She can't write a simple essay without getting all first-person singular on your ass, and she'll never retire those brittle evocations of the "neo-Romanticism of the sixties cultural insurgency," though that's an unfortunate generational tic she shares with many. But Camille Paglia's very fervidness--imagine food flying from the corners of her mouth as she discusses Wordsworth--and her unstylish insistence on a right and a wrong in art, success or failure in no uncertain terms, is what makes her so valuable these days, when poetry is as foreign and feared as math. Taking its title from a John Donne sonnet, Break, Blow, Burn (Pantheon) is with all due modesty subtitled "Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems." "Reads" here means old-school explication, and Paglia takes the reader line by line through lyrics from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell ("Woodstock," she writes, "is possibly the most popular and influential poem composed in English since Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy'"). At points her tone has a schoolmarmish snap that demands attention to the most mundane detail even when her take on things seems touchingly dated ("despite the microbrew trend, mixed drinks are still thought classier," the professor tells us when poet Rochelle Kraut cites "the flush of two beers" darkening her cheeks). But whether it's the particulars of booze, Renaissance Christianity, or jazz that drag Paglia closer to the poet's intent, she's only interested in discussing the poetry--not the poet's personal woes or political concerns, abundant in spades throughout the verse, but the goddamn words on the page, one after another, building to transcendent meaning. Tue 4/26, 7 PM, International House, University of Chicago, 1414 E. 59th, 773-752-4381.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Misa Martin.