A not infrequent problem that a poetry editor must face is a contributor’s intransigence. Sometimes this resistance is on metrical issues or diction, but there are a few poets who dig in their heels on questions of “truth” and “honesty,” as if a poem were a legal deposition or a tax return that had to be absolutely faithful to real-world events.

This type of Honest-John poet exasperates me more than any other, for recalcitrance on matters of fictive illusion indicates a very basic misunderstanding of the poetic task. A poem doesn’t necessarily have to represent anything that has actually happened, or what the poet actually thinks or feels. A poem just has to be an effectively constructed poem, nothing else. And you as the poet have to be willing, like any other mature artist, to reshape a poem’s structure, wording, and descriptive register in whatever way is required to bring that poem to perfection. When a poet tells me “I can’t change that word, because to do so would be false to the experience the poem is relating,” I realize that he has failed to grasp one of the fundamental facts about literary mimesis. Poems aren’t about you and your feelings and your experiences. Poems are about being poems.

Does that mean that a poem can be totally cut off from the rational world, like some stupid langpo or flarf or other navel-gazing fakery? No, not at all. Poetry is a linguistic act, and language is a common tool, not solipsistic masturbation. If you are going to compose in a language, you have to employ it in conformity with the entire range of syntax, idioms, and semantics that embody the language’s tradition and accepted usages. In short, your poem has to mean something. But it can mean something totally fictive and imaginary. It doesn’t have to be a courtroom witness, sworn in to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Many people today have a visceral reaction against this fictive freedom, because they have been raised in an atmosphere of what I call “moralistic authenticity.” They have been trained by modern psychobabble to believe that when it comes to emotion, complete honesty is essential, and anything else is unhealthy or “repressive.” For such people, any kind of fictive reshaping of an experience is an evil distortion that only serves to falsify your genuine personhood and imprison you in “denial,” or whatever other cant word they use nowadays to denigrate rational detachment and distance.

But poetry has never been about the expression of feeling, except at a secondary or even tertiary remove. When it comes to emotion poetry’s job is evocative, not expressive. The task is to call forth emotion from the reader via the adept manipulation of language skills, not to express one’s own personal emotions like a baby crying in a crib.

This is why so many excellent and moving poems are structured around situations or predicaments that on the surface might well be considered hackneyed, stereotypical, or formulaic. The narrative armature of the poem doesn’t matter a whit. All that matters is the poet’s linguistic expertise in creating a verbal artifact.

Consider Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus”—a poem derided today as lachrymose and sentimental by the fashionable snots in the po-biz scene. The poem’s narrative line is absurdly simple, as in a TV melodrama. The captain of the schooner Hesperus takes his young daughter with him on a voyage. He disregards the warning of an older and experienced sailor concerning the threat of inclement weather. A storm arises, and the ship is in trouble. The captain lashes his daughter to a mast for safety, and attempts in vain to save the Hesperus. He and his crew are killed, the vessel is driven onto a reef, and the dead daughter—still lashed to the floating mast—is found the next day by a fisherman. End of poem.

Recounted this baldly, the poem seems somewhat cornball and operatic, like an old “Perils of Pauline” silent flick from 1914. And yet “The Wreck of the Hesperus” is one of the best ballads of the nineteenth century. The language and the images are unforgettable. There’s the description of the young girl, given with unashamed poetic force:

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
__Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom as white as the hawthorn-buds,
__That ope in the month of May.

And there’s the dazzling alliteration and assonance marking the terrible approach of catastrophe:

And fast through the midnight dark and drear,
__Through the whistling sleet and snow,
Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept
__Tow’rds the reef of Norman’s Woe.

The emotion in this ballad is fictive—that is, it is created by the poet out of whole cloth. Longfellow may have heard of various ships lost off the coast of New England, but the poem’s story and characters, the shipwreck and the deaths—these are all products of his imagination expressing its virtù in a rarefied and almost hieratic language. It most emphatically is not about a personal experience expressed in a confessional mode. The grief in Longfellow’s poem is conjured up, not reported, as it would be in some tedious modern effusion that says “I just broke up with my girlfriend and I’m so depressed about it.” No one cares about your breakup with your girlfriend, but serious readers do care about the imaginary and heightened verbal artifice that has given us “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” That’s what fictive mimesis is all about.

