—from A Gallery of Ethopaths*

For those of us who cherish text,
There’s anguish in what I’ll say next.
The world of letters, by tradition,
Was one of grace, style, erudition—
A shrine to language at its best,
A temple of the precious blest
Who had achieved the very heights
Of glory in their verbal flights.
All that’s gone, like faded dreams;
There’s no one left today who seems
To give a damn for perfect craft.
Professors now are dull and daft
Impostors who refuse to judge
Between fine work and worthless sludge.
If you rate books by wit and style
It’s sure to rouse your colleagues’ bile;
They’ll fret and grow antagonistic,
Say your approach is “belletristic,”
And hence not suited to a college
Which deals in abstract lit-crit’s knowledge.
If you read books and love them madly
Professors take that very badly.
They say it’s quaint and amateurish
And to persist in it is boorish.
Professionals just use the text
To mirror theory, which reflects
All that you need to know when reading—
Love for great works shows lack of breeding
And it’s discouraged as a rule
In those who go to graduate school.
As a result, our English teachers
Display these most debased of features:
They have no sense of skill and wit,
Consider all aesthetics shit,
Take no delight in humane letters
And can’t tell bad stuff from the better.
Artistic worth takes second place
To gender, class, religion, race,
Or what the faculty define
As the current Party Line.
Writers are judged by whether they
Had something “positive” to say
Advancing a leftish, liberal cause—
Those who did not get scant applause.
Authors are ranked, not by real merit,
But what the prof can find and ferret
Out about how they were enlightened,
Whether their consciousness was heightened,
Whether they’re Tory or progressive,
Stolidly bourgeois, or transgressive,
Whether they worked for women’s rights
Or raised their voice against social blights.
Writers whose work can pass this muster
Have reputations with new lustre.
Others are judged to be deficient—
Their “social sense” was insufficient,
Or they endure receptions icy
Because their politics were dicey.
Pound, Eliot, and Butler Yeats
(By all sane standards, solid greats)
Are only taught with cautious warning
Laced with prim, high-minded scorning
Because these men all said or wrote
Things that get a liberal’s goat.
Some others are in quarantine
Like Byron, Kipling, Scott, Céline—
Most academics can’t endure
Their viewpoints, which they deem “impure.”
Professors drop these real achievers
For worthless, third-rate, trendy screevers
Who now, because of sex and color,
Are hailed as “major,” though they’re duller
Than grey paint peeled off wooden pilings,
And all alike as iron filings.
You can dismiss, without ado,
Bell Hooks, Maya Angelou,
Jamaica Kincaid, Audre Lorde,
And all the others in the horde
Of hyped-up, bogus reputations.
They are just media creations
Designed to tip the canon’s scales
Against the hated dead white males.
The literary sense has died
And we’re left with the putrefied
Golems from miasmic mists
Who fill up college reading lists.


*Poet’s Note: A Gallery of Ethopaths is an epic-length satire, now coming  to completion, and being readied for full publication. Over thirty sections of it have already been published in various journals. The meaning of the word ethopathy can be understood from my article on this coinage at aman.members.sonic.net/salemi.html

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.

NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

CODEC Stories:

26 Responses

  1. E. V.

    Good morning, Joseph. For what my humble opinion is worth, I truly enjoyed reading, “Decay of Literary Sense”. (Even though I’m probably an “offender”, I agree with your point of view and am doing my best to become reformed.) Do you realize that you are, indeed, teaching by example? (The poem’s beat is helping poets like myself learn about meter.) Could you either confirm or correct me: Was this written in iambic tetrameter. If not, please name the meter. Thank you.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, it is iambic tetrameter. But keep in mind that in all iambic verse forms, there is an occasional tendency for the first word to be trochaic, thus creating a choriambic foot in the beginning of the line.

      • E. V.

        Thank you. Is there any particular textbook that you highly recommend?

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    There are so many worthy books on poetic art, many of them excellent. Paul Fussell’s book “Poetic Form and Poetic Meter” is wonderful, as is Babette Deutsch’s handbook. Robert Beum and Karl Shapiro wrote a fine textbook, which is still in print, I believe. Lewis Turco has a more recent book, but the title escapes me at this moment.

  3. CB

    In sadness and depression I ask “What murderous act is next?”
    Forsooth it has already arrived and the youth call it “text”.
    TMI, WTH, IDK, words reduced to nothing
    I look upon our literary future in fear and loathing.
    (pretty poor reply, but your poem makes an all too true statement)

  4. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    In a world where poetry has become the eunuch of the left, this poem is very much needed.

    Also needed: a satire on the vapid pseudo-formalism of greeting-card sentimentalists and neoromantics—the other side of illiterate liberalism’s wooden nickle.

  5. James A. Tweedie

    Past schoolhouses . . .
    Take it slow . . .
    Let the little . . .
    Shavers grow . . .
    Burma Shave

    Heck, even Burma Shave used meter and rhyme . . . and to good effect, too!

    PS: We can and should do better! Well said, Joseph (both of you!)

  6. Michael Dashiell

    Excellent thinking and helpful enlightenment. I published a Preface in Contemporary Romantic Poetry. It’s written in Byron’s trademark ottava rima thats a few pages long. In this preface I vitally attack the complacent and century old reign of modernism especially in poetry. Though I’m against old-fashioned approaches to poetry, I think formal verse can be as fresh and relevant as any named modern kind. The editors of contemporary poetry reviews all seem to think alike, like the same person duplicated a thousand times. They seem only interested in language based free verse poetry that’s either self-ingulgent or bizarre. It shows the remaining scraps of what modernism can achieve. Theme and content are trivialized here. The universe is vast and rich. It still has many unused topics. It’s time for these editors and poets to break out of their narrow closet and recognize all that awaits.

