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A fierce battle to save the canon Print-ready version

by Michael Posner
Toronto Globe and Mail
April 24, 2006

Camille Paglia's book on poetry is part of her effort to 'preserve our finest artifacts,' she tells MICHAEL POSNER.

On reputation alone, Camille Paglia looms as an intimidating figure -- hugely knowledgeable, strongly opinionated, reflexively sharp-tongued, and not inclined to suffer fools, gladly or any other way. But interviewing her, it turns out, is a breeze. You just turn on the recorder and ask a question. It might be your last.

Like the Mississippi in flood, her verbiage spills over everything in sight. The delivery is reminiscent of the late broadcaster Walter Winchell, a nasal staccato. It makes you want to duck. Stretching and twisting in her chair, her body seems to be constantly in motion, a woman so wired to ideas that she barely completes one thought before another interrupts her.

This might be tedious -- indeed, sometimes it is -- but the fact is that Paglia actually has something important to say. Not that everyone seems to be paying attention. Once fashionable, a regular on talk shows and in book-review pages, she's been effectively ostracized by her refusal to accept prevailing cultural nostrums.

A professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Paglia was in Toronto recently to promote her new book, Break, Blow, Burn (Vintage); the title is from John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV. Five years in the making, it's a collection of short essays on some 43 poems from the Western canon that she considers among the best ever written.

Her choices include works by Shakespeare, Herrick, Donne, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, as well as many modern American poets, some well known (Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke), some less so (May Swenson, Ralph Pomeroy).

There is one, perhaps surprising, Canadian selection. Not Leonard Cohen nor Irving Layton nor Al Purdy, but balladeer Joni Mitchell, for Woodstock, which most people regard as a song. Paglia says it's "an anthem for my conflicted generation . . . an important modern poem, possibly the most popular and influential poem composed in English since Sylvia Plath's Daddy."

There are no modern British poets included. "No one made the cut," she says. "The Brits were really offended."

Paglia's objective, essentially, is to explain by careful analysis why her selections are great poems and why they should continue to be taught. "It's a book for the general reader," she says, "a book I would have wanted to have been given in high school." In her introduction, she writes, "at this time of foreboding about the future of Western culture, it is crucial to identify and preserve our finest artifacts. . . . Custodianship, not deconstruction, should be the mission and goal of the humanities."

Paglia is not a huge fan of deconstructionism, the long-reigning gospel in academe. Western culture is in serious decline not only because it is being overrun by the Philistine armies of the entertainment industry, she says, but because on college campuses across the United States, political correctness has run amok.

"I was in Kansas City on my book tour and met this woman studying public administration, and she was complaining about having to study [poststructuralist French thinker Michel] Foucault. I'm mean, it's absolutely absurd. It's become doctrine. It's everywhere."

Consuming a force-fed diet of the French intellectual method of Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, she adds, students emerge "passive to language, indifferent to fact, and arrogant towards culture."

Academic dissidents have been silenced. "If you don't embrace the consensus, your career stops in its tracks," Paglia says. "I had a woman call me from the literature department at Harvard. She said no one can speak out because if you do, you don't get the courses you want, the hours you want, you don't get graduate assistants. It's pathetic. It's authoritarian, a regime of terror. Anyone opposed has either left the university or is totally underground."

The result, she maintains, is two generations of lost talent -- those who refused to surrender, and entrenched mediocrity among those who remained.

In the broader culture, Paglia, 59, argues that the quality of representational art, playwriting, literature, poetry and music is in wholesale retreat. Poetry particularly is suffering. "Too much work by the most acclaimed poets [is] laboured, affected and verbose," she says in her introduction, "intended not to communicate with the general audience but with their fellow poets."

Radio listeners have two choices, pop-music genres or talk format, and the latter is full of anti-art venom. "The number of classical-music stations has dropped off tragically. We're going backward there." She calls rap "a great style," but says it has not produced any major lyrics that go outside the community of already committed rap fans. "The tragic part" about It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp winning this year's Oscar for best song, she says, was "that it actually was the best song."

Most new cultural trends only deepen her gloom. She views the iPod as solipsistic technology: "It means that you are completely gone in your self-imposed world." In the university, she says, "students no longer know -- or want to know -- how to use the library. They use the Internet, but haven't the ability to discriminate between sites that are accurate and sites that aren't."

Having dealt with poetry, Paglia now wants to turn to painting. "I'm on the warpath to try to get art taken seriously," she says. "Kids today are drowning in images, but they don't know how to see. They don't know how to look. You cannot stop major cultural change, but as an educator you have an obligation to try to compensate, to remedy the deficit. That's the failure of my generation of academics in the Ivy League. You know they're all for affirmative action, they push all this propaganda, but they've totally turned their back on the destruction of inner-city schools. It's arbitrary leftism of the worst kind."

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Added to Library on April 24, 2006. (3126)


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