Other examples could be given without end. Hektor’s farewell to his wife and child at the end of Book VI of the Iliad is deeply moving and compelling, most especially in the overall context of an epic that focuses on human helplessness in the face of divine acts, and in contrast to the selfish and disordered love of Paris and Helen. The scene refers to no real event, but it is pure poetry nonetheless. Tennyson’s dramatic monologue “Ulysses” shows with great skill the tenacity and vigor of an old age that will not surrender peacefully to inaction and torpor, but there never was a king named Ulysses ruling over Ithaka or anywhere else. The monologue is pure verbal pyrotechnics.

It will be objected, of course, that the above examples are not lyric poetry, and lyric poems are the only things we are allowed to compose now. Well, ask yourself this: why is that so? Is the expectation that all serious poems these days be in the lyric mode the result of a stricture laid down by some authority, or is it because vast numbers of persons have been brainwashed by “moral authenticity” and in consequence are incapable of writing anything else?

That’s a chicken-and-egg question one would be hard pressed to answer, but a good guess is that the two factors now feed off each other like saprophytic parasites. On the one side we have the academic pontificators, announcing the hegemony of the lyric mode; and on the other we have the great mass of wannabe poets champing at the bit to “express themselves.” What a convenient racket, especially for the hucksters who run profitable workshops.

But the larger point is this: whether you write in the lyric mode or any other mode at all, your poem won’t be worth spit if you do not demonstrate a sophisticated command of language and a willingness to use that talent unashamedly, noticeably, and vigorously. And that has to be the case even if you are being scrupulously honest in a poem, or if you are lying through your teeth, or if—like most practitioners of the art—you are somewhere in between those two poles. You can’t have undue regard for some stupid bugbear called “verisimilitude” or “authenticity” or “what really happened.” And don’t ever, ever tell me that the truth is more important than your art.



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 and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. 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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43 Responses

  1. Rob Crisell

    Wonderfully succinct. Thanks for sharing. Poetry is a “made thing,” and it is either made well or poorly.

  2. Leo Zoutewelle

    To one new to the art, your comments were an exhilarating lesson full of red meat. Thank you, Dr. Salemi!

  3. Peter Bridges

    Thank you very much. Does true poetry lie somewhere between music without much if any meaning, e.g. Edith Sitwell’s work, and prose that poses as poetry by being written in short lines?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      It’s hard to say. Poems need to be meaningful, even if sometimes their meaning is mysterious or opaque; and they need to be metrical, if they are to be recognized as verse in any genuine sense. But above all they must be impersonal creations, put together by the skill of an artist — and no different in that respect from a master-mason’s perfectly constructed wall. You don’t see (and certainly shouldn’t see) in a well-constructed wall anything of the mason’s personal feelings or temperament. You do of course always see something of the poet’s feelings and temperament, but this should be minimal, and totally secondary to the aesthetic effect of the poem itself.

  4. Joe Tessitore

    A wake-up call for the likes of me – if my brain hasn’t been washed by “moral authenticity”, I don’t know what has.

    Thank you, Joe, for a much-needed, tuition-free lesson.

    P.S. Did anyone else pause at “your poem won’t be worth spit”, or was that just me?

    • C.B. Anderson

      Joe T.,

      Although “not worth spit” is a perfectly American expression in itself, it can also be seen as a taboo deformation of the expression “ain’t worth sh*t.”

  5. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    This is Dr. Salemi at his magisterial best. I, too, have noticed in these pages all too many who, while promoting the hegemony of the lyric forms, stroke only cardboard lyres with borrowed cords, conflating the idea of tradition with mere emulation.

    On the other extreme are the horizontal literalists. And yes, what the French call “vraisemblance”—an idea that arose in the classic French theatre—was never meant impose itself upon poetry. There is an entire treatise to be written on poetry as a “privileged space of hyper-reality.”

