Force of personality
Raucous poet works to restore the love of verse

By KEVIN LANAHAN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, April 3, 2005

Is poetry dead? Has it really been relegated to the dusty annals of a pre-technological era? Can it compete with the celluloid appeal of reality television and an obsession with celebrity-slick Hollywood -- or supermarket romance novels, for that matter?

Devotees of the sonnet, lyric and ballad, fear not. Camille Paglia, the raucous cultural critic and firebrand neo-feminist, says she's determined to disassemble hollow, modern-day assumptions regarding poetry and restore a love for verse among the masses, where she's convinced it can thrive.

In her newest offering, "Break, Blow, Burn" (Pantheon Books; 247 pages; $20), Paglia celebrates what she considers to be 43 of the world's best poems, deploying every ounce of the scintillating wit and passion that made bestsellers out of her previous groundbreakers. Paglia will discuss "Break, Blow, Burn" -- which takes its title from John Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV" -- Wednesday as part of the New York State Writers Institute's Visiting Writers Series.

Born in the Broome County town of Endicott and raised in Syracuse, Paglia went on to graduate from SUNY Binghamton. After a doctorate from Yale and years of wallowing in academic obscurity, she erupted onto the literary/cultural scene in 1990 with "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson," a full-frontal assault on, among other things, the American academic establishment, contemporary feminist orthodoxy and political correctness.

"In my experience, women from upstate New York have this kind of assertiveness that helps in the long run," she said in a phone interview from Philadelphia, where she is professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts. "We deal with a lot of snow and ice. It requires a force of personality."

Even her detractors would testify to Paglia's force of personality. You might say it's her calling card.

She expanded on her controversial views in her two subsequent books, "Sex, Art, and American Culture" and "Vamps and Tramps," lighting up the media sky with TV appearances and freelance work for countless periodicals on pop culture, literature and politics. (Paglia is currently a contributing editor for Interview magazine.)

Paglia's views are as divisive as they are intriguing. She has lampooned contemporary feminists as "White middle class girls at elite colleges (that) have been sheltered, coddled and flattered" -- on a previous visit to UAlbany, Paglia "almost (came) to blows" with the founders of the women studies program -- and assailed "multiculturist" professors for "their hostility to the canon of great European writers." Certain scholars' trendy fascination with French thinkers, she says, has "done serious damage to the quality of undergraduate education at the best American colleges and universities."

Her controversial views on the subject of date rape, originally published in Newsday, produced a wave of vitriolic response that has yet to subside, inspiring a legion of liberal enemies.

But Paglia can't be pigeonholed as a cultural neocon; her opinions cut across the grain of the standard oppositions. She opposed the war in Iraq and has denounced President Bush and the conservative right for their policies on gay rights and what she says are attempts to destroy the arts.

Paglia thinks that in the 15 years since unleashing "Sexual Personae," she's made her mark on the national zeitgeist. "Things that seemed so controversial about my views in the early '90s just seem like common sense, I think, to people now," she said. "I'm supportive of the multicultural, global perspective, but there are great works of literature that everyone should know. I'm asking that the best be identified."

More than five years in the making, "Break, Blow, Burn" advises the digital age what it stands to lose if it turns its back on poetry, which "develops an imagination and feeds the soul," Paglia writes. "Poets must remember their calling and take stage again."

Her new book is directed toward both ends of the political-cultural spectrum, selecting religious poems (Donne, Herbert) as well as radical poems of social protest (Blake, Whitman). Paglia's reading -- lucid, eloquent and intended to be fully accessible to a general audience -- are overt attempts to rescue poetry from campus pretension.

Paglia's sometimes surprising choices for her own world's-best list (she includes Joni Mitchell's lyrics for "Woodstock") amount to a mini-canon, a four-century survey that seeks to reintroduce readers to the written word.

"What other responsibility does the critic have than to be a kind of mediator between the work of art and the public?" Paglia said. "That's what I think I'm doing."

She expects readers and critics to react to her list with degrees of outrage and shock. But the one-woman jury holds each entry to a high standard: Can it stand up to history, retain viability over multiple consecutive readings, electrify and, at the same time, challenge the humanity of a general readership?

But how can literature compete with today's pop culture?

"We must take special measures in America to make sure young people are exposed to major art. This is something that I'm making my mission, my commitment: to end elitism in art and reach the masses of America."

It's a steep challenge, but one Paglia believes can be accomplished if artists -- regardless of their chosen form or political bent -- can come together to accept some responsibility for their own shortcomings.

"Artists need to stop preaching to the choir," she says. "The art world has withdrawn into a useless and artificial elite. Poets have to start addressing the nation and show the public again that poetry can be hot and create excitement."

Kevin Lanahan is a freelance writer from Clifton Park.

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Camille Paglia