by James Sale

FORMAL COMPLAINTS by Joseph S. Salemi, Somer Rocks Press, 1997
MASQUERADE by Joseph S. Salemi, Somer Rocks Press, 2005
SKIRMISHES by Joseph S. Salemi, Pivot Press, 2010

I first encountered Joseph Salemi’s work on the pages of The Society of Classical Poets, and a great discovery it was too. One immediately heard a powerful and distinctive voice in his poems; and so it was I acquired his three major collections of poems, and with the editor’s consent went ahead to review them.

To take then an overview of how I see Professor Salemi’s work, I’d say that all real poets know, but do not talk about, where they are in the pantheon of poets. They know because the Muse informs them; but to talk about oneself in such a way would be to betray the Muse. As that would have dire consequences, poets don’t do it of themselves. But the critic can ask, where is Professor Salemi in the pantheon? In my view he is somewhere to be classed with three outstanding poets: Ben Jonson, Lord Byron and Robert Browning. To all three of them he owes something: to Jonson that sense of classicism and high style; to Byron that vitriolic and intemperate sense of attack; and to Browning, perhaps most of all, those dramatic personae, that getting under the skin of someone and speaking in their voice. A brilliant example of a Jonson and Browning-influenced poem combined is Mr Salemi’s “Volpone in the Stocks” where he directly cites Jonson (Volpone, incidentally, one of the greatest plays in the English language, and produced in the same year, 1606, as Shakespeare’s King Lear: indeed, Volpone could be construed as the comedic equivalent of the tragic Lear) but enters, a la Browning, into the mind of Volpone. The only purity left in that mind is in recalling Celia, the heavenly one; and this is so spot-on, recalling Jonson’s poem “It was a beauty that I saw,” which establishes what beauty is through a series of negations. This, in essence, is any satirist’s technique: for by critiquing what is wrong, they presume, or assert, what is right.

For an example of the Byronesque, we need look no further than his “Parliament of Professionals.” One remembers Byron’s devastating indictment of Lord Castlereagh (pronounced, Castle-ray) written sometime after Castlereagh’s death:

Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.

That’s Byron – pretty strong stuff, and pretty direct and amusing too. Here’s a snippet from “Parliament of Professionals”:

Educators: Our wallets fatter, then perchance
We would not pimp for ignorance
Bureaucrats: Underpaid, we are malicious
Little vermin – but not vicious
Publishers: Literature can go to hell –
Can jerks read it and will it sell?

Pithy, vitriolic indeed. But note, in the qualification, “but not vicious,” we see a classic Salemi ploy, as the verse strives for ever greater specificity and accuracy. He is constantly assessing and finding exactly the right words for the objects of his attention – it’s sniper fire, not a blunderbuss.

But in reading all three books one is impressed by at least three things: the range of reading, reference, language and history that Professor Salemi seems more than well acquainted with; the sheer technical brilliance and mastery of language and form that dazzles with its virtuosity; and thirdly, the unremitting vigor, energy and vituperation with which he assails his enemies. Indeed, this last point deserves one important footnote: that in the execution of the 12 Principles of Military Strategy (for keep in mind, Professor Salemi is truly at war) he probably gets full marks in 11 of the 12. But nothing for the 12th Principle: surprise! For his is a full-out offensive, no Trojan Horses here; and no winning friends and influencing people either. Professor Salemi is certainly a fully-paid-up maverick – a Clint Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Wales), if you will, of the poetry world.

Formal Complaints is a collection of 22 poems which, as the title indicates, assume the form of a public address, specifically directed to the court of the world, presumably, given that they are “complaints,” in the hope of some redress, and certainly, if not, emotional release. For these poems contain severe, pent up emotions, all the more explosive as they are mostly contained in intricate, formal vessels whose very constrictions further concentrate the venom, the satire and the mockery that the forms deliver. Indeed, form for Mr. Salemi is a pressure cooker that transmutes the raw and crude materials into a baking hot and nutritious meal.

Three particularly superb poems in this first collection (in addition to “Volpone” above) are “The Jeweller’s Deposition at the Coroner’s Inquest,” “Contract Murder,” and “God’s Final Comment on the Baby Boomers.”

The first in the series is an astonishing meditation – reminding me of a Browning dramatic monologue – on a young girl who starts to pierce her body with rings and hooplets. It is a longish poem, but completely absorbing. The jeweller makes a serious testimony to the court, which becomes increasingly absurd and surrealistic – yet actually is a devastating critique on our society and its values. A sort of reductio ad absurdum of punk. But it includes also hilariously funny details just almost thrown away in it. My favorite is

The same, of course, goes for the bayonet
Of blued steel that was pushed right through her heart
By the unapprehended murderer.
What a time we live in, gentlemen!

So having pierced herself in every possible place with metals, finally she is murdered with a bayonet in the heart. I mean, that is a priceless joke – and notice the specious outrage of the “jeweler” who all this time has been profiting from the girl’s obsession. It is no less a poem than the best of Browning (excepting “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” of course).