    Most of what I read in these pages is really “classical” in form only, but shamefully modernist in absolutely every other way, even to the extent of reducing poetry to “self-expression” or mere “emotion.”

    As Dr. Salemi suggests so powerfully, poetry is more than this number of beats and that number of lines. Above all, there is language. And by language I don’t believe he understands “vocabulary” simply, but rather something more like philology—the origins, history, and traditions of the written and spoken word.

    It was not so long ago, by the way, that the Scottish poet Edwin Muir—who in his day expressed many of the concerns Dr. Salemi is sharing with us now—leveled a very similar charge against both Burns and Scott when he referred to them as “sham poets of a sham nation.” And yet, both Burns and Scot are infinitely more classic, and satisfying, than almost everything I am seeing in the world of so-called “classical poetry” today.

  6. Jason Dain

    Hail Hail & Hail again !
    Yes ! ! !

    “When it comes to emotion, poetry’s job is evocative.
    The task is to call forth emotion from the reader.”

    Poetry is to be enjoyed, not slavishly followed.
    And what better way than to have one’s emotions stirred ?

    As one greek or roman orator said:
    “Feeling is what makes man eloquent, and force of imagination.
    And that is why even the uneducated have no lack of words,
    if only they are stirred by by some emotion.”

    Poetry can be a life blood for anybody and everyone,
    if it follows Joseph Salemi’s wise and deep-seeing prescription.

  7. Jan Darling

    Good grief! Your first two paragraphs stunned me into the realisation that I have been living in a fuzzy world where there is a permanent battle between art and ‘authenticity’. Suddenly a lot of things become clearer. This ego trip I have thought of as ‘authenticity’ is simply that – an ego trip. I am now feeling deprived that I did not read these words of yours sixty years ago. Joe – you have freed me from my self. I shall print your essay and have it always beside me. Your wall metaphor confirms the argument absolutely. Then, as if I needed more admonishment, I read Joseph Charles MacKenzie’s ‘stroke only cardboard lyres’. Gentlemen, I owe you an enormous debt of gratitude. Thank you to the Society for the chance to waltz to this beautiful music.

  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Never before have I heard the definition of mimesis described with such clarity. For me, this considered, informative and insightful essay outlines the significance of the art of poetry and the importance of perception – the art of poetry should always outweigh a poet’s ego.

    This fine observation heightens my gratitude for those learned scholars who strive to point my humble attempts in the right direction. Thank you, Sir.

  9. David Watt

    Thank you for your essay which provides the most lucid definition of poetic art that I am ever likely to read.

    The line which stands out for me, above many other memorable lines is:
    ‘All that matters is the poet’s linguistic expertise in creating a verbal artifact.’
    These words bring to mind two lines from a poem by Ogden Nash entitled ‘A Word To Husbands.’

    Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
    Whenever you’re right, shut up.

    In a poetic context, leave ego aside when crafting a poem, and be prepared to learn from imperfections.

  10. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe –
    Many years ago you took the trouble to tell me what a poem should be. Once you did that, it was like exiting a cave filled with dank, formless moss into the bright clear sunlight.
    I have never forgotten your kindness.
    My mother, who had an ongoing relationship with many of the nineteenth century poets, could easily transcend the centuries to put you in your place with a line from Longfellow or Tennyson; even Shakespeare, or on occasion Chaucer.
    What you taught me had somewhat the same as that sarcastic curl of my mother’s lip as she viewed some of my more exotic adolescent outfits. ”Wreck of the Hesperus”, she’d sneer.
    My taste immediately shaped up. Even today, when removing that extra unnessary bauble or furbelow, I look myself straight in the mirror and sneer .”Wreck of the Hesperus ! ”
    Thanks, mom. Thanks, Joe.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Sally —

      I also remember women of that generation using the expression “Wreck of the Hesperus” as a way to express dismay or disapproval. My late mother-in-law would say “What’s wrong? You look like the Wreck of the Hesperus” if you appeared disheveled or untidy or out of sorts.

