Take leaves at first, curled crisp by autumn’s cold—
Crush them to crumbly powder in a tray
To make a simple palette of decay
In varied tints of brown and red and gold.
Next flower petals, multicolored, bold
In stark chromatic contrasts—dry and bray
Them in a mortar till you cannot say
Which shade is which. Then choose a jar to hold
This mix of leaf and petal. Stir it well.
Put in dried leaves of mint, of basil, sage;
Add lavender and lilac, eglantine—
The lily, rue, and camphor’s pungent smell.
Seal up the jar, and simply let it age—
The alchemy of death will work unseen.

From Steel Masks (White Violet Press, 2012)

Stoned Students

You tell them by their wobbling zigzag stride—
They stagger into class for one half-hour,
Head down and collar up, so as to hide
The fact that eyes are glazed, and breath is sour.

With brains unhinged by hashish, pot, or coke
They sit there in a semi-conscious fuddle.
They don’t buy textbooks, never take a note;
Their prose is sheer confusion, utter muddle.

Their mouths breathe forth a narcotizing vapor;
They sleep in class, or leave before the bell—
They miss the midterm, don’t submit a paper,
And log four weeks of absences as well,

And then drift to your office, in a daze,
Inquiring why they haven’t gotten A’s.

From Skirmishes (Pivot Press, 2010)


Calligraphy Lesson from a Chinese Student

She took my hand and showed me how to coax
The inkstone gently, to release black swirls
Into a well of water. Soon smooth strokes
Of badger brush—held upright—laid out twirls
And streaks of meaning. “Here I make the sign
For teacher,” she said, smiling as she drew
A character, precise in every line,
And glistening with fresh wetness. I said “You
Are now the teacher, and I am the student.”
She made me no reply, but then extended
The brush in offering, as though impudent
Forwardness on her part had offended.
I laughed, refused, and urged her to go on—
She smiled again, the chill of distance gone.

From Masquerade (Pivot Press, 2005)




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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15 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    I have previously read and enjoyed your poem about calligraphy, that addresses the subject of how we learn from each other. The one descriptive of stoned students is, unfortunately,describing the average student today. Your potpourri poem is subtle and delightful and deep.

    I am always impressed by the adherence to form and the precise vocabulary of your work, and the way in which you entertain, capture, and instruct. As time goes on I’m hoping there will be more writers who keep to the same high standards.

  2. Dona Fox

    Interesting how in the current order the poems seem to play off each other. The crush and decay of plants in the potpourri creating a treasure yet creating a destructive malaise in the students of the second poem. The students of the second poem a counterpoint to the bright student of the final poem. My favorite is potpourri poem.

  3. Amy Foreman

    I especially like the slightly disrupted meter of the “Calligraphy” poem’s lines 9-12, as the student questions whether she has offended. And then, once she is reassured, the iambic meter continues . . . a lovely piece of poetry, Joseph Salemi!

  4. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Donna Fox is certainly right to observe the delightful harmony and contrasts readers enjoy among the poems of Salemi’s vast oeuvre, here represented by three sonnets published over a span of seven years. The selection was made with the same finesse and deliberation behind the actual composition of the poems—yet another indicator of this American master’s genius.

    And I must say that “Potpourri”—from the outstanding collection “Steel Masks”—is Salemi at the height of his powers, a Salemi we would love to see much, much more of in future.

    The sonnet is an aesthetically jubilant meditation on death (therefore lyrical par excellence) through the colors and fragrances of flowers transforming the poem itself into a potpourri vessel. To read this beautiful sonnet is to lift the lid of an exquisite porcelain jar of oriental design filling the room of the imagination with scents of exotic provenance.

    Are the petals, herbs, and leaves, the work of time, along with the human action of the mortar, a metaphor for our earthly existence? I am inclined to think so, whatever the poet’s intentions. The lyrical passage of time is already present in the autumnal crispness of the first verse and the lovely “palette of decay” in the third.

    May we legitimately relate this masterpiece to an earlier tradition? Most assuredly yes. Even if modernism has rejected olfaction as one of the great poetical senses, Salemi has preserved it with magisterial elegance reminding this author of one of the greatest Catholic poets France ever produced.

