Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Close Readings with CP

I've been enjoying the Camile Paglia book, and found a link to this interview on Bookslut.com on the Dumbfoundry site. I can just hear CP saying "explication de texte" in this nasal French accent, and it makes my head spin

Here's how it starts:

BS: I love these close readings -- they bring back memories of my classes at NYU with Denis Donoghue, one of the last giants of the New Critics. Paying attention to the meaning of every word in the poems, all the reverberations and etymology, it’s like reading 43 A+ papers from my students. Tell me more about your attraction to close readings.

CP: I was in college around the time when the New Criticism, which adores explication de texte and all this close reading, was in decline. I would say it was in its height in its founding in the 30s and 40s; but by the 50s, it had become very derivative. It was practiced by these sort of third-raters, people without the real talent and erudition and prose style of the ones who had founded it in North America. And so I was in revolt, I thought, against it in my college years. For example, I found Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn absolutely stifling. I found it Protestant. I came from an Italian immigrant family, I thought it was repressive in its exclusion of anything about sex or aggression; its whole idea about the creative process I found sentimental.


Emily Lloyd said...

Hi, Peter--

I blogged a bit about B,B,B while you were at AWP, but just in a dipping-in way: I hadn't read the preface til just now after reading your post.

Interesting how Paglia touches on so many "hot topics" that have been recently blogged about or debated, just in the preface:

"...shocked at how weak individual poems have become over the past 40 years" reminds me of the recent C.Dale post on books that are "projects" rather than collections of basically-individual, strong poems. "[Poets] have lost ambition and no longer believe they can or should speak for their era"--this subj had been recently discussed in A.D. Thomas's blog & mine, partly in response to the posting of Donald Hall's essay on ambition at poets.org "Personal friendships have spawned cliques and coteries in book & magazine publishing"--maybe Foetry should request a blurb from Camille? And, finally, "Any poetry removed from popular diction will inevitably become as esoteric as 18th century satire"--which relates directly to a huge debate about accessiblity currently on the WOM-PO listserv in response to Kooser and his now-infamous secretary (as first reader).

I'm disappointed Paglia doesn't devote much, if any, space to sound in her close readings. Otherwise, it's been fun so far. Paglia's so darn black-and-white: she often seems to me to be overgushing or overdamning, when plain gushing or damning would do...I'll be interested to hear more of your thoughts as I read on.


Peter said...

Emily: I so agree with you about how CP goes a little (a lot) overboard now and then (all the time). I love her ananlysis of Plath's "Daddy" and several of the others in the book. But her take on the O'Hara poem is just plain ludicrous. It's a crummy poem (not his best work by far); and her fawning over it just makes matters worse, IMHO.
I'll read more and get back to you . . .
The one thing I am thumbs up on, despite it all, is the whole idea of a "close reading."

The Sublibrarian said...

Paglia often has more opinions than she has facts, her explanation of the decline of close reading being a case in point.

Much of the reaction against New Criticism originated in its treatment of the text as an autonomous, autotelic object. This is, in fact, an ideological position, and one that was (or is) part and parcel of Cold War cultural politics.

By and large, the various forms of criticism following New Criticism attempt to break down that ideology. And with each form of criticism comes a new, critical way of reading.

Many of them, such as Derridean deconstruction, also insist on close reading (Derrida didn't so much write books as he wrote about his reading of books). Close reading, however, is a first step in a larger, and more wide-ranging analysis than New Criticism could produce.

Paglia most often strikes me as a practitioner of bad-tempered nostalgia for poses/roles/positions that are no longer sustainable. What in the world could it possibly mean for a poet to "speak for their era" under the commodified individualism of late American capitalism? Begin with the question of whose era we're talking about and it soon becomes obvious that acts of bad faith and egotism would be the only result.