a satirical piece in Sapphic stanzas


Every day they come in a flood: unwanted
Big manila envelopes stuffed with verses.
Mostly garbage—that’s what we sift and filter

Looking for talent.

Like safari guides with their long machetes
Hacking through deep tangles of vegetation,
We confront a welter of mangled metrics

Most of it shapeless.

Worst of all is content so dull and boring
It could take the place of a soporific
Powder stirred in opium-laced warm whiskey.

What is the problem?

Can’t you morons scan, or imagine subjects
Wilder than your grandchildren’s latest mishaps,
Or the bugs that threaten your new azaleas?

Give us a break, please.

Dammit, we’re allergic to substitutions;
We’re enraged by imbecile hypermetrics;
Most of all, we loathe all your tepid twaddle,

Mindlessly tasteful.

We want metrics hard as Homeric spear-shafts—
Subjects shocking, sexy, and edged with violence.
Give us poems sharp as a sword blade, honed in

Scandalous rigor.



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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14 Responses

  1. Sallyy Cook

    I have wondered about this for some years. What drives someone to think they are a poet when they are careless, vacuous, and concerned only with trivia?

    And why do they always think that actual poets or editors care?

    Often it is a character flaw or a learned bad habit in our miserable schools. But mostly it is an unwillingness to work at their craft.

    Because poetry is an art but is also a craft, and the poet’s job to fuse them. . If something doesn’t work, make it do so. If it won’t, trash it and start over. Perhaps the wrong form was chosen for a thought. Choose a different one. But first ask yourself why/

    Occasionally a personality comes along so warped, adolescent and self-pitying that it is almost impossible to believe it can produce a decent poem. And yet it does. Guess that’s just one of life’s conundrums. But mostly, a general rule is in place: more thought, more work will result in a better poem.
    Everyone makes mistakes’ I’ve made plenty, and know of
    no one who has not. It’s the human condition. Correct them, and go on. Whatever your personality quirks, if you have talent, it will out. And if it doesn’t – well then, perhaps, as one of my professors used to say, you should cut your losses and become a shoe alesman./

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Sally, there’s too much “tastefulness” and “niceness” in modern poetry, both free verse and the formalist variety that we favor. The psychological source of the problem seems to be the unspoken idea of many poets that their properly polite feelings and their moral earnestness and their religious devotion and their upright character will vaccinate their poems from any trenchant criticism.

    To such people I say: “OK, fine. You’ve written a poem that is polite and expressive of good character and devout and morally earnest and in solidarity with bourgeois niceness. Congratulations on that. But your poem still sucks.”

    • Sally Cook

      Joe, it is a matter of communication. What do you want to communicate, and how? Some things simply are not worth the trouble. One’s self-image, believe it or not, is not always interesting to others, nor would it even matter 100 years from now. Most would-be poets have a very short span of attention.
      Instead of constructing jewels, they are content with making dime store plastic replicas.

      Why not take a long views? Find out what your strong points are and work to strengthen your weak points. work to find your own individual direction. That’s what I would say if I had more time, but the more I know about my own work, the less time I have for others, and must limit myself to those few whose work ignites my imagination. Don’t you also find that true? Unfortunate, but that is the way of the world.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Well, sure — we all work towards our own strengths and proclivities. And there’s no bigger time-waster than trying to re-educate some people about where their poems have gone wrong. Concentrate on your own stuff… that’s the best policy.

        I hate the word “communicate,” because it’s been hijacked by left-liberals and other creeps in the po-biz world to serve as a code-word for expressing political solidarity with certain agendas and positions. It’s like the word “diversity” — just another con-game to screw people like us.

        You’re quite correct about some people not being worth the trouble. I long ago made the decision that trying to discuss anything with left-liberals, feminists, environmentalists, Deweyites, and others of that ilk was useless.

  3. C.B. Anderson

    Joe, nice work. While you unabashedly write a Sapphic in trochees and dactyls, somewhere down in northern Arkansas Charlie Southerland is still trying to figure out how to make Greek quantitative verse work in English. This one might actually be better than your “The Bones of the Armenians”. With your latest example in mind, I just might try writing another “English Sapphic” one of these days.

