Aug 202005

Camille Paglia very likely agrees with Woody Allen that 80% of life is showing up. Author, teacher, scholar, advice columnist, courageous defier of contemporary orthodoxies left and right, tireless propagandist for the rapist within, and so much more, Paglia doesn’t just show up, she never goes away.

As for the nature of this prodigious output, we have Sexual Personae; Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art; Sex, Art and American Culture; Sex in New York City: An Illustrated History; Madonna Megastar; Sex and the Single Professor. Can anyone find the pattern here?

Still, Paglia must weary of a single subject, and in Break, Blow, Burn she has ventured into poetry. The book is a “close reading” of 43 short poems ranging in time from Shakespeare to the present. One might think that so busy a woman as Paglia wouldn’t have time to learn anything about poetry. She doesn’t.

I am prepared to absolve her of much of the criticism of Break, Blow, Burn, which has been directed toward her selection. Supposing that Paglia thought these the greatest 43 poems in English — and she nowhere makes such a claim — her 43 would inevitably differ from yours or mine. Shakespeare, Donne, George Herbert, Dickinson, and Roethke have three poems each; Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, Stevens, and W.C. Williams two apiece. The warhorses — “The World is Too Much with Us,” “Westminster Bridge,” “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “Song of Myself” — are out in force, but leavened with a few excellent and lesser-known choices, like George Herbert’s “Church Monuments” and Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their alabaster chambers.” The inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s pallid “Woodstock” has occasioned grumbling, but rock lyrics are what mostly passes for poetry nowadays, and it is by no means the worst poem in the book.

I am willing to overlook her tasteless attempts at relevance and titillation. (I remember reading a passage from Vamps and Tramps in praise of the “Dionysian” Rolling Stones and thinking, Whoa. The Stones. How cool is that?) She wants to use “Leda and the Swan” as an excuse to talk about swan penises? OK. She wants to characterize the worms in “To His Coy Mistress” as “gang rapists,” or the relationship between Hamlet’s father and Claudius as “male-on-male rape”? Fine. She wants to call Sylvia Plath “the first female rocker”? All right. You’ve opened a Paglia book and this is the price of admission.

What I cannot forgive is the violence she does to the poems themselves. Poetry achieves its effects through the relationship between sound and sense, and to elucidate them requires technical analysis. You have to read carefully and you have to know something. Zero for two, you may want to consider another line of work.

On Herbert’s “Church Monuments” she essays this remarkable passage:

The memento mori takes the form of an hourglass with the curvilinear silhouette of the human body: “That flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust / That measures all our time; which also shall / Be crumbled into dust.” As the sands flow through the hourglass, Herbert makes us hear and feel faint, regular pulses (like a water clock) on the words “flesh,” “glasse,” “dust,” and “time.” Then, with the end of time, the hourglass wobbles and tumbles off the end of one line onto the next, where it smashes to powder.

….The poem is in fact structured like a fall — a formal cascade like Baroque fountain: Herbert ignores the stanza breaks and lets his sentences spill over the gap. The effect is refreshing, like soft rain dribbling off a roof. The poem’s playful, soothing rhythms distance its unsettling imagery of death and decay.

From the top: the body as an hourglass is a commonplace of the English Renaissance. It is not intended to be visualized; such resemblance as exists applies only to women, in the best case, and is irrelevant in this poem. The quoted lines sound nothing like a water clock (in part because water clocks don’t make noise). They derive their effect from variation: the heavy accents on “glasse,” “dust,” “time,” and “dust” again, come after six syllables, then four, then six, and finally ten. The famous last line of Greville’s elegy on Sidney produces a similar effect: “Salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind.”

Assuming the hourglass were involved, “smash” would be a singularly inappropriate verb for a poem about dissolution. But the antecedent of “which also shall be crumbled into dust” is “all our time,” not the hourglass. The thought of time itself dissolving gives this passage much of its concentration and power.

It would be difficult for a poet to “ignore” his own stanza breaks, but in any case Herbert published the poem without them; later editors added them to clarify the rhyme scheme. Yes, the stanzas are all enjambed, but the most violent enjambment of all, on which Paglia does not see fit to comment, comes mid-stanza, in the very passage she quotes, between “shall” and “be,” which splits a verb phrase and emphasizes the utter finality of the end of all things.

The rhythms in this passage, and throughout the poem, are as far from “refreshing” or “playful” or “soothing” as can be imagined, as any moderately sensitive reader can hear for himself. (Not that rain dribbling off a roof is too refreshing either, unless you’re thirsty.) Herbert does not try to “distance” his reader from death and decay; quite the contrary. His rhythms emphasize the grimness of his subject in the most effective possible way.

Donne’s “Holy Sonnet I,” though a fine poem, is metrically undistinguished in every respect. Of line 13:

Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art

Paglia writes: “Rapid, darting rhythms capture the dove’s flight as it swoops in to ‘wing’ the poet’s soul to safety.” Never mind that she invents the dove: Donne is rarely rapid, and never darting, and this line is among the statelier in the history of English literature. In each of the first three feet the unaccented syllable is longer than the accented, which slows and flattens the line. The awkward juxtaposition of a dental and a glottal in the second and third feet slows it further. How much of this is accidental, Donne being Donne, is a nice question. For “darting rhythms” try his contemporaries Campion or Greene or Peele. They are all inferior to Donne as poets but incomparably superior as metrists.

