Thursday, August 30, 2007
Explicating Shakespeare and Snyder - A critic takes on William and Gary, more
By DAN BARNETT
Camille Paglia, professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, made a name for herself in the larger culture with "Sexual Personae" and a series of books that examined, to use the title of another, "Sex, Art, and American Culture."
Always the provocateur, Paglia is saddened by "poetry's declining status" which "has made its embattled practitioners insular and self-protective." Desiring to reach a wider audience, she has produced a volume of explications of individual poems in English that is humbling in its bravura performance and depressing in its worldview.
"Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems" ($12.95 in paperback from Vintage) takes its title from one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets (and one of the 43): "That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new."
Paglia writes that "Donne is appealing to God to overwhelm him and compel his redemption from sin. My secular but semimystical view of art is that it taps primal energies, breaks down barriers, and imperiously remakes our settled way of seeing. Animated by the breath force (the original meaning of 'spirit' and 'inspiration'), poetry brings exhilarating spiritual renewal."
But Paglia's worldview belies the wonder-working power of poetry. In Shakespeare's "Sonnet 73," the first work she considers, the bard reminds us "to love that well which thou must leave ere long."
"Whatever we seek or crave," Paglia writes, "a person, a profession, a high ideal — is evanescent. Nothing survives the ash pit of the grave. & Our sense of life's transience intensifies its pleasures."
At the end of the book, Paglia finds Joni Mitchell's performance of "Woodstock" "a harrowing lament for hopes dashed and energies tragically wasted."
In between, she calls Yeats' "Leda and the Swan" ("Before the indifferent beak could let her drop") the greatest poem of the 20th century. She notices that in Gary Snyder's "Old Pond" "a busy nuthatch & is & the modest, flutelike substitute for the authoritarian boom of the Judeo-Christian God" and all that is available to us is to subordinate our little selves to nature, "the here-and-now salvation of (Snyder's) 'naked bug.'"
The more contemporary poems Paglia picks are fairly thin gruel (such as Rochelle Kraut's "My Makeup," just one short sentence). Paglia finds sex everywhere, and she may well be confusing its drive with the more modest work of poetry, which only begets words.
Yet Paglia's line-by-line readings draw us in. This is a book to learn from, after all.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.