Poetry's Plum Gone to Hell
Break, Blow, Burn
by Camille Paglia
"What is the use of writing about books?" asked America's greatest poet, "excepting so far as to give information to those who cannot get the books themselves?" I had better confess up front that I am of the same mind as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and that what goes for books in general goes twice over for poetry. I love to read it, but I don't much want to read about it. Break, Blow, Burn therefore fell on stony ground here.
I don't say this with any pleasure, as persons I trust have for years been telling me that the celebrated professor Camille Paglia is, on balance, a Good Thing. But I'm sorry to report that her book bored me rigid.
Break, Blow, Burn is a collection of 43 poems by 28 poets, with commentary following each poem. It is intended, the author tells us, for "a general audience." The poems are short and the commentaries mostly less than four pages.
Only English-language poets are included. I applaud her choice: poetry in, or from, other people's languages has no place in an enterprise of this sort. In fact, of the 20 post-Samuel Coleridge poets she has chosen, 18 are American, the exceptions being Ireland's W.B. Yeats and Canada's Joni Mitchell.
The strongest impression I came away with from this book was of the sheer beggared awfulness of modern American poetry. It is simply no good. That is why nobody quotes it, and nobody outside the academy reads it. I do a fair amount of socializing with decently well-educated Americans, and can clearly recall the last three instances in which someone quoted verse at me unprompted, at couplet length or longer. The poets quoted were Kipling, Kipling and Poe.
It is, for example, hard to see why anyone would bother to memorize, or even just remember, the opening lines of "This Is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams:
I have eaten
that were in
Perhaps I am missing something. Perhaps Williams' poem has hidden depths. What does Paglia say?
At one level the succulent, fleshy fruit is a makeshift proxy for the opulent female form. The first stanza takes us backward into the dark recesses of the icebox, where the plums nest like eggs … the "delicious" fruitiness of the final images has the tactile lushness of a kiss.
Uh-huh. All of Paglia's commentaries are like this: fantastic extrapolations and plonking symbolism, usually of a succulent, fleshy nature, utterly humorless and reeking of estrogen.
Theodore Roethke's "The Visitant" ends, she tells us, "with an aching sense of men's incompletion, their anguished separation from the maternal body, to which they vainly try to reconnect through the deceptive medium of sex." In Gary Snyder's "Old Pond": "the bird is the unembellished voice of nature itself — Snyder's modest, flute-like substitute for the authoritarian boom of the Judeo-Christian God." And here we are on "Kubla Khan": "If Coleridge is thinking of the cleft or gorge as vulval, then his 'mighty fountain' forced up by the earth with 'fast thick pants' is blatantly ejaculatory."
Reading this book was like flipping through one of those pretentious, absurd catalogs you get when visiting an exhibition of the sillier kind of fashionable art. I even had a fleeting suspicion that the whole thing might be a spoof — a send-up of ponderous academic over-interpretation. No, the author is in earnest. Paglia has opened a window into the precious, self-referential little world of literary theorizing.
For this poetry lover, it was a glimpse of Hell. And what is burning in that hell is our poetry, for a thousand years the greatest glory of the English-speaking people, but now dead, smothered under the horrid rotten mass of literary academicism. We must have done something very terrible to have our birthright taken from us, to see it suffocated in dust like this.