W.C. Williams, a master of tiny sound effects, she simply does not understand. The miracle of “The Red Wheelbarrow” has nothing to do with the fact that the stanzas look like wheelbarrows, though I suppose they do. It is the contrast between the red of the beginning and the white of the end, and the echoing vowel sounds, long long short, in the lines “glazed with rain / water” and “beside the white / chickens”. Paglia proceeds to claim that “This Is Just to Say” resembles an icebox, crossing over from irrelevance into absurdity. The rhythms of the poem are not “halting”; the feet vary widely, and often inversely, in length and speed, which is essential in good free verse. You can hear it especially in the two lines “they were delicious / so sweet”, where the two-syllable foot is slower than the five-syllable one.

The narrator of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” according to Paglia, “shares [Blake’s chimney] sweep’s dangerous naivete: both are cheerful, chatty innocents who meet but never comprehend the dark forces at work in the world.” There is nothing “chatty” or “sing-song” about the first stanza; its diction is exact, and “kindly,” on which she places so much emphasis, is intended ironically. The narrator shows the same intelligence from beginning to end. It is not the “Or rather” at the beginning of the fourth stanza that provokes “the hesitation or stutter”; it is the fact that Dickinson inverts her usual hymn meter of four feet followed by three to three followed by four. The line “the dews grew quivering and chill” does not involve metonymy, which is not adequately defined as “rhetorical displacement.” Paglia’s aside about “Dickinson’s archaic, Anglo-Saxon capitalizations (which were condescendingly ‘corrected’ and removed in the first posthumous collections of her work)” is a slur on Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Bianchi, who displayed more sensibility in editing her poems than her later editor Johnson did and far more than Paglia does in explicating them. (One of Todd’s greatest sins as an editor, as Paglia fails to note, was to omit the fourth stanza of this very poem. The stanza itself is bad, but integral, and it is a close judgment whether the poem is better without it.)

Wallace Stevens bears most of the brunt of her frequent abuse of biography. Often she confuses the narrator with the poet, in the traditional freshman manner. Paglia lets drop that Stevens’ wife appears in “Sunday Morning,” from which I have been unable to discern, after several dozen readings, that the man was even married. Of Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” she remarks: “The note was evidently written overnight, while the rest of the family was asleep.” Evidently: and “My Last Duchess” was evidently written by a murdering medieval duke, A.E. Housman evidently survived countless suicides to become a famous classics scholar in middle age, and as for “Piazza Piece,” I bet you had no idea that Death writes poetry and wears dustcoats. One might excuse Paglia on the grounds that the “note” that the poem purports to be is not the same as the poem itself. Unfortunately she adopts a similar technique throughout, reproducing, for instance, a speech from Hamlet’s father’s ghost as a self-contained poem and discussing it as if it were in Shakespeare’s person.

Arriving at “Anecdote of the Jar,” Paglia takes flight:

In style, the jar more resembles an earthenware pot than a polished vase on a pedestal. It rejects the elite standards of uniqueness and perfection of the European “masterpiece.” Stevens was born and raised in Reading in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where home produce was “put up” in ceramic crocks or glass canning jars and where farmers’ markets still abound. The region borders on West Virginia, just over the Mason-Dixon Line, through which the Appalachian mountain chain drops to Kentucky and Tennessee. Hence Stevens’s Tennessee jar, with its dollops of canned or sampled nature, may also be a jug for moonshine (fiery corn whiskey), that staple of the Southern underground economy… Behind his respectable facade in Hartford, perhaps Stevens in his secluded hours of poetry thought of himself as running a secret still on his own mount of the Muses.

Obliged though I am to Paglia for the definition of “moonshine,” that’s only one kind. This passage is another. It is known, in the argot of literary criticism, as making shit up. The reader may be pardoned for having forgotten in all the hubbub that all we know about the jar is that it’s “round upon the ground,” “gray and bare,” and “tall and of a port in air.” About the “secret still” the less said the better.

Everything Paglia writes about “Anecdote of the Jar” is wrong, including “and” and “the.” “This cryptic poem is about art making,” she says. It is not. It is about Stevens’ single subject, the sterility of the human intellect, represented by the jar, and the consequent necessity of hedonism. This might have occurred to her had she spent more time reading his poetry and less fantasizing about his private life. “Without human framing nature remains ‘a slovenly wilderness,’ a primeval chaos.” No again, as lines 3 (“It [the jar] made the slovenly wilderness”) and 6 (“It [the wilderness] sprawled around, no longer wild.”) make clear. (Italics mine.) Anyone who has come upon a wild scene that looks pristine at first and then spotted a piece of trash will appreciate what Stevens means. The jar makes the mess, which is why it is “gray and bare” and “did not give of bird or bush.” These details are indeed “inscrutable and intractable” when you have the poem backwards from the get-go. It is only fair to point out that most of the Stevens specialists don’t understand it either.

Blake’s “London” she treats as a catalog of the evils of the Industrial Revolution, which makes a hash of “in every ban/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” and which would have outraged its author. To interpret the “marriage hearse” as the spread of venereal disease is not only contrary to the author’s intent but illogical. Syphilitic prostitutes may blight marriages with plagues, but why “the marriage hearse”? Blake is pleading, as usual, in favor of anarchy and against law and civil society in every form. This is the man who wrote “damn braces, bless relaxes.”

I will not revisit my little dust-up about “Ozymandias” here. Suffice it to say that my severest critics and I would agree that, whatever the merits of the poem, it decidedly does not “wipe out history and humanity in a godless apocalypse that prefigures modern nihilism.” Shelley was as firm a believer in human progress as anyone this side of Robert Wright. In “Ozymandias” it is the tyrants who perish. This is a good thing.

I think I’ll buy a copy of Madonna Megastar. I hear it’s a picture book.