Strangely enough, this is probably only Camille Paglia’s second real book. She’s certainly had a pretty potted publishing history. First she broke out in a big way with Sexual Personae in 1991. Then playing literary diva, you could not get her off the stage. Two books – collections of essays, newspaper articles, speeches, documentary transcripts, cartoons and what not – were published in pretty quick succession. Then she went a bit quiet, wrote columns, came out with a short book, an essay really, on Hitchcock’s The Birds. The often talked about sequel to Sexual Personae has never seen the light of day. I recall reading once her saying that it was in a box under the couch, or something. Very odd. It seems some writers have big bursts, write one amazing book early in their career, then have very little to write afterwards.
To give an idea of how long it’s been since Paglia wrote a completely new book, one of the blurbs on the back of Break, Blow, Burn is from the back of the Vintage 1992 re-print I have of Sexual Personae.
Of course Break, Blow, Burn is not as good as Sexual Personae, which was such a thorough and comprehensive book. But it certainly is a brilliant little volume. As the subtitle says, it’s a reading of 43 poems. So you get the poem, and then 2-3 pages of Paglia afterward interpreting the poem. I love this sort of format, as you can go back an re-read favourite essays in a few minutes. The book starts with Shakespeare, and ends in our own times with Joni Mitchell.
What literary criticism does, is shine a light on things you may have missed. With poetry, especially, you read a poem, and have feelings evoked, and impressions made, but you find it difficult to actually articulate what it is you’ve experienced in the poem. This is where the literary critic comes in. They make you think, ah!, yes, that’s what I felt, or thought, but couldn’t put into words. In another way, these little post poem essays are kind of like prose-poems in themselves, bringing out allusions and creating metaphors.
For example, the chapter on the Ghost’s Speech in Hamlet;
Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ear did pour
The leperous distillment, whose effect
Holds such enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager dropping into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about
Most lazarlike with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.
In her essay on this speech Paglia says how words seem sticky. How true! It is these allusions that I mean, helping us to understand the poem in different ways.
The introduction is very good too. I loved her criticism of the Web. She says it has increased verbal fluency but not quality.
Here is her golden rule for good writing. I couldn’t agree more:
‘Good writing comes from good reading.’
Or, as Samuel Johnson once wrote, in order to write a book you have to turn over a library first.