Why are many young persons so bad at writing formal poetry? Why do they struggle and labor and twist and turn when trying to compose formal verse? OK, I’ll grant you this: every beginning poet has to master his trade, and that takes time and practice. You can’t learn tennis in two weeks, and neither can you crank out a respectable sonnet if you are new to the game.

But these days, something else is going on. I’ve been a teacher for more than half a century, and taught thousands of students. I’ve seen certain trends develop. In the past many students were bad at literary composition because of a simple lack of motivation, or a compelling interest in non-humanistic STEM subjects. Others were non-native speakers of English. Still others disliked school in general, and were only present because of their parents and the truancy laws.

Many students today are non-plussed by traditional college teaching methods (straightforward lecture, brief questions, and rigorous testing on assigned material). None of this corresponds to the posturing touchy-feely interaction that they are used to in the lower grades. But this momentary discomfort could be overcome easily, had they not also been propagandized into a rigid ideological conformism on all political, cultural, and social issues. In fact, most of these new students have come to associate the mere act of attending a class with the requirement to be left-liberal in thought, speech, and action (at least as long as the class is in session). They associate (usually with good reason) academic activity with mandatory progressivist opinions. Part of my personal popularity with undergraduates comes from the rush of surprised relief they experience when they find out that my class isn’t like that, and they can say or ask anything they please. On the other hand, of course, there are some ferociously ideologized leftist students who drop my class in a snit. We’re all glad to see them leave.

This generalized homogenization of thought and attitudes has a crippling effect on creativity, especially in language. If one is constantly second-guessing what one may or may not say, linguistic fluency will never develop, and such fluency is crucial in serious poetry. Yes, I know—sometimes poets labor over lines. But in general good poets have a knack for producing verse easily and directly, with only minor touch-ups and revision later on.

What does such a knack entail? Well, the first thing is a very thorough command of vocabulary and idiom, from all the different levels of speech use. No word, phrase, stylistic point, or turn of expression can be taboo to you. You have to know them all, and be willing to use them all whenever they are required in composition. Persons who are deeply ideologized can’t do this. Their self-image depends crucially on a constant policing of their thoughts and their language. And when that happens, your engine is perpetually stalled or disengaged, to use an automotive metaphor. Fluency in composition becomes impossible.

I recall a jerk in one of my literature classes who happened to be the editor of the school paper. Students in such a position are usually arrogant little popinjays, and he was no different. He was used to sucking up to professors, which today means spouting left-liberal pieties and badmouthing and browbeating any expressed conservative opposition. In my class he found that such a procedure didn’t work, and I made it clear to him, by gestures and remarks, that I considered him an obnoxious toady. I recall the look of helpless bafflement on his face when it finally dawned on him that boilerplate political correctness was going to be counterproductive with me. He was frightened, and—at a loss as to what else to do—he simply threw himself into the assigned work and kept his mouth shut. Since there is minimal discussion in my lecture classes, this was convenient for him. But he just couldn’t compose intelligent English prose. Every sentence that he penned was infected with idiotic dogwhistle words like “sexism,” “racism,” “colonialism,” “white supremacy,” “Western hegemony,” and all the other jargon of the Liberal Church. It was psychologically impossible for him to write a dispassionate literary critique or commentary. The literary composition mechanism in his brain had been irreparably damaged.

Well, consider: why would it be any different if a mentally disabled student of this sort tried to write serious formal poetry? Would he be capable of putting together a coherent line, or a creditable quatrain? One of the catastrophic effects of political correctness in the American educationalist establishment is that not only has it prevented students from thinking clearly, but it has also deprived them of the ability to compose prose and poetry. Any creative act presupposes what I call “interior freedom,” which is one’s liberty to think unconsciously and unreflectively on whatever you like, with complete disregard of any external controls or internal moral strictures. A Latin maxim encapsulates my idea: Dic quodcumque vis, ruat caelum (“Say whatever you like, even if the sky falls.”)

It’s a torment teaching courses that introduce students to the writing of verse, because practically no one accepts the validity of interior freedom anymore. You can explain it to them, but it simply doesn’t compute. It isn’t a part of their experience. The K-12 sequence, along with social media and public culture, are completely dominated by a soft left-liberalism that considers virtue-signaling self-censorship to be one of the required social graces, like table manners and good grooming. Trying to break the mental lockdown of this imposed etiquette is a Herculean task. Even when you explicitly tell your students that they have the freedom to speak without being attacked or shouted down by leftist thugs or feminist bitches, they remain circumspect and hesitant.

To add to the problem, those students who have had some connection with “poetry” in the earlier grades and high school have frequently been spoiled by their teachers. These instructors have almost always indoctrinated them with free-verse attitudes and habits, and trained them to be contemptuous of rhyme, meter, genre, fixed forms, and any language usages that are not part of contemporary life. This often creates an unbreakable prejudice that blocks any possibility of developing skill in formal techniques.

I often think of the many years of effort I wasted in writing free verse, simply because I had been told in school that this was the only acceptable and proper method of composing poetry at the current time. If it hadn’t been for the blessings of my grandfather, my mother, and a house full of wonderful books, I probably would have known nothing or little about the great traditions of English poetry. When I finally saw that free verse was an aesthetic dead end, thank God that I could fall back upon an older and richer tradition that is natural and satisfying and creatively fruitful. For this is the honest truth about modernism and the free-verse garbage art that it champions: it is a sick and unnatural excrescence, no more satisfying to real human beings than Jackson Pollock’s “paintings” or John Cage’s “music” or Frank Gehry’s “architecture.”

This doesn’t mean that young people today can’t produce good formal verse. But they have to realize that making the attempt is analogous to being a revolutionary who is committed to the overthrow of a stifling hegemonic dictatorship. Writing formal poetry isn’t a mere choice. It is a declaration of war. And if you want to do it well you have to be prepared not just to learn about metrics and techniques, but to push back hard and violently when anyone tells you that you ought to be doing something else, or censoring yourself.




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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58 Responses

  1. Peter Hartley

    A brilliant disquisition and one that makes it so difficult to understand how and why the formalism (and freedom) of Shakespeare was good enough for him and the next four hundred years but no good to us.

  2. Yael

    Nice! I learned a new word today: excrescence. Never heard that one before today, thank you.
    Your essay is a very interesting observation from the front lines of language education and provides valuable insights into the state of our culture and society.

  3. Sally Cook

    Dear Joseph —
    How right you are, as usual! And how fortunate any would-be poet is to have, by happenstance, been raised outside the PC world.
    In my case, having been born to a pair of dreamers who had not been educated under today’s whalebone corseted so-called liberal rules, I had good poetry read to me, and later was given the book “The Listening Child” to read to myself. I was thrilled just to be allowed to read such words and even more so to form a critique of each poem in my head. By the time I was in high school I found I had a jump-start on most others. Not only that, without even knowing it, I had formed some literary opinions !
    Not only that, I was always dragged along to Sunday visits to a grandmother who had no central heating, but a lot of my grandfather’s books which sat untouched behind glassed-in shelves since his death. What was I to do? For one thing, I never removed my coat in that chilly room, and reading seemed to be a natural way to make time pass. I worked my way through several Victorian children’s books – Slovenly Peter was one, and others about rabbits – and the complete set of Mark Twain’s works which had been conveniently placed just where a seven year-old’s hand might find them.
    My father had written poetry for years, but not terribly good poetry. When no one was looking, I would take some off the shelf and read it. Now I have those notebooks, and they have taught me a lot about him. He was stuck in a Victorian/Edwardian dream; every page of his work shrieked this.
    These were some of the influences that forced me to think for myself. I must here thank them all; spartan grandmother, feckless father, and the grandfather who had placed Mark Twain within my reach. And most recently, you, Joe, for guiding me through the swamp in which we find ourselves today.

  4. Leo Zoutewelle

    Dr. Salemi, with regard to your comments on free verse, I cannot help but be amazed at the fact that some of your finest and most enjoyable poems turn out to have been written in free verse, but you would usually not be aware of that until the end of the poem (or even later). Would you comment on that and give us a clue? Thank you very much.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Actually, Mr. Zoutewelle, I have not written free-verse poetry for over forty years, and I have certainly never posted a free-verse poem here at the SCP. Which poems do you mean?

      Perhaps you are thinking that enjambed lines are a form of free verse, and that formal poetry must always be end-stopped.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Leo & Joe, it’s not my place to interfere and I apologize in advance, but do you think the question might be a case of blank verse being mistaken for free verse?

    • C.B. Anderson

      Leo, Joseph doesn’t write free verse at all, but he has posted on this site a number of blank verse pieces. Perhaps this is what prompted your comment. Blank verse, by definition, does not have end rhyme, but you better believe it IS metrical.

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Yes, I think that is Leo’s supposition. But blank verse has never been considered “free verse.” It has been written in England since the Renaissance, and is in no way connected with what developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

  6. Leo Zoutewelle

    Thank you, Dr. Salemi, I believe your supposition is correct. Similarly, I think my lack of understanding is pointed out by Ms. Bryant’s comment. One could say I’ve learned a lot today. Thank you both!

  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe S, this admirable and insightful essay answers many pertinent questions I have on the denigration of formal poetry. When I read of the “jerk” in one of your literature classes, who was also the editor of the school paper, it evoked anger as well as immense sadness. I’m angry because it’s these sorts of indoctrinated minds that influence others and affect society with this insidious brand of perpetuated propaganda. And sad because the magnificent Latin maxim: Dic quodcumque vis, ruat caelum is lost on them.

    You make me proud to strive to “Say whatever [I] like, even if the sky falls.” I believe telling our children what to think and not how to think is no less than abuse, and I thank you for breathing reason and freedom of thought into the choking lungs of a sick education system.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Susan. I’ll try my best to defend freedom of thought and speech, but I’m afraid that it will become much more difficult and dangerous to do if the corrupt Democrats who openly rigged this last election manage to put that senile schmuck Biden and his left-wing bitch VP into power.

      We have had three fixed Presidential elections in U.S. history: that of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, that of John F. Kennedy in 1960, and that of Biden in 2020. With our now re-empowered leftist Deep State, I think this sort of thing will become standard.

  8. Benjamin Thomas Cepican

    I had taken an “Advanced Poetry” course in college, and I tried to pursue classical poetry. The professor remarked on my attempts: “I like the ideas, man, but the rhyme distracts me.” If that quote is even a tad off, it still certainly embodies the spirit of that class.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, that is a very big part of the problem. Academics in college literature departments are almost all paid-up whores on retainer for the Free Verse Establishment.

  9. C.B. Anderson

    Another great essay, Joseph. Your anecdotes about some of your students are priceless. To edit a student newspaper (or any newspaper) does not, it seems, require literacy; it only requires the ability to misrepresent facts and heel to our liberal masters. Now we know what “liberal arts” really means: the artistry of bleeding liberals.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      It even happens with the editors of poetry magazines, whose job it is to be precise in language. Do you remember when Gerald Harnett of “Hellas” misspelled Percy Bysshe Shelley’s surname ON THE FRONT COVER of the magazine? He had it in big, bold type as “Shelly.” I’ll never forget the fulminating rage of Annette Feldmann, whose essay on Shelley was contained in that issue. Annette was the president of The Shelley Society, and this absurd and glaring typo humiliated her, since she had been planning to send a complimentary copy of that issue to the Queen Mother (also a fan of Shelley).

