Break Blow Burn
is Camille Paglia’s rabble-rousing manifesto for poetry. Taking her title from John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” she believes that art has a divine power to make us new. Close reading of poetry trains us “to focus the mind, sharpen perception, and refine emotion.” It’s more like divination than cracking a crossword: a psychedelic vision of “the interconnectedness of the universe.”
Yet this spiritual legacy has been stolen, Paglia asserts, by post-structuralism. Students are brainwashed into believing there is no connection between word and thing; meaning is arbitrary and literature little more than a game. If we don’t rescue the western canon, civilization as we know it may collapse.
So, with an apocalyptic flourish, Paglia launches into her whirlwind tour of poetry, starting with Shakespeare and ending with Joni Mitchell. Along the way, we encounter the marriage of sacred and profane love in Andrew Marvell and George Herbert; the sublimity of nature in Wordsworth and Shelley; and the tumultuous exploration of the self by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Entering the twentieth century we turn to the play of passion and irony in WB Yeats and Wallace Stevens; the gut-spilling autobiography of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath; and the feminist strut of Rochelle Kraut and Wanda Coleman.
Paglia has a rare gift to capture a poem’s mood and scene in terse, spiky phrases of descriptive insight. I savored her evocation of the “eerie aura of charged intimacy” in Herbert’s “Love.” I prized her comparison of the birds reeling about Yeats’ rough beast in “The Second Coming” to “biplanes” that “buzz and bank… [as if] over an armored tank.” And I punched the air when she likened the “sneering sardonicism” of Plath’s “Daddy” to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Seething in her Devonshire doll’s house, Plath was indeed “the first female rocker.”
Thankfully, Paglia’s impressionistic note-taking opens up alternative meanings, rather than trying to hustle the reader into cowed consent. Mulling over her remarks on “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, I was led to an interpretation radically different from her own. This is the mark of a first-rate teacher.
Occasionally, however, Paglia skims over lines too quickly. For instance, in Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” she observes that the swan’s “dark webs” suggest a spidery malignity beneath. But so what? Does that mean that God is both good and evil- or, worse, just plain evil? As a way of saying “unknown plans,” the phrase “dark webs” insinuates that, like Leda, we are helplessly manipulated by fate. Our ravishment by God, so longed for by Donne in the book’s title poem, brings not rebirth, but death.
Some of Paglia’s rapid-fire generalizations don’t hold up. It’s nonsense to say that Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ sets forth a ‘creed of High Romantic aesthetics.’ In fact, Keats portrays the urn as both spiritually enthralling and emotionally regressive. A ‘cold pastoral’ heavenly in its beauty, the urn remains harshly oblivious to the dynamic flow of pleasure and pain from which human love springs. We are presented with paradox, not program.
Paglia is just as mistaken when she says T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” proclaims the “disintegration of western culture.” That’s only half the story. The poem absorbs its many sexual personae into the mind of Tiresias- the gender-bending figure from Greek myth- to suggest the continuity of pagan antiquity and contemporary London.
Pondering Eliot’s grandeur, one can only wonder where poetry’s power to grip the popular imagination has gone. Paglia is absolutely right to condemn our literary lions for their abandonment of the individual great poem. I cheered when I saw she’d snubbed the snuffling Seamus Heaney and that humorless humbug Geoffrey Hill.
Unfortunately, her choices from recent writers are equally flat. The pugnacious pout of Rochelle Kraut’s “My Make Up” is fun but flimsy; the Buddhist piety of Gary Snyder’s “Old Pond” sounds as credible as a celebrity endorsement for shaving cream; and the similes flapping around Norman Russell’s “Tornado” (e.g. “black as death”) are too trite to wreak any real havoc.
Paglia has moments of brilliance. She also has a genius for stating the obvious: less Break Blow Burn than ‘Read My Lips.’ But her back to basics approach may be what’s required to spark revolution in today’s humanities departments. I only wish she’d said more about the need to breathe one’s own life into the poem to make it truly catch fire.
At a time of unprecedented polarization in American politics, Paglia is to be praised for selecting poems that yoke together religion, sexuality, social protest, nature and beauty. Ideologically we can’t all agree, but art somehow creates a shared consciousness in which everyone has a place.
Read this book and dare to say goodbye to the old you.