. . .Poetic language has become stale and derivative, even when it makes all-too-familiar avant garde or ethnic gestures. Those who turn their backs on media (or overdose on postmodernism) have no gauge for monitoring the metamorphosis of English. Any poetry removed from popular diction will inevitably become as esoteric as 18th-century satire (perfected by Alexander Pope), whose dense allusiveness and preciosity drove the early Romantic poets into the countryside to find living speech again. Poetry's declining status has made its embattled practitioners insular and self-protective: personal friendships have spawned cliques and coteries in book and magazine publishing, prize committees and grants organisations.
In other words, poetry has lost touch with the People. And the People are to be found, astonishingly enough, in the "media," which to Paglia is essentially television and popular music. Paglia's intellectual slumming in front of the tv and the boom box has always seemed to me her least appealing quality (I liked Sexual Personae, but even it is not free of this pop-idolizing cant), and it does nothing to make her new poetry anthology seem something we ought to take seriously. Paglia (correctly) emphasizes the way in which English is constantly changing--which makes it an ever-renewable source of new kinds of writing--but she ought to consider this when elevating the Romantic poets' "living speech" over "dense allusiveness and preciosity." Try putting even one of Wordsworth's sonnets in front of a classroom of freshman literature students. To them, Wordsworth's language is just as "precious," and just as difficult, as that of any Augustan satirist.
(I will admit that a consequence of literature's relatively small audience is the insularity she describes. But this is finally a problem only if we can't separate the "literati" from literature itself. The former ought simply to be ignored, although in a celebrity culture like ours even the big fish in the small pond are going to get their unfair share of attention.)
I do agree with Paglia in her observation that "over the [last several] decades, poetry and poetry study were steadily marginalised by pretentious 'theory' - which claims to analyse language but atrociously abuses it. Poststructuralism and crusading identity politics led to the gradual sinking in reputation of the premiere literature departments, so that by the turn of the millennium they were no longer seen, even by the undergraduates themselves, to be where the excitement was on campus. One result of this triumph of ideology over art is that, on the basis of their publications, few literature professors know how to 'read' any more - and thus can scarcely be trusted to teach that skill to their students." But she doesn't inspire much confidence in her own alternative practice, which is apparently buttressed by her own kind of "theory":
. . .Animated by the breath force (the original meaning of "spirit" and "inspiration"), poetry brings exhilarating spiritual renewal. A good poem is iridescent and incandescent, catching the light at unexpected angles and illuminating human universals - whose very existence is denied by today's parochial theorists. Among those looming universals are time and mortality, to which we all are subject. Like philosophy, poetry is a contemplative form, but unlike philosophy, poetry subliminally manipulates the body and triggers its nerve impulses, the muscle tremors of sensation and speech.
Now, it's all well and good to hope that a poem might be "iridescent and incandescent," but exactly how does this happen? One can only conclude from what Paglia says in this piece (admittedly an edited version of the introduction to her book) that it's just some kind of magic, akin to the "divination" she says is practiced by critics of poetry, which resembles "the practice of oracles, sibyls, augurs, and interpreters of dreams."Although Paglia claims to "maintain that the text emphatically exists as an object," she doesn't offer any suggestions as to how that object comes into being. There's no indication in her discussion that she understands that poetry--all art--is at least as much craft as it is inspiration. Her exhortations that poets create the "powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem" are all very vague and mystical, leading one to suspect her book won't have much to offer to either writers or readers interested in experiencing everything that poetry might have to offer.
Furthermore, her dismissal of contemporary poets is equally vague:
. . .In gathering material, I was shocked at how weak individual poems have become over the past 40 years. Our most honoured poets are gifted and prolific, but we have come to respect them for their intelligence, commitment and the body of their work. They ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem. They have lost ambition and no longer believe they can or should speak for their era. Elevating process over form, they treat their poems like meandering diary entries and craft them for effect in live readings rather than on the page. Arresting themes or images are proposed, then dropped or left to dribble away. Or, in a sign of lack of confidence in the reader or material, suggestive points are prosaically rephrased and hammered into obviousness.
It's revealing she won't name names, relying instead on such smug generalities. Perhaps she doesn't because if she did cite any specific poets who are supposedly guilty of these sins, she, and we, would discover in examining "the body of their work" that Paglia's description is a caricature, a glib excuse for ignoring the work of poets that doesn't measure up to a preconceived notion of what poetry is supposed to be. I really would like to see Paglia engage in a close reading of the work of eight or ten of the most respected living poets--say Jorie Graham or John Ashberry, Derek Walcott or Seamus Heaney, one or more of the "language poets"--and honestly conclude that their best work resembles in any way the cliched rendition Paglia rehearses in this passage.
"Artists are makers," says Paglia, "not just mouthers of slippery discourse. Poets are fabricators and engineers, pursuing a craft analogous to cabinetry or bridge building." But nothing else in her essay is consistent with this description. It's all about "primal energies" and "illuminating human universals," about the sacred and the sublime. If she were truly to accept that poets are "makers," she would also have to admit that what they sometimes make will not be immediately recognizable to the People, will either ignore "popular diction" or turn it inside out. In my reading of this essay, Paglia does not really want a poem to be a verbal object but instead some kind of oracular pronouncement, a pronouncement in which "art" really has little if any role.
Finally, Paglia informs us that "All literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader." All criticism? There's no role for criticism that assumes a "general" knowledge on the part of the reader and seeks to take the reader beyond the most obvious surface features of the text? I agree that surveying these features is where criticism should begin (something that has indeed been forgotten by most academic critics), but does it have to end there? Presumably it does if the experience of literature is essentially a religious one: "I sound out poems silently, as others pray." By definition poetry as holy text does not really allow for an appreciation of what "individual poems" are really like; in Paglia's scheme they're to be recited, but not understood.
In my opinion Paglia has let her contempt for the politicizing of postmodernism get the better of her. Poets may not be "mouthers of slippery discourse," but I don't think many of them believe they are. If academic criticism has reduced poetry to this, the academic critics are to blame, not the poets. And in her zeal to discredit these critics, Paglia indulges in some pretty slippery discourse herself. She appropriates poetry to a version of "spiritual renewal." To me, this doesn't seem like much of an improvement.