  10. Margaret Coats

    Enjoyed the essay very much, and will offer a longer response here when I have more time than I do this Sunday, regarding the different but related difficulties in teaching poetry and writing to homeschooled students. It includes some ideas particularly relevant to what Susan Jarvis Bryant and Benjamin Thomas Cepican say. Stay tuned!

  11. Margaret Coats

    I brought up homeschooled students because they seem to be free of the main difficulties Joseph Salemi describes. Their parents have snatched them away from, or never allowed them to attend, politically correct schools. At home, they are generally taught using old-fashioned textbooks and methods; no touchy-feely approach to learning. Many homeschooled students are encouraged to memorize poetry, to develop that mental faculty while filling the mind with beauty. Parents even heed Salemi’s final warning, and give their children some preparation for the hostility they will encounter in most colleges or in the workplace.

    We see the benefits: homeschooled students and those who attend small alternative schools are overrepresented in SCP’s high school poetry contests. But there are still difficulties to be faced in the teaching of writing, whether prose or poetry. Poetry writing is rarely taught. Parents who recognize their own deficiencies are often willing to hire tutors for high school math or foreign language; these subjects may be useful for getting into college or earning a living. So is writing, but here most parents think they should be able to do the teaching, with the help of competing “resources.” Some “resources” operate in the touchy-feely mode, hoping to motivate writing by treating it as unstructured self-expression, even when the student is supposed to be dealing with a specific topic in literature or history. Students either balk at this because they have no feelings on the topic, or write flowing nonsense that does not fulfill the assignment. Other “resources” are as rigid as politically correct thinking can be. One umbrella school requires every one of its students to produce the same essay on Cyrano de Bergerac. A detailed outline is provided, with headings and subheadings filled in. For many paragraphs, the student must use the school’s topic sentence, write three further sentences based on things found in the text to support it, and come up with an “original” concluding sentence. Ultimately, homeschool writing–which can be stellar–depends on the teacher and the amount of work she puts into her teaching, much more than on any “resource” she uses.

    Joseph Salemi’s students not only feel relief when he frees them from the prison of political correctness, but because he uses the lecture method to impart his knowledge to them. Too many clowns in the professoriate boast of how little they say in class. The discussion method presumes that ignorant students can teach one another, with predictable results in their knowledge (what they learn to think) and in their writing (more related to how they learn to think). One cannot teach “how to think” without giving students anything to think about. This is the difficulty faced by homeschooling parents who take on the task (with little preparation in their own experience) of transmitting religion, culture, and history to their children. Their achievement often tends to surpass that of the competing education establishment.

  12. Joseph S. Salemi

    I salute all parents and guardians who homeschool their wards. They are performing an essential task of preservation in our collapsing culture. But homeschooling is expensive and time-consuming, and simply not possible for many people who do not have the resources or the skills to do it. Working-class Americans usually have no option other than to consign their kids to public schooling. There is no freedom without economic freedom.

    Catholic schools once provided an alternative of sanity for beleaguered parents, as did Catholic colleges and universities. But financial straits have shuttered many private religious schools, and others (most especially the so-called “Catholic” colleges) have been completely infiltrated by leftist and left-liberal ideologies. Cancel culture is very strong in many “Catholic” institutions, since these places have traditionally tried their best to emulate their secular counterparts. Even in the early 1960s, when I was an undergraduate at a Jesuit university (Fordham), I had to fight tooth and nail against the brainless liberalism of many faculty, most of whom were enamored of Deweyite methodology, Vatican-2 enthusiasm, and New-Age wonkiness.

    The frightening thing about our current situation is that, for all practical purposes, NOTHING AT ALL gets done in the public school system today. In the university I have to teach grammar lessons that should have been mastered in the fifth grade. Math faculty tell me that most students come to college completely ignorant of the multiplication tables, let alone algebra or trigonometry. History? Fuggedaboudit. Students have no idea at all about anything earlier than last month!

    The thing to understand about public school teaching is that it is today merely the well-protected preserve of the teachers’ unions, the civil-service bureaucracies, and the big edu-crat organizations such as the NEA. Public schools exist essentially as a legally compulsory cash-machine and benefits-dispenser for teachers and administrators, funded by taxation and government largesse. And these “educational” organizations all work as an arm of the Democrat party, which guarantees that every year funding for public schools goes up. while what happens inside them remains unchanged.

    Are there exceptions? Of course. There are individual teachers in the public schools who do their best to teach well, and to inculcate knowledge. I was one myself for many years. But such teachers are isolated, and increasingly exceptional. In many cases, they are deliberately hounded and persecuted by corrupt administrators who see them as recalcitrants and troublemakers.

    If the addlepated Biden becomes “President,” watch what happens — the persecution and legal hamstringing of homeschooling will be at the very top of the agenda. After all, the Democrat party can’t allow any threat against their well-established educational racket.

    • Margaret Coats

      I salute you and the teachers currently in public schools who do their best to give students good education! You cannot know how important you were (and others still are). It’s not just the worthwhile content of your teaching, but the presence of a sane and trustworthy authority figure in the life of a young person who may have given up hope of finding one. This recharges youthful energy and powerfully renews hope for the future. One individual alone can do this.

      I will go farther down with a few more comments on homeschooling, which is quite open to working class Americans, as its major challenge is not economic. You are correct, of course, that homeschooling is not for everyone.

  13. Robert Nachtegall

    Thank you for the essay. It’s distressing, but explains a great deal. James Matthew Wilson also touches on this in his book, The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking.

  14. David Gosselin

    Dear Joseph,

    I agree with your observations about the crippling effects of political correctness and how that ties into the inability individuals have to express creative thought. Many students are essentially brainwashed. They are judged more on their ability to use language in the prescribed way, rather than on the actual quality and merit of their ideas.

    However, I also think that the question of poetic composition has to be taken beyond the question of mere formalism. The adherence to formalism can just as well become a sort of crutch where much like political correctness, someone attempting to write original poetry will mistake following the formal “rules” of poetry with actual genuine creativity.

    Somewhere in the bible it says “the power of sin is the laws.” While today the problem is political correctness and a sort of radical liberal ideology that denies any conception of lawfulness in the universe, or any intelligible conception of creativity and the human mind (in favour of the blind worship of the senses), I think it has to also be pointed out that you can follow all the rules, you can have all the right beliefs, religious, philosophical or otherwise, and STILL not be creative. Someone might ask: so you are saying that I can follow all the rules, have all the right beliefs, and still not be creative?!


    How many individuals have a strong sense of faith, and yet still have no ability to think for themselves. How many self-righteous individuals go around preaching to others, make sure they follow all the rules, and yet still lack the ability to express Agape, genuine love for that which defines us as truly human, to uniquely express that the divine creative spark themselves?

    That creative spark and its cultivation as something innate within us is ultimately what has to be expressed through the form. Form allows one to elaborate and express this innate quality to its fullest potential, but one has to remember, you could follow all the rules and still not be creative, or end up simply writing some kind of gnostic species of verse like that found in Yeats. Yeats essentially tried to mystify his audience with occult references and magical experiences. This gnostic occult quality has often been mistaken for depth. It’s not.

    Yeats followed the rules of rhyme and meter, he had a strong sense of craft, but still, does that mean he was a classical poet? Not at all.
    Technically, one can write satanic verses with rhyme and meter, pay close attention to craft and be a “formalist.” The problem would be a question of idea. What universe does the composer of satanic verses inhabit? What universe does the composer of occult formalist poems inhabit? What universe do the cubist compositions of Eliot stem from? What makes something classical? It’s not just a question of craft and following rules. The modernists were obsessed with a “close reading”, commenting on the craft, style, novel word choice, even when there was very little idea content.

    Eliot, Hart Crane, Yeats, they are all examples of that. In a word: they didn’t have Agape, they didn’t have a passion for developing the creative spark innate within human beings, and helping others to develop that quality within themselves. It would be more accurate to say that they idolized language, they loved virtuosity and technical prowess, and they were obsessed with novelty, as opposed to genuine originality of thought and classical composition.

    As it says in Corinthians:

    If I speak in the tongues a of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

    Notice the peculiar lack of music in many formalist/modernist poems.

    Sedia discusses the case of Yeats very well in his article. He also addresses the problems of Hart Crane very well in another article from the Clarity vs. Obscurity series.


    In a word: Creativity is not about rules, learning the rules and technique is simply a means of developing one’s ability to express and explore profound ideas. There are many virtuosos and skilled craftsman out there, but that doesn’t mean they are genuine composers or that their work is classical by any means.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      No one ever said that creativity is “about the rules.” Creativity is a gift, and individuals have it in varying degrees, and some people don’t have it at all. Yes, many formal poems can be just as dull, dreary, and unappetizing as the free-verse garbage that we here are fighting against. When did I ever say otherwise?

      All these things are truisms, and I don’t quite understand why you are bringing them up. Formal poetry is a technique, a craft, a particular way to do something with language. If you want to practice it, you learn the various rules and methodologies that constitute the craft. Some people manage to do it well, while others remain mediocre or not good at all. Some types (most of the free-verse poets) don’t even try. What’s the big deal?

      I mentioned once to the music critic Terry Ponick that thousands of people have practiced for long years on the piano, but they never seem to be more than just adequate. It’s not their fault — they just don’t have the gift. On the other hand, someone else may be a true virtuoso right from childhood (like Mozart). How does this fact have any bearing on learning and mastering the rules of the musical craft? Both the mediocre pianist and the born virtuoso have to learn the rules and techniques.

      I have a friend who is a professional tennis coach. She tells me that even if you practice faithfully for years and years, sometimes you’ll never really be a good tennis player because you just don’t “have the stuff,” as she says. It’s not a tragedy — it’s just the way the world actually works.

      I also don’t understand why you bring up issues of religion, faith, biblical “law,” agape, and quotes from St. Paul. Poetry is a branch of aesthetics. It does not have some kind of messianic task, or any obligation outside of its own perfection. Your comments about “obscurity” and “satanic verses” suggests that you are still a believer in the idea that poems are about their “messages to the world.” As I’ve tried to argue many times here, this is a mistake. Poems, like brick walls or suspension bridges, are about being well made and being beautiful. And since when is it the job of a great poet to “help people”? He’s not a social worker or a medical missionary.

      When you mention your distaste for “satanic verses,” you show your basic prejudice. Lots of poets have written excellent poems that skirt the edge of blasphemy and immorality. What about Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal? What about Rochester’s obscenities? What about the sexually hot parts of Lord Byron? Do you actually believe that all poems should be child-friendly? As I have written somewhere else, “In top-notch poetry, the words are not the vehicle for the message. The message is the vehicle for the words.” And poetry is a zone of hyper-reality where you say anything at all that you please.

      Also, I think you are unfair to Eliot, Hart Crane, and Yeats. Yes, I agree that Yeats was harmed by his association with occultist types, and the association rendered some of his poems more dense and obscure than they needed to be. Hart Crane was in love with rhetoric, and he indulged it at the expense of clarity many times. Eliot can be mysterious and self-sequestered, that’s true. But face plain facts — these men were brilliant and top-notch poets, even if we could wish that they had overcome the above-mentioned faults. When you complain that they “idolized language,” well… quite frankly, that is what I do too. I have never known a top-notch poet (whether “classical” or “non-classical”) who didn’t do the same.

      Finally, I think you are using the word “classical” in a way that needs to be more strictly defined. Personally, I wish Mr. Mantyk would rename his organization The Society of Traditional Poets, because this word “classical” is starting to become a tedious obstacle in our discourse here. It’s more of an ad-man’s word, as when they renamed the original Coca-Cola formula “Classic Coke” to distinguish it from New Coke. Before we start claiming that some poets are “not classical,” let’s hear a trenchant argument about exactly what “classical” means.

