Showing posts with label Camille Paglia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Camille Paglia. Show all posts

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Camille Paglia, wind-up firebrand

Camille Paglia has been taking some heat lately for writing the dullest column the internet has ever witnessed; some have called for a boycott.I will maintain that her book “Sexual Personae” is a first-rate piece of critical thinking, but then again it's an academic work, where one's wildest declarations have to be defended with a close study of the materials. Being columnists requires a lighter scrutiny on the subject, since it's opinion, not thesis writing, but Paglia's chief sin is that she's very predictable in her remarks. All columnists are predictable, you may argue, once you get accustomed to their prejudices and their riffs, but Paglia's failings have little to do with her positions than her tone-deaf prose. George Will's conservatism is an enervated husk, but he's worth my while to read if only for the elegance of his prose.

 Maureen Dowd,though her turns and nuances are familiar to millions, remains a master of varying her targets and polishing the quotable, the snappy line. William Buckley, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, gadflies all, knew how to make the repetition of their essays tolerable with a shrewd instinct for entertainment value; it's just the thing to get a reader who thinks you're a louse to read every word you've typed out. There is an art to column writing, even political column writing,but Paglia hasn't the ear nor the verbal grace to keep us intrigued by her topics. That is, her topics are fine, but her opinions are derailed by an ungainly presentation of self. It was suggested to me that I write as I spoke , as a way of getting out the ideas on paper, and then work to remove glitches, awkwardness, tired similes. It was bad advice in my time, and I had to strive to write better than I was capable of speaking.(This isn't to imply that I've shown the discipline to revise as much as I should. Yes, I need to heed my advice). Paglia, however, writes precisely as she talks, a self-declaring, stammering, redundant bag of rocks tossed right into your face--the sort of talk you hear around the dinner table of large, talkative families. 

But would work in real life annoys on the page; even a first year writing major would have advised her to ease up on the persona pronouns. The same student would also have suggested that she'd consider honing a sleeker, more flowing prose style. The reader ought not feel as though they're walking through dark room with a floor full of toys to trip over. She is a blowhard, and seemingly cannot give an intelligent reply without talking about herself in the main, evinced especially in her habit of telling you, redundantly, when she first wrote about a subject and how time has proven her right yet again. Under it all is chattering nervousness that just gets on my nerves. I imagine she is a good teacher who can keep  her student's interests, and, if she ever gets back to publishing serious books again, a first-rate intellectual. To describe what she's been doing meanwhile as “coasting” would be dressing up the truth; Paglia is more in line with the class of professional celebrity those of us of a certain age remember, the former columnist, actor, book publisher, actor who took to being permanent celebrity panelists on TV game shows, offering America bite-sized versions of their former selves. But as a columnist she is a washout. Bite sized Paglia is not appealing in any respect; it would a fine thing if she had a song to play with that horn she keeps squalling on. Joan Walsh and company should have realized this some years ago and realized her name brand is aged badly.

Friday, March 9, 2007

BREAK, BLOW, BURN: Camille Paglia's Poems that Matter

Camille Paglia
I'd said some rude things about Camille Paglia's reemergence as a regular columnist at, berating her for basically wasting the opportunity to be smart about cultural and political issues by lavishing each form of self-flattery. To court cliche, even Norman Mailer has more modesty. I haven't changed my mind, but I should mention her 2005 collection of poetry criticism, Break, Blow, Burn. It's the liveliest collection of critical remarks I've in years. Camille Paglia published her collection of poetry essays Break, Blow, Burn (now in paperback) in 2005, and straight away there were those neoconservatives who seized upon the firebrand professor as one of their own, someone brings "reason" back to the classroom. It was hoped in some discussion groups I've recently emerged from that Paglia is Sanity itself, ready to unfasten the chokehold of incomprehension that's been around literary criticism for decades. The short version of that conversation was that Paglia would be the celebrity academic intellectual who would sift through the Great Books and present a straying society the Values and Virtues William Bennett cherishes almost as much as he does a solid poker hand and a stall stack of chips. Hold the phone. I don't think Paglia represents "a voice of reason" since the word "reason" is the last thing you want to apply to a close reading of a poet's work. It implies, by default, rationality, and it's never been the poet's assignment to reason through experience as if he or she were a scientist trying to classify and categorize the world about them. 

