Camille Paglia is famous, or maybe notorious, in numerous areas which don't interest me and of which I haven't read. But ignore her celebrity. She revels in language, she's smartly analytic, and in her new book Break, Blow, Burn she applies herself to unfolding 43 of her favorite poems. Throughout, her wit shines. As Clive James observes in an eloquent critique that led me to buy the volume:

... From this book you could doubt several aspects of her taste in poetry. But you couldn't doubt her love of it. She is humble enough to be enthralled by it; enthralled enough to be inspired; and inspired enough to write the sinuous and finely shaded prose that proves how a single poem can get the whole of her attention. ...

James nicely summarizes Paglia's game plan:

Working chronologically from then to now, the book starts with [Shakespeare]: Sonnet 73, Sonnet 29 and the Ghost's speech from Hamlet, each individually explicated. The Ghost's speech counts as a poem because we not only experience it as an especially intense and coherent episode, we remember it that way. A poem's demand to be held in the memory counts for a lot with Paglia. Notably sensitive to language, rhythm and technique as devices for getting meaning into your mind and making it stick, she persuades you, throughout the book, that she has her poems by heart, even if she doesn't favor the idea of memorizing them deliberately like a trainee spy scanning a room. Her readings of Shakespeare are close, fully informed by the scholarship and—a harder trick—fundamentally sane, thus auguring well for her approach to Donne, whose Holy Sonnet XIV supplies the book's title. But her sensitivity to George Herbert is the best early sign of her range of sympathy.

Paglia definitely goes over-the-top in some of her exegeses. She frequently uncovers eros in inkblots where I strongly suspect the author-poet intended nothing of the kind. Many of her explanations seem to springboard off phrases taken out of context, or depend on idiosyncracies in her personal experience. And her taste in modern verse drifts far afield from mine. After Wallace Stevens, I see little of note in the selections; her mini-essays on those modern poems are far more entertaining and powerful (and poetic) than the chosen works themselves.

But all is redeemed by her brilliant discussions of Yeats, Dickinson, Shelley, and Donne. If only Camille Paglia had riffed on Gerard Manley Hopkins!

(see Clive James's review "Well Versed" in the 27 March 2005 New York Times; see also FaceToFaceWithGod (13 Nov 2001), ByHeart (28 Nov 2001), PoeticProcesses (3 Mar 2002), ...)

TopicPoetry - TopicLiterature - 2005-05-11

(correlates: GeekyTee2, NegativeHelp, Writer's Almanac, ...)