      • C.B. Anderson

        Jesus, Joseph! Two essays for the price of one. As you might recall, I and my wife homeschooled our children, with mixed results. We produced a magna cum laude graduate from UMASS Amherst and a personal trainer. I’m not sure which is the greater accomplishment. The discussions here, especially when they involve the likes of you, Dr. Coats and Mr. Gosselin, are the highlight of my day. All of you, keep it comin’.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Mr. Gosselin,

      I am afraid you have placed yourself in confrontation with some rather outmoded errors arising from the limitations of an outmoded canon.

      In the canon of both liberal and so-called “conservative” American academics, Baudelaire is a Swedendborgian satanist “liberating” French poetry from morality. Far worse, Baudelaire, in this same canon, is the only nineteenth-century French poet who existed.

      And yet, whole dissertations have been written on Catholics who have influenced Baudelaire’s oeuvre, including Lamartine. There is also the influence of Marceline Desbordes Valmore. American academics who have never had a real survey course in French literature will not even know the name of this latter, who was admired by all, including Victor Hugo.

      These corn-fed American academics, looking only at the process brought against Baudelaire for “atteinte à la morale religieuse,” create an image of the poet of their own modernist making, namely that of the “poor satanist victim of a hypocritical Catholics society.” There is an uniquely American bigotry underlying this proposition: Immorality is good, Catholic society is evil.

      They are entirely unware that both Anatole France and Marcel Proust found themselves unable to distinguish between Baudelaire “le poète classique” and Baudelaire “le poète chrétien.” And as much as these American academics want to make Baudelaire the “poet of vice,” Anatole France echoed, with insistence, the opinion of many of Baudelaire’s contemporaries, going so far as to say that Baudelaire was “not the poet of vice, but of original sin.”

      The profoundly Catholic Paul Claudel—who had his entrées in the Vatican of hist time—compared Baudelaire to a poet as moralizing as Racine—imagine!—and declared in no uncertain terms that Baudelaire’s theology is essentially Catholic and dogmatic. Yes, the author of Les Lesbiennes and Les Fleurs du Mal. But yes, also, the author who had a very Catholic funeral and who was buried on holy ground.

      It was perfectly clear to Proust, as I believe it is perfectly clear to anyone who reads Baudelaire in the French without recourse to American academic group-think, that the poet invokes God and Satan to express his profound belief in redemption and damnation.

      And this is where you will find a good deal of ink spilled on Joseph de Maistre’s influence on Baudelaire. Both were deeply concerned with the idea of original sin and the universality of sin. Both articulated arguments against “progress.”

      In conclusion, American academics have inherited a Puritan liberal idea of Baudelaire, and here we see that same old idea being pushed in this very thread. But the tendency to simply recreate the great French poets in the image of their own immorality is not limited to Baudelaire. It extends even to Villon and arises from the same bibliographic ignorance (read: Villon only wrote about immorality, Villon was the “victim of a hypocritical society,” Villon was the only poet of his time, his contemporaries like Charles d’ Orléans and others did not exist, etc.).

      Anyone who dares call these American academics to account as the liberals they really are will be condemned as “prudish,” “moralizing,” “jansenistic,” “school girls,” and the like. Such academics, obsessed by sex, will go on to inventory every instance of immorality they can find in the body of English poetry, throw it in your face and declare: “this is what great poetry was always all about.”

      For these, there is no hope. And arguing with them is invariably tedious and unedifying. The idea that poetry can be both moral and great is simply too much for them. It overturns decades of personal investment in the liberal cliché, trite and passé as it is, of the “immoral victim poet.” Their simple doctrine goes something like this: “Poetry is whatever you want, as long as it is not Christian and scans.”

  15. David Gosselin

    Dear Joseph,

    I wasn’t taking issue with anything you said in your article per se, its more a question of what it did not say.

    Technically, you can be a satanist formalist poet or you can be an ethno-nationalist formal poet, but you can’t be a satanic classical poet and you can’t be an ethno-nationalist classical poet… I would say that is true for the same reasons that you can’t be a Jesus-loving Satanist. It’s a question of fundamentals, first principles, universal principles, reason, whatever you want to call it. That thing separates classical art from Formalism, Modernism, Cubism, Dadaism, concrete poetry, Imagism, Vorticism, the list goes on and on…

    I think the idea that an intention in poetry is not fundamental, that it’s just a question of craft and sensual/technical beauty of language, that can easily be corrupted. Something like classical art has to be rooted in something more fundamental, the unchanging principles of human nature, of Truth. That’s what makes it so powerful.

    Shelley’s Defence of Poetry is arguably the greatest defence of the classical tradition. Every literature student should have to read this. Shelley writes the following:

    “A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of Aeschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante’s “Paradise” would afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the limits of this essay did not forbid citation. The creations of sculpture, painting, and music are illustrations still more decisive.”

    Shelley’s Defense of Poetry is the gold standard.

    In his his preface to Prometheus Bound, Shelley adds:

    “The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed. This is unusual in modern poetry, although Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of the same kind; Dante indeed more than any other poet, and with greater success. But the Greek poets, as writers to whom no resource of awakening the sympathy of their contemporaries was unknown, were in the habitual use of this power; and it is the study of their works (since a higher merit would probably be denied me) to which I am willing that my readers should impute this singularity.“

    Washington Irving has a great passage from his piece “On the Mutability of Language” in which he discusses the classical standard in is own terms. He uses the example of Shakespeare:

    “On the contrary,” said I, “it is owing to that very man that the literature of his period has experienced a duration beyond the ordinary term of English literature. There rise authors now and then, who seem proof against the mutability of language, because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature. They are like gigantic trees that we sometimes see on the banks of a stream; which, by their vast and deep roots, penetrating through the mere surface, and laying hold on the very foundations of the earth, preserve the soil around them from being swept away by the ever-flowing current, and hold up many a neighboring plant, and perhaps worthless weed, to perpetuity. Such is the case with Shakspeare, whom we behold defying the encroachments of time, retaining in modern use the language and literature of his day, and giving duration to many an indifferent author, merely from having flourished in his vicinity. But even he, I grieve to say, is gradually assuming the tint of age, and his whole form is overrun by a profusion of commentators, who, like clambering vines and creepers, almost bury the noble plant that upholds them.

    Washington Irving refers to Shakespeare as being rooted in the “unchanging principles of human nature.” That’s what made Shakespeare timeless, eternal. Form was a necessary means of achieving that, but it was merely that, a means, not the essence. If Shakespeare had just been another good craftsman, he would not have the staying power that he will always have.

    If a poem is just about craft, Pandora’s box is opened. If poetry just becomes a question of fine language, careful attention to craft, it may work out in some cases, but it’s ultimately the beginning of the slippery slope. What if a free verse poet decided to write according to formal rules, would that really change any of their crappy ideas?

    No, it would not.

    What if someone is a rabid satanist, does it really matter if they write very nicely in a formal style???

    Poetry also has to be rooted in truthful ideas. What is between the words, what is between the images? That’s where the poetry lies, that’s where the paradoxes and discoveries lie. Without that, we just have ornate language, carefully curated lines, novel word choice and freedom of associations, occasionally peppered with insights here and there, as in the case of Eliot and company.

    I think if people are not writing with a love for creativity, which is the defining quality of human beings, and at the heart of the conception of Agape, it’s just cymbals—verse, but not poetry.

    Daniel Leach (who has been published by the SCP many times) recently discussed what classical means in a form that is admittedly more thorough than it can be in a comments section.


    I think Daniel Leach is a good example of a modern classical poet. He meets the criteria in terms of both form and content. He’s musical, never didactic, reaches the deeper spiritual nature of his reader, and also uses tender beautiful language. It causes the reader to become conscious of something deeper within themselves, and by gaining that consciousness, they also gain the ability to see it within others as well, and to help foster it generally. That’s love, that’s Agape. That’s what Paul was preaching about. Where does all the poetry from in the New Testament come from? It comes from Agape.

  16. Joseph S. Salemi

    David, it’s clear, from what you have said above, that we have some very sundering differences about poetry and aesthetics in general. You make a number of assumptions that I simply do not share.

    Let’s start with a glaring instance. You speak disparagingly of “ethno-nationalist” poets, as if concern for and loyalty to one’s ethnic and nationalist identity were somehow improper or immoral. Well, I have news for you: I am a committed ethno-nationalist, just as Leo Yankevich was. I guess then, in your book, I can’t be called a “classical” poet. I suppose you’d say the same for Rudyard Kipling, who was a fanatically patriotic Englishman; or for the exquisite poet Charles Maurras, who was savagely pro-French.

    As for “satanic” poets, have you forgotten about John Milton? William Blake believed that Satan was the actual hero of “Paradise Lost,” and Blake himself in much of his poetry expresses a deeply ambivalent view of God and Satan. Are you going to contend that Milton and Blake were not great poets, because they had sympathies for the devil?

    Our biggest disagreement must be on the question of what you term “fundamentals, first principles, universal first principles, reason…” You’re trying to treat the art of poetry as if it were analogous to mathematics or logic or the periodic table of elements. And like all Platonists, you insist that adherence to certain “fundamentals” or “first principles” or “unquestioned truths” is the touchstone by which actually existing poems have to be judged.

    It doesn’t work that way in aesthetics, which is not based on primordial axioms. There isn’t some checklist of philosophical requirements that we consult to tick off whether a poet has fulfilled a set of obligations. All we require of him is that he be articulate, highly literate, imaginative, intelligent, entertaining, and sometimes also inspiring and didactic (as long as he isn’t too earnest and boring about it). As long as he does these things, in different ways and at different times, he’s a good poet.

    Choosing Percy Bysshe Shelley to support your case is what is called a “tell” in poker. It immediately lets me know that you are committed to a certain agenda for poetry. Shelley was an extreme political radical (and an atheist to boot). He favored revolution and social upheaval, and he saw poetry as one way in which to encourage those things. His notion that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind” is a frighteningly tyrannical idea. As I wrote once, the notion that poets should be the legislators of mankind is as horrifying as Jurassic Park.

    It’s not the job of poets to “change the world.” As Auden brilliantly put it, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Politicized freaks in the current po-biz scene have done everything in their power to forget Auden’s words, or to interpret them in some twisted, socially conscious way. But the words are plain enough, and direct enough: POETRY MAKES NOTHING HAPPEN.

    You worry that looking at poetry as mere craft and technique opens up a Pandora’s box. But in fact it is YOUR idea that poetry must be judged by non-aesthetic criteria that opens up the box. It empowers those who want to examine (and then approve or condemn) every poem on the grounds of its “message,” or whether it makes people happy, or whether it supports an abstract idea like “agape” or “creativity” or “truthful ideas.” It is the epitome of political correctness.

    Recall that the “classical” Plato wanted to banish all poets from his ideal republic, precisely for this reason: they didn’t “tell the truth” that Plato felt was appropriate and fitting. Plato didn’t even want the great poet Homer to be read or taught! That’s the Pandora’s box that you should be worried about.

    Every fight that has developed here at the discussion threads of the SCP has always been connected in some way to this issue. It always begins when someone expresses anger at a poem’s message, or morals, or tone, or tendency, or “taste,” or religious implication. But poems are just POEMS — that’s all. By whose authority are they policed and regulated? The poet Robert Darling once argued with me about the “morality” of a poem. I replied the he might as well talk about the morality of a coal seam. When you talk about “creativity” and “agape,” I get the distinct feeling that these are just your synonyms for “morality.” In fact, it’s pretty clear now that your definition of the word “classical” has a strong moral element to it. That’s not my definition.

