When Camille Paglia first strutted onto the scene in 1991 with her polemical tome Sexual Personae, her smart, audacious duels with orthodoxy and militancy on both the left and the right were a tonic. Against highly theoretical academic feminists comfortable in their privileged aeries, she cited the experience of working-class women, and also just plain, ordinary struggling women who were unprotected by tenure and by the sealed borders of a campus. In response to the conservatives who sought to woo her, she flaunted her bisexuality and her love of gay style and camp. In response to the multiculturalists who dreamed of bringing into the “canon” comic books and television sitcoms–thus making it possible for comic books and television to also bear the stigma of “homework”–she defended the virtues of classic literature. But when the conservatives came calling again with their Great Books boosterism, she blasted them with her ardor for rock and roll.
Feminist martinets? Paglia zapped them with paeans to pornography, prostitution and the thrill of raw, heterosexual sex. Conservative prigs? She zinged them with hymns to Robert Mapplethorpe and to gay male porn, and to the superiority of gay male sex. Lesbians? Well, she didn’t really like them, but she loved having sex with women, just in case you underestimated her antagonism toward the idea of “normalcy.” And so it went.
Like all styles of radical will, it eventually got tiresome. “Attacking the stale orthodoxies of both left and right” has itself become a stale intellectual franchise, a contrarian orthodoxy. You can be left, and you can be (I guess) right without being stalely orthodox. The “issues” Paglia was railing against were a lot less well defined beyond the parochial realm in which she debated them. Campus campaigns against free speech, a university’s attempts to police the nebulous zone of sex and dating–such trends seemed sensationally oppressive inside the claustrophobic space of the university, and in the hungry eyes of op-ed page editors, book publishers and television producers.
But standing outside the university and looking in yielded a different perspective. People, especially young people, really were feeling more vulnerable. Self-esteem really was a vital psychic quality worth talking about. Society was changing. Commercially fabricated permissiveness was not the same thing as genuine human freedom, and people hadn’t yet developed–we still haven’t–new defenses against new types of injury created by the marketplace. So younger people were looking for new ideas and new sentiments that would help them become persons, or simply to help them survive. Naturally there were going to be outrageous excesses, careerist hangers-on, charismatic charlatans along the way. That’s the price of progress.
Considered in this broader social context, Paglia’s Emersonian pronouncements on the inestimable value of the individual began to sound as adolescent as Emerson at his most solipsistic. And celebrity started exacting its usual toll on Paglia in the form of self-exaggeration and self-parody. The thoughtful gadfly became a performing gabfly; her provocations declined into insults; her once-gratifying affirmations of individuality, imagination and incalculable experience began to sound like playground shouts of Look at Me. Paglia’s vituperative ranting against hate-speech laws now seemed like arguments for why they should exist. She seemed to be precisely the kind of old-fashioned bully who had given rise to the new fragility and its search for protection, and for its own sources of power.
Worst of all was Paglia’s self-consciousness as a media personality. After a while, she was no longer taking positions in response to principles or ideas, but in response to her own positions. Her extreme rhetoric concealed a cautious tailoring of her image. For every step leftward, she had to take a step rightward; for every transgressive gesture she had to make a concession to middle-class mores, for every step down to pop culture, she had to step up to some exaltation of artistic greatness. It was like doing the last tango in Paris all by yourself, on The Charlie Rose Show. Shaped by the issues, Paglia reached the point where she could only express herself in the categorical language of the issues. As the issues that launched her career as a public intellectual gave way to different ones that were outside her arena of expertise, she receded from public view.
Until now. With her new book, Paglia has found a new emergency in American life. As if an unnecessary war, a sinking economy, a widening gulf between classes, a rampant commercialism like acid on the brain weren’t bad enough, America is now experiencing a crisis in…poetry. Resurrecting the patented alarmist language of Allan Bloom and all those culture warriors who marched across our television screens in the late 1980s and ’90s–and in doing so created a cultural distraction while the right wing stole American politics–Paglia has exhumed a dead herring. She declares that “poetry was at the height of prestige in the 1960s. American college students were listening to rock music but also writing poetry.” She attended lots of poetry readings back then. However, “over the following decades, poetry and poetry study were steadily marginalized by pretentious ‘theory.'”
