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Short Takes

Break, Blow, Burn
By Camille Paglia
Pantheon, 247 pp., $20

What is the provocateur Camille Paglia doing in the refined realm of poetry, wandering analytically among Wordsworth's daffodils and Whitman's blades of grass? Actually, she is doing her job -- Paglia is, after all, a humanities professor -- bringing intensive, well-informed, and largely persuasive line readings of poems, familiar and not so familiar, to readers also familiar or not so familiar with the works singled out here and with reading poetry in general.

Attention must be paid, says Paglia in typically peremptory fashion, and when it comes to understanding what and how a poem means, she is right. Beginning with Shakespeare and Donne, she patiently explains the use of allegory and conceit, the apocalyptic imagination of Dickinson and Yeats, the imagery of social protest in Blake, Plath, Joni Mitchell (Joni Mitchell?), and the fragmented, graffiti-like verse of lesser-known contemporary poets.

Paglia restricts her (not unjustified) bomb-throwing to the introduction, where she accuses her usual bete noire, the poststructural theory cult, of taking over English departments and choking all the vitality and sensuality out of literature. Of course, Paglia's method has its own pitfalls. Lavishing pages of passionate exegesis on the lyrics to ''Woodstock" is no way to prove the superiority of close reading to poststructuralist overreaching.

Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame
By Michael Joseph Gross
Bloomsbury, 239 pp., $23.95

It's no secret that we have a weird relationship with celebrity. For some, that relationship goes beyond normal curiosity to a conviction that something is owed them for accepting the role of a fan. As a boy growing up in a small town in Illinois, Michael Joseph Gross was an obsessive autograph hound, a fixation with fame that he shaped (some might say sublimated) into a career as a writer reporting on the stars and the fans who worship them. He has found nirvana.

In the line of duty, Gross hangs out with B-list celebrities like Mickey Rourke, who gives jerks a bad name, and Sean Astin, an intriguing blend of humility and narcissism. He interviews gossip anchorwoman Mary Hart, who leaves him feeling obscurely disappointed. He talks to devout fans from ''planet MJ," the world of Michael Jackson, that parallel universe of reciprocal unreality.

Gross is a journalist and a memoirist, not a psychoanalyst. Nevertheless, the theme of psychological symbiosis runs throughout these profiles. What stars get from their fans is what fans get from the stars: a way to fill up what is somehow felt to be empty.

The Genius in the Design
By Jake Morrissey
Morrow, 320 pp., illustrated, $24.95

If any artistic pairing ever cried out for the Hollywood treatment, it's the one summed up here by Jake Morrissey as, in the words of his subtitle, ''Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome."

The 17th-century sculptor-architect Gianlorenzo Bernini and his less lionized contemporary Francesco Borromini are credited with creating the baroque style -- with its ''merciless splendor," as Morrissey describes one Roman church designed by Bernini. But no work of art could be more baroque than the lifelong contest between the two former colleagues to outdo and undercut each other's efforts and reputation. Their work, together and separately, on some of the holiest sites in Rome, including St. Peter's itself, was punctuated by outbreaks of scandal and violence within an ongoing campaign of character assassination.

Morrissey illuminates the contrast between the celebrated Bernini, a smooth operator with cardinals and popes as his patrons, and the anguished Borromini, whose geometrically innovative designs were, paradoxically, serene where Bernini's sculptural extravaganzas, including his ecstatic ''St. Teresa" and the Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona, were turbulent. A book less stingy with illustrations would have done more justice to Morrissey's descriptions, though the biographical details are vivid enough to stand on their own.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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