Sunday, February 26, 2006

What makes a poem a great poem?

I finally finished reading Break, Blow, Burn : Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems . I'm sure everyone who's ever reviewed this book disagrees with some or all of the poems Ms. Paglia chose as 43 of the best poems. I will also disagree with most of her choices, but it was interesting to read her evaluation of each poem. It was an education to discover what someone considers when judging a poem. (And, yes, I mean judge a poem. Paglia did this as soon as she placed the word "Best" in the book title.)

Paglia does, however, give a great course in Poetry Appreciation 101, though one taught by an over-enthusiastic grad student with way too much knowledge and a need to let you know how much knowledge she has.

She starts the book with a very apt introduction. By this I mean she trots out a lot of erudite ways you can approach critical reading of a poem, then proceeds to tell you that you should "...make the mind still and blank. Let the poem speak." She drops words like "poststructuralism" and "neo-Romanticism" into the introduction and it hit me two ways: first it annoyed me that she was sounding as pretentious as the critics she was dismissing; second, it was flattering that she should assume her audience intelligent enough to ascertain the meaning from context or, at the very least, look it up. This was a perfect set-up to her way of approaching the poems.

I am not going to go into my opinions of her choices of poems because I think she justifies the choices well. I am, however, going to say that while I think she reads a whole lot into most of these poems, it's almost as though she's trying too hard.

But above all, her love of poetry and these poems is evident. Some of the poems I didn't like upon first reading (such as those by George Herbert) became transformed with her comments. I went back and read them with a new appreciation. Some others I have always loved (such as some of Shakespeare's sonnets) were enhanced by the commentary. Still others (such as William Carlos Williams' The Red Wheelbarrow) were merely confused. A sixteen-word poem followed by three pages of evaluation is a bit much.

I don't normally like to read about poems as much as I love to read the poems themselves, but this was a worthwhile journey with an author whose love of poems is as strong and feels it is "...akin to addiction or to the euphoria of being in love."