In Masquerade we have a further intensification of his methods and techniques, and an even wider range of targets. There are some 53 poems in this collection and quite frankly one would need to write a whole book to cover some of the gems contained here. But in brief, a stand-out poem for me is “Porphyro and Madeline: The Epilogue by Lord Byron.” Here we see essential Salemi at work: the overlay of a Byronic mindset onto a Keatsian classic. He uses the same Spenserian stanza that Keats used in his “Eve of St. Agnes,” but takes it in a new and un-Romantic direction – but, with brilliance and brio. Some of the lines are simply polished diamonds:

Though principles in solid bronze be cast
No belly can endure for long a total fast

And in the final line, we learn of Porphyro, that “(’tis said),… Died with his hands entangled in a rosary.” This is simply masterful. The word “entangled” placed midway in the line seems utterly indicative of the life they have led – starting off with love but somehow becoming morally “entangled.”

So much of what Professor writes rings true, although caustically so. His “Homage to the Cultural Contributions of Native Americans” is positively vicious, and so we must not be expecting them to be promoting his poetry in their schools any time soon! But Salemi goes beyond criticizing races; hell, apart from his penchant for Nineteenth Century French debauchees (e.g. Rimbaud) he seems to condemn the whole French nation. But no worries: in his wonderful parody of Craig Raine, “A Martian in Michigan Sends a Message Home,” all the people of Michigan – indeed all Americans – seem lacking in any cultural worthiness. So we can truly say of Professor Salemi: he is even-handed in his critiques and satires of others.

As befits a true poet, we also get that Salemi is a prophet too: his wonderful poem “The Producer Reassures the Starlet” (keep in mind published in 2005) could have exactly been written for Harvey Weinstein and should – if marketing were of the slightest concern to Professor Salemi – have been re-released last year with a new title: “Harvey Weinstein Reassures the Starlet.” If it had, I feel that there would have been every chance his work, like that our SoCP friend, Joseph Charles Mackenzie, might have gone viral. The final line of the poem, incidentally, is a bruising double entendre: “I’ll fill you in tonight at the motel.”

There is so much more in this collection. As somebody who has worked extensively in business and corporate culture over a 23-year period, I can identify with “Corporate Opportunity” – so true, and such a condemnation of what is often a phony and artificial life. Then we have his marvelous “The Hip-Hop Hippolytus.” This is almost showing-off as he adopts rap style whilst maintaining a tight form; and we see his fascination with words, language, slang. Even the title itself, which picks up through alliteration completely dissimilar ideological domains and thereby semantically yokes them together. Superb.

Moving on, I would like to say more but space forbids: Skirmishes, a collection of 67 poems. This continues the intense thrust of the earlier Masquerade. Indeed, it is so much linked to it that the poet seems not to have noticed one poem bleeding into both collections: “Piety In Due Season.” If anything, however, Skirmishes is even more satirical and militant, as its title indicates – and the war is on. It’s like – to use a Dylan Thomas phrase (and Thomas appears in Masquerade) – Salemi is raging against the light, or rather the darkness of the modern world. Perhaps, too, like Yeats did.

There are, however, poignant moments. One theme that recurs in his work is the futility of war. His poem “Military Review” concludes with a shiveringly sad observation:

And shades, who once held spears and shields,
Recall, remember, contemplate
The peopling of their barren fields –
The place, the weapon, and the date.

One poem of particular genius in the collection is “The Belgian Congo, 1902.” This is so brilliantly conceived and executed, and shows a profound insight into man’s inhumanity to man. But more than that I found it morally compelling in the connection it makes between the Belgians and their treatment of slaves in the Congo in 1902 and then how the Kaiser treated them in 1914. We have, certainly in the UK, a view of the plucky Belgians resisting the Hun, and tend to easily forget their awful, imperial history. Salemi doesn’t (and citing – who else? – Joseph Conrad) either and it makes for compelling reading.

As does, “Lord Byron Remembers Beau Brummell.” This is a fine conceit, and once again we find the influence of Byron – that steady mind that saw through the humbug of society and exposed its foibles.

And I need to say now, before wrapping up, that there are a significant number of poems, including “Love’s Song and Dance,” “The Fates Give Oedipus a Consolation Prize,” “The Girls in the Cave,” “Sexual Proclivities of 10 Poets,” which are extremely erotic and on a par with some of the best of Dryden and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. In both cases, if one needed to be told, the erotic easily slips over into the pornographic, albeit with consummate skills (that is to say, not your average pornography). So there may be lines that some readers of the SoCP may find too strong for their tastes, too close to the bone. That said, Salemi is always erudite and entertaining.