    The aims of us here at the SCP are actually quite simple: we want to resurrect and revitalize traditional metrical poetry. We believe that such poetry is a crucially valuable part of our Western culture, and that it should be encouraged and preserved as a precious heritage of our language. We worry a great deal about meter and diction and other formal things, because they are an intrinsic element in traditional poetry. (Every art has its formal requirements.) We also hope that such revitalization will have some political ramifications — this is an unabashedly conservative website — but we will judge poems NOT on their “message,” but on the level of poetic ability that they evince.

    To see my more extended views on poetry, please read my various essays at the Expansive Poetry Online website, where I deal at length with a number of famous English poets and their particular strengths.

    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Joe, thank you very much for your sagacious voice vested in years of literary experience. For me, your take on the function of poetry, which embraces Auden’s quote, encourages creativity in a world that suppresses any deviance from the selective and collective view. I have never been interested in anything other than writing from the heart. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate form and employ every literary device I’ve learned. That doesn’t mean I haven’t listened to and studied the views of poets and critics alike. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an education in literature. It means I believe the best poets write without inhibition. That means taking a subject (whatever that subject may be) and elevating it to heights that embrace a fresh and engaging view, regardless of all societal, religious and political constraints. If I have interpreted your take correctly, I am a poet. If not, please put me straight.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Susan, from having read all of your poems and comments here at the SCP, I’m absolutely sure that you do not suffer from any of the problems that I tried to outline in my posts. Not in the least.

        All of your poems show a complete sense of freedom, and a rejection of any kind of ideological handcuffs or moral imperatives. You are one of those rare poets today — one who is completely independent, and not manacled by imposed current forms of etiquette.

        Expert musicologists will tell you that all they need to hear are a few notes played, and they can identify the composer of a piece and his entire style and approach. I flatter myself that I am the same way with poems. When I worked with the late Bill Carlson editing his magazine “Iambs & Trochees,” all I had to read were a few lines of a submitted poem before telling Bill that the piece was worthless, or worthwhile. And I can do the same with prose — just a few words from someone’s pen tell me immediately what his world-view is, and what his approach to a question will be. Call it a kind of clairvoyance.

        I saw that you were good immediately, and I attributed it to your English background. But I also noticed the same thing in the American-born poet Sally Cook when I first encountered her poetry years ago. There really is something called innate talent.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Joe, I thoroughly appreciate your words. I would have continued to write my brand of poetry simply because I’m driven to do so, but now I will do it with an extra flamboyant flourish of ink and an extra ray of sunshine in the stanzas. With much appreciation for your wisdom, guidance and honesty – a rare gift these days.

    • David Gosselin

      Dear Joseph,

      I think these are important questions, questions worth taking the time to discuss. While the comments section of the SCP is perhaps not the best format for debating such issues, I’d say a robust debate on such questions is very necessary and worthwhile.

      Turning to what you said above: In my first comments, I explicitly stated my belief that poetry is not about having the right answers and that you can have all the right beliefs, check off all the boxes and yet still not be creative or write good poetry. I even referenced a passage from the bible which states “the power of sin is the laws.” So I’m not sure why you made several of the comments that you made where you assumed that I was advocating for some kind of Puritan or Moralist dogma in poetry and aesthetics. I know the kind of person you are arguing against, but it’s definitely not me. I think my statements about the need for a higher conception of poetry when discussing questions of form in poetry were pretty clear. The main point I wanted to make about your essay was not really about anything said in the essay per se, but rather that what it said was inadequate. However, my statements did lead to a more nuanced idea of what must therefore be meant when speaking of truth in art, fundamental principles (not Formalist principles or rules), “Beauty and Truth” (in Keats’ sense) or the “unchanging principles of human nature” in poetry.

      You say one should write freely, without preconceived notions or assumptions. I agree with that completely, but one also has to recognize that there’s a universe out there. A poet is not writing in empty space or in a void. THAT universe still ends up in the text–you can’t divorce the text from the universe you live in. You can try, but you won’t succeed. Any good poet is going to take into account the fact that they live in the universe, and express their understanding and relationship to the universe in some way when they avail themselves of some form of artistic expression. There is always going to be some kind of meaning, OR, in many Modern cases, meaning presented as lack of meaning, like in the case of many Modernist poems where one finds many novel word choices, highly stylized language and an endless array of literary effects. However, both the Modernist and/or Formalist outlook can easily lead to the blind worship of language and an obsession with novelty because ultimately, that’s all that will be left if a genuine idea of truth and meaning are disregarded. If you take out the question of meaning or an investigation meaning (not a literal meaning but a non-literal meaning, a musical or metaphorical meaning), why would you be surprised that people start to explore all sorts of new modes of expression, all sorts of perceived “free” verse styles and poetry. One cannot just argue for Formalist principles, or to degree one does, they will always define an inadequate idea of what poetry is and what it DOES.
      When Auden says “Poetry does nothing”, I reply, “Speak for yourself!”
      I spoke of the nature of creative thought and the unchanging principles of human nature. A poet can’t ignore that, not if they are serious about art, timeless or high art–“classical” art.

      As well, I would like to address what I think is arguably your most fallacious point. You expressed the belief that Shelley’s statement from his defence of poetry on poet’s being legislators of the world (not literal legislators like in Congress, of course) was somehow incorrect or dogmatic. To that I say the following:

      Homer’s poems created an entire culture; Dante’s Commedia informed the Golden Renaissance at its most fundamental level. You would not have western civilization as you know it without these works… Western civilization has its roots in ancient Greece, and if one knows even just a bit, they know that Homer shaped Greek civilization at its core; you can’t separate one from the other. Dante continued in the tradition of the ancients, and also contributed something original by giving the Homeric epic a distinctly Christian treatment using the uniqueness of the Italian language. Shelley, Keats and Poe all looked back to the ancient tradition to inform their own modern classical poetic attempts.

      I recently read a great article on Homer and the nature of Greek tragedy.
      Maybe that can change your mind on Auden’s idea?


      The fundamental point worth making, and which Shelley expressed in many forms in his Defence of Poetry, is that when one actually investigates the nature of creativity, we find certain universal characteristics which each human being has the capacity to reflect in their own unique way, according to their own particular skills and talents. However, that universal characteristic is just that, UNIVERSAL. It is the defining characteristic between beasts and human beings. Without the principle of creative reason, no discoveries could be made, no ideas could be communicated, you would be confined to purely literal forms of communication, in which no real conception of truth is possible, only sense-perception. That seemingly immaterial quality, which escapes any formalistic representation or literal terms of speech, THAT is what underlies the works of the greatest classical poets.

      From the above it follows that poetry has to be about more than words and beautiful language. What about someone who has a well-proportioned beautiful body and pleasing appearance? That is physical beauty, but physical beauty says nothing about immaterial beauty, about what kind of person they actually are. What happens to one who goes merely on pleasant appearances? It’s usually an unmitigated disaster. My point is that the same goes for poetry: a poem can have a nice form, interesting word choice and nice meter, however, if that’s all you are going to talk about, that is very superficial.

      Edgar Allan Poe directly addressed this issue some 200 years ago. In his Poetic Principle he writes:

      He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind — he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us — but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above.

      That “something in the distance” is what I’m referring to. Without that, all you have is nice verses, good technique, beautiful language, but if that’s all you have, you don’t have genuine poetry and you don’t have much, not by classical standards. It’s in that context that I quoted the famous passage from Corinthians. You don’t have to call it love, Agape, you can call it whatever you want–“a rose by any other name would smell as a sweet”—the point is that there is that other thing, there is that something in the distance, there is that quality of a creative spark which must somehow shine through, and which formal principles allow to shine through most clearly.
      Once again: my point is that your essay did not make that point, and that you can’t have an adequate discussion of poetry’s fundamental essence without it, it IS the essence of poetry. Poe, Shelley, Keats and company would agree, without a doubt.

      Lastly, I think Plato’s discussions of poetry are much more nuanced than you suggested in your comments. Plato had many dialogues where he refers to the problem of “sophists”. The sophists were smooth speakers, very clever rhetoricians who advanced all sorts of ideas and used language as a means of subverting and coercing people into believing various fallacious ideas. This is the nature of political and ideological warfare.

      When Plato speaks of “banning” poets, it’s in the context of a very specific historical and political dynamic where most of the “sophists” were not just artists or speakers, they were in many cases agents of influence, foreign operatives sent from foreign lands, coming into Athens and other city states as foreign agents representing different powers and interests which sought to destroy the Republic from within. Athens was ultimately destroyed from within. If the United States is destroyed, it will be because it was destroyed from within, by precisely the kind of sophistry Plato was battling 2000+ years ago.

      And even if Plato was being very literal and I am wrong, it doesn’t make what I said or what Shelley said in his essay any less truthful. We don’t have to agree with Plato’s conclusion to grasp the nature of the paradox that he was posing in his day and age. The real subject of his dialogues is paradox, the questions that the dialogues are meant to provoke within the listeners. The dialogues and counterpoint between different ideas and hypotheses are meant to cause reflection within the listeners about the nature and nuance of various ideas. The dialogue approach an idea like a scientist approaches a new hypothesis, investigating it in all its possibilities and dimensions. However, unless one understands the political and historical dynamic in which Plato was making his statements, one won’t really be refuting Plato because they won’t really be addressing the root of his argument, essentially overlooking the nuanced nature of the ideas.
      Modernists hate Plato’s metaphorical language because it essentially functions like classical poetry. That drives them crazy. \

      You seem to want to treat Plato’s words as if it were some kind “close reading” performed by a Modernist or New Criticism disciple. That doesn’t work for Plato or great classical poetry. Modernists in general fail to understand something like Plato (Shelley or Keats) precisely because they try to superimpose their ideas of a “close reading” and “New Criticism” onto something which does not obey those laws. The fault is not in Plato, but in the Modernist.


      As for the “ethno-nationalist” reference, like Miss Susan Bryant, BDW and Mr. Anderson, I will refrain from commenting.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Dear David —

        You have said many things, and it will take too much time to deal with every single item. I’ll try to discuss what I consider the salient points in your post, while passing over others. I’m taking you as a model for this, since you silently passed over several important points that I have made.

        First off, when did I or anyone else here at the SCP ever write a poem that did not “deal with the universe”? Have you ever found anything surreal or science-fictiony or occult or just plain off-the-wall here? I can’t think of a single serious poem in this venue that was not connected with the existing world.

        We may have produced fictional narratives, or imaginative sprees, or pleasant fantasies, or jokes. That has been the prerogative of poets since the beginning of time. So if you want to accuse the modernists and free-verse morons of “not dealing with the universe,” go right ahead. But the accusation can hardly be used in an argument with us here at the SCP. The real problem, I believe, is that you want poets to deal with those aspects of the universe that you happen to prefer, and when poets follow your lead, you award them with the honorific title of “classical.” As for those of us who don’t, you claim that we are “unclassical.” This proves my earlier point, namely, that for you “classical” basically means “in tune with David Gosselin’s ideology of how the world and the universe should be seen and ordered.” You might argue that you are merely being “objective,” because you are attached to “The Truth.” I’d argue that your position is solipsistic and presumptuous.

