The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Friday, May 27, 2005  

Break Hard, Burn Hard, Blow Hard

The latest issue of The Nation, the “Spring Books” number dated June 13, is out, and if Lee Siegel’s review of Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems by Camille Paglia, appropriately cast as “Look at Me,” doesn’t set tongues a-wagging and fingers a-blogging, well, it’s only because nobody really cares about Paglia anymore.

A few excerpts:

Worst of all was Paglia’s self-consciousness as a media personality. After a while, she was no longer taking positions in response to principles or ideas, but in response to her own positions. Her extreme rhetoric concealed a cautious tailoring of her image. For every step leftward, she had to take a step rightward; for every transgressive gesture she had to make a concession to middle-class mores, for every step down to pop culture, she had to step up to some exaltation of artistic greatness. It was like doing the last tango in Paris all by yourself, on “The Charlie Rose Show.” Shaped by the issues, Paglia reached the point where she could only express herself in the categorical language of the issues. As the issues that launched her career as a public intellectual gave way to different ones that were outside her arena of expertise, she receded from public view.

Until now. With her new book, Paglia has found a new emergency in American life. As if an unnecessary war, a sinking economy, a widening gulf between classes, a rampant commercialism like acid on the brain weren’t bad enough, America is now experiencing a crisis in . . . poetry. Resurrecting the patented alarmist language of Allan Bloom and all those culture warriors who marched across our television screens in the late 1980s and ’90s -- and in doing so created a cultural distraction while the right wing stole American politics -- Paglia has exhumed a dead herring. […]

The best way to think about an alarmist book like this one is, first, to try to figure out who might want to read it. The only people who truly care about the fate of poetry are the small, rarefied group of devotees who write and/or avidly read poetry. Needless to say, they are not Paglia’s audience, since the last thing that would attract their interest -- or their respect -- is an elementary, and exceedingly banal, primer on how to read a handful of poems from the distant to the recent past. […]

Writers and lovers of poetry would be aware, too, that the situation Paglia is describing is a figment of her publicity-deprived imagination. […]

There are probably no fewer worthwhile poems, novels and paintings now being made by gifted people than there ever were. But there’s a vast increase in desperate, ego-driven [expletive deleted], of which Paglia’s book happens to be a good example. […]

Paglia belongs to that group of critics who learned long ago how to satisfy the vanity of smart, culturally credentialed people who either no longer have the time to read or who, for one reason or another, are not drawn to high culture -- in this case, poetry. You tell such people in wry, ironic, cultured tones that there’s no longer anything worth reading. In this way, you reassure them that the classics they read in college, and perhaps graduate school, are all they need to know. […]

The irony of Break, Blow, Burn is that Paglia, the great defender of art against ideology and against tendentious multicultural agendas, drags just about every poem in this book -- from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” a poem of sorts -- into the realm of noisy, issue-driven debate. No wonder Auden is inexcusably absent from this slim selection. He famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Paglia, by contrast, seems to think of poetry as a higher form of punditry, exhorting poets to “remember their calling and take stage again.” But she’s confusing her fantasy of poetry’s purpose with her own purpose in publishing this book, which is to re-create the kind of controversy that made her a celebrity. Nearly all the poems she’s chosen are sonnets or lyric poems. Neither sonnets nor lyric poems are meant to speak for their era. Few poets feel obligated to do so in any form.

But Paglia has to make her poets sound as big, world-historical[,] and urgent as she herself aspires to be. One consequence of this willfulness is to make Blake, Wordsworth[,] and Shelley sound like “The McLaughlin Group.” The other is to offer horrible, bombastic misreadings of the poems Paglia has chosen. […]

In her quest for relevance and urgency (an impulse she oddly shares with the student radicals she once berated for wanting to read contemporary black authors instead of “dead white males”), Paglia loads onto her readings the kind of submarine-sandwich-like Big Ideas with which college freshmen pad the final-exam essays they never studied for. […]

To invoke two other writers from the past, Paglia used to come on like Byron; now she is like some cynical version of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, trampling on her very own standards, stooping as low as she can go in order to get a second helping of attention from the public that has forgotten her. But bullies always end up being reduced to their inner weakling. It’s called poetic justice.

Delightful. Delicious. Deserved.

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