  11. Paul Oratofsky

    Hear, hear! Yes, poetry is neither journalism nor psychotherapy.

  12. James Sale

    A brilliant article with the usual flair, wit and insight for which Professor Salemi is well-known. One interesting corollary of his remarks is this: if we think about it, the best poetry is artful but also seemingly natural. And it’s like actors: we forget (or suspend disbelief) when we see a great actor acting that they are acting – we ‘believe’ that they are role; that, for example, Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal Lecter, so compelling is the performance; or Judi Dench’s performance as Lady Macbeth is also such a performance – to move to high art. But to be able to perform at such a level whereby the art appears ‘natural’ and we become unaware of it, is the highest art of all. But this requires the most practice and the most talent. To put this another way, to be sincere or authentic in a poem must require the greatest artifice and artificiality of all if it is to succeed. This is something that the lesser poets, versifiers and poetasters do not understand at all., and so they try to present what is ‘real’ and not seeing that it fails through … lack of art.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      And this is precisely why the British theatre is the envy of the world, because, unlike our American actors, who are all about emotion, British actors are all about technique, premeditation, and, dare I say, the profound exploration of the literary text. And I know this directly from a very fine English stage actor I met in Scotland by the name of Tony Charles. We had three conversations on this very subject and I shall never forget it.

      The reason why I believe your response is of perfect importance is that poets, traditionally, have been ardent participants in the integration of the arts.

      He who does not understand why Julia Lezhneva’s “Exultate Jubilate” is utterly superior to Cecelia Bartoli’s, really has no business pretending to be a poet. Some will throw rocks at me for so bold a statement (I couldn’t care less), but I think the best readers will know exactly what I mean.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        What ruined a lot of American acting was the Stanislavsky-Hagen-Adler approach, which created all sorts of tedious mumbo-jumbo about method and emotional recall. The Brits never fell for this malarkey, although God only knows what’s happening now in The Royal Shakespeare.

  13. James Sale

    What is happening in our theatre is what is happening or happened at the BBC – at last people are getting angry about the fact that so-called ‘dramas’ are being subverted into becoming ‘woke’ clarion calls. A good example is the relatively innocuous Dr Who series – an escapist sci-fi fantasy fiction that has run for some 50 years. But now it has to have a ‘female’ doctor and run woke story lines that are inimitable with good science-fi. I think the woke agenda is reaching a shrill apex now as all the luvvies come out; but Brexit has exposed all the humbug. Expect some vicious kick-back over the next five years – Boris is doing a sterling job in turning this tide of socialist virtue-signalling. I hope to be sharing a cup of tea at the Princeton Club with Professor Salemi in five years’ time, laughing and rejoicing at all the art that has come alive since the Brexit tidal wave.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      I could not help but to return to your disturbingly interesting statement about the current state of the English theatre. My greatest concern, of course, is the British voice and its traditional usages on stage, which is the very foundation of your theatre. I came across a video clip from the Royal Shakespeare Company ostensibly charged with preserving a once proud tradition.

      The clip reveals a whole crisis in staging, suppression of any kind of real mise en scene, an utter lack of what we used to call verse technique for Shakespeare’s prosody and phrasing, zero projection (the whole thing artificially amplified), everything gone! This absolutely confirms what you are saying. It’s horrifying. And now, identity politics replacing casting standards! Watch how this bumbling idiot has to search at certain points for his words:

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        A great deal of the garbage that is happening in the Royal Shakespeare (and in almost every other cultural institution in the Western world) is what might be called intellectual kidnapping.

        Businessmen have a maxim that governs how they choose new employees in sensitive areas of operations. It is this: “Personnel is policy.”

        Simply speaking, it means this: “NEVER hire anyone for a sensitive position if he is not in agreement with the policies that you have chosen.” You don’t appoint vegetarians to be on the Board of Directors of a meat company. You don’t hire pacifists to make decisions in the Department of Defense. You don’t hire environmentalists for anything, since their entire goal in life is to shut down human activity.