        The one who is dealing in unreality is you. You are fascinated by and enamored of hypostasized abstractions like “Truth” and “Beauty” and “Agape” and the “Universal” and “Fundamental Principles.” Do you realize how pompous and over-inflated such diction sounds? Like all persons with a Platonic agenda, you don’t even recognize how deeply coercive your views are. In real poetry, none of those things means a damned thing except insofar as individual instances of them are made manifest in language. It makes perfect sense to write a poem about a beautiful girl; it is idiotic to write a poem about “Beauty Itself.”

        And this reminds me of something shocking that you said in a previous post here. I’ll quote it:

        “Poetry has to be rooted in truthful ideas. What is between the words, what is between the images? That’s where the poetry lies, that’s where the paradoxes and the discoveries lie.”

        This is completely and astoundingly WRONG. In fact, it is profoundly and dangerously anti-poetic. The real truth is this, Mr. Gosselin: poetry IS the words and the images! Nothing else! Poetry is the words that we hear when it is recited, the words that we see when we read the page, and the words that echo in our minds when we memorize it. It is unforgettable text, remembered and passed down, aurally and orally and audibly and legibly. Your viewpoint, which is that “the real poetry” is something that one has to find “between the words and the images,” is both false and pernicious. It’s like thinking that the real purpose of a Christmas cake is to find the hidden shilling baked inside of it. Your view of language seems to be kabbalistic, in the sense that words have to be read in ways that expose their true cryptic message, rather than be accepted for the surface meaning that they present to us. This isn’t the way any normal person reads or enjoys poetry, except maybe for Platonists and their Straussian disciples at the University of Chicago.

        Let’s put aside high-level attempts at poetry, and look at the simplest kind of poetry in English: traditional nursery rhymes. Why have they survived in the mouths of children for centuries? Do you really think it has anything to do with gaseous abstractions like “Truth” and “Beauty” and a “Divine Spark”? Or was it simply that these nursery rhymes were linguistically charming and delightful:

        Bobby Shaftoe’s gone to sea,
        Silver buckles at his knee–
        He’ll come back and marry me,
        Pretty Bobby Shaftoe.

        Are you going to excavate some secret “Universal Truth” that, Mr. Gosselin? Or how about:

        Hark! hark!
        The dogs do bark —
        The beggars are coming to town,
        Some in rags,
        And some in tags,
        And some in velvet gowns.

        That’s a perfect confection of four dimeters intertwined with two trimeters, with a rhyme scheme of AABCCB. Are you going to say that this beautiful little piece isn’t “classical,” because it doesn’t make absolute sense, and doesn’t elevate us to a perception of “unchanging human nature”?

        When you say that Homer’s poetry created Greek culture, or that Dante’s Commedia created the Italian Renaissance, you have things completely ass-backwards, as we say in Brooklyn. Homer created Greek culture? Huh? Are you kidding? Greek culture existed for at least a thousand years before Homer sang a single lay! The Renaissance was an explosion of pictorial, sculptural, architectural, and literary brilliance that hardly depended on the writings of one exiled Florentine! Greek culture made Homer possible, and the Italian Renaissance spun off Dante as just one more facet of its coruscating brilliance. Both Homer and Dante were great men, but they were simply products of the ethno-national cultures into which they were born.

        The sophists at the time of Socrates and Plato were rhetoricians, but they were NOT poets. No sophist would have wasted his time on the art. Sophists were concerned with language for persuasive and manipulative ends only, as Aristophanes shows in his plays The Acharnians and The Clouds. Plato objected to poets because he simply could not stand anything that did not fit into a well-ordered republic that would run with the mindless efficiency of an anthill. The free imaginative play of poetry was alien to him, as it is to all idealists with an agenda.

        Enough. I’ve said as much as I think necessary. But if this argument goes on, I hope we can dispense with quotes from Corinthians, or from that revolutionary atheist whom Gosselin thinks is “the Gold Standard” for poetry.

      • David Gosselin

        I agree that much has been said. Tomorrow is another day and I’ll leave the debate where it is after tonight.

        I will just say that the Declaration of Independence cites “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as inalienable rights. These are not just words, the words are merely predicates referring to something immutable and ingrained within the universe.

        The way you speak of language, “Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness” are just words in a text. They are not, they are universal principles. Human beings are born with those rights, they are not arbitrary, they are not social constructs, they are built into the universe. A system which denies these rights is inherently evil.

        I am thankful that the idea of an American Republic succeeded and I hope to God that “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” continue to not just be “words” in a text.

  17. Joseph S. Salemi

    As a postscript to what I have written above, let me append a passage from the great H.L. Mencken, one of America’s most perspicacious literary critics and editors. Here Mencken is speaking of a major problem with the average American writer:

    “He not only believes that his tale is important; he also commonly believes that some great piece of moral philosophy (or theology) lies embedded in it — that there is a message there for suffering humanity capable of curing our metaphysical chilblains if we will only heed it.”

    –from “A Second Mencken Chrestomathy,” p. 273.

    I think Mencken here is describing David Gosselin’s approach to literature perfectly. It is a peculiarly bad American mental habit, one that comes from New England Puritanism of the colonial period. It’s still alive and kicking today, despite the passing of centuries.

  18. BDW

    Though Mr. Salemi’s essay is nice enough, as far as it goes, and among the better essays @SCP, I would never call it, as Mr. Hartley does, “a brilliant disquisition”; for it seems neither brilliant, nor a disquisition.

    There are so many things one could disagree with in Mr. Salemi’s essay; but I will just take one example, lest I become tedious.

    Mr. Salemi reiterates W. H. Auden’s famous quote, which is good enough in its context, as long as one does not literally insist poetry makes nothing happen; but Mr. Salemi not only insists on it, as if it is some sort of truism, but he seems to relish putting it in caps.

    To counter that Modernist slogan, I would put up just one simple poem by a young writer, which shows that it is not always true, id est, “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose patriotic poem, perhaps ironically, helped save the USS Constitution from being decommissioned.

    I actually enjoy Mr. Salemi’s comments more than his essay, especially with those of Mr. Gosselin.

    • C.B. Anderson

      So what exactly then, Bruce, does poetry make happen? Gosselin thinks there’s a good answer to that question, but do you?

      • David Gosselin

        Dear Mr. Anderson,

        I would recommend a wonderful piece that explains very nicely what poetry can do.

        To say poetry does nothing is just nonsense, in my opinion. It’s silly. Whether the meaning is meant to be literal or more nuanced, Auden’s comment is a nonsense statement. I don’t see how one can argue against the thesis in this article below. There is a very clear relationship between poetry and statecraft.


        To quote the opening paragraphs by Miss Chung:

        “Today, perhaps more so than at any time in history, we are experiencing a divide between what is considered to be the “domain” or “confinement” of art as wholly separate from the domain of “politics.”

        The irony of such a perception is its failure to recognise that the root of our political system was enjoined with the arts from its very inception.

        Looking at ancient Egypt and Athens, mythos was dominant in all spheres of thought. Mythos, which pertains to anything transmitted by word of mouth, i.e. fables, legends, narratives, tales etc., would often hold within it a significant truth or meaning for the society as a whole. In other words, ideas that were pervasive in these cultures and shaped all aspects of life including its politics and sciences were shaped by mythoi, or the art of story-telling.”

      • BDW

        To answer Mr. Anderson’s loaded question: What “exactly” does poetry make happen? I have neither the interest nor the desire to answer in depth; but just a couple of thoughts.

        First, I would suggest poesis does make lots of things happen, especially relating to the mind, like entertainment, and, at times, very seriously, as in Shakespeare’s poetic dramas.

        Secondly, apparently @SCP, poetry makes people smile, or think, or…

        Esiad L. Werecub:
        “If poetry makes nothing happen, what did Plato feel,
        when it came time to banish poets, and with so much zeal.
        from his “Republic”, even if it was but an ideal?
        If poetry makes nothing happen, why not let it be”

  19. Margaret Coats

    What I left out about homeschooling may contribute to this discussion, after I get through explaining that most homeschoolers I know are working class. Anyone who takes up homeschooling knows the family will forego one parent’s potential income, and take on the expense of providing books and materials the public schools will provide–not free, but at the cost of the school’s becoming the principal influence over the child’s mind. This is an economic cost that some cannot bear, but members of the American working class have done so. Most of my fellow homeschoolers were union workers, non-union service workers, and solo proprietors of small businesses who worked harder for less money (and with less security) than the proletariat. One was a single mother who worked weekends while grandparents watched the children. Families generally lowered their economic status even more, by giving their children not just a home education, but more brothers and sisters than most American children have. Many of these families lived in what one might call genteel poverty, because they valued children and education more than money. They were able to achieve educational goals by focusing on the basics, sharing books and materials, and making all the many economies people need to do in their circumstances.

    What is required is a willingness to make deep sacrifices of self, status, and lifestyle for the benefit of children. I am concerned about the future of homeschooling, but not because the spirit of self sacrifice is diminishing. In fact I see students who were homeschooled themselves choosing this for their children. The economic Great Leap Backward in the past year, more than any future government policies, may push self-sacrificing parents into real poverty. That’s where they may give up homeschooling if they can’t provide basic needs. In this sense, economic freedom is vital.

    I may have made it look like homeschooling parents are well off, by saying that they are willing to hire tutors for high school. We network to cover these costs cooperatively. I taught homeschool Latin classes for 20 years, charging only for materials, as I was blessed enough to do so. When I needed a math tutor for my children, I hired one of my Latin IV students to do the job while I was teaching lower level Latin classes. This was never a situation where anyone went on the open market for tutors at the going rate. Parents who need tutors look first to their homeschooling network.

    In my comments above, I spoke about difficulties of teaching writing in homeschooling. Here I’ll address difficulties I’ve had in teaching poetry–and this has to do with the current discussion. When parents asked me to teach literature, they were somewhat anxious about poetry. They were afraid that poetry (even more than other literature) might introduce the ideas that they distrusted and rejected when taking their children away from public schools. Among my fellow Catholic homeschoolers, there were specific objections to non-Catholic authors, pagan mythology, and romantic love.

    These are easy to understand. Parents work for years to teach children the Faith, and don’t want it taken away from adolescents. They also want high school students to focus on their studies, not on the opposite sex. The objection to non-Catholic authors displayed a real desire to see some English Catholic poetry, of which there is plenty, although it rarely shows up in schoolbooks–even old-fashioned ones. Finding specifically Catholic poetry, by Catholic authors, corresponds in a way to finding ethno-nationalist poetry for those who want to read it. And why not?

    The best way to approach objections is not to avoid suspect poetry, but to discuss the matter directly. Non-Catholic poets write good poetry, although they may fail to treat some topics in ways that thoroughly satisfy the Catholic sense of beauty. I see from my own poetry handouts that aesthetics was of prime importance in my teaching long before I knew Joseph Salemi or heard his ideas about what poetry is. My first questions to students, about any poem, were “Is it beautiful? How beautiful is it? Why is it beautiful?” I do go on to discuss the goodness and truth of a poem, but beauty comes first because it determines whether the poet is successful in presenting whatever goodness and truth he chooses to speak about.

    I have a fully developed handout on what one needs to know about pagan mythology, and a set of not-so-well developed notes entitled, “What Good is Love Poetry?” I talk about that topic with students, and include in the discussion the effects love poetry may have on their passions. They find it quite interesting to discuss how responsible the poet Arnaut Daniel may be for Francesca da Rimini and her lover and her husband going to Hell. We also talk a little about how Catholics exercise control over the passions. For us, this involves the beauty and power of sacraments and sacramentals as well as prayer and self-discipline. Of course, this is my procedure with homeschooled students in high school. It seems to satisfy their parents who entrust them to me, and it does not seem to inhibit their reading or writing.

