When formal poets come to me for advice, I do my best to be helpful. I can comment on metrics and diction and syntactical choice. I try to avoid discussing subject matter since that is in the realm of personal invention and inspiration. Nevertheless, if a poet earnestly asks about subject matter I’ll certainly suggest where he could improve, or where he’s going wrong. But when I sense that a formal poet is working against his better instincts—that is, when he is striving mightily to impress some imagined audience of his betters in the po-biz establishment—then I politely bow out. His problem is no longer verbal, but spiritual. I simply cannot help him.

In fact, let me speak very frankly. A formal poet who decides to compose with lots of sporadic near-rhymes and metrical irregularities in his otherwise “formal” poem is probably a coward or a careerist. He’s doing it not to express his creative originality, but to suck up to others.

It works like this. Many people are desperate for popularity and esteem. They want to have as many friends as possible. Now if you are a formal poet you are at a distinct disadvantage, because the great majority of persons in the contemporary po-biz scene have been infected with sick notions of modernism. The bulk of them are free-verse drivel-spouters, and even the small group who have some allegiance to the older traditions are also semi-brainwashed about the supposed value of modernism in the arts.

So what’s the esteem-hungry formal poet to do? Simple—he sucks up to others in the business by disguising his work as somehow “modern” and “with-it.” He tries to make these others think that he’s not an outsider or—Heaven forfend!—a reactionary.

He can accomplish this in several ways, such as overusing near-rhymes, or making his meter as loose as a wobbly wheel, or putting in unnecessary substitutions, or not starting his lines with capital letters, or employing only very simple vocabulary. He can limit his subject matter to stark social realism, while giving abundant virtue-signals about his politically correct views.

If he does all of this regularly and astutely, he can come across to others as an acceptable modern poet, and he’ll get his share of groupies, readings, and invitations to cocktail parties. In short, he’ll sell his artistic integrity, just like a whore sells her body.

So I always ask poets who do all of the little tricks mentioned above: Are you doing it out of a genuine commitment to your aesthetic principles, or are you doing it to make friends and to be acceptable? If you can honestly say that the first is true, then OK—more power to you. But if you confess to the second motivation, then I’ll tell you this: You’re never going to get anywhere in the po-biz world, because most of the people you’re trying to impress will see right through your ploy, and will dismiss you as a poseur. But even worse, you will be corrupting your precious talent to serve the beliefs of others. And that is a lot more self-destructive to you than not making friends with a lot of po-biz vermin.

Think of all those women who were molested on Harvey Weinstein’s casting couch. If they had any self-respect, they would have slapped him in the face at the first improper advance or suggestion, and stormed out of the room. But they stayed, and allowed themselves to be abused. Why? For the vague promise of a part? On the chance that Weinstein might remember them for a future role? So that they could be close to someone of power and influence? How contemptible such motives must seem to them now, in retrospect.

Well, formal poets who try to make their work marginally acceptable to those who disdain formal poetry on principle should ask themselves if self-abasement is really worth it. Why suck up to these people? Why worry about their opinions and preferences? Why make yourself a ridiculous poseur? The people who hate formal poetry will always hate it, root and branch. Admit that, and ignore them.

 

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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13 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Without fail, Dr. Salemi delivers, in his inimitable manner, liberating truths the traditional poetry movement needs now more than ever before.

    I am very pleased with this essay as it beautifully counterbalances two poorly written reviews posted in this very venue praising the very kind of “poets” Dr. Salemi describes.

    Reply
  2. Joe Tessitore

    Is someone with a spiritual problem on his or her own? If so, then ours truly is a cold, hard world.
    You may be right in saying that “(you) simply cannot help him”, but many believe that there is Another who can work through you. To “politely bow out” is to preclude that option.

    Both you and Joseph Charles mention Harvey Weinstein, in no uncertain terms. Do neither of you believe in the abuse of power? Is Harvey Weinstein not a serial abuser?
    Does he not stand accused of at least one count of rape?
    Should his victims be accused of aiding and abetting?

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Your point is excellent, Mr. Tessitore, as we must distinguish between those who are victims of Hollywood’s liberal leftist rape culture and those who willingly enter into complicity with it, being Marxist liberal operverts themselves.

      So, you are right the analogy is defective.

      What I meant to say is that there are critics, not just poets, who seek to placate the liberal po-biz establishment by posting reviews in praise of modernist, pseudo-formalist tripe, and that we have a pretty good example of this in this very venue.

      If Mr. Weinstein had the neat accent and “good humor” of the “well-meaning” British leftist, I could imagine some in the classical poets movement apologizing for him—if not fawning all over him.

      Your comment is very well taken.

      Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Mr. Tessitore —

      When I said a “spiritual” problem I didn’t mean a religious one. I meant what the Germans would call a problem with “Geist,” or “Sinn und Rat.” In American English I probably would have done better to use the word “psychological” or “ideological.”

