Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Camille Paglia Burns for Poetry |
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Camille Paglia Burns for Poetry

Clearly designed as a come-on for bright students who don’t yet know very much about poetry, Camille Paglia’s new book anthologises 43 short works in verse from Shakespeare through to Joni Mitchell, with an essay about each. The essays do quite a lot of elementary explaining. Readers who think they already know something of the subject, however, would be rash if they gave her low marks just for spelling things out. Even they, if they were honest enough to admit it, might need help with the occasional Latin phrase, and they will find her analysis of individual poems quite taxing enough in its upper reaches. “Having had his epiphany,” she says of the sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, “Wordsworth moves on, preserving his estrangement and solitude by shutting down his perception.” Nothing elementary about that.

She flies as high as you can go, in fact, without getting into the airless space of literary theory and Cultural Studies. Not that she has ever regarded those activities as elevated. She has always regarded them, with good reason, as examples of humanism’s perverse gift for attacking itself, and for providing the academic world with a haven for tenured mediocrity. This book is the latest shot in her campaign to save culture from theory. It thus squares well with another of her aims, to rescue feminism from its unwise ideological allegiances. So in the first instance Break, Blow, Burn is about poetry, and in the second it is about Camille Paglia.

One measure of her quality as a commentator is that those two subjects are not in the reverse order. In view of her wide knowledge, her expressive gifts, her crackling personality and the inherent credibility problems posed by looking too much at her ease on top of a pair of Jimmy Choos, it is remarkable how good Paglia can be at not putting herself first. 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. From a woman who sometimes gives the impression that she finds reticence a big ask, this is a sure index of her subject’s importance to her, and one quite likely to be infectious. My own prescription for making poetry popular in the schools would be to ban it — with possession treated as a serious misdemeanour, and dealing as a felony — but failing that, a book like this is probably the next best thing. If she doesn’t make a poem sound like something dangerous, at least she makes it sound like something complicated. Students grown wary of pabulum might relish the nitty-gritty.

The term “a poem” is one we have to use, because our author is strong on the point that a poet should be measured by individual poems, and not by a “body of work”. To a reader from outside America, she sounds tremendously right about this, but inside America her view is likely to go on smacking of subversion for some time to come. One can only hope that the subversion does its stuff. Good poems are written one at a time: written that way and read that way. Even the Divine Comedy is a poem in the first instance, not part of a body of work: and even in Shakespeare’s plays there are passages that lift themselves out of context. (“Shakespeare the poet,” she says, “often burns through Shakespeare the dramatist, not simply in the great soliloquies but in passages throughout his plays that can stand alone as poems.”) The penalty for talking about poets in universal terms before, or instead of, talking about their particular achievements, is to devalue what they do while fetishising what they are.

This insidious process is far advanced in modern America, to the point where it corrupts not just the academics but the creators themselves. John Ashbery would have given us dozens more poems as thrilling as his jeu d’esprit about Daffy Duck if he had never been raised to the combined status of totem pole and wind tunnel, in which configuration he produces one interminable outpouring that deals with everything in general, with nothing in particular, can be cut off at any length from six inches to a mile, and will be printed by editors who feel that the presence in their publication of an isotropic rigmarole signed with Ashbery’s name is a guarantee of seriousness precisely because they don’t enjoy a line of it. Paglia, commendably, refuses such cargo-cult status even to Shakespeare.

Working chronologically from then to now, the book starts with him: 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 favour the idea of memorising 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 XIVsupplies the book’s title. But her sensitivity to George Herbert is the best early sign of her range of sympathy.

With Shakespeare, Donne and Marvell she has merely to convince her students, fresh from their gender studies, that a poet could call a woman his mistress without belittling her. With Herbert she has to convince them that a poet could feel the same passion about God. (“We follow the path of the all-too-human quester as he advances towards God, then retreats in confusion.” That “we” could be a bit optimistic, but she might get lucky.) One of her best attributes is well brought out: her refusal to modernise the past. Her thorough background in cultural history — the Italians, who should be proud of her parentage, would call her preparatissima — is always in play. Her entertaining wealth of up-to-date pop-culture allusion is merely the top dressing, and she is usually careful not to strain after a faddish point. In her exemplary analysis of Shelley’s Ozymandias, for example, she could easily have referred to the last scene of Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston looks up at Liberty’s head just as the Traveller from an Antique Land looked up at the truncated legs of stone. I was rather expecting her to. Perhaps she has realised, however, that the pace of forgetfulness is always accelerating, and that we have moved from an era of people who have never heard of Shelley to an era of people who have never heard of Charlton Heston.

