Last night (2006.03.21), Camille Paglia (q.v.) delivered remarks at Harbourfront; totally dominated an interview, on the topic of poetry and her book Break Blow Burn, carried out by notorious antiporn lesbian Susan (“G.”) Cole, a woman strongly critical of Paglia in old articles that are not online; and took softball questions from an adoring audience.

And now You Are THERE!

I eventually snapped a surreptitious picture or two, one of which elicited a flash of pagliaist rage after the camera flashed its own. (Tragically, none of my photos is publishable.)

While waiting for the show to begin, my esteemed colleague and I sat around talking about Counterpunch, the Fred Smeijers typography book I had lent him. This involved some discussions about counterpunches and punches. It also involved my looking at the program for the evening’s lecture and pronouncing it “taaa-ckytackytacky!” At a certain point I wondered if we had crossed the line into Pretentious Literary Audience Conversation. “No, Joe, we’re miles above that, man. We’re talking Counterpunch. We’re miles above the plebes.”

Paglia is introduced by some flibbertigibbet or other (who pronounces the name as “Paylia” four times out of six). She tells us she’s glad to be at Harbourfront and be back in Toronto. It’s “the first time I’ve seen the harbour and the gorgeous islands…. I often said I was raised with cold clear Canadian air” in upstate New York. “Whatever energy I have is from you, Canada.”

She “was determined to do something to remedy what I consider a crisis of culture, particularly among the young.” She “became disillusioned with the dire state of pop in the ’90s,” and was concerned with “debilitated pop” presented as the only art available for youth.

She’s spent 35 years now as a classroom lecturer, most of 22 of them at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “I don’t have prep-school grads in my classes, people who are so glib, so facile, who have already had exposure to the classics.” It’s “a vocational school.” “I have to really sell what I’m doing to really resistant classes” (also exhausted from night jobs, dance practice).

The poems in Break Blow Burn have worked with students “who have absolutely no interest in poetry.” The book is “my hypothetical reading – every reading is a hypothesis and subjective and subject to eternal revision.” Thinks her reading of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” will stand up.

“The kind of ecstasy you get with the intense focus on the individual word.”

“My problem with rap,” which she otherwise champions, is “it has inspired the poetry-slam revival… and its focus on poetry as performance now looks back not only on the Beats,” one of her own inspirations, but also “now reprises Greek-style performance with the lyre.” “The style of rap tends to devalue the history of the word… there’s a loud hammering effect to it. The word is being returned to a kind of music.” “Interest in the etymology and the history of the word is receding.”

Computers are making this worse. Spellcheck lets you instantly correct a word. “Young people have become extremely impatient of ever looking at a dictionary” where “you learn the history of the word,” which in its original use in, say, the 17th century became quite different by the 1920s and different again today. “I learned so much as a high-school student and as a college student by looking up words.” Her whole family “came to English relatively recently.” She feels allegiance “to that kind of vocabulary study that is completely gone.”

Emily Dickinson “punned on” the then-new Webster’s Dictionary. Plath pored over Roget’s Thesaurus. “I’m afraid that’s passing away in this age of E-mail and blogs…. Nobody has traditional writer’s block anymore…. Who works over an E-mail? Nobody does.” (Speak for yourself, honey.) Believes the individual voice is dying. (Again, speak for yourself.)

Wants to show “how one small word can inspire you.”

“Reading important poetry of this quality disables you from appreciating contemporary poetry.” She spent a lot of time, on many occasions during the evening, viciously, persuasively, and amusingly destroying postmodernism and poststructuralism. (Later: Poststructuralists “don’t know how to read poetry. They don’t even read poetry in the first place,” since poststructuralism is all about narrative and is ill-suited to the compactness of poetry.)

For the book, she looked for anti-war poems from the ’60s on. They sounded great in performance at the time, she remembers, but on the page, “I thought… there has been a tremendous loss. The move toward the [live] reading” was an improvement in some ways “but has led to a decline.”

Not interested in prosody, symmetrical form, or anything else conventionally taught (to prep students?). “The visual aspect of poetry is too much neglected these days.”