    It is quite interesting that romantic love is on the bad list for both these conservative Catholic homeschoolers and for politically correct schools. The politically correct are afraid that romantic love may inhibit the development of feminism in both men and women, by suggesting traditional male and female behavior. That’s their problem.

    • Joseph Charles McKenzie

      Dear Professor Coats,

      This is precisely why my “Sonnets for Christ the King” include love poetry of what some consider a highly romantic nature.

      Why? Because the reign of Christ the King extends to marriage and in many ways is all about marriage. The very type of romantic love is the highest exemplar of it, Christ’s love of His Church.

      I agree that parents’ fears are best assuaged by directly confronting the problem of poets to whom a certain undue reverence is given, often uncritically, but who nevertheless can be shown to have failed, here and there and for various reasons, in their duty to provide works that conform with faith and morals.

      Shakespeare is the greatest Catholic poet of our English tradition, but not always did he write as such. The sonnet craze of the 1590s was inspired by the courtier poets, and the young Shakespeare was anxious to beat them at their own game. This is why there are so many baroque twists and turns (very often unnecessary) in the syntax of many of his sonnets. (There is a good deal of evidence, by the way, that the W.H. of the dedicace, William Holme, may have gathered a few sonnets by poets other than Shakespeare for the 1609 edition.)

      Catholic homeschoolers like my recently published Lady Sonnets precisely because their children don’t have to deal with disembodied Fair Youths or horrific Dark Ladies as they do in Shakespeare’s sequence. But whilst the Bard of Avon failed to heed the public admonition of his cousin St. Robert Southwell, the casket scene in Merchant of Venice was his act of repentance for those sonnets.

      The reality is that no one really cares about some ugly old, imaginary Dark Lady anymore. But everyone loves and cares about Portia.

      In the end, our children as grown men and women will have committed to memory only Sonnets 18 and 116, or some of Donne’s better sonnets. Why? Because, contrary to the false idea that “all great poetry is immoral,” eternal love, marriage, and truth, understood from the Christian perspective, are principles of perduring life in poetry. They are what remains when all the academic theories and dicta have vanished. They alone are worthy of our collective and individual memories and time has shown this.

      Again, I insist, the true definition of poetry is “the radiance of God’s divine Word through language ordered by grace.” The great poets are always at their best when their works conform with this definition, and always at their worst when they do not.

      If we cannot include Homer and the “virtuous pagans” in my definition, then one can always fall back on Mr. Gosselin’s suggestion that the great poetry is moral, a source of civilization, or, at very least, that nothing in human arts and letters is morally indifferent. If some heads should spin around in circles and explode over the word “morality,” then that is their tantrum to throw.

      • Margaret Coats

        I have used another argument regarding pagan poets. Acts 17:28 (Saint Luke reporting Saint Paul’s Areopagus speech) quotes a line from Aratos, a pagan Greek poet from Asia Minor. That means Aratos wrote one line of which God is the principal author (our Catholic view of the inspiration of Scripture). This is the highest sort of inspiration human authors receive, and it was accorded to a minor poet writing of a God he did not know, in a work dealing with natural phenomena. It confirms the possibility of God’s inspiring a poet ignorant of revelation. From my point of view, the possibility is enough. We don’t need to suppose any kind of outlook on the poet’s part, and he doesn’t have to be a great poet. Everything good comes from God, and God gives His gifts as He will. The poetic gifts (like all gifts) come with a responsibility, and in His own way God judges how well they are used. As readers, we judge the poems. As you say, Shakespeare wrote some great sonnets, and some that are inferior and even tiresome.

  20. James A. Tweedie

    I have enjoyed the comments, especially the admirably polite exchange between David and Dr. Joe, but also Margaret’s insights on home schooling (which from my household’s own experience are dead-on center).

    As an dispassionate observer, I believe that Gosselin and Salemi have more in common than may first appear.

    I am reminded of a conversation–actually, an impassioned, yet civil, argument–I once overheard between two highly successful professional photographers who–along with myself and many others–were waiting for the sun to rise amidst the other-worldly tufa towers on the shore of Mono Lake. The argument was over whether it is acceptable, moral, ethical, acceptable, to (essentially) photoshop a picture by, for example, removing a powerline, a telephone pole or a garbage truck from the image.

    Each defended their position cogently and persuasively but with no ground surrendered by either side. Today, years later, and as one who now uses that technique to create compelling images displayed and sold at a local gallery, I still heartily appreciate both positions.

    Poetry, like photography and all the arts, is distinguished both by its adoption or rejection of form (whether strictly classical/formal or modernist loosy-goosy) and the particular moral, historical, ethno-national, spiritual, cultural, educational, socio/economic/political world-views that have been imprinted in the poet’s brain. While Salemi stresses the former and Gosselin stresses the latter, I believe that beneath the surface they both fundamentally agree that both form and content matter, and that “classical” forms are not only shaped by and reflect culture (Salemi) but also have the power to influence it (Gosselin) Gosselin clearly also affirms the first point and Salemi, the second, as evidenced by his–and SCPs–passionate belief that formal poetry is both a defense against the Modernist and Post-Modernist erosion of Western culture, but also an offensive weapon to be wielded in opposition to it

    As I said, I see far more agreement than disagreement in their comments and am convinced that the sparks that fly are coming from the same campfire.

    • David Gosselin

      Dear James,

      I agreed with Mr. Salemi that both of us had the chance to make our points generously, and that the questions raised were adequately treated by both sides, but out of respect, and because I enjoy discussion on these topics, I will take the time to respond to the comments you made.

      Ultimately, I think there is a giant gulf separating Salemi’s outlook and the classical tradition which I referenced by using quotes from Poe, Shelley and Washington Irving, and which I also tried to formulate in my own words. I was merely trying to reformulate what the aforementioned poets stated, only within the added context of Mr. Salemi’s present-day essay. Modernism and Formalism did not exist as literary movements during the time of Poe, Shelley or Irving, so naturally there has to be some new updated and nuanced language if we are to address the current question.

      I think it helps to restate the passage by Shelley about his method of composition. Shelley, in his preface to Prometheus Bound wrote:

      The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed. This is unusual in modern poetry, although Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of the same kind; Dante indeed more than any other poet, and with greater success. But the Greek poets, as writers to whom no resource of awakening the sympathy of their contemporaries was unknown, were in the habitual use of this power; and it is the study of their works (since a higher merit would probably be denied me) to which I am willing that my readers should impute this singularity.

      Shelley is identifying a very specific classical tradition, and he specifically references the ancient Greeks, Dante, Shakespeare and his own approach as being informed by theirs. So this is not something I am making up. Shelley also knew ancient Greek and Italian, so he was no amateur or mere pedant.

      Classical poetry has a historically specific meaning. Many other poets may use form, but that has nothing to do with the classical tradition or classical ideas as such. People can like or dislike the classical tradition and classical ideas, they can agree or disagree with them, all I am pointing out is that it is a thing, and it is not nearly as obscure or undefinable as some academics and critics make it out to be. We just have to follow the ideas. If we just compare form, we won’t actually be able to identify the essence of what makes something classical or not.

      Salemi’s views are much closer to the outlook of 20th century Modernism, and more specifically, to the New Criticism outlook which emphasizes a ”close reading.” Formalism is just a specific brand of Modernism where a certain adherence to specific formal characteristic is emphasized.

      However, I think the best way to get some perspective on the fundamental differences is to ”zoom out” a bit.

      In his Poetic Principle, Poe writes:

      The Poetic Sentiment, of course, may develop itself in various modes — in Painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance — very especially in Music — and very peculiarly, and with a wide field, in the composition position of the Landscape Garden.

      The poetic sentiment is not something exclusive to words, the very same poetic sentiment can be expressed in classical painting, classical sculpture, architecture, music etc.. . So I think it’s only by getting out of the realm of terms specific to poetry that we can gain a better perspective on what the nature of the subject at hand really is.

      Lastly, there is a great book that I would really recommend to anyone who likes literature.

      In his book, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice
      Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939, John Carey writes the following:

      ”We cannot tell what happens in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The shapes are blurred. Who are the “you” and “I” at the poem’s start (“Let us go, then, you and I”)? Are the Prufock’s two selves? And which two selves? Is he looking at his reflection in a mirror before going out? Does he ever get to the room where the mysterious women come and go, talking of Michelangelo?

      These famous unanswerable questions about the poem have generated so much debate only because they have been mistaken for answerable questions, which is like supposing that a Monet is really a Canaletto that has been accidentally smudged. The questions are unanswerable because the poem designedly withholds the information needed to answer them. It withdraws itself into indefiniteness, eluding the fact-hungry masses. The fact that we cannot be sure what it is about is essential to what it is about. Its syntax is veiled. For example:

      In the room the women come and go
      Talking of Michelangelo

      “In” is odd with “come and go”. You would expect people to come and go to and from a room. What is meant by coming and going in is not clear, and cannot, of course, be clarified. The poetic enterprise is successfully evasive, embodying Prufrock’s evasiveness. Instead of facts, it offers a phantom meaning which dissolves when the reader tries to isolate it.”

      In the classical tradition, poetry is what lies between the words, or between the notes in the case of music. We know their meaning through irony, counterpoint, metaphor, but not literally. Poetic language is simply the shadows cast by “the operations of the human mind.” Metaphor is used as a means of bringing together various different images, each with their own individual meaning, but which when brought together, represent a fundamentally new idea a new constellation of meaning. Of course, there is a literal aspect to language, and a technical aspect, but that is simply the most elementary aspect of language. If one wants poetry, one has to go beyond the words, beyond their literal meaning. Otherwise, why not just say it, say what you want to say. Why write poetry if you can literally say what you want to say? I think in many cases with Formalism, that’s exactly what happens, they just say what they want to say with very ornate and stylized language which is fitted into a specific metrical form.

      I think Hart Crane is a very good example to look at, and Adam Sedia wrote a great piece on Hart Crane and the modernist approach to poetry. Just like the example of Eliot’s poetry used by John Carey, in Crane’s work, we find all sorts of technically pleasing language, beautiful images, and one can learn something from it, but as soon as we try to investigate what Crane is actually saying, the magic is lost. One can ascribe all sorts of meanings to the work, but it essentially comes down to interpretation (in many cases). The question becomes more, “well, what does it make YOU feel or think? Never mind what the author meant” One essentially has to resign their higher faculties of creative reason and just be content with the effects created by the language. And that’s fine if that’s what someone wants to do. We are just making the distinction.

      Sedia’s piece “Clarity and Obscurity: The Essences of Classicism and Modernism Compared” does a great job of treating the question and taking the time to make the distinctions:


      As a final thought: Salemi and Percy Bysshe Shelley could agree that a certain passage is beautiful upon initial reading, but then still fundamentally disagree once there is a discussion of what a given passage means, what the intent behind it is. Or in other cases, the poetic faculties could simply be directed to a subject which is not contentious, like the beauty of some person or nature, at which point all we can really say is ”wow, that’s beautiful.” However, I think many of the greatest works of classical art go a lot further such as The Divine Comedy, Homer’s epics, the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Schiller etc… In many ways, it comes down to a question of treatment. How does a great tragedian treat or approach his/her subject? The stories and legends Shakespeare used existed for many years before him. What was unique and classical was the way he chose to treat the raw material, what he sought to convey by availing himself of the predicates found in a specific story. Ultimately, even a very simple subject can be given a classical treatment. In fact, once Schiller made a remark about Goethe’s little battle ”The Treasure Seeker.” He made the point that even a simple subject, when adequately treated, can afford one the highest kind of delight. I took the time to translate it since I didn’t really like any of the English translations I found on the net. It’s a lovely little ballad, and I think Schiller’s point about treatment is very useful. On the other hand, it’s not like the subject of the ballad is that complex or provocative. It’ something completely different to compare a ballad like Goethe’s Treasure Seeker with something like Schiller’s Cranes of Ibykus or The Ring of Polycrates, both of which deal with a moral universe and the forces of natural law.


