Batter my heart, three-person’d God;
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mind
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me know.
—Holy Sonnet XIV
The poet is the voice in the wilderness, using the written words as weapons against an unsuspecting world. In her latest book, Break, Blow, Burn, Camille Paglia reviews what she considers the World’s 43 greatest poems.
Poet John Donne’s declares that only strong action is required to rescue him from sin and true freedom comes through strict obedience to God. Paglia uses sexual tone to underscore Donne’s theme as she writes, “We will never be pure until we are abducted and raped by God.” “Take me to you, imprison me,” declares Donne as he begs for God to take control of his life.
It is God who breaks, blows, and burns, and it is God who is the true originator of that is good. The Poet, using sexual imagery, tells of a grace undeserved being given by a forgiving God. Poet implores, “Yet early I love you and would be loved,” and understands that God loves him no matter what.
If Donne pursues hope in God, other Poets march away from God and see no hope. William Blake, in “The Chimney Sweeper,” tells the story of young boy who is a chimney-sweeper. Written in the first year of the French Revolution, Blake pursues his own attack upon the English monarch. As Rousseau declares, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” and Blake captures this theme in his poems, “The Chimney Sweeper” and “London.”
For a young chimney-sweep, life was brutish and short. These young boys developed chronic throat and lung problems, skin irritation and deformation of the skeleton structure, along with long-term exposure to coal dust. Their parents often apprenticed these chimney-sweeps, since many of these parents couldn’t afford to keep their own children. It represented slavery of youth, forced into labor to do the difficult work required at the beginning of the Industrial age.
The narrator plays the role of the old veteran or maybe father-figure as he offers hope in a world where all are damned. Blake writes, “And by came an Angel who had a bright key, and he open’d the coffins and set them all free,” and implies that only death can free these children from their life.
With these words, Blake attacks the basic Christian message of hope, “And Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for his father and never want joy.” It is the old “God is the opium of the masses,” and Blake decries a society that kills its youth. How can a Society that damns its youth be Christian? In the poem, “London,” Blake takes this message to the next step as he inscribes, “How the Chimney-sweepers cry, Every blackening Church appalls. And the hapless Soldier’s sigh Runs in blood down Palace walls.”
The soldier fights for a cause that he doesn’t understand, and as he sighs, he may be sighing his last breath. Just as the chimney-sweeps are sacrificed to keep London clean, the soldiers are sacrificed for the King.
Does Blake call for or predict that the English monarch will join the French monarch in the ash-heap of history? Many aristocrats are losing their heads in Revolutionary France and soon, Europe will be engulfed in a European war that will last a quarter-century. Blake concludes, “And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse,” as he renders judgment upon a society that kills its youth either through exploitation and war. This becomes a theme for many poets over the next two centuries.
The poets that Paglia picks attack society, but as society changes, many of the poets do not. Paglia views the modern-day pop artist as today’s poet and many prospective poets became rockers. Joni Mitchell’s anthem, “Woodstock,” is a poem that stands on its own. Even without the familiar singing of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Mitchell’s words represent the modern-day Blake. As Blake was writing at the beginning of the French Revolution, Mitchell is writing during the Vietnam war. Both wrote in transitional periods.
Mitchell opens with “I came upon a child of God. He was walking down the road. And I asked him, where are you going. And this he told me, I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm.” The individual is going to a rock concert, but for a whole generation, Woodstock was not just a rock concert—it was a celebration of a new way of living. ” We are stardust, we are golden…back to the garden,” shows that the new generation will take us back to nature.
Mitchell dreams of bombers turning into butterflies as we fight wars no more. Innocent thoughts do not make a philosophy, and within months, the Rolling Stones Altamont concert ends in tragedy. Mick Jagger stands on stage begging his children to return to peace as the Hell’s Angels killed a member of the audience. Whereas Woodstock was a peaceful gathering, Altamont was the counterculture going berserk, and there was no new garden of Eden.
The Poet points out the warts of societies, but Mitchell and Blake fail to see that what is outside their world is even more evil. Blake rails against England, a nation capable of reforming, but across the English channel, there exists a Revolution that ate its own leaders and its children. Mitchell and her generation decries the Vietnam war, but who will cry for those left behind when the North Vietnamese won the war; or for that matter, do we cry for the victims of Saddam Hussein or even care?
Donne speaks of a world that needs God, but Blake spoke of a world with no room for God. Dueling Poets with dueling worldviews, but both are capable of strong emotional pull.
The poet can also detail the daily life. Paul Blackburn tells the story of the tanned blond “in the green sack in the center of the subway car,” in the “The Once Over.” Everyone fantasizes about her, the teenage hood, the lesbian, the envious housewife and men over fifty. Yet no one can obtain her, for she is out of their reach “with her long legs, long waists, high breasts (no bra), long neck, the model slump.” She teases us, but we are intrigued as well. She exploits us with her sexuality and her apparent freedom. The housewife is envious for she is trapped in her life, but this woman appears free. Strangers, with nothing in common, sit in the subway united in their obsession for this woman.
Andrew Marvell tells of love unrequited and seeks more from his woman. “My vegetable Love should grow,” declares the poet, “Vaster than Empires and more slow; An hundred years should go to praise.” What of honor and virginity? “And your quaint Honor turn to dust, and into ashes all my Lust: The Grave’s a fine and private place,” tells the woman that time may play its own trick on her. Death may be the final place for our sweetheart. The poet tells his woman, “Now let us sport us while we may, and now like amorous birds of prey.” Time is fleeting, allow passion to flow and love to be fully expressed.
From Shakesphere to Mitchell, the poet moves us, inspires us and forces us to think about a world that goes beyond our immediate surroundings. Love, hatred, fear, and protest are part of the poet’s emotions and the poet transfers those emotions to us. Whether we agree with the Poet’s thoughts or ideals, we are moved. Paglia shows us poems that strike every aspect of life. Incest, love, war and peace are all there. Paglia exposes a world of poetry that is unknown, but this book is worth the read not just for the poems but Paglia’s own views. Paglia shows us that Poets “are fabricators and engineers, pursuing a craft analogous to cabinetry or bridge building.” Their words are not words on a page, but text that can “exist as an object.”
Paglia decries a world that is “indifferent to literary style, from the slack prose of once august newspapers to pedestrian translations of the Bible.” She notes that even the web may increase verbal fluency but not its quality. “Approaching the poem is to make the mind still and blank. Let the poem speak… to commit a poem to memory is to make act of reading superfluous. But I believe in immersion in and saturation by the poem, so that next time we meet it, have the trill of recognition,’ is her advice to the reader. Paglia wants art to be re-emphasized in schools and as she concludes, “Poets must remember their calling and take the stage again.”