    For, it was none other than Charles Baudelaire, in a poem, “La Chevelure,” from Les Fleurs du Mal, who exclaims:

    “Comme d’autres esprits voguent sur la musique,
    Le mien, ô mon amour! nage sur ton parfum.”

    “Just as other spirits glide on the wings of music
    Mine, O my Love! floats on your perfume.”

    Olfaction, odors, perfumes, are everywhere to be found in Baudelaire, but I dare say never quite as perfectly as in Salemi’s “Potpourri.” Like Baudelaire, Salemi has been touched by the spirit of “l’art pour l’art” or “art for art’s sake,” a movement initiated and developed by Baudelaire’s admiring friend, Théophle Gautier. In poetical practice, Gautier emphasized all that was gratuitous in nature as well as in art: the brilliance of gemstones, the colors and fragrances of flowers, that in art which exists simply to please the eye.

    Art for art’s sake was an easy target for modernists to hijack. The Parnassians would succeed in rendering it as cold and empty as proto-modernism could make it (think Mallarmé’s glacially white and sterile “Le Cygne,”). Their project of divorcing art from the moral principle would be taken up by the poets of what I call the Late Hatred, or, the 20th century.

    However, both Gautier and Baudelaire would have rejected the modernist perversion of art for art’s sake. Art was still for man’s sake in their world, as Europe’s most important aesthetic philosopher, Augusto Conti, understood it.

    In “Potpourri,” Joseph Salemi has rectified the elegance and refinement of the ars gratia artis by restoring its essential lyricism, which puts him on the same footing as the movement’s illustrious progenitors.

    “Potpourri” is truly a masterpiece whose beauty, lyricism, and spiritual insight are the the defining notes of the Ars Poetica Nova—the very best of La Nouvelle Poésie.

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    I am deeply grateful to all of the commenters. I only hope I am worthy of their praise. And I will continue try to write as well as I can.

    I am especially glad that Mr. MacKenzie has raised the important issue of the principle of l’art pour l’art, and how it was hijacked by 20th-century modernism for that movement’s own extra-aesthetic purposes. The formulation goes as far back as Benjamin Constant, and was a key element in the aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe. But after Gautier, it was used primarily as a way to disguise an “epater le bourgeois” posture. It became a means of separating art from intelligence, technical proficiency, tradition, craft, and even discursive meaning. This is why many people today are convinced that anything you scribble on a sheet of paper can be called a poem, or anything you splash on a canvas can be called a painting, and if you say otherwise you’re being “unfair” and “non-inclusive.”

    For the theorists of modernism (I exempt a number of its better practitioners), the principle of art for art’s sake became just a device for showing contempt for any social or political fact that went against the grain of left-liberal ideology. What had originally been a safeguard for the artist, allowing him to do his work free from the meddlesome interference of extra-aesthetic forces looking over his shoulder, became a license to turn art into a weapon of corrosive social critique — but in particular the critique of religion, law, decorum, beauty, and intelligibility. Baudelaire writes many poems that are shocking and upsetting; many great artist do the same. As far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. The principle of l’art pour l’art was designed to allow such artists to do as they saw fit in the exercise of their talents, even if it offended some stuffy bien-pensant types. With the triumph of modernism, however, “art for art’s sake” became a way to defend the hanging of a urinal on a gallery wall, or the splattering house paint wildly on a canvas, or the spouting Dadaist nonsense.

    Conti was correct. Art is for man’s sake, in the context of man’s world. But artists need the principle of ars gratia artis to do their work in peace, without second-guessing interference. This salutary principle was indeed hijacked, to serve instead a particular sociopolitical agenda.

    And that is where we find ourselves today. Everyone talks about the “freedom” of the artist, about his “need to take risks,” about how he must “push the envelope” or “strike out in new directions.” Yeah, sure. Just try to put those exhortations into actual practice. Try publishing a poem that questions the orthodoxies of Mainstream Liberalism. Try getting a poem into print that mocks multiculturalism, or socialism, or gender feminism, or any of the vicious little forms of identity-politics. Try to take the unorthodox side of any hot-button political issue. You’ll find out pretty quickly that the freedom guaranteed by l’art pour l’art is inoperative in your case.