  4. Sultana Raza

    The title says it all. I like the lines and the evocative image, ‘Like safari guides with their long machetes
    Hacking through deep tangles of vegetation,’ So true. And a lot of these (confessional) poets aren’t shy about confessing how important they and their works are. Usually extroverts succeed more in their lifetimes, but true poets may start off slowly in their own life-times, but last much longer. Examples include Keats, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop. I think Rilke became better known after his early death too.

  5. C.B. Anderson

    Sultana, everything you say might be true, but forgive me for having lived as long as I have. I think I would prefer a long life of poetic failure to a brief flame of brilliance. I think I’ve struck a reasonable balance. and I am in no hurry to transit to the next world.

    • Mark Stone

      I should add that the poem caused me to reread James Tweedie’s article entitled “A Beginner’s Guide to Sapphic Verse (with Audio).” It was posted on SCP on November 27, 2018, and is very instructive.

  6. James A. Tweedie

    A home run, with “metrics hard as Homeric spear-shafts.” An excellent teaching example of what it means to “practice what you preach” or “put your money where your mouth is.” Once again Dr. Salemi has thrown down the gauntlet, and once again, I am sore tempted to pick it up and run with it . . . although the specter of those “long machetes” might give me pause to reconsider . . .

  7. Sally Cook

    Joe —
    On the words communicate and diversity, I concur. Consider the mangled word cool; also the substitutions: Ms. for Mrs. and Miss. Who is this Ms. anyway? A trans, who wins all the prizes because his/her muscular structure is male?
    The use of the words he and his have now died under the weight of the awkwardness of he/she and his/hers, and the bumbling incorrect use of the word they. Gay; a perfectly delightful, expressive little word suddenly cannot be used unless one is referring to sodomites?
    Awful, ersatz words are being invented every day in order to describes situations no one ever thought of before, or wanted to.
    They are re-writing the classics as we speak! This is thought control. I say, as poets, take back our words!

  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    I remember when “Ms.” was invented back in the 1970s. The neologism got some impetus from the fact that a new magazine was founded at the same time, using Ms. as its name. The title “Ms.” caught on here in the United States, but I don’t believe it is used in Britain or anywhere else in the Anglophone world.

    A joke at the time was that down in the southern states of the old Confederacy, there was no need for the new title “Ms.,” since in that part of the country all women were addressed as “Miz.” Example from down-south dialect:

    “Mawnin’, Miz Lizzy an’ Miz Lucy. How y’all doin’ in this-here scawchin’ heat?”

    “Gay” was deliberated wrecked by sexual perverts who wanted a self-descriptive word that they could use for themselves. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, since now the word can’t be used in reference to anything else. If you say “I went to a gay party last night,” your listeners will automatically assume that it was a gathering of nancy-boys.

    The political left understands that if you can revise and transform language usage, you can subtly control human thought. George Orwell (himself a recovering leftist) also knew this very well, and he illustrated it in his novel 1984, where a form of English called “Newspeak” was slowly being imposed on the population. It was done to prevent people from even thinking a politically incorrect thought.

    This is happening everywhere. You can’t call a kid a bastard or even “illegitimate” anymore — the social workers all insist that he be termed “an O.W. child.” You can’t say someone is mentally retarded — he’s “challenged.” You can’t call people Communists — they’re “progressives.”

    By the way — the argument given by feminists in favor of “Ms.” was that they wanted a neutral title that didn’t define them by the fact that they were either married or unmarried. Well, they got what they wanted. And now those feminists are in a state of rage because men have simply decided that they aren’t going to get married at all — certainly not to politicized harridans with a chip on their shoulder.

    • Sally Cook

      I worked with a man who was a kissin’ cousin to General Lee. This man was measured and rational; honest as the day is long and respected by everyone.
      Because I knew the name of Gen. Lee’s horse (Traveler), he was wont to describe me as a “good old Southern gal.” I considered it an honor that he even took notice of me.
      We often exchanged books, and I cannot think of anyone I would have rather worked with. Don’t know why I thought of him now, but he is certainly deserving of recognition.


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