So, where are we then with Professor Joseph Salemi and his poetry? It should be clear from my account that I think him a major poet: his work is inventive, creative, erudite, accessible, accomplished, prodigal, philosophical and pungent. Add to that its overall vituperative thrust, then you have a body of work well worth reading; and in a golden age everyone would be reading his stuff, and he would be on the syllabuses, at least at institutes of higher learning. But if this is praise indeed, what of criticism? What is there to say, perhaps, that one finds less satisfactory? And there is such.

The first thing to say is yin and yang! Professor Salemi is all yang. Where is the yin? To be specific here, consider the following poets: Ben Jonson, Lord Byron, and Robert Browning. All yang poets too like Professor Salemi – great poets, but not like their opposite number and contemporaries like Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson. The absence of lyric, of a softer side to his work, is noticeable; Salemi’s work is non-lyrical, intellectual, muscular, masculine and yang. In fact, in writing of bad poetry he directly will have nothing to do with “feelings” (“Poetry Today” from Masquerade). And we note with interest the lack of self-disclosure in his work. Of course, that is the lack of direct or intended self-disclosure. Plenty is disclosed about his internal world, for as Ben Jonson observed, “language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee.” The fingerprints are there, but we have to be able to read them, for it seems to me that Professor Salemi wants to make that difficult for us to do.

And there are two specific things arising from this that I think are a serious weakness in his poetry, if I may be forgiven for saying so. The first is the more blatant, but I cannot find in all 3 volumes one positive reference to women and womanhood. He seems to know nothing about the true love of woman, the true ideal of womanhood, and how women transform men from savage beasts to god-like beings through their love. There is a lot of whoring, Pandora, and morally falling away in these collections, but no mother, no Beatrice, no love that transforms the very souls of human beings. In short, the poetry is one-sided in terms of what I would see as a balanced view of human nature.

And then there is this other position of Professor Salemi that I find difficult to accept. Given that I love his satirical jabs at all and sundry, at the sacred shibboleths of contemporary times, I love all this stuff, but for me he goes too far. His final poem in Skirmishes, “Self-Portrait,” is the nearest we get to his self-disclosure. It’s not much of a self-disclosure, however, since the whole book reveals exactly this: “A bilious spleen is where your demon reigns.” But by the time we get here we are full circle to the opening poem of Masquerade: “Rimbaud’s Apology.” We find in other words the satire not just directed against abuses, but actually deployed to justify the Rimbaud style of living. For example, in “To Those who condemn Coleridge for using Opium,” we find

It doesn’t matter if a man’s a cad,
A liar, drunkard, lecher, or a jerk –
Is what he puts on paper good or bad?

This is, I think, exactly not true, for he goes on to argue, virtually, that – to take one example – Dylan Thomas may not have written poetry without access to alcohol (we remember the poetry of the New York coroner who described Thomas as dying from a “severe insult to the brain”). This seems to me to be promoting pure license, not freedom, and ultimately suggesting that wasting our lives so we can be “creative” is worthwhile. At every level I disagree with this proposition, whilst I can also accept – which I think Professor Salemi might argue – that the deadening and bourgeois morality in which some of these poets functioned did need challenging. It’s a complex issue and I have no more space to discuss it, but I think it important, and important that so great a satirist as Professor Salemi is questioned about it, since it seems to me inconsistent to be a moralist who undermines morals. Actually, we all want to know about the life of the poet, not just their work, for as Professor Brian Cox once commented: “narrative may be regarded as a primary act of mind.”

My final hope is that this incredible body of work will find a much wider audience not only in the USA but in the entire English-speaking world. As an ex-English teacher myself, there are many poems here that I believe that students would love, laugh and enjoy – and learn from. It would be good to know that real poetry, Professor Salemi’s, was being read, and not the tepid and over-hyped rubbish which sadly we are condemned to read most of the time now.

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33 Responses

  1. Satyanarayana

    It is a pleasant surprise to find one Prof. Salemi in these times whose class takes us to the nostalgic past…oh the few verses referred here by Mr. James Sale already robbed my heart. Wow. And as usual, Mr. James Sale is not only a great poet but also a fine reviewer. Let me recall the words of Alexander Pope here, so appropriate for both Mr. Sale and Prof. Salemi:
    “A generous critic fanned the poet’s fire
    And taught the world with reason to admire!”

    • James Sale

      Thanks so much Satynarayana for your words – Professor Salemi’s poetry is remarkable and you reference to Pope is very astute, as Pope too shares some features with Professor Salemi’s work. But … one can’t include everything; and there is so much there!

  2. Sally Cook

    To Dr. Joseph S. Salemi —

    It is about time you received some recognition for the continuing excellence of your work!

    I’d like to add a word or two about your essays and book reviews? You are the only reviewer I know who can leave the reader feeling that he now knows more about the poet than he knew before. There’s never a trite overview or a rehash, and you slice right through irrelevancy.

    As to your essays, I’ve saved quite a few over the years, and on occasionally re-reading one, I invariably find it just as fresh and relevan.t.

