Some time back I reviewed Break, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia and remember being put off by some of her idiosyncratic choices for modern poetry. Perhaps I focused too much attention on that.
Ms. Paglia has a distinct voice, self-assured, self-assertive, urbane, and elegant. Her personal opinions have the solidity of the throne of God and she expresses them as though they were edicts passed down from the time of Moses. She triumphs the artistry of Stevie Nix while decrying the depredations of the European post-structuralists.
What she says deserves attention, not because she says it does, but because her voice has an authority that comes from deep engagement with the materials she studies. Agree or disagree as you will, one thing will be certain--you will be perfectly clear on what you are agreeing or disagreeing with. Ms. Paglia's prose is bereft of the academic apparatus of most critics. And for good reason, "Good writing comes from good reading. Humanists must set an example: all literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader. Criticism at its best is re-creative, not spirit-killing." And so the criticism she tenders in this book fits that pattern she assumes for criticism in general.
One might argue with some of the re-creations--for example, the excessive rhapsodic waxings on William Carlos Williams and on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," can strike one as overwrought and grasping at straws. But then, her passionate enthusiasm for these works deserves our attention. Perhaps we overlook something that might well be worth consideration. Perhaps there is something here that we must learn from an enthusiast disguised as a critic.
But I picked up the book , once again charmed into reading by the beautifully fashioned introduction in which Ms. Paglia sets herself up as pedant and tour-guide in a whirlwind cruise through English poetry from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell. And her first stop is what gave me pause and begged for a more gentle reconsideration of the book:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Of the great bard's sonnets, one of the more melancholy and searching--bleak as a desert and therefore refreshing in a way that only truth and emptiness can be.
Ms. Paglia goes on to point out matters structural: The three quatrains are single sentence-metaphors each applied to is subject and accumulating into the final couplet. Matters linguistic: you can identify each by the presence of the phrase "in me." And matters symbolic--"bare ruined choirs" being both the life of the poet and the destruction of Henry VIII. Here, perhaps because of her own attempt at making a secular scripture, she may not have as full a reading as might be possible were she to plumb the depths of Shakespeare's faith. She asserts that, "There is no reference to God or an afterlife. Consciousness itself is elemental, an effect of light and heat that dissipates when our bodies are reabsorbed by nature." Here she follows the fatal flaw of her mentor Harold Bloom, who cannot seem to see that Shakespeare, far from being a secularist, was deeply spiritual, and the threads of this poem speak both to the fate of the human person, but also to the fate of that subject to the human person. "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang," is indeed the work of man--the attempt to drive out God and replace Him with what man hath wrought--the Reformation religion.
But enough. The point here was two-fold--to present a kind of apology for the first review and to present this lovely sonnet. And it was slanted more to the second. When I opened the book and saw it there I read it. Then I read it again. Then I read it aloud. Then I read it again. Then I read Ms. Paglia's enlightening gloss of it. And then I read it again, recognize the partial truth of Ms. Paglia's interpretation. But also realizing that in three pages she could hardly do justice to the tight compression of this gem of the English language.
So do yourself a favor. Go back up to the poem and read it. Really read it. Don't let your eyes cascade down it. Stop at each word. Say it out loud. Say it slowly. Then read it quickly. Then force it into it's iambic pentameter and see where the stresses fall (this indeed is part of the amazing genius of Shakespeare--not only did he use Iambic pentameter, he also used the meter to undercut or enhance the message and meaning of the words resting upon that base. And if you don't think this is any big deal, try it yourself.)
Shakespeare is a place to start. But as I thought about it, what if one were to approach scripture in the same way. Read it, read it again. Read it out loud. If it's poetry try singing it, or letting it roll in a rhythm of poetry. Try rephrasing it. Listen to it in all those ways and you will be astonished at what may come through for you. Words you've heard more times than you can count come alive--they breathe and make new strong-fashioned art. No wonder Shakespeare so easily confuses atheist academics who wish to make of him a secular scripture. He had himself internalized these rhythms of the language and used them in a way that at that crossroads of time and art turned him into an archetype. No wonder George Bernard Shaw spent all of his time despising Shakespeare, always concerned that he would never escape the Bard's long shadow. And indeed, he did not.