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Paglia reflects on time at Harpur College

By : Rachel Coker

Author Camille Paglia speaks to an audience of nearly 400 on Oct. 17 at the Anderson Center Chamber Hall.
When Camille Paglia returned to her alma mater Oct. 17 as the Milton Kessler Distinguished Poetry Reader, she seemed to have two major goals. First, let the audience know what an extraordinary teacher Kessler was. Second, take on the intellectual establishment, particularly the humanities.

“Once in a lifetime you encounter a teacher of the quality, the dimension and the vision of Milton Kessler,” she said.

Paglia, an Endicott native and second-generation Harpur College alumnus, graduated in 1968. Paglia, now the university professor of the humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is the author of four bestselling books, including 2005’s Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems.

She recalled Kessler introducing her class to Theodore Roethke, three of whose poems appear in her book. She said she was stunned by the “mammoth quality” of Roethke, and by how different he was from any poet she had learned about in high school.

She was also struck by Kessler’s approach to poetry, which encouraged students to have a “glandular experience” of the work.

Paglia took or audited five or six courses with Kessler and said she had gone through her notebooks before the speech to glean some of his comments.

One in particular stood out, she said, from the second day of her first course with him. “Poetry is all about perception of mind,” he told the class.

Kessler, a poet and professor of English who is credited with founding the University’s Creative Writing Program, died in 2000.

In his classes, Paglia said, she imagined a coming renaissance of the humanities. Instead, she said, people have gotten the idea that art belongs to the elite.

“What is the purpose of education?” Paglia asked. “For me, the humanities should be about art appreciation.”

Paglia sees many of the most revered poets of our time as pretentious “word choppers” and believes their work may well be driving people away from poetry.

“True poetry is something that has incandescent quality that is passionate, engaged, emotional and physical,” she said.

Paglia spoke quickly, breezing through page after page of notes and allowing herself lengthy asides. The Chamber Hall audience of nearly 400 students, faculty, staff and community members frequently interrupted with laughter and applause.

Some of Paglia’s most popular remarks focused on the state of higher education. She lavished praise on public universities while calling several prominent elite institutions a “fraud” beset by a “resort mentality.”

Paglia earned master’s and doctoral degrees at Yale, which she acknowledged has a wonderful library. She said she sometimes feels like an “insurgent” fighting the Ivy League. Paglia called for a new approach to teacher training and decried the sameness of thinking among professors from coast to coast.

“Your best chance for independent thinking,” she said, “comes from small liberal arts colleges or public universities.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08