Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems is destined to become a landmark. In it, America's premier intellectual provocateur explores and celebrates a series of great poems of the Western tradition, including some surprising discoveries of her own. She brings new energy and insight to our understanding of poems we already know, such as masterpieces by Shakespeare, Donne, Shelley, Dickinson, Lowell, and Plath. She leads us to appreciate the artistry of writers with whom we may not be familiar, such as Chuck Wachtel and Wanda Coleman. And she hails the songwriter Joni Mitchell as a major contemporary poet.
Daring, erudite, entertaining, and infused throughout with Paglia's inimitable style and passion, this beautifully written book--and the dazzling mind behind it--will entice readers to begin or renew a passionate engagement with poetry.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
The still-vocal critic of Sexual Personae, a book that drew on poetry and painting for its de-deconstructions of gender, checks in with an anthology of 43 poems, along with her own close readings of them. Her introduction offers a jumble of justifications for undertaking such a project (though she is "unsure whether the West's chaotic personalism can prevail against the totalizing creeds that menace it," she hopes it will), but the readings themselves reveal Paglia's fascination with poetry, which she likens "to addiction or to the euphoria of being in love." The book's first half presents canonical work that Paglia has found "most successful in the classroom" (Shakespeare, Blake, Dickinson, etc.). The second features mostly canonical modernist and confessional work (Stevens, Williams, Toomer, Roethke and Plath), with a few more recent pieces. Clocking in mostly at two to four pages, Paglia's readings sound a lot like classroom preambles to discussion--offering background, lingering over provocative lines, venturing provisional interpretations. Some of what she says comes off as grandiose (Roethke's " 'Cuttings' is a regrounding of modern English poetry in lost agrarian universals"), some as boilerplate, some as inspired. Though hit-and-miss, Paglia's picks and appraisals provide the requisite spark for jump-starting returns to poetry. (Apr. 1)
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January 23, 2006
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Excerpt from Break, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day 5
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away;
Death's second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 10
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
The sonnet was a medieval form perfected by the Italian poet Petrarch, who was inspired by the courtly love tradition of southern France. From him, the fad of sonnet writing spread throughout Renaissance Europe. Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey introduced the sonnet to England, though the style they favored was highly artificial and ridden with "conceits," showy metaphors that became cliches. Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser restored Petrarch's uid lyricism to the sonnet. But it was Shakespeare who rescued an exhausted romantic genre and made it a supple instrument of searching self-analysis. By treating the sonnet as a freestanding poem rather than a unit in a sonnet sequence, Shakespeare revolutionized poetry in the same way that Donatello, liberating the statue from its medieval architectural niche, revolutionized sculpture.
No writer before Shakespeare had packed more into a sonnet or any other short poem. Sonnet 73 has a tremendous range of reference and a fineness of observed detail. Shakespeare's mobile eye prefigures the camera. Love, the sonnet's original raison d'etre, recedes for a melancholy survey of the human condition. The poem is interested less in individual suffering than in the relationship of microcosm to macrocosm--mankind's interconnection with nature.
Structurally, Sonnet 73 follows Surrey's format. In the Italian sonnet adapted by Wyatt, fourteen lines were divided into two quatrains (a quatrain is a set of four lines) and a sestet (six lines). The Elizabethan sonnet, afterward called the Shakespearean, used three quatrains and a couplet--two lines with the bite of an epigram. Shakespeare treats the three quatrains in Sonnet 73 like scenes from a play: each has its guiding metaphor, a variation on the main theme. These metaphors split off, in turn, into subordinate metaphors, to end each quatrain with a witty ourish. The insertion of "in me" to start each quatrain gives the poem immediacy and urgency and encourages us, whether justified or not, in identifying the speaker with the poet (1, 5, 9). The regular repetition of that phrase makes us hear and feel the poem's triple structure. "In me" operates like a stage cue, prompting the entrance of each metaphor from the wings.
In the first quatrain, man's life is compared to a "year" in a northern climate of dramatically changing seasons. The aging poet pinpoints his location on life's spectrum as the transition from maturity to old age, when autumn shifts to winter. The opening metaphor of "time" yields to a bleak image of man's body as a tree: the bare "boughs" shaken by the "cold" wind are like the weak limbs of an elderly man, trembling with fear at approaching death (1-3). The branches tossed and outlined against the sky resemble the imploring arms of victims trying to escape fate. It's as if man is crucified on his own frail body. Scattered "yellow leaves" clinging to the branches evoke other afictions and losses of age, such as fading, thinning hair (an issue for Shakespeare, if our one portrait of him is accurate). The sporadic drift of leaves to earth (like sands through an hourglass) is re-created in the hesitant, tapping rhythm: "yellow leaves, or none, or few." Core energy is tapering off.
As the quatrain ends, the ravaged, skeletal tree melts into a broken building (4). The "bare ruined choirs" belong to a medieval abbey, like those destroyed a half century earlier by Henry VIII when the Church of England seceded from Rome. The picturesque scene evokes a vanished civilization, now reclaimed by nature. So too, Shakespeare implies, do all human efforts end. The "sweet birds" who "late" (lately) sang from the trees but have now ed south recall the boy choirs who once filled the chapel with music. ("Choir" is also the area of a church where services are held.) The waning of song suggests that poetry came more easily to the young Shakespeare than it does now. The "bare ruined choirs" may also obliquely refer to the theaters where his career once ourished (and which were vulnerable to
re as well as closure by city authorities).