        Sounds sensible, does it not? And yet you cannot believe how many stupid persons in positions of authority disregard it totally. And we in the Western world have placed in sensitive positions (our law courts, our school systems, our banking operations, our bureaucracies, and our cultural institutions) persons who have NO LOYALTY WHATSOEVER to defending Western culture or even Western interests. We have allowed vast stretches of our governmental and institutional life to be kidnapped, and colonized by hostile parasites.

        So I ask this: who the bloody hell appointed those vermin who are now running the Royal Shakespeare? And what social conditions have made it possible for these vermin to gain that kind of power?

        When you start asking questions like this, that’s when you become a REAL conservative, not a fake one.

    • William Glyn-Jones

      I hear the point about cultural kidnapping – I certainly wouldn’t want the protectors of classical culture – such as this society – to be infiltrated by modernists. But just to sound a calming note – it’s doesn’t pay to get too worked up, to bemoan overly. All here share a desire for a renaissance of classical culture but this should be a joyous, fun, fulfilling thing – let’s just get on with it. It’s our bag, but not everyone’s. It’s not about forcing everyone in the World to think like us. Let’s not get overly worried about the World at large. The important thing for each of us is what we’re up to and what we’re creating and how we’re doing things. I don’t find it advantageous to get riled up. And I think it’s worth transcending “othering” – that tendency to demonise those with different viewpoints as sub-human – dregs, vermin, idiots, parasites. That kind of thinking doesn’t end well! It’s not even about defending western culture – good structure has given beauty to art in all cultures. It’s about remembering how to do that in order to give beautiful things to those that are receptive, and sod everyone else. Let them get on with it. It’s irrelevant. The World out there is basically an illusion anyway, no need to get worried about ‘vermin’ getting into power – just because it has “royal” in the name – the only person in power in my life is me. The Royal William Glyn-Jones Company.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I understand your feelings, and I do not condemn them. But there is one deeply false note in what you have said. The world “out there” is NOT an illusion by any means. And the vermin who run it have immense power over our lives and our fortunes. Do you have any idea what would have happened to freedom of speech, property rights, bank accounts, and much that the English people have cherished if that evil creep Jeremy Corbyn had won the last UK election? That would have been no “illusion,” my friend.

        Do you actually think that the SCP would even be allowed to be on line if left-liberals had their way? What about the fact that some of them come here regularly, and try their damnedest to shame us, to force us to dampen our rhetoric, to push politically correct ideology, and to criticize our generally conservative viewpoints? Do you not recognize this as a covert campaign? They have already used their immense financial power to crush scores of hard conservative websites.

        Your worry about “othering” is totally misdirected. What has the left been doing to us, year and and year out, other than expressing the most violent contempt for us? What words do they have for us except “racists, misogynists, fanatics, white supremacists, un-woke monsters, or the infamous ‘basket of deplorables’?” The left has turned people like us into a horrific “Other.”

        I won’t go on, because I have tried ceaselessly here at the SCP to convince mild-mannered, piety-soaked Christian conservatives (who exude benign niceness and sappy smiles of tolerant benevolence) that they are of NO USE WHATSOEVER in the pre-hostilities that we are in now, or in the open hostilities that are coming very soon. Most of them are disinclined to listen, and prefer to sit back in pietistic quietism. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

      • William Glyn-Jones

        Not that we should be totally shut of from the World; there needs to be some way into it. A thought: realistically, as proponents of classical poetry, we’re bound to be seen by many as willfully quirky anachronisms, post modern, ironically retro, eccentric – assuming we must have our tongue somewhat in our cheek – and if that is the only loophole that let’s us in, then well…perhaps…perhaps we should rock that mantle, don it with a flourish, wear it with flair – there’s a certain grace in the humility required for that pragmatic acceptance, rather than belligerently demanding of the World to be seen by it as the masters of old were, maybe?

