America’s most provocative intellectual brings her blazing powers of analysis to the most famous poems of the Western tradition—and unearths some previously obscure verses worthy of a place in our canon. Combining close reading with a panoramic breadth of learning, Camille Paglia sharpens our understanding of poems we thought we knew, from Shakespeare to Dickinson to Plath, and makes a case for including in the canon works by Paul Blackburn, Wanda Coleman, Chuck Wachtel, Rochelle Kraut—and even Joni Mitchell. Daring, riveting, and beautifully written, Break, Blow, Burn is a modern classic that excites even seasoned poetry lovers—and continues to create generations of new ones.
The still-vocal critic of Sexual Personae, a book that drew on poetry and painting for its de-deconstructions of gender, checks in with an anthology of 43 poems, along with her own close readings of them. Her introduction offers a jumble of justifications for undertaking such a project (though she is "unsure whether the West's chaotic personalism can prevail against the totalizing creeds that menace it," she hopes it will), but the readings themselves reveal Paglia's fascination with poetry, which she likens "to addiction or to the euphoria of being in love." The book's first half presents canonical work that Paglia has found "most successful in the classroom" (Shakespeare, Blake, Dickinson, etc.). The second features mostly canonical modernist and confessional work (Stevens, Williams, Toomer, Roethke and Plath), with a few more recent pieces. Clocking in mostly at two to four pages, Paglia's readings sound a lot like classroom preambles to discussion offering background, lingering over provocative lines, venturing provisional interpretations. Some of what she says comes off as grandiose (Roethke's " 'Cuttings' is a regrounding of modern English poetry in lost agrarian universals"), some as boilerplate, some as inspired. Though hit-and-miss, Paglia's picks and appraisals provide the requisite spark for jump-starting returns to poetry.