Poets must not rush and produce slapdash work, but must emulate the masters she admires by labouring over a poem “for years until the poem is fully realized from beginning to end.”

“I am just scandalized by what I feel is the dropoff of basic standards in the last 20 years.” “Logorrhea, OK? Dithering, OK? […] These poets should not be reading each other, first of all.”

She acknowledges the contribution of usual suspects like Eliot, Pound, Auden, and Seamus Heaney, but did not include them in the book “for a reason – because I reject what they were trying to do,” as they will not last.

“The ultimate audience of art is the mass audience” and it can communicate across national boundaries and across time.

“The ultimate maker of the canon is the artist… the critic merely detects it.” Eliot and Pound influenced others like Beckett, “who in turn influenced the detested Michel Foucault,” about whom, she declared, nothing more would be spoken that night. But that “was not the direction poetry should have gone in the 20th century.”

Pound represents “the most pretentious, ostentatious kind of poetry that is nothing but a collection of quotes from poets of the past” that, to a contemporary reader, “needs a thousand footnotes.”

Dickinson “had absolutely no contemporary audience.” When she did manage to get published, editors made sure her “eccentricities [were] erased,” “with the dashes and the capital letters and so on that show us the very radical syncopations that would not be used again till the era of modern jazz.”

(Minor anecdote from your scribe: The night before Paglia’s appearance, my esteemed colleague wondered why I even read Paglia’s book and how the hell I ever heard of Emily Dickinson. We took her in school, I said, where I noticed all the em dashes and capitalized nouns and saw that they were like instructions on how to pronounce the poem. Great minds think alike.)

Susan G. Cole strode manfully onstage, took a seat, and declared “I really love this book. If you have been outraged by Camille Paglia in the past, you will love this book.” The session tonight “is a discussion… about literature, and this book loves literature.” Paglia corrected her – Cole, to my satisfaction, barely got a word in edgewise all night, as God intended – to state that Sexual Personæ was actually all about literature and art as seen through the prism of sex. The people criticizing her in the ’90s simply had not read her work. “Gloria Steinem, one of my great opponents, never read a single word I wrote.” So Break Blow Burn is not actually a departure.

“I believe in improvisation and life and not, you know, in system.” So they went with 43 poems, the natural quantity she arrived at, rather than some artificial round number like 50.

These poems, when revisited after reading Paglia’s analysis, have “that combination of the familiar and the strange,” which is the test of great art.

Her next book is a companion piece concerning visual art.

People ask her how she writes, and she answers that she writes a sentence, then a paragraph. (Isn’t that system?) She finds it important that the Greek poets, even in translation, still seem powerful and timeless whether read in whole or in the few fragments that survived the intervening centuries. “Even if only a few fragments of art remain, there is a capacity to communicate across the ages.”

Question from man: Poststructuralists make us feel almost guilty about enjoying and appreciating the power of English and the individual word. But close readings like yours rather “privilege” English. Can you defend that?

Paglia: The tradition of poetry is sort of “a self-interrogation of language.” English draws from so many sources (Anglo-Saxon monosyllabic bluntness, French mellifluousness, Latin and Greek polysyllables) that, when speaking English, “you have to make a split-second decision about appropriateness. We call it diction… In a way, every speaker of English is also a sociologist and has a keen ear. English is its own poetry.” (I dispute that this is unique to English in any respect. It seems to vary with size of lexicon.) There are “so many kinds of little games going on within the words” because of the varied origins.

She railed against the rich tenured professorships that poststructuralism “begot in this country [sic].” Ten years from now, they’ll all be retired down in Florida. In fact, she exhorts us to go on down to Boca Raton and look at who’s living there.

She wishes to “encourage vocabulary study among students.”

Man asks about teaching English to art students. Paglia finds that poetry works well for artists because it ensures that students other that prep-school grads, already able to yammer on endlessly about narrative, can understand the work and contribute in class. “You have this compact artifact, really, that exists visually on the page.” The capacity to understand poetry from its appearance “emboldens the unprepared student, the student who feels he or she does not understand literature.”

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.03.22 17:52. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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