Rather, poets, good poets, and their work continue to attract us because the way in which they usurp the instructed ordering aspects of language and instead find ways to integrated what is seemingly inexpressible, felt the experience, the interiority of being, with what is observed in the factual being. It's perilously hard poetry to write successfully and, even when it's done well, reviewers toward totalizing , sense-making totems that bring a reasonable and agreeable sheen of coherence to a work; the way we've come to discuss poems falls too often in the smelly troughs of conventional wisdom, received perceptions, cracker-barrel philosophy,  simple-minded platitudes, devised, by consensus or conspiracy for readers and reviewers, to have the world remains entirely comprehensible and sane. A worthy critic from the eighties, Clyde Hadlock, once wrote of the best verse being something unique in literature. He asserted, with deft metaphor, that if the prose was the photograph of how the nature of the world appears to the author, then "...poetry is the x-ray." The voice of reason is the enemy to good poetry, and that is what Camille Paglia knows better than any other commentator; a poet, she argues in Break , Blow Burn (now in paperback) is that a poet , though a conscious and determining artist, acts nonetheless as a conduit for the wild strands of personal narrative, religion, myth, comprehensible realism, rage, philosophy merge, blend, twine and twist in the same discussion. Poetry is the language of unreason, another way of taking the pulse of the culture as seen from the particular and individual poet's voice who lives within and yet is compelled to view it askew. The essays in Break Blow Burn argue that the poems under review aren't required to “make sense”, to deliver a singular meaning, easily digested and disposed of, but exist instead to provide a subtler, more nuanced , more complex sense of what experience entails. Many ideas from many sources come to bear on a poem's thesis, and Paglia pulls them out, addresses them, and demonstrates the fascinating dialectic of the way ideas, images, expressions and varied diction influence one another, offer shades of inference, change meanings. 

It wasn't enough that the national discussion on poetry was already pathetic and contrived, a contest between assorted second and third generation splinter groups of specialized enclaves trying to inhale what was left of the air in the tiny room where the debate raged. Amazingly, the conversation had become as dumb as it was insulated. In the 2001, the New Agers and refugees from shoe gazing concerts got into the act with the publication of Roger Housden's slim collection Ten Poems to Change Your Life, in which he presented the undefined general reader with a set of poems, varied to gender, nationality, religion, lifestyle orientation, that they might consider between errands and cell phone chats: " The Journey" by Mary Oliver ,"Last Night as I Was Sleeping," by Antonio Machado, "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman ,"Zero Circle" by Rumi ,"The Time Before Death" by Kabir,"Ode to My Socks" by Pablo Neruda , "Last Gods" by Galway Kinnell, "For the Anniversary of My Death" by W. S. Merwin, "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott "The Dark Night" by St. John of the Cross . A high-quality selection, give or take exceptions according to tastes, but Housden's intent seemed less to introduce readers to the wonders and varieties of perspective poetry might offer than to bring us to the lectern where he would deliver his Message of the Day. Following each poem there was a light discussion of the life's circumstances the preceding poet wrote about and Housden would extrapolate through a number of nimbly massaged points of literature, theology, popular spirituality, to give the image reader a broader perspective, a moment's respite from that crackle and insistence of contemporary consumption. The aim of the collection, hardly surprising, was to have the stressed audience abandon their cell phones, laptops and other devices of damning distraction,  and make time to smell the roses before they were gone, trampled under the heel of progress. It's not an original premise, but it remains sage advice all the same, and one could for the moment put their disdain for the use of a poet's work as fodder for a feel-good mill, although containing the contempt was harder than it would seem. The irony was that the fresh perspectives, the original language use, the carefully crafted evidence of subtle intelligence interrogating the problematic nature of existence  used as another means of delivering readers to insights they already know. One hoped, even prayed, one hid under sheets of wishful thinking; any way of bringing readers to quality poets was worth a bit of pimping by an enterprising editor and motivational guru. Or was it? The problem remained that the skewed thinking that characterizes much of the best work would only confuse and further complicated the world for an audience that wanted assurances, not ironies from what they read and reflected upon. The mind was already a roiling with contradiction and discontent. Housden's editorial genius was his ability to ignore the problematic subject and stir his declarations skyward, looking over the hill for the displaced Gods who formerly assured us a coherent world.