  7. Mark Stone

    Dr. Salemi, Hello. I have seven comments. 1. The content is phenomenal. 2. I suggest multiple stanzas, since I am overwhelmed by the size of the one stanza, plus it’s hard to identify a particular line in order to critique it. 3. Using the s*** word is not to my old-fashioned taste. 4. In the fifth line from the bottom, I would put a comma after “hated,” since you have a series of adjectives there. 5. Reading through the poem, I see numerous places where I think the flow of the poem would improve if you start the second line of the couplet (or both lines of the couplet) with what I believe is called a headless iamb (I don’t know all the terminology yet). For example (for others who may be reading this comment), you do that in these couplets:

    Or what the faculty define
    As the current Party Line.

    Are only taught with cautious warning
    Laced with prim, high-minded scorning

    There are certain one-syllable words that, when a line begins with them, I naturally want to stress that syllable, and then follow it with three iambs (in the iambic tetrameter). Examples include “and,” “as,” “if,” “but,” and certain verbs that you would normally give a punch to, such as “laced” in the example above. So I went through the poem and found eight couplets that, in my humble opinion, might benefit from such a change. Here they are, as they might be revised:

    The world of letters, by tradition
    Modeled grace, style, erudition

    They’ll fret and grow antagonistic,
    Say your style is “belletristic”

    Consequently, English teachers
    Show these most debased of features

    Advancing a progressive cause—
    Those who can’t get scant applause.

    Authors are ranked not by merit,
    But by what the prof can ferret

    Whether Tory or progressive,
    Stolid bourgeois or transgressive

    Of hyped-up, bogus reputations.
    They are media creations.

    The literary sense has died
    And we’re left with putrefied

    Just my two cents worth. 6. Notwithstanding my comments, it is a wonderful poem and I like it a lot. 7. Since E.V. asked about books on meter, I will mention that I learned a lot by reading “Writing Metrical Poetry” by William Baer.

  8. James A. Tweedie

    Mr, MacKenzie has made a request for someone to take a poke at the “vapid pseudo-formalism of greeting-card sentimentalists and neoromantics.” I have accepted his challenge and dedicate this illustration of the sad state of contemporary poetry to Mr. Salemi.

    Here is my version of what is all too often found in greeting cards these days:

    I know you have been gone for only a few days
    but I want you to know how much I miss you
    and that I am counting the hours until
    we can be together again.

    And here, in a more traditional poetic form (iambic tetrameter), is what these “vapid” words really mean:

    When I look in the mirror my
    reflection is all that I see.
    My nose, my mouth, each ear and eye
    reflect self-centered empathy.
    I suffer from the absence of
    the one I miss, who’s gone away.
    But it is me, the one I love,
    the one I care for every day,
    whose wants and needs are not being met.
    Depressed, beset with ennui,
    it’s all unfair, I’m so upset.
    It isn’t you at all, you see,
    It’s obvious, I have no doubt,
    It’s all as clear as clear can be.
    The one I really care about
    . . . is me.

  9. C.B. Anderson

    What all of you who commented should understand is that Joe Salemi considered every one of your comments before you made them. Although his verse might not always be completely perfect, his vision is panoptic. As an editor, he has suggested revisions in my submissions on more than one occasion, and I always found him to be on point. Though this opinion might seem to be ad verecundiam, the proof is, without exception, in the pudding.

  10. David Watt

    Joseph, you stylishly focus attention on the decay of the literate sense. In reading your poem I recall recent a particular instance of what I may term ‘modern speech.’ For example, young shop assistants in Australia now tell all exiting customers to ‘Have a good one.’ I assume ‘one’ refers to the word ‘day.’ Anyway, my point is that speech, language, and literacy skills are declining hand in hand. As you have described, lack of regard for literary skills, and traditional form reflect adversely across society in general.

  11. David Watt

    My ‘literary sense’ slipped up in the comment above. The sentence should have commenced with: “In reading your poem I recall a particular instance…”

  12. Joseph S. Salemi

    What you describe as happening in Australia is also occurring on a wide scale in America, and I assume in the rest of the Western world. I am amazed at the low level of verbal ability in my students, many of whom simply cannot utter a complete sentence. I don’t blame them — I blame the collapse of intelligent pedagogy in the lower grades. I have students from Nigeria and the Punjab who write better English than most American undergraduates.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Amen to that. Even the modernist Ezra Pound came to recognize that truth.

  13. Sally Cook

    Dear Dr. Salemi –

    Like so many other things of this world, poetry is a growing thing. In full bloom, it flourishes and inspires with its beauty and grace.

    The same is true of language itself, and so much else. Think of painting, music – all of the arts. Government, society,
    Even lesser and more specific things – field grass, waves, fashion, cuisine – have rhythm; advance and recede according to current modes. A simple seed, actual or metaphoric, blows on the wind to settle in and produce fresh versions of ageless ideas.

    That is why I have hope. I’m waiting for the inevitable end of electronic communication – that time when it becomes so cumbersome and top heavy that it falls on and crushes itself, and we are again free of its constraints.
    Your poetry, as always, is solidly grounded, with strong roots; you know more than anyone, it seems. Please share more of your ethopathic opinions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.