Now Paglia finds “too much work by the most acclaimed poets labored, affected, and verbose, intended not to communicate with the general audience but to impress their fellow poets. Poetic language has become stale and derivative.” She is “shocked at how weak individual poems have become over the past forty years.” Poets today “have lost ambition and no longer believe they can or should speak for their era.” This situation is particularly dire because “at this time of foreboding about the future of Western culture, it is crucial to identify and preserve our finest artifacts.” And you thought only our “democracy” was under attack! No, they want our Norton anthologies, too. If they hit us again, how shall we fight them, now that our poetic language has become “stale and derivative”? Of what use against their bombs will our sagging synecdoches be? If only Grumman made fresh metaphors, too…
The best way to think about an alarmist book like this one is, first, to try to figure out who might want to read it. The only people who truly care about the fate of poetry are the small, rarefied group of devotees who write and/or avidly read poetry. Needless to say, they are not Paglia’s audience, since the last thing that would attract their interest–or their respect–is an elementary, and exceedingly banal, primer on how to read a handful of poems from the distant to the recent past. And how such reading exercises would help genuine poets replenish their language defies comprehension.
Writers and lovers of poetry would be aware, too, that the situation Paglia is describing is a figment of her publicity-deprived imagination. For one thing, her golden age of the 1960s, far more than our own moment, shook with mandarin anxiety that poetry, and high culture in general, was being snuffed out by the counterculture. For another, if a “crisis” exists in poetry, it’s the same trying circumstances that prevail in the world of art in general. We live in a prosperous society that offers plenty of free time for the coddled children of the middle and upper-middle class (and beyond), a society where there are more college-educated people than at any time in modern history. And so there are now more people than at any time in human history who are, understandably, seeking to escape the primordial curse of uncreative human labor by–usually thanks to their parents’ financial support–trying to make various kinds of art.
The result is an expanded market, a huge inflation of artistic output, and a sharp intensification of competition. There are probably no fewer worthwhile poems, novels and paintings now being made by gifted people than there ever were. But there’s a vast increase in desperate, ego-driven shit, of which Paglia’s book happens to be a good example. Overproduction makes it harder for good work to get noticed, and thus harder to find. And because the old aesthetic criteria have been relativized–or marginalized–by new conditions that we can barely understand or articulate, it’s also more difficult to recognize real art when we do see it.
If Paglia’s book isn’t for anyone who has a stake in the future of poetry, who is it for? It’s for educated people who want to feel better about not being as interested in poetry as they’ve been told educated people should be. Paglia belongs to that group of critics who learned long ago how to satisfy the vanity of smart, culturally credentialed people who either no longer have the time to read or who, for one reason or another, are not drawn to high culture–in this case, poetry. You tell such people in wry, ironic, cultured tones that there’s no longer anything worth reading. In this way, you reassure them that the classics they read in college, and perhaps graduate school, are all they need to know. You inform them of all this under the aspect of a “crisis.” That way, you give them an occasion to substitute moral indignation for intellectual absorption; you enable them to indulge the illusion of experiencing an “issue” of high culture as though they were experiencing the real thing. America must be the only country in the world where moral indignation has become an established intellectual style.
The irony of Break, Blow, Burn is that Paglia, the great defender of art against ideology and against tendentious multicultural agendas, drags just about every poem in this book–from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” a poem of sorts–into the realm of noisy, issue-driven debate. No wonder Auden is inexcusably absent from this slim selection. He famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Paglia, by contrast, seems to think of poetry as a higher form of punditry, exhorting poets to “remember their calling and take stage again.” But she’s confusing her fantasy of poetry’s purpose with her own purpose in publishing this book, which is to re-create the kind of controversy that made her a celebrity. Nearly all the poems she’s chosen are sonnets or lyric poems. Neither sonnets nor lyric poems are meant to speak for their era. Few poets feel obligated to do so in any form.
