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Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems


Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems

The dust jacket to Camille Paglia's BREAK, BLOW, BURN boasts that
the famed culture critic who once penned SEXUAL PERSONAE has
written a "[d]aring, erudite, entertaining" text that is "destined
to become a landmark." Initially such acclaim seems hard to
swallow. What, one has every right to ask, does Camille Paglia know
about poetry? Her forty-three readings of distinguished
English-language poems demonstrate, however, Paglia's ability to
appreciate and critically examine verse from a number of important
historical and socio-cultural contexts.

In her forthright "Introduction," Paglia admits "the foundation of
my literary education…was a technique known as the New
Criticism, which studied the internal and formal qualities of
poetry." Hostile to Popular Culture and intertextuality, New
Critics considered poems in and of themselves, where a
consideration of matters related to but not inherent in the text
were summarily dismissed. It is surprising, then, to see one of
America's most well-known culture critics perform such close,
isolated analyses with intelligence and grace. Partially indebted
to Harold Bloom for this approach, Paglia claims the "triumph of
ideology over art" has produced "few professors who know how to
'read' anymore." To that end, each of her readings highlights some
of the more conspicuous aesthetic and formal trends unique to the
development of English literature.

But moving beyond the New-Critical approach, each discussion
addresses the socio-historical concerns that inform and shape the
poems themselves. For example, the Imagist movement is discussed
concisely and accurately in readings of William Carlos Williams's
"The Red Wheel Barrow" and "This is Just to Say," whereas the
Confessional movement is examined in the discussion of Plath's
"Daddy." While none of her interpretations breaks new ground,
Paglia expertly synthesizes a wide range of prevailing critical
observations into a smooth, confident prose.

One of my original objections to this book, and its intent to teach
masses of people to read poetry as poetry, was that her readings
--- responsible but merely introductory --- might be considered
definitive. How many people, for example, will consult John
Kerrigan or Helen Vendler's more thorough, rigorous discussions of
Shakespeare's sonnets after reading Paglia's digests of sonnets 73
and 29? But this concern faded quickly as I realized each gloss
compressed and alluded to scholarship in such a way that invited
further reading. Though her prose is always clear, it never
condescends or assumes the reader is anything less than already
intelligent. Therefore, key concepts are introduced and extended
but ultimately left open for further consideration.

Paglia's decision to engage forty-three well-anthologized poems is
unadventurous but practical. Many high school English teachers, for
example, may come to this book for ideas on how to introduce such
poems to their students. Given Paglia's appreciation for the
English language from its beginnings, however, I would have liked
to have seen at least one Medieval lyric or an excerpt from
Chaucer. And while a historical organization is evident,
British-English poems are conspicuously absent once the American
Romantics are introduced less than halfway through --- a common
decision by anthologists who, consciously or otherwise, suggest the
supremacy of American literature in the twentieth century.

In the end, my sole sustainable objection lies in the book's
subtitle, where the author is said to read forty-three of the
WORLD'S best poems, though only English-language poetry is
included. Paglia herself stresses the impact foreign-language
poetry has had upon her appreciation of verse. Therefore, the
ethnocentric subtitle is neither representative of the author's
beliefs nor accurate in terms of aesthetic truth. Most likely, it
was added to the title by the publisher as a way of selling more
books --- a decision Paglia surprisingly did not catch or


Reviewed by Tony Leuzzi on December 23, 2010

Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems
by Camille Paglia

  • Publication Date: March 29, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction, Poetry
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375420843
  • ISBN-13: 9780375420849