Break, Blow, Burn

Break, Blow, BurnBreak, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Five star books for me are books that on some level reshape my thinking or become a part of my psyche and intellect on a seminal level. They also are books that I constantly find myself coming back to over and over again. This one fits the bill. I’ve used essays from this book with my AP classes as examples of what close reading and rhetorical analysis looks like when done by a master, and I dip into these essays anytime my latent love of poetry needs reviving. Paglia rescues poetry from the hordes of postmodern/poststructuralist/deconstructionist academics who with their pitchforks and torches have strung up and brutalized so many classic texts with their tortured criticism or who have just flat out dismissed them because these texts no longer fit into whatever cultural hobby-horse they are currently riding. Paglia is a brilliant close reader who just loves poetry and that comes across in every single one of these 43 essays.

Her readings of the metaphysical poets Donne and Hebert are flat out brilliant. Paglia is able to point out the beauty, complexity, and subtle juxtapositions that crop up in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, especially his use of the language of courtship and wooing that Petrarch used in his love poetry and show how Donne transposes that same language onto his experience of Christ. Donne casts himself in the role of submissive lover who wants to be ravished by Christ (“Holy Sonnet XIV”). And what I find even more refreshing is how an atheist like Paglia can read sacred poetry and be fluent in the language, symbolism, and mythology of Christianity without being dismissive of it. In fact, she reads poetry with reverence, as though the reading and writing of poetry is itself an expression of divinity. Her readings add depth and detail to these poems that I’d never quite considered before. Her unpacking of Donne’s use of “Adamant” at the end of “Holy Sonnet I” is just one example. She notes how the word “marks the spot where the quester, a tainted heir of old Adam, sees the face of God” and “is drawn towards [His] adamantine touch, which turns iron into spiritual gold” (29). She notes not only the symbolic use of the term, how Donne plays off the idea of Adam as the first man and Christ as the last Adam, but also its physical location within the poem. It’s just awesome. Her readings of Herbert’s sacred poetry are equally impressive and eye-opening. Paglia has no problem celebrating the greats of Western poetry.

Paglia works her way through Western poetry beginning with Shakespeare, touching on the Metaphysical poets and then Romantics like Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Blake. Next she crosses the pond and offers some brilliant takes on Whitman and Dickinson (I wait with bated breath for Paglia to write an entire book dedicated to unraveling Dickinson), and then switches gears a bit to focus on some moderns like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Theodore Roethke; Harlem Renaissance poets like Toomer and Hughes; and confessional poets Lowell and Plath. Interestingly, she ends with Joni Mitchel’s “Woodstock” as homage to the death and unrealized longing of the hippie generation. In her essays Western poetry becomes one continual conversation that responds to and feeds off those that come before. It’s like Whitman’s lines in “Oh Me! Oh My!” come to fruition: “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Each poet here contributes their verses in this eternal conversation of “life and identity.”

And I have to admit that I get a kick out of her not-so-subtle digs at feminist academics and over-anxious PC types. In her absolutely fabulous essay on Plath’s “Daddy,” she says with gusto: “Some Plath disciples seem to think that a litany of grievances, accompanied by sullen mutterings about patriarchy, is enough to make a poem,” and then she goes on to point out how Plath marinated herself in great male writers and had a “studious approach to writing” (176).  And Blackburn’s awesome poem “The Once-Over” that feminist critics like to interpret as an example of the violent male gaze is rightfully shown instead to illustrate how “it’s not she, but the men who are being ‘assaulted’ or invaded; their longing gaze proves their pitiable weakness, not (as feminists would later claim) their oppressive power” (189). Paglia is a powerful and bold reader and she isn’t afraid to fly in the face of current academic and social orthodoxy, which accounts for all of those old professors of mine (and current Social Justice Warriors) who hate her.

This book reminds me why I have basically given up on politics. It’s myopic, it’s unsatisfying, and in the end, it’s transitory. In her reading of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (a poem that I can’t read without Walter White’s voice in my head now) she points out how “Art is long; politics short” (74). In the end, all of our great monuments will be buried under sand like Shelley’s colossus, and only the words will remain. For me, I’d rather take part in a conversation that crosses millennia instead of getting mired down in the current details of our ridiculous age. This too shall pass, but poetry will live on.

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