[img_assist|nid=633|title=Camille Paglia|desc=|link=node|align=center|width=200|height=130][img_assist|nid=634|title=Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems|desc=|link=url|url=http://www.amazon.com/Break-Blow-Burn-Camille-Forty-three/dp/0375420843/sr|align=right|width=150|height=231]
Camille Paglia has never lacked courage. Her breakout work, Sexual Personae (1991) established her reputation as an American intellectual about whom no one is neutral. Her latest book, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems, is also an act of courage. It is her selection of 43 poems with literate commentary on each for a general readership, blending literature, psychology, and culture. Her literary roots rest in the soil of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the eras of Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti. Poetry was big and the poets were “street smart” American royalty. That prestige no longer exists today, but Paglia can serve as a guide to a return to the power of language and the magic of words.
Philadelphia Stories talks with Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts since 1984, about today’s changing literary world.
What changes have you seen in literature (poetry, fiction, and non-fiction) over the past generation or two?
When I was in college in the 1960s, poetry was booming. Thanks to the Beat movement of the prior decade, poetry was directly engaged with contemporary experience, including political issues. The little black-and-white City Lights Bookstore paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was everywhere. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel made a sensation—partly because of her suicide.
At Harpur College (the State University of New York at Binghamton), I saw a huge number of major poets read. They were like rock stars. The rooms were packed, and there was electricity in the air. I thought at the time that a renaissance of poetry was dawning, but it turned out not to be true. Pop music supplanted poetry in young people’s attention. By the 1970s, American poets were receding in importance.
Fiction is certainly still thriving. It remains a prestigious form in its many mainstream and niche genres—some of which (like romances, mysteries, and political thrillers) can be enormously lucrative and others not at all. But novelists in the U.S. (as opposed to the U.K. ) no longer enjoy the high cultural status they once did in the prime of Norman Mailer, who emerged at the tail end of the Hemingway era.
In the last 30 years, postgraduate campus writing programs have spread like wildfire. I’m of mixed mind about them. On the one hand, it’s wonderful for aspiring writers to meet and work with fellow devotees of the written word at a time of media infotainment and buzz. On the other hand, an MFA may not be worth the investment of tens of thousands of dollars, unless the applicant intends a teaching career. Writers need more life experience, not more school. I think the money might be better spent on world travel.
Non-fiction has evolved tremendously since the 1960s. It’s really where the cultural spotlight is in the U.S. , mainly because politics are such a national obsession, refracted through every medium from talk radio to cable TV. Cultural criticism has also supplanted literary criticism per se in literature departments. I’m a culture critic in that sense—my M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale were in English, but my writing and teaching are interdisciplinary.
Can you tell us about your writing career?
I wrote poetry in high school and early college, but always knew I wanted to be a scholar. Archaeology was my first passion, then literature, but I was also fascinated by popular culture and advertising, which I saw as visual mediums. My interest in pop was a negative in grad school, where professors considered it frivolous.
My harrowing publishing history should be an inspiration to any aspiring writer struggling along amidst a blizzard of rejection slips. The manuscript of Sexual Personae (an expansion of my 1974 dissertation) was completed in 1981 and then made the rounds: it was rejected by seven publishers and five agents. As the years passed, I gave up hope of seeing it in print in my lifetime.
When Sexual Personae was finally released by Yale University Press in 1990, I was 43—pretty late for a first book. I think everyone was surprised, including me, by the impact of that 700-page tome. It kept steadily selling, despite a total absence of publicity. The following year, when the publicity about my dissident ideas exploded, it became a national bestseller in Vintage paperback and was afterward translated around the world, from China and Japan to Croatia . I’ve had three other Vintage bestsellers since then and have also written extensively for newspapers, magazines, and the Web.
In Break, Blow, Burn, you ground yourself in New Criticism and encourage exploration of poetry by “close reading.” Why should people use that technique?
As I say in the introduction, when I was in college, I detested the New Criticism, which was then in its declining phase. I found it boring, rote, and sanitized. The professors who practiced it, like Cleanth Brooks (whom I avoided at Yale), seemed so moralistic and officiously humanitarian. I thought of them as dried-up, repressed WASPs—I was quite unfair, I must say!
However, over my 35 years as a classroom teacher, I found that close reading was in fact the best way by far to introduce poetry to students. What I’ve added to it, significantly, is history and psychology—those elements of social context and biography that the New Critics considered extraneous to understanding a text. The trick is learning how to integrate all these things seamlessly. That’s why it took me five years to write Break, Blow, Burn—all that effort went into smoothing transitions and fine-tuning tone.
Is this a rejection of postmodernism and deconstructionism?
Yes, I despise European post-structuralism and all its progeny, including postmodernism, which is simply a watered-down 1980s version of the revolutionary high modernism of the early- to mid-twentieth century. Post-structuralism destroyed the American humanities departments—it will take a generation to undo the damage. Among other things, it’s the main reason poetry has been pitifully marginalized on campus—demoted from the central status it had in the 1960s. Post-structuralist analysis focuses on narrative, as in the novel and short story. It’s helpless with poetry, which is animated by metaphor and myth and which requires hypersensitivity to etymology and diction. Beyond that, post-structuralism is a French style. Its Anglo-American disciples write bad English—pretentious, clunky, and jargon-choked. My major attack on post-structuralism is my 70-page critique, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders,” which was published in Arion in 1991 and reprinted in Sex, Art, and American Culture.
Selecting 43 of “the world’s best poems” was an act of bravery. What criteria did you use?
For this book, I was looking for poems that would be accessible to and rewarding for a general audience. The first half consists of poems by canonical writers that have worked best for me in the classroom—from Shakespeare and John Donne through Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats. It’s the last group of contemporary poems that is controversial. Except for Gary Snyder and Joni Mitchell (whose lyric for “ Woodstock” I treat as a poem), there are few recognizable names. I made judgments based solely on the quality of the poem, not the reputation of the author.
In ransacking libraries and bookstores looking for poems for this book, I was appalled at how weak and shoddy so much poetry has become—including the work of tediously over-praised figures like John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, those pets of the academic elite. No wonder the general public has lost interest in reading poetry when these are the figures touted by critics, reviewers, and prize committees.
I value poetry that has sensory and emotional immediacy, and I dislike poetry that pretends to be philosophy. All that phony, conceited word fog! If you want philosophy, go read real philosophers. That’s not what good poetry has ever been. This stuff is a development of late Wallace Stevens, whose language got more and more self-conscious and rarified. I’m an admirer of the early Stevens, who was an aesthete with the vivid sensibility of Matisse.
How do you define “poetry?”
Poetry began in ancient ritual as rhythmic chanting, and its early history was intertwined with music and dance. It belonged to the oral tradition for millennia until the invention of writing. After that, the visual format of the poem on the page became intrinsic to its identity. For the past century, there have been radical experiments in redefining what a poem is and can be—some successful, some not. For the poems in Break, Blow, Burn, I chose a variety of types and physical “looks.” But ultimately a poem lives or dies by how deeply it engages the reader. Too many famous poets today are speaking to each other rather than to humanity at large—which is exactly why their work won’t last.