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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Break, Blow, Burn’ is Camille Paglia’s Close Reading, Explication of 43 Poems

Posted by kinchendavid on August 5, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen

Hinton, WV Camille Paglia’s “Break, Blow, Burn” (Pantheon, 272 pages, $20.00) is an anthology of 43 English language poems over the centuries, chosen by and explicated by one of the most eccentric and well known teacher/critic/academic celebrities around.

It’s definitely worth reading by anyone who loves poetry and wants to appreciate it even more – even if the omissions are enough to make a serious poetry lover cry out in anguish (more about that later).

Paglia, born to working class Italian immigrant parents in Endicott, NY in 1947, is not everyone’s glass of chianti, but I for one appreciate her defense of the New Criticism and line-by-line explication of text, especially in poetry. This is what I learned as an English major almost a decade before Paglia at a state university not unlike her alma mater, SUNY Binghamton.

Like her, I’m in love with the English language, a perfect language for poetry because of its sharp edges and contrasts between multiple vocabularies. English, like everything in this messy world, is a glorious mongrel of a language.

Be sure to give a “close reading” to the introduction to “Break, Blow, Burn,” because Paglia explains why she took the best elements of the New Criticism, combined it with her interpretations of psychology, anthropology, mythology and popular culture to create a unique perspective. Put it this way: There’s no one quite like Paglia!

She says that “the New Criticism, attuned to paradox and ambiguity, was a sophisticated system of interpretation that has never been surpassed as a pedagogical tool for helping novice as well as veteran readers to understand poetry.”

Camille Paglia

Unfortunately, as she points out in several biting paragraphs, if you’re an English major today, the chances are pretty good you’ll face “European post-structualism” – introduced like a cultural kudzu in the 1970s – creating a “disaster from which higher education has yet to recover.” This may be a bit over the top, but it’s vintage Paglia. I happen to agree with her assessment of most higher education literature departments as vast politicized wastelands.

To escape this, you’ll have to scope out a university, like the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where Paglia is on the faculty. If you can’t avoid the plague of poststructuralism, just buy Paglia’s book – now out in paperback – and educate yourself.

Like the eccentric Paglia herself, the choice of poets is idiosyncratic, bizarre, even, but a lot of fun.

Shakespeare, the English language’s greatest poet, is represented with a scene from “Hamlet,” Sonnet 73 and one of my favorites, Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,/ I all alone beweep my outcast state…” John Donne and George Herbert are among the Metaphysical poets represented. I looked in vain for John Milton, arguably up there with Shakespeare, but William Blake is here, as is Andrew Marvell. No Alexander Pope? Wordsworth and Coleridge are represented, but where’s John Keats, Byron and Percy Shelley? Come on, now, Camille!

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are represented, but no Tennyson, Byron or Hardy or Matthew Arnold (“Dover Beach” sends chills up and down my spine, which is what poetry is all about). William Butler Yeats is here, as is Wallace Stevens. Langston Hughes is represented by the superb “Jazzonia.” Robert Lowell is included, with “Man and Wife.”

Among the moderns are Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath with “Daddy” – 80 lines of the most evocative poetry in English or any other language; Frank O’Hara, William Carlos Williams, Wanda Coleman, Gary Snyder and Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, among several others.

I’m a big fan of Edward Arlington Robinson, but he’s not here, nor is Robinson Jeffers or T.S. Eliot. But it’s Paglia’s book and she must have reasons for leaving out some of my favorite poets.

Each of the 43 poems is printed in full, followed by an essay. The title comes from a line in Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV”: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God…and bend your force to break, blow, burn and make me anew.”

Rather than regretting the poets that aren’t included – did I mention Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound? – let’s treasure “Break, Blow, Burn” for the poems and the poets that are included.

If you’re new to poetry or want to look at it from a fresh perspective, “Break, Blow, Burn” is a worthy companion. Let’s hope Paglia follows up this book with a series of several more with more poets.

(Originially published on http://www.huntingtonnews.net on May 1, 2006)
Publisher’s web site: www.pantheonbooks.com

Author’s site: www.breakblowburn.com

A good site with links to 161 modern American poets: www.english.uiuc.edu/Maps/poets.htm

A good site explaining the New Criticism with reference to major texts by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren and others:


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