      • William Glyn-Jones

        The World out there exists sure enough, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t defend your corner, but the illusions come in our perceptions of what it is, and I’m just making a stand for mastering your perception of the World in such away that allows emotional emancipation, enough to feel at peace, be creative, enjoy life, and I think more people are likely to listen and be beneficially turned on by an infectiously joyful voice rather than a vitriolic one. I think a renaissance of classical poetry could easily happen without opening up political cans of worms. I’m not political myself but I know that here in Britain there are large groups of people for whom “lefty” and “artistic” and basically synonyms. Stephen Fry, for example, whose Ode Less Traveled explains and extols the virtues of classical poetry just as much as Boris has ever done, is a “lefty”. They stand on opposite sides of the political divide but have the same love of poetry and classical culture. A great classical poet should be capable of using the technology they have learnt – meter, rhetoric, stanza structure, diction, rhyme and so on – without being tied to an ideology. Let’s be honest, classical culture of the past did exist in a world that had much dysfunctional about its ideology – e.g. sexism, slavery – and while yes, that shouldn’t cause us to edit and expunge the poems of old, it should be an awareness when we write new ones. Sure this “othering” goes on in both directions, on both sides of the fence – by why even come down off the fence in the first place? “One should never take sides in anything. Taking sides is the beginning of sincerity, and earnestness follows shortly afterwards, and the human being becomes a bore.” Wilde.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Mr. Glyn-Jones, I don’t want to get into a fight with you. I understand your viewpoints, but I strongly disagree with them.

        I think we should simply say that what separates us is our inherited temperaments and cultural backgrounds. I am a choleric Sicilian, and you are a phlegmatic Englishman. For me the world is as savage as a stiletto-thrust; for you it is as kindly as a gathering at the local pub. No malice here, no offense. Just a basic difference in outlook.

      • William Glyn-Jones

        You ought to see me making home made pasta with a feisty eight-year old and tantrumming toddler in lockdown. I think I have a pretty good idea what have rise to the fiery Latin temperament now – blame it on the pasta!

  14. William Glyn-Jones

    This was the big difference between Lennon and McCartney. Lennon was all about authentic self expression and McCartney was all about song as well crafted thing. There’s a tendency in adolescence for people to see Lennon as the greater artist but as you get older McCartney’s approach makes more and more sense. As a judge of poetry on objective terms eg for a competition one certainly ought to be concentrating on skill with words, but when you read poetry just for yourself, for pleasure, it’s up to you what type you prefer – if emotional authenticity is floating your boat today, that’s your business and no-one else’s.

    • C.B. Anderson

      William, I could not agree with you more about McCartney’s preeminence.

  15. Dusty Grein

    This is a very thorough and compelling argument, Dr. S, and your closing line is the perfect epitome summation. Indeed, if a poet honestly feels ‘truth’ comes before artistic craftsmanship, then they have, in my humble opinion, chosen the wrong field to communicate in effectively. The world surely needs journalists, and exposing the truth—or whatever you believe that to be—is a mostly noble, if often unsatisfying pursuit… but it is not the bailiwick of the poetic artisan.

    As a reader of poetry, my goal is to be touched by the story that has been molded from mere words; a poem should entertain me, thrill me, amuse me, maybe even arouse my ire or passion. Nothing will make me turn the page and move on faster than a poet of the ‘me-generation’ who resorts to expressionistic puling, unless it is one who uses metered rhyme to grandstand, preach, or force-feed me educational ‘truth’ with a shovel.

    I am at heart a story-teller, who loves to challenge himself to craft tales in classical form. For me the craft of writing poetry is always about evocation, and the using the skills (which must be learned, practiced, and continuously improved), at molding the language into structures that retain the power and imagery of the story, and never about ego-stroking or climbing on some kind of soap-box to express my own view of the ‘truth’.

    I may not know the tune, but if it has a good beat, and I can dance to it while the mind-movie plays, then you have done your job . . . and that’s really all I need.

    I love the analogy of the wall. I do , and the beauty that is achieved by using the ciorrect blocks during construction.

