Cultural guru (Vamps and Tramps, 1994, etc.) and academic prophet (Humanities and Media Studies/Univ. of the Arts) Paglia offers a series of close, brief, and beautifully lucid readings of 43 poems, all written in English and most squarely within the canon.
Employing old-fashioned “explication of text” (a close line-by-line reading), the author aims to loosen these poems’ “primal energies”—which are subversive, sublime, re-creative, and accessible for all readers, she asserts. Paglia rejects the “spirit-killing” jargon of Post-Structuralism, which she blames for the demise of college literature departments, and returns here to her early New Criticism training by Milton Kessler and Harold Bloom. She makes respectable selections from early English poetry: two Shakespearean sonnets, “The Flea” and several exquisite Holy Sonnets by Donne, and Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” are all obvious choices, though three from George Herbert seems a bit excessive. Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Coleridge get one or two selections each to represent the Romantics. Paglia treats Whitman’s Song of Myself (parts 1 and 24) and three chilling poems by Dickinson in more welcome detail, reflecting her personal academic interests. Perhaps her most arresting choices are three Roethke poems, which pay gruesome attention to natural particulars. Jean Toomer’s “Georgia Dusk,” May Swenson’s “At East River,” Gary Snyder’s “Old Pond,” and Norman H. Russell’s “The Tornado” also display a strong sense of place within nature. Snyder aside, the Beats get short shrift, and Paglia receives minimum points for including multicultural writers and women, although Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” appears with an extended explication, and LA poet Wanda Coleman’s tormented, feminist “Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead” also makes the cut. But the fun of such a collection is disputing who gets in, who gets left out. Robert Lowell’s superbly sad “Man and Wife” stands in a class by itself, as do the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s troubadour-fused “Woodstock,” which conclude the collection and reinforce Paglia’s zeal for mass media—lest the reader forget.
An indisputably terrific primer for all students of literature in English.