    I just recently read your “Bad Language Again…” at The Pennsylvania Review, and then on reading Byron’s appraisal of Lord Castlereagh, I had to chuckle. Things don’t change much, do they?fffff

    I consider the essays, which you apparently are able to toss off at the speed of light, to be the best around. Words have meanings, and you can put those meanings across better than any other contemporary I know ! Please, won’t you publish them in print* They are full of wit and wisdom and many function as a manual to writing better poetry.

    Thanks, Mr. Sale for seeing this and for recognizing it here.

    In my opinion, you are the best essayist around today, and deserve far wider exposure and attention.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Sally. Yes, I agree with you: I love his essays too, but was not able to include them in this review – it would all require a book! But it was good to present some of the gems I found in his substantial 3 volumes. Like you, I would welcome the essays in book form.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      And we must never forget, also, the incalculable good, so vital to the progress of our American poetry at this time, which Salemi has accomplished through his work as our last great, traditional editor in the pages of Trinacria. In other words, the subject of Mr. Sale’s review is what the French call “un homme de lettres” in the proper sense. Our century has produced only very few who are worthy of the epithet.

  3. Michael Dashiell

    I searched Amazon for his books, only one was available, Steel Masks. In his title poem (the only one posted in “Look Inside” ) he does write with intensity similar to Byron, but if this poem is indicative of the rest he favors the past over the present.

  4. C.B. Anderson

    Count Leo,

    Not two hours ago I read your comments, and I saw nothing in them objectionable, and I can’t imagine why anyone would object to your objection about footnotes. Or have I mistakenly adverted to a different thread? All these things tend to blend together, but as you well know, to forgive is divine.

  5. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    I must concur with Sally Cook—herself a poetess of unimpeachable refinement as we have seen consistently in this venue. For, indeed, Joseph Salemi is entirely without doubt the great essayist of the age. And the poetic personality—Salemi possesses this in abundance—which Mr. Sale has beautifully exposed shows forth in the poems in much the same way as the essays.

    I also believe that Jospeh Salemi is not necessarily fixed in the “manner” of the earlier works (try nailing down this poet even to his own self!) but will continue to show us yet more variety and development in years to come, according to his genius.

    And yes, it is fascinating—although not at all surprising when you look at the history of poetry—that the father of the Ars Poetica Nova for us Americans would not be a lyric, but a satiric poet who may not have been consistently moral in the absolute sense in all his many verses—in contrast to the man himself who could not possibly be more so. The undeniable absence of the feminine ideal, so dear to lyric verse, and which Mr. Sale indicates in all justice, was never actually the proper of the satiric art. But there is a paradox there, for, this is precisely because satire is the moral art par excellence—it must hold a mirror to the often unpleasant truth of our human condition and has but little time to dabble in dreams.

    Dante was a satirist. The same could be said of Shakespeare, and Cervantes himself.

    Mais attention, enfants! Reread Salemi’s First Friday poem and, published in these very pages, the magisterial translation of Macabru’s “L’Autrier just una sebissa” and you will find gorgeous lyricism in the one and perfect morality in the other. O, pray that this direction flourish under the golden quill of this master!

    In other words, with Joseph Salemi, we are also talking about the great advocate of poetic liberty. For me, liberty simply means the freedom to know, love, and serve God through my poems. But that is me. I do not expect this of others. And I would go farther than Mr. Sale in adding that pornography is always a loss in any art. It tarnishes. Wagner enslaved his music to it, to the detriment of music itself. What is the prologue of Tristan if not a cheap thrill for Huns who never understood the Italian overture? Only the dismal Nietzsche could ever appreciate such a disaster.

    But then, I write as one for whom there is no true “eros” outside of the Crucifixion and its re-enactment in the Mass. For me, the poetic act is an act of religion, the fruit of divine contemplation united to the Holy Eucharist—and this one idea about poetry is far more scandalous and unacceptable to modern readers than anything Dr. Salemi has produced. This is why I always add the pathetic disclaimer, “for me,” or “in my mind,” because I have seen too many grown men faint to hear it and can’t administer smelling salts from my keyboard to revive their delicate constitutions.

    In other words, the greatest value to be derived from Mr. Sale’s review is perhaps, quite simply, that it is a beginning, and the finest possible sort of beginning. There is much more ink to be spilled about all the many fine poets of the Ars Poetica Nova. An anthology is long overdue.

    On a scroll to be revealed in glory, heaven is already recording our acts. May they be pleasing always and everywhere to God, even if, in so saying, I should reveal the very reason I shall never make a good reviewer!

    • James Sale

      Thank you for this Mr MacKenzie – many good points, but especially that this is a ‘beginning’ – hopefully, a new beginning for many others to come and see for themselves what a brilliant poet Joseph Salemi is; and in my small way I hope to have begun a dialogue about his poetry that will continue. The thing about diamonds is – they need to be examined and not left in the earth.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Oh yes, we must also revive la critique littéraire which the modernists have also destroyed. We must restore the Christian foundations of criticism in general. This is the task of the new generation.