    I thank Mr. Mackenzie for making this very important distinction. Ars gratia artis was originally similar to a license for a professional, like the credentials awarded to a doctor, an architect, or an electrician. Modernism turned it into a convenient excuse for attacking any civilizational structure that wasn’t in accord with countercultural political tastes.

  6. Esiad L. Werecub

    These previous pieces of Mr. Salemi show that he handles the English sonnet nicely. “Potpourri,” with its Frostian tone, run-on lines and octave, artistic colourings, and an almost Shakespearean use of flowers, hits squarely with the last line of the couplet. The second sonnet’s focus, “Stoned Students,” as Ms. Cook has accurately indicated, “unfortunately is average” on our campuses today. [I personally enjoyed the line, “Their prose is sheer confusion, utter muddle.”] As Ms. Fox has suggested, it also makes “a counterpoint” to “Calligraphy Lesson from a Chinese Student,” with its anecdotal quality, and pleasant atmosphere. It reminds me of a poorer, more recent sonnet I wrote, with run-on lines, metrical violations, and a not-self-contained couplet, on Wang Xizhi (303-361), regarded by some as the greatest Chinese calligrapher in history. Forgive me for including it here; but you can see how Mr. Salemi’s sonnet reminded me of mine; and it can also show the metrical superiority of Mr. Salemi’s lines, that Ms. Foreman has pointed out likewise have a “slightly disrupted meter.”

    Lady Wei’s Pupil
    by Wu “Sacred Bee” Li

    His writing was as light as floating clouds,
    as vigorous as startled dragons drawn
    across the paper, on the silken shrouds,
    or dipping ink slabs down into Ink Pond,
    where he would watch the geese go gliding by
    upon the tiny wavelets in the mist,
    or swimming when the sun was in the sky;
    the way they moved their necks he moved his wrist.
    He took the brush, the ink stick and ink stone
    and penetrated to three-quarters of
    the wood. His Preface reached right to the bone
    of Emperor Taizong. He wrote in love,
    this General of the Right Army, he,
    the Censor of K’uaichi, Wang Xizhi.

    I also agree with Mr. Mackenzie that “Potpourrie” is Mr. Salemi at the height of his powers, and what a wonderful phrase Mr. Mackenzie uses to describe the reading of Mr. Salemi’s sonnet…lifting “the lid of an exquisite porcelain jar of oriental design filling the room of the imagination with scents of exotic provenance.”

    However, as to Mr. Mackenzie’s remark that the Modernists “rejected olfaction,” I would posit, first, T. S. Eliot, who, in “Preludes” and “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” for example, is only one of the many Modernists [and Postmodernists] who utilized olfaction in their poetry, and second, I daresay they did so, because the Modernists [and Postmodernists] relied mainly, if not only, upon their senses.

    However, I agree completely with Mr. MacKenzie when he confronts the Parnassian “project of divorcing art from the moral principle,” which was “taken up by poets of the ‘Late Hatred.'” [I must admit up front, that I do not so completely accept the work of Baudelaire, nor so totally reject the poetry of Mallarmé.] And I am glad that Mr. Salemi brought up Edgar Allan Poe (who deeply impressed both Baudelaire and Mallarmé) as an early proponent of art for art’s sake.

    But it is just that “moral principle” [cosmic justice] that makes Ancient Greek poetry so powerful and important to Western Civilization: from the heroic virtues in Homer’s “Iliad,” and the wise justice directed by Athena in the “Odyssey,” to Hesiod, in his “Theogony,” where Zeus is in charge, and his daughter Dikē (right, justice), oversees the affairs of mortals, and in his “Works and Days,” where he writes (Hugh G. Evelyn-White’s 1914 translation), “Listen now to justice, and forget/ completely, violence./ For Cronus’ son set up/ this law for men./ Fish, flesh, and fowl/ each other may devour,/ for right is not in them./ But right he gave to men, and this/ is best by far.” Etc.

