The Heckler and the Diva
It’s a weeknight in New York City at the Miller Theatre on the campus of Columbia University, and several hundred people have paid $15 to attend a program titled “Poetry, Politics, and Popular Culture.”
The star of the show is Camille Paglia, who is giving this talk on the occasion of the paperback release of her best seller Break, Blow, Burn. (The book is a kind of poetry primer, containing 43 poems, each escorted by a close reading.) Paglia attracts a well-groomed crowd: predominantly white, mostly between 35 and 55, surprisingly fit. Men with buttoned-up shirts and short, obedient hair. Women wearing scarves and tasteful jewelry.
On stage are two armchairs, a coffee table, and two microphones; the presenters are going for the living room look. Paglia and Bill Goldstein, the man who will be interviewing her, walk out. It strikes me that I haven’t seen her face since she made such a stir in the early ’90s, right around the time the movie The Crying Game came out. I was half-expecting her to emerge wearing a superhero uniform in her bid to rid the world of theory, but she’s dressed in regular-human attire: a slacks and blouse combination.
The interviewer asks a long-winded question that includes the phrase “voluptuous paganism.” I think he’s asking why she put this anthology together. She says she wanted to introduce young people to poetry via the anthology, then adds, “I wanted to prove that poetry had an audience. The book has become a national best seller. It may be unprecedented.”
Soon Paglia transitions from celebrating the book’s aims and accomplishments into what will turn out to be her favorite topic: the insufficiencies of the present. In the first of many jabs at the Ivy League, she argues that most contemporary critics have dropped the proverbial ball when it comes to poetry: “A critic should be at the service of the art, and that hasn’t been the case in the Ivy League in the past number of years.” The crowd applauds. “Poststructuralism doesn’t work with poetry. It marches into a literary work and reduces it down to rubble.”
Paglia’s answers tend to go on and on. Her voice doesn’t have much range, but there’s a certain energy to it; she’s a fast talker, with a slender stutter that kicks in when she gets animated, as she flings her hands around as if she’s swimming through her thoughts. The hand movements seem to propel her to frenetic, over-the-top statements, such as “Poetry is a harpoon to throw at the bloated whale of humanities programs at big colleges . . . leaving the humanities a wasteland.” But after a while, her voice starts to grate: the staccato consonants begin to peck at you.
“Poets want to be revered by professors: Jorie Graham, for example. Maybe she had some talent early on,” Paglia continues. This elicits a big laugh from the audience. “She is like a mirror to the professors; they look into her and see themselves.” More wild laughter. This audience loves to see Paglia rip into someone and draw blood: the meaner the jab, the louder the applause.
Jorie-bashing is a little too en vogue these days, but I’m interested in this crisis of an audience. Who exactly are poets writing for? Why shouldn’t they write for other poets who are professors? What is the incentive not to do that? Isn’t that the main audience today? Aren’t other poets and professors the ones giving out the prizes? If poets don’t write for professors, then who should they write for? An audience they aren’t even sure exists? If a poem falls over in a forest, and there’s no one there to . . .
Paglia continues to rip into the present: “Nothing is going to last from this generation of major poets. Most of the poetry written today is in dead English.” She argues that there’s a need for poems written in working-class American vernacular, and she has a surprising suggestion about where we can turn for authentic American speech: sports radio. (After the reading, I tried this approach. I listened to an hour of sports radio with my linguistic fishing pole, hoping to catch some authentic language, but the best phrase I landed was “hissy fit.”)
The event passes the 30-minute marker. Will Paglia ever get around to reading a poem, I wonder. As if my thoughts have been manifested, a man in the audience yells out, “Enough foreplay. Why don’t you read a poem?” I’m trying to comprehend his usage of the word “foreplay” as heads turn and a fellow audience member snaps at him to “can it.”
Paglia goes back to highlighting the weaknesses of the present. Like a shock jock, albeit one who uses words such as “sexual persona” and “digression,” she deals in extremes, pumping out broad, sweeping bumper-sticker statements. She must polarize in order to be relevant. And as with a shock jock, half of what she says seems to pop into her head during the act of speech. For instance, when talking about the Beats, she free-associates her way to “I never took LSD, but I feel like I did, because I listened to all that music.”
Here the night swerves mercilessly off-course; the topic of poetry gets discarded in exchange for popular culture: “[Elizabeth Taylor] is the ultimate screen actor.” “It’s not plastic surgery that’s the problem; it’s the paradigm.” “It was a travesty that Kate Winslet didn’t get the Oscar for her role in Titanic.” I thought we were here to discuss poetry. I look back at the heckler, imploring him with my eyes to do something.
Paglia blabs and blabs about television and movies. A woman in front of me leans her head on her friend’s sweatered shoulder. The woman next to me checks her watch for the third time in five minutes. The program passes the 90-minute mark, but Paglia is just picking up steam. “The great soap operas are in a terrible decline.” Substitute the word “poetry” for “soap operas” and you suddenly see how interchangeable it all is.
A dozen audience members have put on their overcoats and ducked out. A young theater employee in a shirt and tie marches in for the third time, looks around helplessly, and marches back out. Paglia says, “There’s a crisis in craftsmanship in contemporary poetry,” then defends her decision to include a song by Joni Mitchell in the anthology.
The event passes the 100-minute mark. Paglia could go all night. Perhaps her vocal cords are coated with opium that’s released into her bloodstream through speaking. More people trickle out. A woman stands in the last row, doing yoga stretches.
Yes, the night drags, but it’s not devoid of theater. In a strange twist of fate, Paglia, during the Q&A, calls on her heckler. He says, “If I had to listen to this lecture five more times, I think I would shoot myself. Why haven’t you read a single poem?” Paglia responds sharply, “I will never read a poem. I only read a poem in the classroom.” He storms out. The audience applauds.
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...