  6. Charles Southerland

    Dear Mr. Sale–

    You missed one of Dr. Salemi’s books of poetry which contains some work that is poignant regarding women. “The Lilacs On Good Friday” is the title. “Penelope’s Postscript” and ” Charity’s Gift” are but two excellent examples of his endearing love and fondness for the fairer sex. Just sayin’.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      “Lilacs on Good Friday,” the signature poem of the collection of which you speak, is a lyrical masterpiece. I am so very pleased you mentioned it, Mr. Sutherland.

      I am a poor sonetero of New Mexico and really have no right to be estimating my superiors in any way. But I do believe that we might even conclude that Salemi is sui generis even among satirists—although I have always held that he who sharpens his teeth in the satire inevitably writes with a finer pen in all the other genres as a result.

      Again, I speak from my own severe limitations wishing that I possessed that breadth and depth of ability we see, most assuredly, in the “Lilacs.”

      But just consider in silence and awe how Salemi transforms the lilacs into a thurible in the Good Friday poem:

      Here in this garden how could it displease
      To let the lilacs offer up my prayer—
      Sweet censers that, when shaken by the breeze,
      Scatter their fragrance in the evening air?

      This is truly the poet as contemplative. All twelve quatrains of the poem are a kind of spiritual orfevrerie! If Salemi possessed only this one lyrical arrow in his entire quiver, he would be the greatest lyric poet of our place and time.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Charles for updating me – I hadn’t seen and don’t know this book, so thanks for updating me; it’s good news.

  7. Leo Yankevich

    I love Joe Salemi, his poems, and essays, but Jimbo Sale, you are a total bullshitter. You are a con-man, not a poet or critic.

  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    Please guys — I don’t want to be the cause or occasion for any fighting. I love you all. I can’t bear to see more bad blood here.

    • James Sale

      No need to worry, Professor Salemi: there is no bad blood on my part and I am not fighting anyone. The important thing on this thread is to celebrate your great poetry and to make critical – as in analytical – comments on it. I hope my review leads others to acquire your works and dig deeper into them than my brief account has allowed.

  9. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    Though I disagree with some of Mr. Sale’s pronouncements of Mr. Salemi’s poetry, overall I think Mr. Sale has made a reasonable assessment of Mr. Salemi’s poetry. He has done what Ms. Cook says Mr. Salemi has done in some of his own essays, when she says, upon reading a Salemi essay, the reader “knows more about the poet than he knew before”.

    Though looking at only one poem, and I suspect with Mr. Sale’s review in hand, Mr. Dashiell legitimately asks if Mr. Salemi favours the past over the present. Sri Satyanarayana notes it as well when he notes Professor Salemi “takes us to the nostalgic past”. It is precisely that, Mr. Salemi’s and Mr. Sale’s groundings in the past, which are most appealing to me. Both speak of Jonson’s “Volpone”, for example. Where else are we going to find such a discussion (even if it is to a minimal degree)? The tricky thing, of course, always, is to locate and discover the significance. And I think Mr. Salemi’s “pictures of the past”, as I try in my own work, are comments on the present we are passing through.

    Although I prefer Mr. Salemi’s larger vision, and his poetry as well, to that of, say, Dana Gioia, I have to admit I do not concur with Mr. MacKenzie when he states “Mr. Salemi is entirely without doubt “the great essayist of the age”. I have read nearly all of the “essays” Mr. Salemi has published in Trinacria, and some published at The Pennsylvania Review (I tried once unsuccessfully to respond to one of them), and most of those that Mr. Gioia has published on line (and essays he has sent to me), and there is no doubt that Mr. Gioia’s comprehension of the poetry of the last century is commanding. And there are other essayists as well; some near the ends of their lives, like Anglo-Australian Clive James, who I grew up reading, and whose works were more linguistically colourful (in the sense of Tom Wolfe), and American Harold Bloom, who went obsessively deeper into various eddies of the traditional canon of the last 1000 years. Other literary critics taught me more in other areas as well, Anglo-German Michael Hamburger brought me closer to European Modernism, while John Hollander taught me more about British Romanticism than any other writer. And these are only some of the more recent English-speaking essayists.

    Really, the most any of us can do in the dozens of branches of literature (as in all other fields as well, music, history, zoology, engineering, travel, farming, mathematics, philosophy, physics, medicine, art, law, chemistry, economics, architecture, psychology, technology, health & fitness, politics, diet & exercise, religion, photography & film, cooking, the environment, botany, astronomy, meteorology, the military, etc.) is to add small pieces to the overarching canopy of human knowledge. We definitely have our work cut out for us. As T. S. Eliot once wrote: “indeed, to be original with the minimum of alteration is sometimes more distinguished than to be original with the maximum of alteration”, and frankly, I would add, more than that cannot be done. As Isaac Newton once said, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

    As to Mr. Yankevich’s remark that Mr. Sale is a “total bullshitter”, I wonder. Perhaps B. S. Eliud Acrewe more accurately deserves that epithet.