    • William Glyn-Jones

      Dusty – it’s an interesting question – what, as a reader, do we hope a poem will do for us. I think for me it is a change to an altered state of consciousness that I hope for, and with classical poetry that means a sense of elevation to a realm more timeless, ordered, harmonious, almost like Plato’s mystical initiation into the realm of Forms. This fits well with what Joseph is saying about evocation: in this case it’s an evocation of the classical vibe. But some poets who have been labelled “Romantic” also did it very well: I’m thinking for example of Coleridge. His Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner was the ultimate in fictive emotional drama very much along the lines of the Wreck of the Hesperus, and achieved through rhyme and meter. Likewise, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, while famous for having come to him while in an altered state, is actually also an excellent evocation of on – it’s 100% about evocation and 0% about self-expression. And if you think of Keats’ ode on Indolence you have to admit it is a fictive evocation, because writing something like that, with quite a complex stanza/rhyme structure, actually required the very opposite of indolence – it required alacrity. Likewise his poem “To Sleep”. I’m sure most lovers of classical poetry would agree that there is value in writing about something you find beautiful, and here there is a certain blurring of the boundaries, because, in a way, that is a form of self-expression, but not of the ego-trip type.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Really great Romantic poets like Lord Byron, Keats and Coleridge were still close in time to earlier poets, and they maintained the practice of not depending solely on emotion in composition, but also making sure that their work was well crafted and technically precise. The major break occurs in the twentieth century, with the triumph of a modernistic outlook in almost all the arts. And even then, the really great modernists such as Eliot and Pound and Stevens could still produce excellent formal poems, or infuse their free-verse poems with passages of genius and verbal mastery.

      • William Glyn-Jones

        Thanks Joseph, with that cleared up there’s nothing I can find to disagree with!

      • William Glyn-Jones

        I suppose Coleridge was ticking some of your boxes Joseph – evocation, meter, rhyme – but not all – since he was the co-conspirator with Wordsworth, removing what they saw as mechanical, outworn cliches of archaic/upper class poetic diction. Keats, a little later, had more sympathy for that type of diction, so probably ticks the most boxes, of the “Romantics”, except he was rather bogged-down with conveying his own emotions. It was with his last Great Ode, To Autumn, that he transcended this – celebrating the beauty of nature without drawing us into his personal turmoil. Going back to Coleridge though, and the diction question – once a couple of centuries have passed, there is inherently what seems to us to be a kind of elevated archaism, just because of the time that has passed. That’s why I think that poetic diction is a moving target. For example, if poets were still using the language of Chaucer, no-one would understand a word of it. So it does have to move forward. I like to imagine that poetic diction slides forwards in line with modern diction but set back a couple of centuries earlier. The way I think of it is this: Pope’s Odyssey is to us what Chapman’s Odyssey was to Keats – just the right amount of archaism without too much befuddlement. You could say poetry has the potential to age well, like wine. By the way, I sense some of your motivation for writing the above was my own comments on the Shaman of the Waves poem and how it ought to have words that fitted with it having the feel of an emotionally authentic poem. I wasn’t saying that emotionally authentic poems are my preferred type, but just that if that is the chosen mode, the way you want it to APPEAR (regardless of whether it actually is), one ought to stick to it. My own preference is more for the type you describe above, though there is a certain part of me that can’t help feeling that there can be a certain frisson of danger, an edge, – an adrenaline rush – where you suspect someone might be revealing their inner feelings, but it’s true – that can all to easily get messy and ugly. It has to be done with great care, because really, the poet’s turmoil is their own business, not the reader’s. The poet can USE their own emotions to help the creativity and process, but that’s all – the end product does not exist to record or share the emotions authentically.

  16. Joseph S. Salemi

    All genuine poetic language, at all times and in all places, has been distinct from the colloquial speech of its writers and readers. Only the lowest dregs of contemporary modernism have tried to fight against this general principle, and that’s why the buffoons who run contemporary poetry workshops keeping telling their students to “keep it plain and simple.”

    The great modernists (Eliot, Pound, Crane, Stevens, and some others) were perfectly willing to use arcane, obsolete, and obscure language if it suited their poetic intentions. They weren’t obsessed with “keeping it plain and simple.” Consider these examples:

    From Hart Crane: “A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene…”

    From T. S. Eliot: “superfetation of to en…” (the last two words are ancient Greek)

    From Wallace Stevens: “Complacencies of the peignoir…”

    From Ezra Pound: “No mouse of the scrolls was The Goodly Fere, but aye lover the open sea…”

    NONE of the above examples can in any way be construed as “colloquial, ordinary speech.” Even Homer’s Greek in the Iliad was an artificial literary language; and Vergil’s Latin in the Aeneid wasn’t spoken by anybody in the streets of Augustan Rome.

    Yes, as centuries go by the language of the past becomes more remote and difficult, and that is what adds to its “hieratic weight,” to coin a phrase. The language takes on the patina of time, like an antique coin or an old pewter tankard. That is why it is useful in some genres of poetry.

    Your final comment about the poet using his emotions to help in the process of creativity is actually what Wordsworth meant when he said that poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquility.” One’s emotions certainly drive the creative process, but the emotions themselves need not be blatantly apparent in the finished product. We don’t want to see the jeweler’s emotions in a beautifully crafted brooch, or the architect’s emotions in a perfectly constructed temple.

    • William Glyn-Jones

      Yup, well put. Agreed, and it’s a worthwhile discussion so thanks for raising it with your essay. I personally tend to imagine myself back in early 19th century England with my language when writing poetry. I’d happily dress up as such while writing to help get in the frame of mind, but haven’t actually done this, to date! I think a poetic language – different to normal language – is essential. Not least, because you need it sometimes to fit the meter! The poet’s secret is that where, for example, “over” becomes “o’er”, (just to pick an example) it can help with metrical arrangements, but the added bonus is that you find yourself adopting uniquely poetic diction – a good thing, as it sets it apart. The metrical practicalities are part of why it has evolved, but it’s for good reason. It’s to be made use of, rather then eschewed. Pointless for it to evolve, only to be ditched. Regarding emotions, yes, in the final analysis the poet shouldn’t make their personal (non-Universal) emotions the reader’s PROBLEM. They should perform a useful function (potentially catharsis? appreciation? remorse? conviction?), not just spread a bad mood by the (scientifically recognized phenomenon of) emotional contagion. Fine, though, if you ask me, to infect people with uplifting emotions.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      My process consists in it not being mine at all, either emotionally or intellectively, as I am excluded, by what means I cannot even pretend to know, from the whole affair, even if, by a kind of paradox, I am present and somehow operative.

      The beginning of poetry is not in the poet. The end of the poetry is not in the poet. God is the beginning and the end of poetry. Outside of God, there is only the noise of nothingness.

      Everything I possess I have received. I create nothing. I only know that the cockle shall be burned. The winnowing fan is in His hand.

      This is just me. I do not expect anyone else to accept it or even remotely care.

  17. Ric Ramirez

    The same has been said of the words of, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and many details have been pointed out as erroneous or exaggerated. Your essay made me appreciate that classic even more! Thank you.

  18. Louis Groarke

    I appreciated your very thoughtful comments. It’s noble to care so much about poetry. I agree there is a modern narcissism: my feeling are what are so important, that’s what my poem is about—me! me! me!—which is not what poetry is about. That explains in part, the rejection of formal poetry. It seems to me that in writing a successful poem there is something objective that develops outside oneself that one has to be attentive and loyal to—that overrides any mawkish, introverted, self-absorbed sentimentality.

    I agree: it is an autobiographical fallacy to think that poets are always writing about their own personal histories. At the same time, I do think that poetry requires some deep personal honesty (perhaps we could call it sensitivity). I don’t think someone can “lie through their teeth” and produce a great poem. One can be drunk and write a great poem, one can be a rascal, a curmudgeon, a seducer, one can boast, tell tall tales, exaggerate, etc. and write a great poem—but I wouldn’t describe any of that as being a liar. I think poetry has its own truth, but the important thing is that it is poetic truth, not literal truth. As Wilde said about fiction: it is truthful falsehood…

    I think many moderns would find Tennyson overly moralistic. (I don’t.) Your point about there being different kinds of poetry is well-taken.

    Thank you for your insights; got me thinking, best,


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