Ten Poems to Change Your Life turned into a series of five similarly named collections, a choice gathering of poets per volume, followed by Houston's compulsively upbeat chats. A gimmick has been established for Housden and was performing handsomely—the books, pocket-sized, were perfect for bookstore cash register stands as impulse purchases, and in the dozens. One despaired seeing that Housden's books sold while the poetry section remained the slowest selling in the store where one worked; the audience was ready to read one poem by Walt Whitman and absorb a slight ration of cracker barrel spiritualism as an afterward, but such readers weren't inclined to pick up "Leaves of Grass" and do their thinking. Housden's audience is one that wants to be told what things mean. Housden's brilliance isn't what he says about the poems, but rather in recognizing an area of mild interest to big audiences that hadn't been  exploited and denuded of any possibility of inspiring even a minor itch.

It was enough to make one want to give up the game entirely and watch DVD reissues instead, but there is a blast of fresh air coming through the room, Camille Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn, a collection of forty-three poems brought together for close reading by the author. Paglia is a humanities' professor at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and made her entrance on the national stage with the publication of her bulging, bombastic and usually brilliant book Sexual Personae, a sprawling study of sexual identity, its profound effect on art and culture, and the endless way that it's been disguised and altered. Personae was maddening in all its phases and investigations, with theories and declarations worthy of full dissertations popping up every few pages, yet no matter how one reads her breathless, in-your-face explications that every proverbial pore of existence, society, and culture was dripped with sexuality (repressed or blatant), you couldn't dismiss with the usual brush off lines. Paglia's basic thesis about the best way to appreciate poems is to stop worshiping reputations and the sordid prestige that comes and begin instead to read and think about particular poems. Hers isn't a sensibility to bow to fashion or someone's deeply intoned name; fame and a gimmick will not acquaint the poet under review any slack. As she says in the preface, what she believes in are great poems, of themselves, separate from larger bodies of work. What we get in the forty-one essays in Break, Blow, Burn are her intense, close readings of what she regards as the best poems in English; the selection and the arrangement of what these "best" poems come to be won't satisfy every taste or notion of what honestly comprises the best work, but Paglia didn't write these missives in order to cosign every lazy idea we've had about poets and their work.

These are her favorites, using her criteria, and quite unlike many skimpy or corpulent collections slapped between covers to satisfy a fleeting fashion, she will lay her arguments in solid, comprehensible and far-flung terms, returning again, again and yet again to the respective poems she's reviewing. Less a medium to make us feel warm and secure, her poems have to do with an extreme engagement with life on life's terms. Whether finding whole worlds of secular metaphysics contained in the few lines of Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of a Jar," sweetly limning the edgy and cavalierly erotic voyeurism of Paul Blackburn's "The Once Over" or marveling at the triple-tiered city speak of Frank O'Hara's fantasy "A Mexican Guitar," Paglia discusses each of the poet's work as points in which spiritual certainty and intellectual pragmatism come into conflict, war with one another, and emerge by poem's conclusion with some third perception larger than the opposing inclinations which reveal a finer, more complex, less fixed situation for the human condition. In each case, Paglia follows the poet in the process of bringing together the poem, their process of perception, beginning with what was observed, the associations the image conjures or suggests, and delicately observing how the poet controls their associations, no less careful than a great composer, giving play to the various senses and associations each phrase and delicious reference appeals to. Paglia's genius is her ability to recreate the poet's thinking at the moment of composition. This makes her discussions intimate, vital, a whirlwind of excited speculation. Flux, change, destruction, growth, all the things that make the up the endlessly repeated cycles of death and birth, are what connect these poems, and Paglia, in these vividly studied pieces, isn't about to let any of us slide by with only a nodding acquaintance with what a poem can mean as well as be. Her view of art is that it increases our awareness of life's enormity, not reduces it to some meager paragraphs of ego massage, and it's a good thing that she was willing to put her notoriety on the line in introducing some rigor into the general chat. Finally, what is especially inspiring in Paglia's fierce arguments is her refusal to grant the readers slack. None of this material is over your head, she seems to insist, Get on the ladder and see what's out there.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Camille Paglia's back at Salon: a floundering wallow of self-regard