    • Satyanarayana

      In great poetry I experience two important aspects. Firstly an inherent music that flows copiously throughout, slaking the ever growing connoisseur’s thirst and secondly a strong expression with pithy substance that keeps haunting the reader forever. These are the qualities that really attract us in the poetry of classical poets like Lord Byron, Milton, Shakespeare and others. We see those qualities in abundance in Prof. Salemi’s poetry.

    • James Sale

      Ha ha ha! Bruce – you have to be the funniest guy on all these SCP posts. I laugh more at your ridiculous identities, shape-shifting, protean commentaries than anything else; there is a genius in it I have to say. And I am glad you like Professor Salemi’s work so much: your point about Volpone is true – where else are we going to encounter and discuss Volpone, so that that past literature lives again as it does through Salemi’s work. Finally, and remarkably, I see you have been studying and practising Charles Williams’ (the third Inkling after CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien) principle of substitution: to allow B.S. E A to assume the title of bullsh***er and thus remove the onerous burden from me is truly remarkable. I am reminded of Jesus’s words when he said: ‘No greater love hath man than this: that he pick up the BS for his friend’, or something like that. Thanks, mate.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      The reason why I would never call Dana Gioia is because I myself had been an academic trained to use the same formulae Gioia uses in his attempts at the essay. Gioia has no more style or substance than any other academic. He does not possess a tenth of Salemi’s vocabulary. The real difference is that Salemi adds to thought. Gioia simply recycles a very small set of academic concepts using establishment-sanctioned language.

      Just so you know, he was admired by George W. Bush.

      Another problem: Gioia, as a poet, is the very incarnation of mediocrity. A pure modernist in verse.

      But really, in either prose or verse, Gioia and his ilk, the has-beens of the establishment, simply cannot hold a candle to Salemi. Who can, when you think on it?

  10. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    1. Mr. Gioia just emailed me: “…poet Tim Murphy…is dying. He had the last rites yesterday”, which would have been Thursday.

    2. Granted, Mr. Gioia’s 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” is Postmodernist; but I have seen no 21st century essay comparable; and I remain convinced it is the best American Postmodernist literary essay. Can anyone name a better one?

    3. As we know the literature of the New Millennium is still being written. We shall see. Are there any 23-year-olds out there writing “An Essay on Criticism”?

  11. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    I agree nearly entirely with the sentiments in Mr. Salemi’s “Poetry and Class (Part I)”; his voice is one of the few that clearly delineates the present situation, which is why I have admired his work for some time; but that essay is not really in the running for what I consider the better essays of either the Postmodernist period (or the New Millennial period) on poetry.

    “The Totems of Poetry” is better. I don’t think it stacks up to Mr. Gioia’s essay; but it is good. In fact, I think I like it better than Mr. Salemi’s poetry. I think his deflations are worthy of delineation here @ SCP.

    1. It’s the task of poets to express what they truly think and feel.
    Mr. Salemi: That is not the case at all. They’re supposed to lie through their teeth, if necessary to create a good aesthetic effect.

    2. Poetry ennobles and heightens human consciousness.
    Mr. Salemi: This is like believing that having a college degree makes you a better person, or that learning French will improve your moral stature.

    3. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
    Mr. Salemi: This canard was dreamt up by Shelley, a poet with a frustrated power-complex. The very thought of poets having actual political power is as horrifying as Jurassic Park.

    4. The language of poetry ought to be the same idiom as that used in everyday life.
    Mr. Salemi: This is so blatant a lie that it’s hard to believe anyone utters it with a straight face. The whole point is to say something arresting a memorable.

    5. Creativity breaks rules and transgresses boundaries.
    Mr. Salemi: No it doesn’t. Creativity puts itself to school, learning everything it can, and then manifests itself as one more facet of the great tradition.

    6. Poetry teaches us great lessons.
    Mr. Salemi: Poetry doesn’t teach us a damn thing. It is what it is, and that’s all.

    7. If you are going to be a good poet, you must write about things that you personally know.
    Mr. Salemi: Good poets write well, period. What they write about is utterly their own choice. Shakespeare didn’t write a single thing about his life in Stratford.

    8. Poets see more deeply into reality than the rest of us.
    Mr. Salemi: Not at all. They see exactly what everyone sees. Poets are simply more skilled at expressing themselves.

    9. Good poets are always on the side of the angels.
    Mr. Salemi: All I have to mention are three names: Ezra Pound, Pablo Neruda, and Amiri Baraka.

    10. Poetry should provide inspiration, uplift, and positive values.
    Mr. Salemi: Yeah, and we should all be kind to children and dumb animals. Poetry doesn’t have to do anything except be excellent.

