The Hubba-Bubba pink cover art on her new book notwithstanding, Camille Paglia is courting a lower profile these days. "Oscar Wilde was a huge influence on me," says the 58-year-old firebrand on a recent Thursday at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught for two decades. "He believed in the strong critic, and I've done that. I'm there in most of my books-boy, am I there. With Break, Blow, Burn, however, I tried to make myself as invisible as possible."
It might sound like an odd statement coming from the author of Sexual Personae, which put its stiletto heel on the throat of mainstream feminists and kept it there for much of the '90s. But Paglia insists she's not showing a kinder, gentler side, or making nice. After all, "thanks to Madonna," she says, "the whole pro-sex wing of feminism, which had been ostracized since the '60s, came back with a vengeance. And we won. We won massively. Now, Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, you hardly see their names anywhere."
No, by her estimates those battles are now border skirmishes. What Paglia wants to do next is get Americans to read poetry again. And so we have Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads 43 of the World's Best Poems, in which Paglia has put down her Molotov cocktails and picked up the lyre to sing the praises of 43 poems, ranging from Shakespeare and Wordsworth to Sylvia Plath and Gary Snyder. An essay follows each poem, explaining the poet's significance and describing what's interesting, unique and, yes, pleasure-giving about the poem.
During a recent all-day snowstorm in Philadelphia, Paglia talked about what makes a good poem, and why she feels compelled to rescue poetry.
CityBeat: In the beginning, you wrote about decadence in art; now you're writing about poetry. Sad to say, it seems like both are just obscure in our culture today.
Camille Paglia: As I wrote this book, I encountered so many people in the publishing world, in magazines, who said to me, you know, "I always keep up with the new novels, but not poetry." These are really literary people, and even they feel poetry no longer speaks to them.
Why do you think poetry has become so ostracized?
Thanks to 25 years of post-structuralism in our elite colleges, we have this idea now that you are supposed to use your pseudo-sociological critical eye to look down on the work and find everything that's wrong with it: the racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism. This style of teaching just nips students' enthusiasm in the bud.
And you're trying to combat that by saying you can have a kind of secular rapture by reading poetry?
Yes, and trying to bring the fun back in it. The child-like pleasure principle is crucial to approaching art. If you don't approach art like that, then you don't know anything about how it's made.
Do you think poets are to blame for how hard it's become to relate to their work as well?
I place some of the blame there, yes. Poets who had a big impact on me in the '60s were beatniks-these folks who got drunk and messed around and were hobos and eccentrics. But then as colleges began to have more of these creative-writing programs, poets retreated to a world of their own. They became more and more insular, and their world became more and more professionalized.
I was a bit surprised you were a Charles Bukowski fan. Did you try to sneak one into this book?
I searched and searched for the right Bukowski poem. But I couldn't find it. I found a lot of poems where there is great stuff in the poem, but no truly great poem.
It seems like spontaneity-or at least the impression of spontaneity-is really important to you in poetry.
That what's missing from our literary life now, is people seeing with open eyes-you know, trusting your instinct, trusting your feelings, opening your eyes.
Frank O'Hara is great for that. You get the sense that every hour of his day was a poem.
Yes, the poem of his that almost made it in the book was the one he wrote on his way to a poetry event in Staten Island after reading the headline "Lana Turner has Collapsed." So he gets there, I forget which poet was there, I think it was Robert Lowell, some stodgy established poet who was reading his work, and then Frank O'Hara gets up and says, "I just wrote this on the ferry," and read it and apparently morally offended the other poet. I love that. In fact, the other week I turned on my computer and read the headline "Hilary Clinton has Collapsed," I thought, Ah, Frank O'Hara would have loved this!
Did you do any research for this book? It seems like its one thing to really like a poem; it's quite another to convey that enthusiasm without deadening the work.
When I first started it, my editor asked me, "How long do you think it will take you to do this book?" And I said, "Oh, just a couple of months, I've been doing this for 30 years. I just have to write down what I've been doing in the classroom." Then I hit a wall. I realized that when I am in the classroom, everybody has the poem in front of them. Then, I could go on and on for an hour and a half. What happens when you are reading the book, if you have too much criticism, you lose the point of the essay-and the poem. So the problem was how to sustain, through the commentary, that the person feels they are still reading the poem.
It seems like you do some of that by quoting frequently. Other times you almost mimic the style of the work with your criticism. Did you ever write poetry yourself?
Yes, in my late teens and early 20s, but after that I channeled it all into my criticism.
O'Hara, Gary Snyder, Joni Mitchell. There are some surprising names in here; I had never heard of Paul Blackburn, for example.
But "The Once-Over" to me is a classic poem of my time. There's a mysterious girl in a beautiful dress, and everyone is staring at her. That's it. That's the entire thing. It's so wonderful, the way he captures that moment, and that's the purpose of reading poetry-which is that it teaches you to notice what other people don't notice. To find significance in the insignificant. BApril is National Poetry Month. We at CityBeat hereby order you to celebrate it by reading poetry, writing poetry or just telling yourself that someday you'll think about poetry-maybe.