Break, Blow, Burn

| | Comments (2)

I really like Camille Paglia. I can't think of a single person with whom I disagree more in nearly every walk of life that I would so much like to have a conversation with. She's sharp, incisive, witty, often fair-minded. In fact, she can be brilliant (as in Sexual Personae--a book filled with things I disagree with, remarkably and capably argued and presented.) As a result, I picked this book up at the library and I've dipped in at a few places.

I must say that I'm somewhat disappointed. I'm disappointed with the selection, and I'm disappointed with some of the readings. I haven't read enough to know the complete content, and so this is not to judge the whole book. But while retaining her stunning prose clarity and polish, the majority of the analyses I looked at failed in one of two ways.

The first failures were simply unremarkable. Into this category fell the commentary on Wallace Steven's "Disillusionment of 10 O"Clock". It's a poem that doesn't really NEED a reading. The surface is the substance, and it is a fine substance. We don't need the brilliance of Camille Paglia to come in and tell us that it is about ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary ways and the despair that can entail when looked at in that way. This is probably one of those places where she should have chosen a different poem--"Sunday Morning" with its ambiguities and multiple possible interpretations (I see it as presaging the great atheist's conversion); or "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"--that convoluted, intricate, imagist dismantling of haiku, tanka, and other imagist standards. Now, I suspect that one of the reasons for not choosing such poems is that Ms. Paglia wished to maintain her approximate structure of about four pages of explanatory prose for each poem. These latter poems would require a great many more pages to even start an explanation.

Another example of this failing came with the reading of Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." Surprisingly, there was nothing new or of note here. Ms. Paglia notes the carpe diem nature of the poem and then goes on to make several other unremarkable observations about structure, oratory, and imagery. I suppose that this might come as news to college freshmen who had no previous introduction to poetry, or perhaps even to some of the St. Blogs audience who have no particular liking for poetry, but for those of us who have lived with the poem, Ms. Paglia offers nothing startling, or, other than her fine prose, even interesting.

The second category of disappointment is in overwrought and high-flung interpretations. Into this category falls both the readings of William Carlos Williams "The Red Wheelbarrow" and "This is just to say." Williams was a great poet, perhaps one of the finest imagists of the twentieth century. But to say that immediately indicates his relative importance in the field of poetry. Yes, he's top rank, but he's a top rank imagist--the most non-committal of poets. Kind of the "scientist" of poets--recording for posterity without much in the way of guideposts for interpretation or hooks for an emotional entanglement.

Of the latter, Paglia takes a simple communication between husband and wife--if lovely and charming--and turns it into a kind of mini-Paradise Lost, with Williams intruding upon the Eden of the refrigerator and waging battle in heaven. Honestly, this slip of a poem doesn't support the weight of interpretation. Similarly with "The Red Wheelbarrow," which depends for its effect on the ambiguity of "So much depends on a red wheelbarrow." We are led to ask, "Such as?" When in fact, the dependency, while real, may be as simple as the image that it forms in the poet's mind and in ours.

The third, and most notable failing comes in the choice of poetry to represent the modern age. Of course, any such choice is likely to be idiosyncratic and debatable, but one must question the inclusion of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" over "Lady Lazarus" or "Ariel," and the inclusion of two Roethke poems ("The Root Cellar" being one of them) in preference to "My Papa's Waltz" (If we're going with the "Daddy" theme) or the truly remarkable and frightening "In a Dark Time".

I've outlined the problems I have seen withthe readings, and yet, I suspect I shall read the remainder of the book, if only for Ms. Paglia's mastery of English Prose. As to selection, that can be forgiven easily, as any one of us would select poems to comment on that others would question. The other two failings might simply be the result of the fact that I am not the intended audience for this book. Ms. Paglia wants to recapture and reignite interest in our poetic heritage. She chooses interesting, short poems that people would be willing to read and accompanies them with a solid, simple, straightforward interpretive model that demonstrates that poetry is not inaccessible, distant, and far off. When one reads her interpretation of Steven's "Disillusionment," there is an almost palpable sense of relief that one didn't miss the point after all. When one engages some of the outre, bizarre, or outrageous interpretations, one can see the depth of the personal meaning possible for a poem.

I will read the book because Camille Paglia is a master of prose. She is also one of the foremost warriors on the cultural battlefield that would like to do away with the notion that there is a "Canon," a core of formative works that have affected civilization throughout the ages--a core of work from which other works are derivative or theme and variations, or "transgressive." (Good Lord, how I hate that term.)

In sum, the work is worth reading, not so much for its insights as it is for its solid, foundational, and level-headed approach to what many consider unapproachable. Ms. Paglia's prose is a marvel in nearly every sentence, and here and there the brilliance of Sexual Personae or Vamps and Tramps shines through. In short, Ms. Paglia's work is almost always worthy of attention because Ms. Paglia herself is a compelling mind and personality.

Bookmark and Share


Paglia and Christopher Hitchens are two writers whom I both like despite many of their opinions.

Dear TSO,

Hitchens, for me, is one of those on-again, off-again writers. But when he is on he is unmatchable. And yes, I find myself more often in strenuous disagreement than in anything approaching concord. One further difference--in my opinion, Hitchens hasn't anything like the compelling razor sharpness of Paglia at her most brilliant. Most of his "arguments" are externalized interior churning. There is little compelling in the reasoning of the Hitchens argument. At least if you accept Paglia's premises, her arguments are logical developments therefrom.

On the other hand, I haven't read ANY full-length Hitchens work, and perhaps on his more complete and polished works, this shortcoming is not so pronounced.

But, I do think they both can be brilliant. Paglia, more often than not, is brilliant and witty or funny. Hitchens always strikes me a bit bitter, or sour, or surly.





About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 16, 2006 10:05 AM.

Just in Time. . . was the previous entry in this blog.

Contemplatives and Mystics is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll