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 Philadelphia College of Art, 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 McKinnon, 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 (Pantheon, hardcover, $20) 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 which explains the poet's significance, and then proceeds to describe what is interesting, unique and, yes, pleasurable about the poem.
During an all day snowstorm in Philadelphia, Paglia talked about what makes a good poem, and why she feels compelled to rescue poetry.
In the beginning, you wrote about decadence in art. Now you're writing about poetry. Sad to say, it seems like both are obscure in our culture today.
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 into 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.
Did you ever write poetry yourself?
Yes, in my late teens and early '20s, but after that I channeled it all into my criticism.
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.