Break, Blow, Burn
by Camille Paglia
(Pantheon) $20

It won't surprise you to learn that Camille Paglia's new book is feisty. The target of her belligerence is the theory-obsessed academy, even though she states in the very first sentence of Break, Blow, Burn that "this book is intended for a general audience." The premise of the book is that Paglia chooses "43 of the world's best poems" and then writes short essays about them; she's trying to make poetry more accessible to the average reader. It's sad to think of all the innocent bystanders who'll suffer through rants about the alleged crimes of poststructuralism and the deafness of cultural studies (not to mention Walt Whitman's supposed "superiority" to queer theory, or whatever).

A good deal of the hot-pink volume is actually given over to poems--they're all reprinted in full--each accompanied by 2 to 10 pages of analysis. Paglia isn't dumb, and for the most part, she has a good command over the poetry. But her explications are plodding and unnecessarily elementary. It's rare to see her delve into even the most basic literary devices--alliteration, syntax, and so on. She's also bizarrely condescending. Unlike almost every modern editor of the older poems in the volume, she withholds annotations. This decision pretends to lead the reader into a direct encounter with the poems, when in fact it jealously guards Paglia's air of authority.

Also bizarre: It's as if Paglia can't bring herself to trust that her readers might enjoy poetry on its own terms. Throughout Break, Blow, Burn, she constantly compares poems to other, often lesser, art forms. Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 contains quatrains that are "like scenes from a play." So are stanzas from Donne's "The Flea" ("like scenes from a play"). A tableau from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 is "as crisply limned as in a late-medieval panel painting," and George Herbert's "The Quip" is (wait for it) like "late-medieval panel paintings by Duccio or Giotto." A sonnet by Wordsworth prefigures Impressionist paintings, while Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" anticipates Cubist collage. And then we have several poems that are so vivid they ascend to the rank of… movies. Shelly's "Ozymandias" may be "cinematic," but Yeats does him one better: His "The Second Coming" is "as cinematic as a silent film." (I'm still trying to figure that one out.) Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is "like a legal argument." Poor Emily Dickinson, not even good enough for the movies, has to be content with a poem "as compactly visualized as a screenplay."

Her habit of reiteration is even more irritating when she's repeating clichés. She correctly notes the trope of sand running through an hourglass in a George Herbert poem. But apropos of nothing in John Donne, she absurdly compares the body to "an hourglass through which our disintegrating flesh trickles like grains of sand." Worst of all is a misreading of the opening lines of Shakespeare's famous Sonnet 73, "That time of year thou mayest in me behold, / When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang." Writing about the "sporadic drift of leaves to earth," Paglia inserts the superfluous parenthetical: "like sands through an hourglass." Clearly, the most interesting thing about the aging motif in this sonnet is that it's not consistent and inexorable. The expected sequence--leaves, few, none--is inverted, and "none" precedes "few." This quiet reversal escapes Paglia entirely.

Paglia is better attuned to poets of the mid-20th century (though the poems in her book aren't dated--another ill-advised omission). Her essay on Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" is passionate and observant; it engages with Plath's coarse appropriation of Nazi imagery and her dubious literary legacy without undercutting the snarling, singsong power of the poem itself. Paglia is also superb with the teeming organic matter packed into two Theodore Roethke poems, though here she leans too heavily on biography to explain his thematic preoccupations.

In the last quarter of the book, when the preordained canon starts to blur and we must rely on Paglia's taste to grope out a spurious literary tradition, Break, Blow, Burn really trips up. The analysis is just as variable as in her previous essays, but the poems have weakened considerably. Her decision to anoint "A Mexican Guitar," out of all the poems by Frank O'Hara, seems to have been dictated more by its referential opacity (and therefore, Paglia's interpretive privilege) than its intrinsic value. The inclusion of anything at all by May Swenson is incomprehensible. And Paglia clearly thinks very highly of her own decision to write about the banal lyrics to Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," in her estimation "an important modern poem." There's nothing more depressing than a self-consciously radical move that turns out baby-boomer dull.