Apr 20, 2005

books - break, blow, burn

I haven't actually finished Camille Paglia's "Break, Blow, Burn" book yet but that is irrelevant. I've read enough to know this is the kind of book I wish she would put out more often. If you didn't catch the NY Times review of this book, it is essentially a literary critique of some 43 poems. The title, a phrase from a John Donne poem, refers to her tearing each poem apart. What does each poem mean? How is the poem constructed? What allusions are being made? What is the meter and rhythm and why?

Now let it be known I hate poetry. Hate's probably a strong word. I just don't understand poetry and therefore shy away from it. One of my clearest high school memories is being asked to interpret a poem we read in English class. I did not have a clue what it was about. Not a clue. The teacher probed me to at least give it a shot. I wasn't going to fall for that bait. I'm just too literal. I'm a science and math guy at heart. Allegories and abstract representations just seem so inefficient and frighteningly ambiguous. How was I supposed to know the sun rising and falling represented man's process from birth to death? It could have represented the poet's aversion to brussel sprouts for all i knew. Or better yet it could represent the SUN RISING AND FALLING!

And that is why I like this book. Paglia is basically writing from the viewpoint that she is your teacher. You read a poem. She spends the next 3-4 pages explaining what the hell Shakespeare was talking about. Ironically the first poem makes the same reference to the sun setting. Better yet - she doesn't call on me to interpret a poem. But sneakily, after a while, you kind of get the hang of it and start trying.

At the end of the day I'm probably not going to really enjoy poetry any more. But I'm probably not going to be so intimidated by it. While i thought my high school English teachers were great, they probably did create this aversionI have to poetry. Well, that coupled with the fact that they were some intimidating bad-ass ex-nuns who liked to drink beer.

2 comments:

Jinkman said...

Seemed to me that the key to success in a poetry course was sensing what the professor felt was an acceptable generic interpretation of a poem. That meant any specific meaning you found because of something only you had experienced was not appropriate. After a while it seemed robotic and not at all creative. Felt like it was more like diagnosis, not in reflection and understanding. I switched to history and philosophy after that.

Chookster said...

I'm almost done. It has become a little robotic at the end like you point out. It probably won't change my mind about reading lots of poetry but I feel like Blake isn't as opaque as reading machine code anymore.