    There is beginning [note that word] to appear, in the pages of SCP, poetry worthy of a serious counter anthology to the main-stream-medium trash that is washing through the 21st century.

  7. Charles Southerland

    Dr. Salemi, your age is showing, your Romantic Age. May it continue unabated.

    • Amy Foreman

      Lovely, witty comment, Charles Southerland! I wish I had thought of it!

  8. James Sale

    Joseph Salemi is for me a recent discovery and a very welcome one. To find someone so articulate and cogent in prose and yet able to master, seemingly effortlessly, the intricacies of verses a joy. Recently I purchased his Steel Masks collection from which Potpourri is taken, and what a great collection it is. As I read his poetry the masters in English that most appear to influence him are Dryden – for that vigorous, sinewy syntax and killer clarity – Byron, for that knowing romance, biting wit, and linguistic ingenuity – and Browning, for the stories, monologues, and odd angle’s view of things! Potpourri is all a sonnet should be as others above have commented; but one thing I would add is a technical note on his brilliance: in that we have a Petrarchan sonnet form without the usual sestet/octave division. He has wound or weaved the lines into one piece. What’s brilliant about that is how the compression forces us to accept all the words as ONE poem, yet it is in the last line only that we find the ‘killer’ punch – all the rest is a carefully constructed recipe leading us to this one indissoluble fact – the alchemy of death. In other words, he has effectively shown that death cannot be separated out from the Potpourri recipe of life. I think that is a truly wonderful – yet almost imperceptible – feature of his poem.

  9. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Salemi is right to remind us that Baudelaire wrote poems that are shocking and upsetting and that many great poets have done the same.

    Therefore, I would like to state for the record that, while satire is almost entirely misunderstood, it has always had a place. In poetry we have the example of Dante himself, and Shakespeare. Boileau elevated satire to its highest level of refinement. nor should we forget the sonnets of Du Bellay in “Les Regrets.”

    The gift of satire inevitably descends upon the finest minds of a given place and time. Salemi’s “Stoned Students” holds a mirror to the hypocrisy of modern academia. It is therefore as necessary to the Salemian spirit as the other, more lyrical poems.

    Satire, especially Salemian satire, puts a frame around “les misère du siècle” much in the manner of Baudelaire, but without emulating Les Fleurs du Mal.

    As you begin to purchase and read Salemi’s various collections, you will find the same level of craftsmanship—that poetic “orfevrerie”—as you enjoy in all his other works.

    • James Sale

      Yes, you are right Mr Mackenzie; and I especially like ‘Stoned Students’ – that final couplet’s rhyme – daze/A’s – is superb in its exact and ironic opposition.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        What Mr. Sale is indicating here is precisely what makes “Stoned Students” so memorable. It’s a couplet whose satiric edge is very sharp indeed!

  10. Lew Icarus Bede

    1. Mr. Sale accurately places Mr. Salemi’s writings in that realm from Dryden to Byron, the great age of satire in the English language, that includes the political rhetoric of Dryden’s couplets, Pope’s gossipy salon sparkle, Swift’s grand ironic p(r)ose, Johnson’s Crabbed, didactic diction, Franklin’s comic aphorisms, and Gordon’s Byronic flamboyance.

    2. Mr. Mackenzie is correct to say satire “has always had a place,” id est, since its inception in the autobiographical hexametres of Lucilius of the 2nd century BC, of whom the great satirist Horace said, “Quid fit ut omnis/ votiva pateat veluti descripta tabella/ vita senis…” which Boswell also applied to Johnson.

    3. I find the most genial satire in English lit in great works of Chaucer, and in America, in the whimsical stories of Modernist Thurber, while some of the most bitter satire, though not in the vein of Juvenal, the savage satirist of Rome, comes from the Realists, the Modernists and the Postmodernists, like Twain, Orwell, and Vonnegut.

    4. Mr. Mackenzie’s mention of Boileau is important because, like Dryden and Pope, Boileau drew from the Roman satirists, like Horace and Juvenal; but more importantly for English literature, his hexametre vers héroïque influenced not only the use of the iambic pentametre heroic couplets of Dryden, Pope and others, but also the very course of English literature.


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