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 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, Catharine 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. In Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads 43 of the World’s Best Poems, Paglia puts down her Molotov cocktails and picks up the lyre to sing the praises of 43 poems, ranging from Shakespeare and Wordsworth to Sylvia Plath and Gary Snyder. An essay following each poem explains the poet’s significance, then describes what is interesting, unique and, yes, pleasure-giving about the poem.
City Weekly: In the beginning you wrote about decadence in art, now you’re writing about poetry. 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 … who said to me, “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.
CW: Why do you think poetry has become so ostracized?
CP: 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.
CW: And you’re trying to combat that by saying you can have a kind of secular rapture by reading poetry?
CP: Yes, and trying to bring the fun back in it. The childlike 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!
CW: Do you think poets are to blame for how hard it’s become to relate to their work as well?
CP: I place some of the blame there, yes. Poets who had a big impact on me in the ’60s were beatniks, who got drunk and messed around and were hobos and eccentrics. 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.
CW: I was a bit surprised you were a Charles Bukowski fan. Did you try to sneak one into this book?
CP: 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.
CW: Did you ever write poetry yourself?
CP: Yes, in my late teens and early 20s, but after that I channeled it all into my criticism.
CW: There are some surprising names in here. I had never heard of Paul Blackburn, for example.
CP: 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—it teaches you … to find significance in the insignificant.