    Although I personally disagree with more in this essay, than in the previous, I like it more, because it is a livelier essay. I enjoy Mr. Salemi’s slamming of these ten totems; though in some cases, I side more with the totem than Mr. Salemi’s response, and my rationales would be different than his in almost every case. Nevertheless, I particularly enjoyed the humour of #3. And nearly all Postmodernists and New Millennials haven’t got much of a grip on #7 at all.

    Thank you Mr. MacKenzie for reminding us of the outstanding polemical side of Mr. Salemi, which I have always felt was his best literary quality. Again, another reason why we can be mildly content with 21st century literature in English.

  12. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    I see I made a typo,

    The last sentence of #4 should be “The whole point is to say something arresting “and” memorable.” [I wish italics worked in the comments.]

    I don’t mind making errors like this; it’s part of the rough and tumble of writing. And it does allow me to make a point about criticism. I could have simply copied and pasted Mr. Salemi’s ten animated deflations; but I didn’t. I typed them out word by word; because it allowed me to think about what the author was thinking. It sharpens one’s understanding. Such a practice, of course, is difficult if one is analyzing a novel, a philosophic tract, or even more complex, a mathematical proof. In those cases, one can usually just study pieces of a work, if it is particularly long.

    In Mr. Sale’s review, he brings up in Mr. Salemi’s “To Those Who Condemn Coleridge for Using Opium” these three lines:

    “It doesn’t matter if a man’s a cad,
    A liar, drunkard, lecher, or a jerk—
    Is what he puts on paper good or bad?”

    Here we have, in Mr. Salemi’s practice, his argument for varying aspects of #1, #4, #9, and #10, and Mr. Sale’s reasoned, qualified disagreement. What I notice about those three iambic pentametres is: 1) the simplicity of the diction, as if he is using the language of everyday life (which kind of argues against Mr. Salemi’s #4); 2) Mr. Salemi’s excellent handling of alliteration and assonance; 3) that en (er) getic second line, which ends succinctly in a punchy monosyllable, the “ar/er” held throughout; and 4) the sharp metrical exactitude of the metre.

    Those 30 syllables show true artistic talent—end.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      It’s really our current sense of the literary critique which is problematic.

      Mr. Sale states that he can accept and that Dr. Salemi might argue that “the deadening and bourgeois morality in which some of these poets functioned did need challenging.”

      But is this proposition historically true? What was the actual state of bourgeois society in France at the time of Rimbaud from a moral perspective? Did it really require some kind of special challenging from homosexual anarchist poets and if so, what would homosexual anarchism have offered to improve it?

      The reality is that French society, with the resurgence of orthodox piety through the efforts of the clergy—consider the Benedictine movement of Don Prosper Guéranger— triumphed over the failed “liberal Catholicism” of Lammenais and Lacordaire, so much so that only the repressive measures of the Third Republic could try to contain it. The Emperor himself had abandoned liberalism when his own son was spared death through the miraculous water of Massabielle following the apparitions at Lourdes.

      Bourgeois morality was so vibrantly moral that ordinary opera goers in Paris threw ink on Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s utterly ridiculous statue group, on the facade, called “La Danse.” The ink stain is still there and I urge everyone to throw their own ink on this appalling piece of third-rate art.

      Only modernists take Flaubert’s liberal, misanthropic cynicism as a mirror of bourgeois morality. Hugo is no longer read in France primarily because his social critiques did not pass muster even in his own lifetime—and because Hugo falls into a kind of caricaturism that only succeeds in leftist Broadway productions of Les Misérables.

      In other words, the very worst elements of bourgeois French society in the 19th century was not the bourgeoisie itself (contrary to everything Marx preached), but a handful of their writers whom today’s state-run academies have apotheosized for extra-literary reasons.

      Very few people know that Don Guéranger was actually the most popular author of the French 19th century and that his Année Liturgique sold more than all of Victor Hugo’s novels combined. Many used it as a missal. I use it as a missal, for that matter!

      So I depart from Mr. Sale in supposing that Dr. Salemi would argue that the homosexual anarchism of Rimbaud was necessary to reform French bourgeois society.

      I personally believe that Dr. Salemi’s poem is doing the very opposite of what is suggested. He is in fact mocking those who believe precisely that! Remember, the satiric proposition can also be placed in the mouth of the narrator.

  13. Damian Robin

    Thank you, Mr. Sale, Glad that you sample the English Poetry Cannon – doing so without showing off or using didactic obscurations (sick) (sic). Perhaps you could only do this recall of PC (Poetic Cannon) when taking in hand, in one go, a big wodge of Dr. Salemi’s work.

    I admire your bravery in ‘taking on’ the stalwart hedgehogs of his verses. I feel some temerity making any comment. I have only read some of what he has online. Like most on SCP, I am, if not in awe, then admiring. Although, as you say, with his subjects he is vituperative. So why may he not be so with us?

    I get a generality of him from poems, prose, comments, and hear-say and know this is not a critique of his poetry – so I thank Mr. Sale‘s stamina of reading (3 books) and his breadth of background reading.

