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Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems Hardcover – March 29, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
The still-vocal critic of Sexual Personae, a book that drew on poetry and painting for its de-deconstructions of gender, checks in with an anthology of 43 poems, along with her own close readings of them. Her introduction offers a jumble of justifications for undertaking such a project (though she is "unsure whether the West's chaotic personalism can prevail against the totalizing creeds that menace it," she hopes it will), but the readings themselves reveal Paglia's fascination with poetry, which she likens "to addiction or to the euphoria of being in love." The book's first half presents canonical work that Paglia has found "most successful in the classroom" (Shakespeare, Blake, Dickinson, etc.). The second features mostly canonical modernist and confessional work (Stevens, Williams, Toomer, Roethke and Plath), with a few more recent pieces. Clocking in mostly at two to four pages, Paglia's readings sound a lot like classroom preambles to discussion—offering background, lingering over provocative lines, venturing provisional interpretations. Some of what she says comes off as grandiose (Roethke's " 'Cuttings' is a regrounding of modern English poetry in lost agrarian universals"), some as boilerplate, some as inspired. Though hit-and-miss, Paglia's picks and appraisals provide the requisite spark for jump-starting returns to poetry. (Apr. 1)
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Brazen intellectual Paglia whipped up controversy as a liberator of critical thinking from priggishness and pretension, championing pop culture and pornography in erudite yet incendiary essays, last collected in Vamps & Tramps (1994). Now in a more reflective mode, the diva of shock discourse and a veteran of 30 years of teaching, turns to poetry, an art form she treasures for its "exhilarating spiritual renewal." Paglia's seemingly racy title is found in one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets. It's an appeal to God, not a call to party, and serves as a sure indication that even though she's advocating for serious literature and "unfashionable" humanist values, she's as free of pedantry and as electrifying as ever. Among the many intriguing autobiographical disclosures she offers in her to-the-ramparts introduction is the fact that Harold Bloom was her doctoral advisor, and she is, indeed, on a Bloomian mission as she presents 43 poems worthy of sustained attention that she believes will speak to a diverse audience. Her selections truly are enticing and engaging, ranging from Shakespeare to Wanda Coleman, and including along the way Blake, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roethke, Jean Toomer, and Joni Mitchell. Some poems are de rigueur, many are unexpected, and all are powerful and rendered piquantly fresh via Paglia's smart, pithy, and relevant interpretations. As Paglia asserts, poetry "develops the imagination and feeds the soul," missions her expert anthology will zestfully support. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top Customer Reviews
Paglia is captivated by poetry. The reader's interest develops when she carefully (maybe a little dryly) commentates on one poem at a time - avoiding general brushstrokes as she identifies the subtleties from various lines. As it's been said, "from this book you could doubt several aspects of her taste in poetry. But you couldn't doubt her love of it."
You can hear Paglia's disappointment when she writes, "Along the way I've encountered so many people in the publishing world, in magazines, who said to me, you know, 'I always keep up with the new novels, but not poetry.' These are really literary people, and even they feel poetry no longer speaks to them."
Paglia suggests an explanation for the decline in the love of poetry, "Thanks to 25 years of post-structuralism in our elite colleges, we have this idea now that you are supposed to use your pseudo-sociological critical eye to look down on the work and find everything that's wrong with it," ...this style of teaching just nips students' enthusiasm in the bud."
However, her statement is tempered by what I appreciate most - her discrimination regarding true talent and her lack of tolerance for those poetry artists who insist on using it as an instrument of civil rights - while at the same time lacking excellence in their work.
While Paglia's selection of 43 poems may be `eclectic', she comments on superior works including Shelley's retro-prophetic `Ozymandias', Coleridge's heroic `Kubla Khan', and Wallace Stevens's gem `Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock'
Paglia's strength is teaching us how to visualize implication in the once inconsequential, and thereby to making a poem alive and memorable. Perhaps that's the very purpose of poetry.
Anyway, I enjoyed the book. Paglia has chosen 43 of what she describes as the world's best poems. Not the top 43 it should be said. Her choice is eclectic, as mine or yours would be. Some I endorse, others not. Her close reading of them is enjoyable, intelligent, well written and occasionally enlightening. I disagree with many of the conclusions she draws, and so would you, probably, but I find reading another insight to be of value and that, again occasionally, they modify my own view. What more could you ask.
Paglia is not a great proponent of contemporary poetry and the latest she includes are the lyrics to Woodstock by Joni Mitchell.
The Washington Post review included at Amazon considers that the book will not satisfy readers acquainted with the dead poets she includes. If correct, that is a pity. Those of us that spend much time with long dead poets do tend to achieve a world view of the poet that becomes immutable. Our loss, and to read other views is invaluable, for me at least. Perhaps he complains of a lack of depth, personally I am all for brevity and clarity rather than the mystery that some critics feel is necessary. Of course, what review would be complete without the need to demonstrate the author's ignorance and the reviewer's wisdom. The errors that Stephen Burt picks out are hardly material and a wiser reviewer would have omitted them.
I am glad I bought it and glad I read it.
My mother sent me this book after I discovered a latent admiration and adoration of Edmund Spenser, and for that matter, all structured poetry. (never been a big fan of all that mindless crap that so-called poets are constantly spewing.)
Her advice was to read "The Faerie Queene" in conjunction with "Sexual Personae", advice which I gratefully (if a bit cautiously) took... after all she is my mother and not entirely "with the times" per se.
And thus, my discovery of Camille Paglia (and since I am not as old as some of the other reviewers and was born WAAAAAY after whatever controversy she was involved in, and I simply don't know for god's sake I'm only 20). I find her to be witty and intelligent as well as eloquent, with a deliciously fine grasp of language. Her writing style alone makes this book enjoyable.
However, (isn't there always a 'however'?) as she puts it, the poems in the book are HER choices and since choice signifies subjectivism it is safe to say that not everyone will agree as to the A) importance and B) prominence of said poems. That may seem redundant, however it is not.
Also, she specifically states that ALL of the poems are originally written in ENGLISH. Thus there is no Baudelaire. No Petrarch (I'm 99% certain I misspelled that but I'm too lazy to check). In fact, not a single "multicultural" poem in the lot. If you take issue with that then you should look at something else to read.
I would recommend this book. I certainly find it delightful (and her critiques are well thought out and well executed, none of that high-brow, ivory tower academic nonsense). I quite like this book and have decided to read through all the rest of her writings.
but then again, I'm only twenty and not exactly an authority on these matters.
p.s. I'd give the book more stars but I'd like to re-read it first...