Break, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia’s new collection of close-readings of poetry has the feel of an intimate conversation with the fiery author, during her peak moments of intellectual concentration. It’s like encountering the outspoken author during office hours and having gorgeous folds of insight pour from her like dark, sweet chocolate. This is a quiet and golden book, reminding me of the softer insights of Dorothy Parker, and even her Yale mentor, Harold Bloom. There’s a sense here that we’re seeing a different side of Paglia — less explosive, more nuanced; still daring. She’s still handsomely bold, but, this time, in a more impersonal way. Since Paglia sculpted her media persona during the 1990s as a bilious, politically incorrect culture warrior, it’s almost startling to find Paglia disappearing at times, speaking in almost hushed tones … about poetry.

Break, Blow, Burn is aimed at the general reader. In interviews, Paglia has consistently scorned academia for its condescending tones, it’s cryptic reams of confusing prose. By making this book for a general audience, Paglia extends herself to the masses, trying to reignite a passion for poetry.

She succeeds. Like most people, even well read people, I have to admit to a poor introduction and rather blasé interest in poetry. Unfortunately, poetry has always seemed to me something outdated, boring, and either too random, too issue-oriented, or too melodramatic for my tastes. Hasn’t everyone looked at a poem like it a cement barricade, and been intimidated by it’s seeming impenetrability — even bored by it?

There was a point in Break, Blow, Burn, when I started thinking about just that notion. Chuck Wachtel’s poem, “A Paragraph Made Up of Seven Sentences”, is one of Paglia’s selections. The poem is composed as a collage of seven different topics the poet has read or heard during the day. They only seem unrelated, as we read a weather forecast, a news blurb about someone finding a dead body, an advertisement for the Encyclopedia Britannica, amongst other miscellany. In this case, Paglia’s expert sleuthing (cultivated from over 20 years of classroom teaching), guides our interest. It is a peculiar, but difficult poem. Paglia opens it up, dissecting Wachtel’s specimen as a post-modern artifact of media voices at once frivolous, informative and ridiculous.

One of the strengths of Paglia’s book is her endless fascination with the English language. She’s a word fanatic, and has some useful prescriptions for how to approach the reading of a poem. In her introduction, she proclaims “For me, poetry is speech-based and is not just an arbitrary pattern of signs that can be slid around like a jigsaw puzzle. I sound out poems silently, as others pray.” She considers the spoken word part of the poem, pointing to the neuromuscular connection between speech and imagination. At one point, she compares the nine hissing “s” letters at the end of an Emily Dickinson poem to the nine thudding “d”‘s. Paglia’s readings have a musical, intuitive effect, like a great musician playing the music of a great composer.

She has talked some about how, in today’s fast-paced, image-saturated society, words are a necessary antidote. It seems right, somehow, that someone who so enthusiastically embraced pop-culture, and the plethora of images pouring in, now patients us to the slowness and focus required for poetry. Not only that, but Paglia’s guidance lets us see how infinite and rewarding good poetry can be on many levels — etymologically, visually, psychologically, spiritually.

Her readings are stellar from beginning to end — crisp, clear, but earthy in a way Paglia isn’t in her earlier work. There’s more of an intuitive guide here, a faculty that seems necessary for talking about poetry. In discussing Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers”, Paglia remarks: “The breath goes out of the poem as it did from the dead.” On Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”: “She has built his funeral monument: her best poem belongs to him.” Paglia opens up her imagination to the poem. Astute, her close-readings are prose re-workings of the poetry, not unlike seeing a film and then going through the film shot-by-shot with Paglia’s narration.

Just as much as any fiction stylist, Paglia, too, has always very consciously crafted her unique, punchy style and trance-like Italian psycho-inquiry. In earlier works (like her masterpiece, Sexual Personae), Paglia’s voice was staccato, purple, echoing Wilde and Walter Pater. Here Paglia’s approach is less confrontational and aphoristic — she comes to the poems in a slow trance, inspired and connects like a plug to the poet’s psychological state. Apparently, out of five years writing the book, she spent two crafting this particular style.

Paglia’s showstopper, however, is her “Daddy” reading. Original, clever, and fascinatingly incestuous, Paglia envisions Plath’s signature poem as “a rollicking nursery rhyme recast as a horror movie”. Paglia not only narrates Plath’s insanity with a deft, Delphic grace, but she seems to fully comprehend the unconscious impulses surging in the poet. Why does Plath insert the grotesque German allusions and Eastern European vampire story in a poem about her relationship with her long dead father? Paglia’s explanation is an understanding of the poet’s morbid fantasies and lucid psychotics, which move faster than logical impulses or schema. It seems that she understands what it means when poets say what they write “when the spirit moves them”.

This book turned me on to poetry. With her fresh, unpretentious and uncoded language, vivid analyses and brilliant insights that come from years of contemplation and study, Paglia refreshes a form that will hopefully see more attention outside of the literary elite in coming years. Far from the days when poetry was something the youth were invested in as the embodiment of a sort of freedom of their ideals, Paglia aims to reawaken artists and general readers to their inheritance. Reading Break, Blow, Burn, I was reminded how quiet this book is, and yet how necessary. Paglia is still a divisive personality, with exclamatory statements that inflame in this hostile, PC atmosphere where everyone is offended by anything that ruffles some feathers. In an interview for Oasis magazine in 1996, Paglia described her methodology: “My specialty is essentially psychological interpretations of literature, art and culture … and that automatically upsets people.” In her “war against theory”, Break, Blow, Burn is a quiet accomplishment — it uses a spiritual voice to direct us to a beautiful inheritance, one that is being squandered by today’s issue-oriented curricula and academia’s cryptic, despiritualized deconstructions.