Erstwhile firebrand Camille Paglia , a maverick humanities professor who chose some time ago to be equal parts genius and fool in an effort to get a general public to think outside their flimsy catagories and frames of reference, has returned to an old writing gig, as a columnist for Salon. She wrote the column from 1995 to 2000, and then left the gig to concentrate on writing her 2004 book, the punchy collection of poetry criticism Break , Blow, Burn, and now returns to Salon's cyber pages, declaring herself in the first column that she was a pioneer of all that internet geeks and pundits and blogoholics take for granted. She essentially provides the "About the Author" box in the column's first paragraphs rather than at the end of the piece, where it traditionally appears. She has written important monographs, she has appeared on C-Span, she was in the advance guard in speculating our the cyber realm will effect politics and culture, she is a lesbian liberatarian Democratic pro choice aethiest, she wants you to know who she is. It is tiresome, of course, and yet you keep reading knowing that parsing Paglia isn't a waste of time. For all the prate and prolix , there are the fabled "flashes of brillance", ' though I fear, as the late Molly Ivins has said about this claim, that any such glimmers are lost in the yammering.

I'm a fan of Paglia when she gets beyond herself and writes about the culture and the arts it produces. It's here, and nowhere else, where the claims of her intellectual virtuosity and originality have merit. Sexual Personae had more outrageous and wonderfully defended propositions than any bit of academic criticism I've read, and Break, Blow,Burn brought an old school rigor to discussions of poetry , prate and self-consuming criticalese and connecting her selection of poems to the world. With those two books she makes the life of the mind exciting and attractive to someone wondering whether they should bother with Great Books and avant gard posturings. As a columnist, though, Paglia tries her hand at being the public intellectual, or worse,the celebrity intellectual,and comes up seeming comic rather than compelling. Doubtless she has Norman Mailer in mind as the self-aggrandizing firebrand, but strange as it seemes she lacks Mailer's charm and musical finess as a prose stylist.

Mailer might have been a boor and a lout, but he could write rings around his peers and segue into a metaphor rich discussion of war, poverty, women's rights, sexuality , theology, architecture with an intoxicating urgency. One need only compare Mailer's essay collections like Advertisements for Myself and The Presidential Papers to realize that Paglia has modeled her public persona on his amazing self confidence. What she lacks in this fast-paced world of instant opinion, though, is grace or a sense of her own absurdity, a quality that Mailer had , expressed and which endeared him even to this critics. He had a sense of irony about his attempts to light a fire in the conciousness of a post war generation he knew had been seduced by television.Paglia, I'm afraid, is just another typing head as this stage; pioneer she may be as an ur-blogger, but her return to Salon is not a return to form. An extended bout of self-congratulation makes her sound like she's interviewing for a entry position in a new media company. The remarks about Hillary, Obama, John Edwards, et al ,are likewise unremarkable.She sounds like she's the last one to have heard the news; she sounds several beats behind the rest of the band she's trying to join. I hope that Paglia's columns yet to come are better than this slogging mass of egomania and trite conjecture. Sad to say for someone of her daunting intellect, but she seems out of her depth.