Constantly Risking Absurdity
Sunday, April 24, 2005
Camille Paglia Wants to Save Poetry

Even though I disagree with her on some important things, for a few years now I have admired the literary critic Camille Paglia, first because of her intellectual integrity, her fidelity to the truth, and second, because she writes with a sledgehammer. Consider these lines taken from the preface to her latest book, Break, Blow, Burn, which was published in abridged form (the preface, not the whole book) in the British paper, the Telegraph:

--“The dazzling multiplicity of sounds and word choices in English makes it brilliantly suited to be a language of poetry. It's why the pragmatic Anglo-American tradition (unlike effete French rationalism) doesn't need poststructuralism: in English, usage depends upon context; the words jostle and provoke one another and mischievously shift their meanings over time.”

--“I find too much work by the most acclaimed poets laboured, affected and verbose, intended not to communicate with the general audience but to impress their fellow poets. Poetic language has become stale and derivative, even when it makes all-too-familiar avant garde or ethnic gestures. Those who turn their backs on media (or overdose on postmodernism) have no gauge for monitoring the metamorphosis of English. Any poetry removed from popular diction will inevitably become as esoteric as 18th-century satire (perfected by Alexander Pope), whose dense allusiveness and preciosity drove the early Romantic poets into the countryside to find living speech again…”

(Camille Paglia)

--“A good poem is iridescent and incandescent, catching the light at unexpected angles and illuminating human universals - whose very existence is denied by today's parochial theorists. Among those looming universals are time and mortality, to which we all are subject. Like philosophy, poetry is a contemplative form, but unlike philosophy, poetry subliminally manipulates the body and triggers its nerve impulses, the muscle tremors of sensation and speech.”

--“The sacred remains latent in poetry, which was born in ancient ritual and cult. Poetry's persistent theme of the sublime - the awesome vastness of the universe - is a religious perspective, even in atheists like Shelley.

--“Commentary on poetry is a kind of divination, resembling the practice of oracles, sibyls, augurs, and interpreters of dreams. Poets speak even when they know their words will be swept away by the wind.”

--“All literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader. Criticism at its best is re-creative, not spirit-killing. Technical analysis of a poem is like breaking down a car engine, which has to be reassembled to run again. Theorists childishly smash up their subjects and leave the disjecta membra like litter.”

All of this amounts, I think, to a manifesto for the liberation of poetry, for reclaiming poetry as something to be experienced and judged in light of the human condition, and not by the rubrics and categories of ideologies which serve to do nothing but enervate and confuse the human person.

I used to believe that one had to approach a poem--or any work of art--by attempting to extract an abstract philosophical discourse from it. “What does this mean?” I would ask, and what I demanded as an answer would be something definite, an objective description of the “message” of the poet. This, I now think, was due in part because of a misinterpretation I made of something my dad told me during high school: that behind every work of art is the philosophical worldview of the artist, which inspires that work. “You can glean from the work of art a worldview, and from that, a certain philosophical discourse,” he said, or something like that. In any case, I misinterpreted that to mean that art is reducible to philosophical discourse. Thus I grew into an very impatient reader of poetry.

Another thing that fueled this rationalist temperament--which I think is really what’s behind postmodern critical theory, a rationalist temperament--was my rejection of the epistemological relativism I saw among the English faculty in my high school. “No objective truth exists,” was a slogan I would never believe, because, as a religious believer, I couldn’t. So I grew wary of what I thought were overly-speculative and subjective discussions of literature. “There is an objective answer to every question!” I would think. I was very suspicious of anything deemed “subjective.”

I suppose a lot of things worked towards eventually overthrowing that tyrannical mentality in my mind. I remember specifically pondering something Pablo Neruda tells his postman in Il Postino, that when poetry is explained, it becomes banal. But in the end, I rejected that too, because, if Neruda is right, then poetry is nothing but ornamentation, something we do to make the banal more bearable. But poetry, I was determined, must be something more than that.

Now I realize that I did not understand poetry until I began to grasp the religious experience. I use the words “understand” and “grasp” wrongly here, of course,. The whole point is that poetry cannot be understood. Nor does it mean, pace Writer’s Workshop Seminars everywhere, that poetry must be “felt.” No. Poetry is an act of the person in response to the mystery of reality and his or her’s confrontation with it. This, too, is part of the religious experience, because this confrontation with reality demands answers from it. And our demands are addressed by poetry, sometimes, and at others by philosophy. But they are both incomplete, and both irreducible to the other.

This is why I am so happy to see that Camille Paglia, who is an atheist (“Atheist admirer of religion” is what she told C-SPAN) can see that poetry is intimately linked to the religious experience. I feel vindicated. I also feel vindicated in rejecting the relativist ideology of my teachers: ideology imposes its own criteria on the mystery of reality; authentic poetry, and authentic philosophy, is open--though not always passive--before it.

Ironically, now that I “understand” poetry a little better, I can’t write it. I am too afraid to try, of being too self conscious in the process. This is because, I think, in order to “understand” poetry, I assumed the position of a philosopher, and it is hard to do both, poetry and philosophy. The great Jacques Maritain said that he relied on his wife Raissa's experiences in writing Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, because she was a poet, and because he did not believe "that a philosopher would dare to speak of poetry if he could not rely on the direct experience of a poet." Perhaps all philosophers should marry poets, to keep them in touch with reality. Poets or economists.

Paglia’s book, in the end, is an attempt to recapture reality, the human experience in reality. And now I understand why the new pope distrusts theologians who "do not love art, poetry, music, nature: they can be dangerous."


Related Links:

The New Criterion has a review of Paglia's latest book.



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The intimations of a mild-mannered Paraguayan undergraduate, studying Eng. Lit. and philosophy in a small, midwestern Jesuit college.

Email Me: constantlyrisking [at] yahoo [dot] com


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