      For me, poetry is craft, skill, techne. I think I can help persons with problems in that area, just as an experienced painter might help a novice painter with questions of perspective, foreshortening, palette, composition, and overall design. But if someone is a social climber who simply wants to be accepted in mainstream po-biz, and who adjusts his work solely to please anonymous third parties, how can I possibly help the guy? His aims are utterly different from mine. It’s not like I’m abandoning him to the loss of eternal salvation. I’m simply deciding that I am of no further use to him.

      Yes, of course I believe that abuse of power happens. And Weinstein is a prime example of it. I hope he gets his just deserts in the court of law, and in the afterlife.

      But let’s face some real facts: Many of the women who are accusing him are partially to blame because of their unwillingness to stand up and fight back! Look — when I was a kid sixty years ago, a self-respecting woman would have smacked a man in the face if he tried to pull the kind of disgusting moves that Weinstein pulled. Or they would have screamed and called the police, or gotten their father or husband or brother or boyfriend to beat the offender to a bloody pulp.

      What happened? Where have all those tough ladies gone? Are they all little snowflakes, too fragile to dish out a slap to some obnoxious creep who molests them?

      The women in the Weinstein case were not “aiding and abetting.” I never said that. But many of them FAILED TO RESIST VIGOROUSLY, tolerated the abuse, and waited many years before ever reporting the facts to anyone. And I find it ironic that these women all grew up in the most feminist-friendly environment that has ever existed in the history of the planet. And yet they didn’t have a smidgen of the hard-boiled gumption of any woman back in 1955, during the so-called “patriarchal” years. Maybe that should tell us something about feminism.

      Reply
      • Joseph Tessitore

        Dear Dr. Salemi,

        You are not one to mince words or to pull punches – your Harvey Weinstein paragraph is no exception. In it you ask us to “Think of all those women who were molested…and allowed themselves to be abused.”
        You do NOT mention “aiding and abetting” and I do not say that you did. This was me, after mentioning the charges against Mr. Weinstein, extending the legal reference to drive the point of “victim responsibility” home.
        Do you think I was that far afield?

  3. James A. Tweedie

    I’m sitting, waiting for my delayed flight
    from SMF to PDX at Gate
    B-9. Departure is almost (not quite)
    one hour late, so while I’m wait-
    ing I will pass the time by writing pos-
    er poetry that sort-of rhymes and keeps
    a semi-formal classic, rhythmic, caus-
    usistic beat so as to give the creeps
    to Joseph M. and Joseph S. I hope
    that The New Yorker will be so impressed
    that they will print it. If my twisted trope
    can pass the Metro Literati’s test
    then maybe I will be invited to
    a cocktail party with a penthouse view.

    Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Joe,

        I have submitted several times to The New Yorker. My neighbor gives me his old issues thereof, and I have noticed that since Richard Wilbur died, nothing worth clipping has appeared there.

        Used to be, one could count on a good formal poem at least twice a year; if not by Wilbur, then by Clive James, Don Paterson or others

        Indeed, this magazine now publishes only the worst of the worst in poetry.

        Years ago I wrote “semi-formal” poems to garner credits from otherwise inhospitable venues. I was somewhat successful at this, but I have since given up the habit because , at the end of the day, it was like biting one’s fingernails or scratching one’s ass in public. Worse, it was like masturbating to the image of Medusa.

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Kip, I know what you mean. The editors at The New Yorker were just waiting for Wilbur to die, since it would have been impossible to reject poems from a writer of such monumental and world-wide distinction. Now that he’s gone for good, they can indulge themselves with garbage art on a permanent basis.

    Reply
  5. Satyananda Sarangi

    Greetings, Joseph Sir!

    I must admit that many young poets (or so called poets) succumb to this modern trait of pleasing the vast audience that least cares about formal poetry. It is like abandoning the root of the tree and trying to reason that the branches are better. Such a plethora of these poets have shaken the ones that take up formal, rhyming verse as the keystone of their creativity.

    Personally, I find it tough to get going with writing formal verse at times, since English is not my first language. But I detest reading any post modern piece for it fails to appeal to the senses. You won’t be published if you rhyme, most journals and magazines say. Back in 2016, I remember trying to find journals like SCP, Trinacria, The Measure, etc. that clearly value the rich formal tradition, but in vain. I liked the guidelines on your journal Trinacria’s website – things like those keep young ones like us going despite the rise of pseudo poets all around.

    Warm Regards

    Reply
  6. David Watt

    Dear Dr. Salemi,

    In a bookshop, I recently had a brief flick through ‘How to be a Poet’ by Jo Bell. It was stated that ninety percent of poetry is now ‘modern’, and that the remaining ten percent is ‘formal’. Advice was provided to the effect that aspiring poets should at least learn something of form and structure. Then, with this grounding in the past as a basis, they could move on to be a ‘modern’ poet in their own individual fashion.

    I believe such advice to be almost a reluctant acknowledgement from the ‘modernist’ corner that formal poetry had, or has, some merit. However, the overall tone seems to be this: Try a little form to imbue your poetry with a smidgen of readability, then do your own thing in true modernist style. The reader should generally be confused by modern poetic pieces, and certainly not uplifted.

    My point is that even the very definition of a poet is distorted these days.

    Reply

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