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Review: Camile Pagila's Break Blow Burn
by Moira Baumhauer

Paglia, Camille. Break, Blow, Burn. New York: Pantheon, 2005.

Break Blow BurnI'm not ashamed to admit it: before I even heard about the book, I had preconceived notions about Camille Paglia. They weren't unfounded. I've read short essays by her in college, so I come by my biases rather honestly. But I do have my biases – and I was rather sadistically tickled by the hot pink, black and white cover of Paglia's latest book explicating 43 poems. Because of the layout and typography, the cover reads "BREAK / CAMILLE / BLOW / PAGILA / BURN." Is this an accident? It's the cover of a book about poetry – doesn't she expect her readers to come with a discerning eye? Maybe she just has low self-esteem.

Wait, you might say, she may have no control over her cover selection. That's quite true. My biggest argument with Paglia in the whole book – in which I argued with her a lot less than I expected to, truth be told – is her stubborn refusal to accept the notion that the author may not be the speaker. In some poems, the author is clearly not the speaker of the poem and in those cases, she does not assert so. But in other poems, such as Shakespeare's sonnets, John Donne's "The Flea," and Paul Blackburn's "The Once-Over," she simply does not acknowledge the fact that the author has the ability to create another persona. Poems need not be autobiographical or contain any autobiographical truths. If I am a twenty-something woman and make no mention of who the "I" is in a poem, you cannot just assume the poem is about a twenty-something woman. If you claim it as such, make sure you have proof in the text to back it up. She does this with Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," her strongest explication, by explaining all the allusions to Plath's life hidden in the text. Going back to the text to look for this "proof" is not hard -- if it exists. This is the same standard to which I hold my first year college students, so I would expect Paglia to have no trouble with it either.

I was also quite amused at this passage. See if you can spot the irony from Paglia's introduction:

Humanists must set an example: all literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader. Criticism is at its best re-creative, not spirit-killing. Technical analysis of a poem is like breaking down a car engine, which has to be reassembled again. Theorists childishly smash up their subjects and leave the disjecta membra like litter. (xvi)

Does dijecta membra sound like the general reader to you? Does poetry sound like the general reader to you? Oh, how easily those in the ivory tower forget about the general reader!

I did enjoy the book, as much as I enjoyed arguing with Paglia in my head. The poetry explications were intriguing. I don't remember seeing such a thing before and it was handy to have a mini-college course with Paglia. Since I get very defense about Sylvia Plath, I was hesitant to read Paglia's interpretation of "Daddy," but glad I did. One line really struck me: "But the overall effect of 'Daddy' is closer to the poisonous cynicism of German Expressionism, as in the corruption-exposing caricatures of George Grosz or the distorted carnival sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (168). I had never tied Plath to German Expressionism before – my favorite art movement – and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – one of my favorite films, which I bragged to Smith College, Plath's alma mater, in seeking (and gaining) acceptance before attending college there. That was an interesting revelation, but one I wish had been carried out a bit more than this book allowed.

I think Paglia might have a whole book on Plath in her and, shockingly enough, I would eagerly read it.