Search This Blog

Monday, March 05, 2007

Break, Blow, Burn

Paglia, Camille. Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems. The introduction alone is worthy of publication. Paglia briefly touches on various critical approaches to poetry and notes that "Poststructuralism and crusading identity politics led to the gradual sinking in reputation of the premiere literature departments" across the country and, without apology, states that she finds "too much work by the most acclaimed poets labored, affected, and verbose, intended not to communicate with the general audience but to impress their fellow poets."

(I find the above statements a bit ironic, as Paglia herself has been an "identity politics" crusader with femininist criticism. My own preference is an amalgamation of most of the critical approaches, using whatever is appropriate. I like Jungian criticism mixed with traditional/biographical criticism, with a dash of whatever aids in appreciation of the work. I do agree with her statement, I just find the irony amusing.)

Paglia goes on to lament that she "was shocked at how weak individual poems have become over the past forty years." I agree with her that many contemporary poets have been guilty of "elevating process over form" and "treating their poems like meandering diary entries [crafted] for effect in live readings rather on the page."

The discussion of how Palgia decided on the 43 poems she includes is interesting and revealing. In the end, her selection of poems includes Shakespeare and the song lyrics of Joni Mitchell, and she discusses them line by line, in context, emphasizing the importance of word choice and the way in which the form of the poem contributes to its meaning.

Some choice phrases from the introduction:

"A good poem is iridescent and incandescent..."
"Reading a poem requires alert receptivity, perceptual openess, and intuition."
"Poems give birth to other poems.'
"Humanists must set an example: all literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader. Criticism at its bes it re-creative, not spirit-killing."

As Paglia proceeds from Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold...") through her 43 poetic selections, she reveals each poem's iridescence and incandescence to the reader and makes each one accessible. This may sound easy, but if you've ever read poststructualist criticism, you know that making a poem accessible is quite a feat.

One reason I enjoyed this book so much is that she chose so many poems that I love. Another reason I enjoyed this book is because she introduced me to some new works--and helped me appreciate them.

Paglia includes a section of Biographical Notes on each poet because she believes that the text should not be "orphaned." A point with which I strongly agree; a poem is part and parcel of its creator and the times and situations in which it was conceived and crafted.

Nonfiction. Poetry/Criticism. 242 pages. 2005.


  1. Hear, hear. Part of why I enjoyed Break, Blow, Burn is precisely how Paglia's approach tries to "honour" the poetry. She reads the poetry as it is presented, the body itself as a whole.

    An uncluttered approach to poetry, I find.

  2. Orpheus - She does a great job, doesn't she? But then, one of her mentors was Harold Bloom, and I've always enjoyed his literary analysis as well.

  3. As a general rule I am NOT a poetry person, but this sounds like a fascinating book.

  4. This sounds good ... a good way to bring mroe poetry into my life, maybe, particularly poetry I'm less likely to read on my own, which means older stuff.

  5. Jordan - This book is a good start for anyone who doesn't feel like a poetry person. Reading it slowly, poem by poem, explication by explication, and letting each one sink in slowly is a good way to gain confidence and appreciation. Takes away some of the fear factor.

    Dorothy - :) Anyone who reads Boswell and Johnson for fun should be at home with the older stuff. One thing I've always enjoyed is seeing the way older poems influence modern poems. I love finding the echo of a metaphysical poem in a contemporary poem, or a reference to Chaucer or Shakespeare or Donne in modern poetry.

  6. Hmm, I never would have thought to tie Paglia to a book of poetry, but this sounds really good! I'm off to add it to my wishlist - thanks for the great review.

  7. I'm not entirely show how I feel about Paglia, but this sounds like a great book. I am horrible with poetry and I think I might like this approach. I will have to look for it in the bookstore.

  8. Lesley - I was surprised at her adherence to historical/biographical criticism and her objections to New Criticism. Not what would normally be expected from Paglia. I thought she would be an iconoclast.

    Danielle - Well, Paglia is an odd combo, isn't she? I agree with her criticism of the influence of Lacan and Derrida, her belief in a "curriculum grounded in comparative religion, art history, and the literary canon, with a greater emphasis on facts in the teaching of history." Her feminist criticism...well, that's another story.