When she calls Yeats’s Leda and the Swan “the greatest poem of the twentieth century” she makes one of her few sweeping statements. It isn’t a bad one, but it doesn’t do enough to offset an equally sweeping question from us. When the book moves towards modern times it moves towards America. Whatever happened to the old world it left behind? After Coleridge (a bold and convincing interpretation of Kubla Khan), Yeats is the last European, living or dead, to get an entry. Still, there are probably copyright reasons for choosing nothing by, say, Auden, and meanwhile there is the compensation of the way she can treat great American poets as accomplished artists without merely abetting the worship of icons. This coolly enthusiastic emphasis shows up clearly in her detailed admiration for Emily Dickinson. Paglia can see the epic in the miniature: an especially important critical gift when it comes to a poet who could enamel the inside of a raindrop. One would be glad to have a complete Dickinson annotated by Paglia. An utter contrast of destinies, it would be a meeting of true minds. Paglia, too, has a kind of solitude, though it might not sound that way. The media attention she attracts does little to modify her opinions. That might be partly why she attracts so much of it. The proud motto of every suckerfish is: we swim with sharks.

But the most threatening thing about her, from the American viewpoint, is that she refuses to treat the arts as an instrument of civil rights. Without talent, no entitlement. She has the powers of discrimination to show what talent is — powers that add up to a talent in themselves. A critical scope that can trace the intensity uniting different artistic fields is not unprecedented in America, but she is an unusually well-equipped exponent of it. Making a solid attempt to pin down the sliding meanings of Wallace Stevens’s little poem Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock, she brings in exactly the right comparison: a piano piece by Satie. She compares the poem’s “red weather” with a Gaugin seascape: right again. These comparisons help to define the post-Impressionist impulse from which all the verbal music of Stevens’s Blue Guitar emerged, while incidentally reminding us that Paglia, before she made this bid on behalf of poetry, did the same for painting, and with the same treasury of knowledge to back up her endeavour. But above all, her range of allusion helps to show what was in Stevens’s head: the concentration of multiple sensitivities that propelled his seeming facility. “Under enchantment by imagination, space and time expand, melt, and cease to exist.” Nobody has a right to a creative mind like his. It’s a gift.

Students expecting a poem by Maya Angelou will find that this book is less inclusive than the average line-up for Inauguration Day. But there is a poem by Langston Hughes; and, even better, there is Georgia Dusk, by Jean Toomer. A featured player in the Harlem Renaissance of the early 1920s, Toomer transmuted the heritage of southern slavery into music. So did the blues, but Toomer’s music was all verbal. He was a meticulous technician, which is probably the main reason why his name has faded. Paglia does a lot to bring it back, but she might have done even more. She concedes too much by saying his “ flowery, courtly diction” was more Victorian than modernist. The same might have been said of John Crowe Ransom, and with equal inaccuracy. Toomer sounds to me like a bridge through time from Elinor Wylie, whom Paglia doesn’t mention, to Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, neither of whom she mentions either.

If she has a deaf spot, it lies on that wing. Favouring, with good reason, the American vernacular, she tends to set it up as something that supersedes European formality, as if it were possible for a poem to be over-constructed. But it can’t. It can only be underpowered. If she had paid the same pin-point attention to the complex interplay within Toomer’s four-square quatrains as she pays to William Carlos Williams’s free verse in The Wheelbarrow, she would have been able to show how a superficially mechanical form can intensify conversational rhythms by the tightness with which it contains them. It would have been a useful generosity. Anthony Hecht’s reputation was injured when Helen Vendler found his forms limiting. On the contrary, they were limitless. As for Wilbur, his fastidiously carpentered post-war poems were part of the American liberation of Europe. Whether that liberation was a new stage in American cultural imperialism’s road to conquest remains a nice question. One would like to have heard her answer. Such a discussion would lie well within her scope. But our disappointment that she stops short is a sign of her achievement. If we want a book to do more than what it does, that’s a condemnation. If we want it to do more of what it does, that’s an endorsement.

Occasionally there is cause for worry that her young students might listen too well. Three short poems by Theodore Roethke are praised without any warning that most of his longer poems, if the reader goes in search of them, will prove to be helpless echoes of bigger names. Ambition undid him, as it has undone many another American poet infected by the national delusion that the arts can have a Major League. The short poem by Frank O’Hara should have been marked with a caveat: anything longer by the same poet will be found to have a lot less in it, because the urge to find a verbal equivalent for the apparent freedom of New York abstract expressionist painting led him to believe that he could mean everything by saying anything. Nor are we told that Robert Lowell would spend the later and incoherently copious part of his career making sure that he would never again attain the rhetorical magnificence of the opening lines of Man and Wife. But Paglia knows why, and how, those lines are magnificent: and in Lowell’s case, among her specific remarks, there is a general one that typifies her knack of extending an aesthetic question into the moral sphere. Lowell’s “confessional” streak insulted his loved ones. The same question is posed again by Sylvia Plath’s Daddy, an agonized masterpiece by which Paglia is driven to a stretch of critical writing that stands out for its richness even in a rich book.

Applying her particularised admiration to rescue the poem from those who cite it as a mantra, Paglia points out an awkward truth about Plath as a feminist Winged Victory: that her poetry was in “erudite engagement with canonical male writers”. A still more awkward truth is that the manner of Plath’s suicide helped to set up her husband Ted Hughes as an abuser of women. Paglia defends Hughes against Plath, a defence that few feminists have dared to undertake. She also defends Plath’s father against Plath, which might seem a quixotic move in view of the poem’s subject matter, but does help to make the point that Plath, by calling her father a Nazi and identifying herself with millions of helpless victims, was personalising the Holocaust in a way that only her psychic disturbance could excuse. Leaving out the possibility that Plath might have been saying she was nuts, Paglia does Plath the honour of taking her at her word. But you can’t do her that honour without bringing her down off her pedestal. The poet used her unquestionable talent to say some very questionable things, and there’s no way out of it. Paglia is tough enough to accept that conclusion: tough enough, that is, not to complain when she winds up all alone.

She seems to enjoy being alone. It’s a handy trait for the sort of thinker who can’t see an orthodoxy form without wanting not to be part of it. Google her for half an hour and you will find her fighting battles with other feminists all over cyberspace. Telling us how she became, at the age of four, a “lifelong idolator of pagan goddesses” after seeing Ava Gardner in Showboat, she tells us why she is less than thrilled with Madonna. It’s a view I share, but at least Madonna manufactured herself. Ava Gardner from South Carolina was manufactured in a Hollywood studio, as she was the first to admit. And what is Paglia doing, saying that an actress as gifted as Anne Heche has “the mentality of a pancake”? How many pancake brains could do what Heche did with David Mamet’s dialogue in Wag the Dog? And what about her performance in One Kill? No doubt Heche has been stuck with a few bad gigs, but Paglia, of all people, must be well aware that being an actress is not the same safe ride as being the tenured University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Paglia by now should be famous enough to start throttling back on some of the stuff she is famous for. She might make a start with bitchery, for which she has a taste but no touch. The media want snide remarks from her the same way that the Sahara wants rain. But writers capable of developing a nuanced position over the length of an essay should not be tempted into believing that they can sum it up in a sound-bite. Liberal orthodoxy will always need opposing, but not on the basis that all its points are self-evidently absurd. According to Paglia, gun abuse is a quirk of the sexually dysfunctional. That might be right, but people aren’t necessarily deluded when they want a ban for the sort of gun that can kill a dozen people in half a minute. Waiting until everybody is sexually functional would be a long time to hold your breath.

Nor does Paglia’s useful conviction that feminism, as an ideology, is as debilitating for individual responsibility as any other ideology, make it true that women are now out of the woods. Only the misapprehension that she can be wise like lightning could explain her brief appearance, in Inside Deep Throat, to tell us that the cultural artefact in question was “an epochal moment in the history of modern sexuality”. On the contrary, it was a moronic moment in the history of exploitation movies made by people so untalented that they can’t be convincing even when they masturbate.

But all these posturings by the madly glamorous Paglia happen only because, in the electrified frenzy of the epochal moment, she forgets that the light-storm of publicity makes her part of the world of images. In her mind, if not yet in her more excitable membranes, she knows better than to mistake that world for the real one. This book on poetry is aimed at a generation of young people who, knowing nothing except images, are cut off from “the mother ship” of culture. The mother ship was first mentioned in her 2002 lecture called “The Magic of Images”. In the same lecture, she put down the marker that led to this book. “The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words.” She can say that again, and let’s hope she does, in a longer edition of a book that shows her at her true worth. When you have proved that you can cut the mustard, it’s time to cut the malarkey.

(New York Times Book Review, March 27, 2005)


One way of summing up Camille Paglia would be to say that she looks like the classiest number in the bar until the fight breaks out. It isn’t that she doesn’t watch her words: she watches them to make sure they are going the wrong way. One is forced to conclude that publicity is the sea in which she swims, beating it to a phosphorescent froth. But we should not let her effulgence blind us to her importance. Break, Blow, Burn is an important book in a movement we should all favour: the movement to restore the ideal of the self-contained poem to a superior position over the more marketable notion of poetry as a generalized and infinitely teachable commodity. I thought my review had unmistakably praised her for this initiative, so I was quite stunned to find some of the American cultural bloggers accusing me of having done a knife-job. The noisiest bloggers are often the most stupid, and probably the worst you can say of Camille Paglia is that she sometimes sounds as if she might like to hang out with them, always granted that hanging out is something they ever do. You would expect someone with so formidable a mind to fight shy of petty quarrels. I can think of no contemporary cultural figure who would so benefit from being less available. She should stay in more.