Friday, November 7, 2008

Final Cut: The Selection Process for Break, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia

A very interesting and somewhat controversial article by Paglia on her selection process for Break, Blow, Burn. She disses some "canonic" poems and poets, which is sure to provoke some anger in professors.

Posted at Arion.

Final Cut: The Selection Process for Break, Blow, Burn


(click here to view the pdf version)

BREAK, BLOW, BURN, my collection of close readings of fortythree poems, took five years to write. The first year was devoted to a search for material in public and academic libraries as well as bookstores. I was looking for poems in English from the last four centuries that I could wholeheartedly recommend to general readers, especially those who may not have read a poem since college. For decades, poetry has been a losing proposition for major trade publishers. I was convinced that there was still a potentially large audience for poetry who had drifted away for unclear reasons. That such an audience does in fact exist seemed proved by the success of Break, Blow, Burn, which may be the only book of poetry criticism that has ever reached the national bestseller list in the United States.

On my two book tours (for the Pantheon hardback in 2005and the Vintage paperback in 2006), I was constantly asked by readers or interviewers why this or that famous poet was not included in Break, Blow, Burn, which begins with Shakespeare and ends with Joni Mitchell. At the prospectus stage of the project, I had assumed that most of the principal modern and contemporary poets would be well represented. But once launched on the task of gathering possible entries, I was shocked and disappointed by what I found. Poem after poem, when approached from the perspective of the general audience rather than that of academic criticism, shrank into inconsequence or pretension. Or poets whom I fondly remembered from my college and graduate school studies turned out to have produced impressive bodies of serious work but no single poem that could stand up as an artifact to the classic poems elsewhere in the book. The ultimate standard that I applied in my selection process was based on William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a masterpiece of sinewy modern English.

Ezra Pound, because of his generous mentoring of and vast influence on other poets (such as T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams), should have been automatically included in Break, Blow, Burn. But to my dismay, I could not find a single usable Pound poem—just a monotonous series of showy, pointless, arcane allusions to prior literature. The equally influential W. H. Auden was high on my original list. But after reviewing Auden’s collected poetry, I was stunned to discover how few of his poems can stand on their own in today’s mediasaturated cultural climate. Auden’s most anthologized poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” inspired by a Breughel painting, felt dated in its portentous mannerisms. A homoerotic love poem by Auden that I had always planned to include begins, “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm.” But when I returned to it, I found the poem perilously topheavy with that single fine sentence. Everything afterward dissolves into vague blather. It was perhaps the most painful example that I encountered of great openings not being sustained.

Surely the lucid and vivacious Marianne Moore, so hugely popular in her day, would have produced many poems to appeal to the general reader. However, while I was charmed by Moore’s ingenious variety of formats, I became uncomfortable and impatient with her reflex jokiness, which began to seem like an avoidance of emotion. Nothing went very deep. Because I was so eager to get a good sports poem into Break, Blow, Burn (I never found one), I had high hopes for Moore’s beloved odes to baseball. Alas, compared to today’s highimpact, aroundtheclock sports talk on radio and TV, Moore’s baseball lingo came across as fussy and corny.

Elizabeth Bishop presented an opposite problem. Bishop is truly a poet’s poet, a refined craftsman whose discreet, shapely poems carry a potent emotional charge beneath their transparent surface. I had expected a wealth of Bishop poems to choose from. With my eye on the general reader, I was keenly anticipating a cascade of sensuous tropical imagery drawn from Bishop’s life in Brazil. But when I returned to her collected poems, the observed details to my surprise seemed oppressively clouded with sentimental selfprojection. For example, I found Bishop’s muchanthologized poem “The Fish” nearly unbearable due to her obtrusively simmering selfpity. (Wounded animal poems, typifying the anthropomorphic fallacy, have become an exasperating cliché over the past sixty years.) Even splendid, monumental Brazil evidently couldn’t break into Bishop’s weary bubble, which traveled with her wherever she went. It may be time to jettison depressiveness as a fashionable badge of creativity.

Charles Bukowski was another poet slated from the start to be prominently featured in Break, Blow, Burn. (Indeed, he proved to be the writer I was most asked about on my book tours.) I had planned to make the dissolute Bukowski a crown jewel, demonstrating the scornful rejection by my rowdy, raucous 1960s generation of the genteel proprieties of 1950s literary criticism, still faithfully practiced by the erudite but terminally prim Helen Vendler. I was looking for a funny, squalid street or barroom poem, preferably with boorish knockdown brawling and halfclad shady ladies. But as with Elizabeth Bishop, I could not find a single poem to endorse in good faith for the general reader. And Bukowski was staggeringly prolific: I ransacked shelf upon shelf of his work. But he obviously had little interest in disciplining or consolidating his garrulous, meandering poems. Frustrated, I fantasized about scissoring out juicy excerpts and taping together my own ideal Platonic form of a Bukowski poem. The missing Bukowski may be the surly Banquo’s ghost of Break, Blow, Burn.

Read the whole article.

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