But Paglia has to make her poets sound as big, world-historical and urgent as she herself aspires to be. One consequence of this willfulness is to make Blake, Wordsworth and Shelley sound like The McLaughlin Group. The other is to offer horrible, bombastic misreadings of the poems Paglia has chosen. Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” about the broken ruins of a tyrant’s monument to his power, “wipes out history and humanity in a godless apocalypse that prefigures modern nihilism.” Cool. But in fact, Shelley was an optimist who wrote poems suffused with faith in human progress. That’s not a matter of perspective but a verifiable biographical fact borne out by everything Shelley ever wrote. “Ozymandias” is about the vanity of power, especially abusive power. That nothing remains, in the sands of time, of the “sneer of cold command” on the dictator’s sculpted face is cause for hope, not nihilistic despair.
In her quest for relevance and urgency (an impulse she oddly shares with the student radicals she once berated for wanting to read contemporary black authors instead of “dead white males”), Paglia loads onto her readings the kind of submarine-sandwich-like Big Ideas with which college freshmen pad the final-exam essays they never studied for. In Break, Blow, Burn, these are often the same ideas applied to very different poets. William Carlos Williams’s tiny gem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” she says, “represents a stable agrarian society that was already slipping away when the poem was written.” Theodore Roethke’s “Cuttings” “is a regrounding of modern English poetry in lost agrarian universals.” Wordsworth was responding to “the go-go commercialism of industrial England.” Decades later, and across the ocean, Whitman was responding to “a go-go era of industrialization.” From the farm to the factory–going, going…go-go!
With Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” Paglia outdoes herself. This stunningly powerful but small lyric poem–its subject is Zeus’s violation and impregnation of a mortal girl to whom he appears in the form of a swan–“can justifiably be considered the greatest poem of the twentieth century.” If that’s not enough to make you never want to read it, Paglia projects onto Yeats her own pundit ambitions. She makes him sound like an editorial writer. “In Yeats’ version [of the myth], womanizing is not a titillating sport but a ruthless expression of the will to power.” But Yeats describes the omnipotent swan in exalted terms: His phallus is a “feathered glory”; his aspect a “white rush”; the poet wonders whether the girl can feel “the strange heart beating.”
Could Paglia, the great scourge of feminist literature professors, be trying to attract precisely their constituency, who, after all, are committed buyers of books that speak to their political concerns? Or is she simply appealing to the masses of easily titillated college kids: “male swans (cobs) do have a small retractable penis.” Titillation is one of Paglia’s trustiest tools. Consider the passage she reproduces from Hamlet, in which Hamlet’s father’s ghost describes his murder at the hands of his brother, Claudius–a passage that Paglia includes as a self-contained poem, in this way confusing a poem’s complete consciousness with a playwright’s contrivance of consciousness in the form of character. For Paglia, what’s really going on between the ghost and his treacherous sibling is an incestuous “male-on-male rape.” Paglia likes to kick up a stir with the word “rape.” John Donne believed, she proclaims, that “we will never be pure until we are abducted and raped by God.” In Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” the “worms” that the poet imagines will accost his beloved when she is dead and buried are, in Paglia’s reading, “gang rapists.”
There is a sort of ingenious pandering in this book, a pandering alarmism. It’s on flagrant display not just in Paglia’s crudely forced sexual analogies, or in her post-9/11 lingo (in “To His Coy Mistress” “the poet turns terrorist”). It’s in the way she keeps comparing her poems to movies as if to a higher mode of creative expression, thus reassuring readers that not only can they relax about their lack of interest in poetry, they can also stop feeling guilty about spending more time in front of the tube or the silver screen than with a “great” poem. For Paglia, it seems that the ultimate praise for the poems she’s chosen is that they are either precursors to film, or film-like. “Shakespeare’s mobile eye prefigures the camera.” Shakespeare’s “Gothic” style “would in turn engender modern horror films.” Marvell’s poem is “a vivid, cinematic fantasy.” “Ozymandias” is “prophetically cinematic.” (But, then, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 is “prophetically avant-garde.”) Not only that, but “Shelley’s technique resembles that of the motion picture camera.” Yeats’s “Second Coming” has an “effect…as cinematic as a silent film,” and its conclusion is a “horror movie finale.” Plath’s “Daddy” “is a rollicking nursery rhyme recast as a horror movie.”
To invoke two other writers from the past, Paglia used to come on like Byron; now she is like some cynical version of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, trampling on her very own standards, stooping as low as she can go in order to get a second helping of attention from the public that has forgotten her. But bullies always end up being reduced to their inner weakling. It’s called poetic justice.