleridge and others. Obsolete double meanings, obsolescent things (a root cellar, for example) and, especially, biblical references need old-fashioned explanations, which Paglia provides with skill.
She also proves entertainingly willing to say not only what a poem does and means, but why she likes it. Some sentences sound outrageous but in fact offer imaginative guidance, as when Paglia imagines William Blake roaming London "with telepathic hearing and merciless X-ray eyes" or explains Walt Whitman's universe as "a plush matrix or webwork of gummy secretions."
It's hard to show introductory-level students how poems speak to one another across generations when those students come to class having read so few. Paglia surmounts that problem by comparing the poems she's chosen to one another, even when such comparisons may not be what the poets had in mind.
Her obsessions can interfere with her aims. Paglia sees paintings or movies almost every time she looks at a poem. Shakespeare has "a Mannerist sophistication"; one poem of Donne's "resembles Surrealist art," and another proves "analogous to Caravaggio." Shelley's "Ozymandias" recalls "Raphael's revealing 1518 portrait" of Pope Leo X, even though the poet's "technique resembles that of the motion picture camera." Wallace Stevens's "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" "prefigures the psychedelic flamboyance of Pop Art." (She does better with Stevens than that miscue implies, as when she contends, for example, that his famous "jar in Tennessee" may contain moonshine.)
Paglia also sees sex everywhere -- in Donne, Whitman and Theodore Roethke, where it really is everywhere, but also in George Herbert and Wordsworth, where it isn't. She gets Herbert's dense, gloomy "Church-monuments" just right but his much-admired "Love (III)" badly wrong, turning a pellucid lyric of agape into an unrecognizable "languid, hypnotic" drama of "tumescence and penetration." Paglia's constant search for images of coitus makes her not a taboo-breaking innovator but a throwback to the Freudian critics of her youth.
It also limits her tastes, especially in the last quarter of this book. "Art making," for Paglia, "draws on primitive, amoral, erotic energies." She is attracted, understandably, to poets who share that view and avoids poets whose best work tends to confute it: no Pope, Auden, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop or Marianne Moore. Instead we get "a hipster's syncopated ode to female sexual power," by Paul Blackburn (not a bad poem, by the way), a 10-page exegesis of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" ("one of the strongest poems ever written by a woman"), three poems by Roethke and nothing else by Plath. As the selections approach the present, they grow stranger and harder to defend.
In her introduction, Paglia suggests that today's "most honored poets" are overrated, describing their "poetic language" as "stale and derivative." It should be no wonder, then, that she omits almost all of them. The contemporary poems she does choose come from several styles and schools (May Swenson's precisionism, Gary Snyder's Zen notation, Norman H. Russell's Midwestern plain speech, Chuck Wachtel's collage, Wanda Coleman's performance-oriented directness). All, however, share an absence of surface complexity: You can think hard about these poems if you want, but you won't have to decode any abstractions or unravel intricate syntax to "get" them.
Paglia concludes with the words to Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," a wonderful song about which she says baffling things: "This is an important modern poem -- possibly the most popular and influential poem composed in English since Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy.' " The cliched overstatement seems harmless, but the casual dismissal of all contemporary page-based poetry is not. Nor is the cavalier attitude toward music history: Is "Woodstock" more influential than "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Anarchy in the U.K." or "Rapper's Delight"? After 200 pages of handy exegeses, it's a shame that Paglia ends her book with what looks less like literary (or cultural) criticism than a bid for attention or an expression of Baby Boomer myopia.
Against the academics she disdains, Paglia strives to -- and does -- write clearly. Sometimes she is no better than clear: "Coleman's vernacular is so alive it practically jumps off the page." Paglia's isn't and doesn't. There are also mistakes, though not so many as to imperil her project: Donne, who insisted that his secular poetry circulate only in manuscript, supposedly "shows a feel for the printed page." "Night's barbecue," in Jean Toomer's "Georgia Dusk," is a real Georgia pit roast, not (or not literally) a cannibal feast. Yeats's "The Second Coming" is missing its stanza break. And why not give dates of composition or publication (as a more traditional anthology would)?
Paglia's volume will not satisfy readers already familiar with the dead famous poets whose poems take up most of it. But such readers are not her intended audience. Break, Blow, Burn will be the first book about poetry that many Americans, of several generations, ever read. They could do a lot worse. *
Stephen Burt teaches at Macalester College and is the editor of "Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden." His second book of poems, "Parallel Play," will appear next year.