    From Dr. Salemi’s recent post, on SCP, of a reminiscence of a schoolboy crush on a same-age female, I changed my view of his attitudes. (I have looked for the poem again but cannot find it.) It was a surprise — maybe the twelfth war rule (you mention above) applied deliberately. I had previously taken Dr. Salemi as a hardened splinting ender of lines with rhymes. This poem was in blank verse. It had the split-second, carpentered joints, and clear diction of his other work but it was tender. I don’t know if it was of him or a fiction, but it was tender.

    Also tender is ‘Calligraphy Lesson from a Chinese Student’.

    Early Greek and Roman ancients wrote in blank verse but from a man who can ‘do rhyme’ so well, it showed blank verse is not second–rate, it stands proudly with strict forms and is not free verse. There are many poets using blank verse mentioned on these pages. It has been put in a siding by recent formalists because, presumably, informal enemies would jump on its superficial resemblance to free verse; perhaps also for a sense of showing off skills, and the wonders that can be achieved with traditional forms. It has nudged me to try blank verse and I found it liberating.

    So much can be said about Dr. Salemi — and this review. Thanks for bringing up the moral dimension of writing, Mr. Sale.

    I am grateful for your business attitude to reviewing — to assess the time you have available and keep to the essentials. This is a formal disciple also that I will adhere to here.

  14. Damian Robin

    Wry Slices on Salemi

    Who is this guy whose animosity
    Behaves so peeved at shaky prosody,
    And deems to hate what’s limp and cosity
    And will not take bad rhyme from nobody?

    To stamp down landfill verse that howls and mutes,
    His skin’s gone purposefully hard as boots
    That clomp down haughty cultures round fine shoots
    And press the difference of worms and roots.

    A stand-alone, for years he’s stood his ground,
    With heels dug in, he weeds our common ground.

    He’s shown that “all-inclusive” falls to none –
    That mediocrity just flogs things on;
    No aim to aim for; par not paragon;
    No measurement, no feet to Marathon.

    So many want to kick convention’s last,
    Ride roughshod, be the Past’s iconaclast;
    No steering wheel, no speeding gauge, just fast,
    Crash-bang-wallop, rhymes go second classed!

    On battle horse he guides old goods to now
    And sidelines offal and the sacred cow.

    A lay crusader dubbing those absurd
    Whose dressage spooks at “anglo-saxon word”,
    He’ll pie that in their faces, when he’s spurred,
    So long as it’s real poetry that’s heard.

    He’ll gladly do the same with Roman wit,
    Revisit venom from Catullus’ kit;
    Or bawdy tunes that round on how bras sit –
    Where Rochester would give a hand to fit.

    Though crude, the writing of pornography
    Does not identify the ‘I’ as he.

    He can translate old verses like a sage;
    Undo the corsetry of breathless age;
    Uncork the swirling heads of love and rage,
    Bringing ancients to us on a page.

    He’s learnéd, erudite, a polyglot
    Of old and foreign languages, a swot
    Who’s won awards and prizes and whatnot
    He does not flaunt nor make them hard to spot.

    Achievements, measures of the wider crowd,
    Ensure sure heads nod when he speaks aloud.

    He shares his knowledge though his mouth is prone
    To flick his tongue’s distaste in switchblade tone;
    He whittles half-baked thinking off the bone
    And trashes poets’ plates when overblown.

    He shows what’s needed on an expedition
    To bring nutrition from a rich tradition.
    His essays shoot repute that’s repetition
    And clear the way for better competition.

    He’s not elitist nor a commoner.
    He kills bad verse and is its coroner.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      This is a refreshing poem appearing just as I had begun to despair that Salemi, or at least the spirit of some of his work, would remain underappreciated in our day—not that Salemi is limited by any means to to the satire.

      I also enjoy that Mr. Robin has captured Salemi’s humility, another quality he is known for. (Perhaps the greatly gifted can “afford” that, in a way?)

      “He kills bad verse and is its coroner!”


      A historical note, related.

      Françoise Chandernagor noted that Mme de Maintenon, the widow of quite a wonderful satirist and comic poet, Paul Scarron, was shocked when Louis XIV, while he was courting her, showed off by reciting some of the verses of Scarron—the same king who who was known to sing the poems of Corneille, lute in hand.

      And when you really, really look into history, all those finely-witted, “poets of the épée,” as I call them, are actually profound and capable of much much more than we ordinary lyric poets. Would we have Molière’s Tartuffe without Scarron’s Les Hypocrites, or Gautier’s Capitaine Fracasse without the Roman Comique (a masterpiece of the Spanish picaresque-inspired French novel).

      And these rare lights that shine in the galaxy of literary history are often better read, and better educated than the common run of poets. Scarron had a profound knowledge and understanding of Spanish sources, including Tirso de Molina and almost all the Spanish dramatists.

      Hats off to Damian Robin for making this discussion and venue all the more vibrant!


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