      In a word: discussion which is limited only to formal characteristics or to a quality of sensual beauty found in a poem leaves out an essential element of poetry, which we can’t address if the discussion of poetry is generally confined to the domain of form and craft.

      To conclude, people can write whatever they want to write–I believe in Free Speech 100000000%–I’m just taking the time to distinguish one form from the other.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Mr. Gosselin,

        You are not only a poet working from a lyrical tradition, but also a critic writing from a critical tradition, as we see in your extremely edifying presentation of Washington Irving on Shakespeare.

        This is precisely what is needed in as a counterpoint to the empty formalism of the American “movement” (which some see as a clique more than a movement).

        Whilst I much prefer Coventry Patmore over Shelly, for obvious reasons, I cannot begrudge your brilliant use of his essay as perfectly workable framework.

        As for Plato, whom, I confess, I am no longer comfortable reading in the Greek (my Greek is now limited to New Testament and Patrologia), he was a major part of my studies in the famous Great Books program at St. John’s College, a place where we were formed, as you were, to think critically and for ourselves.

        But you have, in the best and most public manner, discovered what is truly rotten in formalism’s parochial little Denmark here: the absolute, inexplicable refusal to situate poetry within the realm of ideas, morals, even history, and to limit all discussion to form alone, as if these were remotely separable, which they are not and never were and never shall be. To suggest that they are is a grave affront to civilization itself.

        And yes, the corruption of the Western poetic ideal arises not only in liberal circles, but also in pseudo-Catholic and pseudo-Conservative ones as well.

        Again, those who cannot even hear the words “morality,” “beauty,” “truth,” “civilization,” without attacking them, clutching their pearls, or throwing a tantrum, merely accuse themselves, as in the expression, “qui accuse s’accuse.”

        Criticism is also as much a mirror of the critic as the object of his criticism. It reveals either depths or shallows, refinement or vulgarity, a lover of truth or a heart full of spite.

        As for me, and even if we might not have everything in common, your intervention here is the first breath of critical fresh air I have experienced in this venue, and you may be assured that many of our readers feel the same, in spite of the thinly veiled contempt and scorn oozing from those who, let’s face it, have fallen into their own habits of thought.

      • James A. Tweedie

        David, If I understand you correctly, you are making a distinction between “formal/formalist” poetry (which references an adherence to certain constructive patterns of rhythm, meter, rhyme, etc) and “Classical” poetry (which uses formal structure to reflect a particular understanding of the universe). For you, then, “Classical” poetry is determined by the joining of two things: 1. a particular world view expressed in 2. structured poetic forms.

        I deduce from this observation that if that same world-view is expressed in a loose or unstructured forms (such as free verse poetry) it does not meet your understanding/definition of “Classical” poetry.

        Similarly, I deduce that formal, structured poetry that does not reflect this particular world-view also falls outside your understanding/definition of “Classical” poetry.

        You have quoted Shelley and Poe and cited a number of poets who you believe fall within and fall outside the boundaries of what you consider to be “Classical” poetry.

        You use, however, a plethora of terms to try to capture what that “Classical” world-view consists of. You use the term “agape,” which raises a host of questions since the general understanding of that world is uniquely derivative from the person of Jesus Christ and the writers of the New Testament beginning with Paul. That would de facto limit “Classical” poets to those holding a Christo-centric view of the universe. Surely, that’s not what you mean to say since you include people like Homer in your “Classical” pantheon.

        You also refer to a moral universe which also does not clarify the situation since everyone holds what could be described as a “moral” view of the universe. Clearly, by this you mean something more determinative that “moral”–ie. a PARTICULAR moral view of the universe that (I am presuming somewhat) ascribes meaning and purpose and morality (along with concepts of beauty, truth, love, and the like) to the universe as being inherently unalienable from it–qualities that are observable and embraceable by humanity but not created or projected onto nature by humankind.

        Although the specific content of these moral qualities may vary from Greek to Roman to Christian to Muslim adherents (for example) it is this general pattern of moral thought that distinguishes a “Classical” poet from one who is merely a “formalist.”

        Belief in God, or gods, while not required, would also appear to serve as evidence in support of whether a particular poet is deemed to be “Classical” or not.

        Am I following you on this?

        To this mix you also add two further thoughts. 1. Unlike Eliot and his women coming and going in the room, you infer that Classical poetry expresses meanings that are objectively discernible rather than subjectively inscrutable, and 2. That this meaning is most effectively conveyed “between the words” as opposed to what could just as effectively conveyed in prose.

        That second point appears to me to be somewhat at odds with the first and seems to reopen the door to subjective arguments over meaning to which you had previously raised objections.

        I do not want to render an opinion on any of this until I feel that I understand what you are trying to say. As in the game of “Hide and Seek,” I need you to tell me if I’m getting “Warm” or getting “Cold.”

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Here is what I consider the operative section of Adam Sedia’s essay (linked to, above, in Mr. Gosselin’s reply to Mr. Tweedie). I, for one, found it immensely useful as to Mr. Tweedie’s question:

        “For Pound, the conveyance is a complex formed from the poetic image, and for Eliot it is a concentration of an impersonal experience that conjures a new emotion. But Eliot’s definition is only a more expansive view of Pound’s. The essence of both – the essence of modernism – is that poetry’s purpose is to convey an effect, not a truth. It works on, rather than speaks to, the reader.

        If ‘effect’ is merely the emotional response of the reader to the language used, then poetry is but a cosmetic art, and a poet is but a writer who can string together a series of pretty-sounding words that conjure an image. That task requires no special skill. Like architecture or carpentry, true craftsmanship in poetry requires attention to structure and foundation, not merely color and ornament. And shoddy constructions and Potemkin villages never endure. True art lies in the essence of the work, not its impressions. This is yet another sense in which to read Keats’s famous line, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'”

      • David Gosselin

        Dear James,

        This is ultimately addressed to everyone in the thread.

        A this point, I think it’s important to state that I am not trying to win an argument, I am not trying to prove Mr. Salemi wrong and I am not trying to cast any aspersions. I am simply trying to make the questions of classical composition clearer for myself and others and I’m trying to identify what I think are misconceptions when it comes to the question of great timeless/classical art and the idea of Formalism, Modernism et al. The problem is not with what Mr. Salemi or Formalism say as such, but they do not say.

        With that said, were we able to settle the whole question of classical and timeless art in a simple brief exchange, it likely would mean that we haven’t really explored the question in great depth. So I think the fact that many people have taken the time to weigh into the discussion is a testament to the fact that people believe it is an important question and it is worth taking the time.

        Classical culture exists in many different civilizations. China has had a classical culture, typified by the Song and Tang Dynasty poets and by the wonderful and endless store of Classical Chinese paintings. One does not need to be a Christian, a Greek or a Hindu to draw inspiration from these amazing paintings! THAT is the nature of timeless art.

        There is also a Persian classical culture and an amazingly rich classical tradition among the classical Arabic bards, which spans over 500 years. Most impressive to me are the classical Andalusian poets of Moorish Spain. The ancient Greeks had a classical culture, so did the Italians in the aftermath of Dante and the Troubadour singers. The Germans created a classical culture in large part thanks to the works of Goethe and Schiller. So having a high culture or classical culture is something that can be achieved by any people. I myself have studied Italian and Arabic for many years and can attest to the universal beauty and truth found in both these great cultures.

        While much can be said about the western canon, the great irony is that both the Chinese and Arabic classical traditions managed to maintain a continuity of classical art which far surpasses anything that was achieved in the West. I think many of the reasons for that are political and cultural, but that is another story!

        Of course, varying works will reflect or embody certain classical principles in varying degrees. A work may have elements of Modernism and also elements of classicism. Endless possibilities exist. There is no fixed definition.

        The question of treatment is useful. Shakespeare took stories and legends that existed for centuries and gave them his own particular treatment. What distinguished them as timeless works–“classics”–was how Shakespeare chose to approach his subjects, how he used the raw materials of a given story, the predicates, to convey his own unique and insightful perspective.

        I think classic works are also characterized by the quality of wisdom they impart. Can you imagine a whole generation of poets who write nice poems, and yet never seek to discover any wisdom, or impart it to others? Great art reaches the inner depths of the human heart and soul and reminds us what we really are, of what it means to be human. I think timeless/classical art expresses what it means to be human in the highest possible manner. I think that is its purpose.

        If one is dogmatic, it’s doubtful they will be a timeless artist. If one is excessively liberal, it’s also likely that they will fail to present their ideas in any kind of lasting form, likely siding too much on the side of immediate emotion and ephemeral thoughts. The dogmatic thinker will tend to have their beliefs packaged in nice pre-determined forms, such that they are not really comfortable or capable of diving into the depths of the human heart and searching for any Truth themselves—they require some kind of authority or rule book which the correct beliefs are prescribed for them. You can find this in any religion, in any politically correct movement, in any cult etc…

        Different people with different backgrounds may exhibit different limitations and different strengths. I think the point is that we can all tap into creativity in some way. The goal is to develop and better understand how one can tap into their own unique creative faculties. One cannot know what they will find until they try. However, one cannot try if they believe that they already have the answers or if they believe that there are essentially no answers to find!

        Paradoxes abound in every direction!

        Schiller treats the question of high culture or classical culture quite well in many of his essays where he seeks to define a concept of the beautiful. I recommend the “Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man” to everyone. In one of his works, Schiller writes:

        An object is perfect, when everything manifold in it accords with the unity of its concept; it is beautiful, when its perfection appears as nature. The beauty increases, when the perfection becomes more complex and the nature suffers nothing thereby; for the task of freedom becomes more difficult with the increasing number of compounds and its fortunate resolution, therefore, even more astonishing.

        That is a classical idea, a classical standard for composition. You will find it in the classical Greeks, in the Renaissance Italians, in the classical Arabic tradition, in Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms etc…

        Schiller says that beauty has a natural power to inform and educate one’s emotions and it can teach one how to give our thoughts and emotions a more ever-lasting form and depth.

        What makes something beautiful such that when it is experienced it naturally awakens something deeper within the audience? How do great poets and artists achieve that? Wouldn’t one already have to believe that there was something to awaken within the audience for such works of art to last and succeed?

        Salemi brought up the idea of talent, but I think the word talent or genius is often just thrown around to explain a more general process of creativity which various individuals can tap into to various degrees at various times. I’d argue that a lot of “talent” and “genius” goes to waste, or is never really developed.

        I’ve met numerous people on numerous occasions who I could tell had special qualities or insights, but were also just stuck in the Brave New World and never got the kind of education or training that would have allowed them to fully unearth, developed and cultivate their “genius.”

        Take the positive case of Alma Deutscher. She has wonderful parents and her gifts were nurtured from the very start. Imagine this same child being brought up in a household that never exposed her to music, never encouraged her creative imagination, and add on top of that parents who themselves lacked the education or traits to recognize the potential of their daughter.


