Camille Paglia, Break, Blow, Burn; Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems (New York: Pantheon, 2005), 247pp.
Camille Paglia never saw an orthodoxy she did not dislike. Since the 1990 publication of her 700-page book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (her Yale dissertation), she has crafted a colorful, quotable and original persona that has managed to offend just about everyone. An art critic, a media maven who takes pop culture with the utmost seriousness, University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, glamorous bitch and provocateur, she is hard to label. Commenting on Sexual Personae, Kevin Cassell puts it this way: "Camille Paglia's impressive study of the development of Western Culture is hated by conservatives and liberals alike. Feminists detest Paglia's essentialist position from which she argues that women are biologically bound to "nature" by their reproductive powers. Communists and socialists detest her support of capitalism (a la Ayn Rand), which she sees as having freed women from bondage to men. Gay men hate her for aligning homosexual aestheticism with the most tyrannical eras, and adopting the position that gay men's idolatry of things masculine goes "against nature." Conservatives detest her for basically trashing the most sacred Western institutions—including Church and State—as male attempts to repress and extinguish powerful female forces" (http://kevincassell.com/PERSON/POLITICS/center/paglia.html).
In Break, Blow, Burn (the title comes from a line in John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV), however, Paglia sublimates her considerable self (selves?), and tries to make herself invisible. Here she adopts a rather reactionary and "conservative" persona. After a ten-page introduction, she anthologizes forty-three poems by twenty-eight poets, beginning with Shakespeare and, proceeding chronologically rather than thematically, ending with "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell. Due to complexities of translation, she has chosen poems only in English. After each poem Paglia offers a 3–5 page commentary to elucidate the text. The end result is intended for general audiences rather than literary specialists.
Paglia strongly advocates what is known as a "close reading" of poetry, where the reader treats the poem as a stand-alone object with its own content, rather than as a subjective social construction. We must attempt to understand a poem, in other words, by and in itself, without recourse to outside sources, especially the trendy, chic, and politically-correct sources of the post-structuralists. Good-by, identity politics. She has elsewhere been openly critical, for example, of Stephen Greenblatt and his book Will in the World, as the founder and leader of the New Historicist movement in literary studies, for the notion that literature and art emerge mainly as a construct from society and less from a single individual's effort, the complaint being that readers learn more about Shakespeare's context than about the writer or his work.
Thus, fully believing in the magical power of words, Paglia hopes to rescue language and poetry from its elitist theorists who "childishly smash up their subjects and leave the disjecta membra like litter." No wonder, she has reflected elsewhere, that so many graduate students who used to love language and literature have become disillusioned with the triumph of subjective, politically-correct, critical theory over objective content. "Custodianship, not deconstruction," she writes, "should be the mission and goal of the humanities."