        Part of why I am so passionate about this idea of creativity is that I believe it’s something that can be developed; we can learn to tap into it and fully marshal our creative faculties.

        A few more ideas…

        Harmony, freedom, and at the same time, necessity, are all important concepts. Is the whole just the sum of its parts, or is there something more, such that when all the parts come together, what one experiences is not just a series of impressions, but rather those impressions come together to reveal a glimpse of something beyond any of the individuals parts or their sum total. This is the essence of Plato’s paradox of the “One” and the “Many.”

        On the other hand, as I quoted Eliot and John Carey, one can see that in many Modernist poems (not all, of course), we often find ourselves with many interesting individual lines and images, but their function as part of something beyond the parts is often unclear, there is no “One” which underlies the “Many,” the works are just the sum total of the aggregate parts. The result is a series of novel effects, but not idea as such. That’s important.

        If we consider a great symphony by Beethoven or Mozart, it is rigorous, but there is a great freedom found in that rigorous assembly of the parts. If the parts did not all come together seamlessly, there would be no feeling of harmony or freedom.

        For all the parts to fit together, there has to be a One; without a One, the parts become essentially meaningless, they are just impressions, just parts, and the artist hasn’t actually created anything new, only an aggregation of pre-existing things, which when brought together, create some kind of novel effect.

        The point of a great poem is that it does create something new, it brings something out from the person, but this new something is not just feelings based on the experience of novelty, it is the result of some kind of metaphorical idea, an irony, or some kind of dramatic paradox, which when presented, provokes something from deep within us, something that had been there all along, but which was then given a new unique and original expression, whether in poetry, painting, music etc…

        Another worthwhile question is how can an artist communicate something moral without being didactic? Shakespeare succeeds brilliantly with his dramas.

        Modernists in general greatly struggled with Shakespeare. He was too upsetting for many of them because they just could not manage to really figure out what Shakespeare was doing in many cases (not all of course) and ultimately, “getting” what Shakespeare was doing would have required them to discover this higher notion of metaphor, as employed by Shakespeare, the classical Greeks, at which point, it would have made the Modernist approach to poetry seem rather poor and superficial.”

        Here is George Bernard Shaw writing about Shakespeare:

        There are moments when one asks despairingly why our stage should ever have been cursed with this “immortal” pilferer of other men’s stories and ideas, with his monstrous rhetorical fustian, his unbearable platitudes, his pretentious reduction of the subtlest problems of life to commonplaces against which a Polytechnic debating club would revolt, his incredible unsuggestiveness, his sententious combination of ready reflection with complete intellectual sterility, and his consequent incapacity for getting out of the depth of even the most ignorant audience, except when he solemnly says something so transcendently platitudinous that his more humble-minded hearers cannot bring themselves to believe that so great a man really meant to talk like their grandmothers. With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.

        Shaw hated Shakespeare and I think many Modernists were ambivalent towards Shakespeare. Eliot was often left confused, as he often was, though talented as he was. He did have talent, but his confusion on many matters caused him to struggle in terms of how to compose. He ultimately went for Cubism. Combining this and that image, to create this and that effect, throwing in a quote here and a quote these, creating a sort of paper mashe or poetic pastische full of intriguing sights and sounds, but which whenever we try to figure out why he was showing us what he was, as Eliot himself said, ““I am no better qualified to say No! [to any interpretation] than is any other reader.”

        As Adem Sedia writes in his piece “Eliot’s Mask”:

        This is the essence of modernism: conveying value-neutral impressions for the reader to process, not conveying ideas to elevate the reader’s mind.

        All that to say, I don’t think being classical is something that can be described in a prescriptive fashion in the same way I don’t think you can just be a good person by following a set a rules, however noble and virtuous. And I don’t think describing “classical” as embodying any specific idea of the universe as such is useful either.

        However, I think as Shelley points out, there is a creative spirit which animates all things. Whole he may have polemicized against any kind of formally established religion, he believed deeply in the existence of creative spirit animating all things.

        The world is not just made of matter, human beings are not just flesh, they also have a soul, spirit, creative spark, however one wishes to describe it. However one wishes to square it, there is a super-sensuous dimension to human nature, and great art always finds a way to explore that. High art is never just a question of the senses or of feelings. Great classical art or high art usually has some kind of rich irony or metaphor, which is what “moves” people. When people say they are moved by a great peace of art, the idea is that they aren’t just made to feel something at the level of sense, but that they feel something even deeper, which is “moved” and this movement makes them conscious of something beyond anything that can simply be reduced to sense perception, which yet exists within them. The great artist is able to tap into that; the great artist taps into creativity per se. Creativity is there, human beings can choose to tap into it or not, they can learn how to do it well or less well.

        Compare mere free-associations with a rigorous development of metaphor. Compare Cubism in the visual arts with an actually rigorous idea of perspective in Renaissance paintings, or the moving quality of etchings by Goya or Gustav Dore.

        I think that the more an artist see’s themselves as simply the vehicle for something higher, the less the artist tries to make things happen of their own accord, the more they will find themselves in a disposition where the ideas, the poetry finds them. The poet or great artist just becomes a vehicle for that, and they find themselves in a state of great awareness or inspiration where they have to find the adequate forms, medium or presentation by which to make this thing a conscious object of our attention, something which though it may be directly unperceivable, yet possess an undeniable quality and character. So Socrates talks about the philosopher as a midwife, delivering an idea.

        I think all great artists think like that. But in order to think like that, one has to assume there is something already there, something which already exists, which we can be tapped into.

        This is the point at which I think a proper discussion of form can be discussed. The proper form makes a given idea most intelligible, while a lack of form will make it less intelligible.

        In fact, as far as form is concerned, creativity often involves breaking the rules, or redefining the rules, the question is how to do it in a creative and lawful way, such that it is not arbitrary?

        The Imaginative Conservative, another interesting website dedicated to preserving ideas of tradition recently posted one of my experiments with precisely this kind of question.


        Does the Modern Dreams poem follow Formalist or Classical principles or tradition per se? Maybe or maybe not, but if it does, it does so in its own original way. What guided its composition was a musical idea. A theme is laid out, then it is explored, inverted, re-stated in all sorts of different ways, and then finally concluded. If anything, the guiding principles is something akin to the musical development in Bach fugue.

        That is only one among many in a series of ”Modern Dreams.”

        I could go on, but hopefully I have succeed in laying out a few of my thoughts.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Dear David —

        Rather than prolonging this verbose debate, why not just answer the following questions specifically, and without any upward-gazing exhalations of deep exaltation, or any tedious and vague quotes from Shelley or Washington Irving? I mean, just to clear the air, so to speak. I’ve made use of some of your own words in composing them:

        1) What poems here at the SCP do not “deal in some way with the universe, or with human beings”?

        2) What poems here at the SCP do not “impart some wisdom”?

        3) What poems here at the SCP are not “examples of human creativity”?

        4) What poets here at the SCP “are not writing with a love for creativity”?

        5) What poems here at the SCP do not “reach the deeper spiritual nature of the reader”?

        In short, point out the poems (and poets) that are not truly “classical,” in your judgment, and maybe tell us briefly why you think so. This will allow us to “cut to the chase quickly,” as it were.

      • David Gosselin

        Dear Mr. Salemi,

        I posted this earlier but believe there was a glitch.

        Ultimately, I think the discussion has posed more questions than answers. I think that’s good! Once we stop experimenting and asking questions, the truth is lost, creative thought becomes more stagnant, fossilized, and often loses much of its vitality.

        That being said, without context, the questions you asked above will not make it possible to answer. This is the problem with nominalism. People want immediate answers, nice fixed definitions which they can just take in and then simply run their experience of the world by these convenient notions, as if everything will suddenly make sense. They may feel like they have some sense of understanding, some grounding, some knowledge of what they are doing, and that offers comfort, but it is by no means Truth.

        The way the questions above were framed, technically every poem published reflects “the universe”, each one has some quality of “creativity”, each one expresses “human creativity” etc… So I think the ironies are lost when reduced to simple nominal definitions. In my opinion, someone cannot know what “Truth” or “Beauty” or “Justice” is just by looking up the definition in the dictionary. There needs to be a more nuanced approach, a dialogue, whether with someone else or oneself. That’s ultimately why I opted for a dialogue instead of trying to offer some kind of nominalist standard where we can just check off each box and then call something “poetry.” The problem with Plato is that people often approach the dialogues from a nominalist standpoint, they are essentially trying to grab sound bites and believe that they can somehow treat the paradoxes that Plato is posing simply by taking a few quotations out of their context, with no nuance allowed.

        Very bad idea.

        With all the quotes I’ve used, and the many layers of context and nuanced discussion of individual words and ideas, I think there is enough to think about.

        As I said, I think you make some important points, and many aspiring writers will benefit from your discussion of craft. I think your piece entitled “Plain English” made an especially fine point and appropriately shamed a lot of “posers.” However, today, what poetry is per se remains an elusive question. Endless discussions can be had on the question, but ultimately one has to be willing to experiment and take chances, and make discoveries.

        I will leave you with three poems which have appeared on the SCP which I think meet the timeless standard.

        After the Rain by Jared Carter:


        Waves by Adam Sedia:



        Dust by T.M. Moore:


        I think all three show true originality in the treatment of their subjects, and there is some kind of timeless wisdom that can be discovered in each one, just by virtue of how the poets treat their subjects and how they wrestle with the paradoxes inherent in the questions they are investigating. In each case, the chosen form allows for their ideas to shine through as clearly and beautifully as possible.

        Jared takes the subject of rain (he also uses snow as another interesting subject for treatment) and gives it a very original treatment by treating it as something that allows for change, a very subtle kind of change, a very nuanced change. Ultimately, I think this is where all truth lies, rather than simple and standard definitions and literal words.

        Jared approaches the subtle changes brought on by weather with beautiful precision. How would an Eliot or a Hart Crane treat such a question? One feels renewed after reading “After the Rain” and one feels excitement about the idea of also finding a new perspective on things in the world. It becomes an exciting prospect and leaves us wanting more, wanting to search for ourselves, rather than looking for some final answer. I think this is the highest kind of truth; the greatest truth is not that which gives us some kind of fixed finite final answer, but one that causes us to want to further search for truth, to further change and develop one’s thoughts, emotions and ideas. Nuance, irony and metaphor are crucial.

        “After the Rain” is a timeless poem.

        Adam Sedia’s “Wave” also treats the idea of change and time, and uses a rather commonplace image or theme, waves. And yet, the way Sedia treats the subject, it is as if we find ourselves with a new appreciation for these waves–these new wisdom-heralding waves. We are excited by the fact that these seemingly dull, monotonous and cyclical processes can yet convey not only the beauty of an ever-changing world, but also a sense of its unchanging and the eternal beauty as well.

        THAT is powerful.

        Sedia creates a great irony by taking something which is always changing, always in motion, and actually treating that process itself as a metaphor for something more enduring, unchanging and which directs us towards the timeless. Sedia is not just painting pretty images for us, he is creating beautiful ironies, compelling metaphors, presenting us with both an idea of change and the unchanging, of time and timelessness.

        Very powerful!

        Lastly, Mr. Moore’s “Dust” is a great piece because it demonstrates his ability to treat a religious theme in way that still comes across as deeply original and personal. He could have only written it as a product of his own personal journey of faith and self-investigation. The bad religious poets usually just take something from a sacred text and re-hash it, which often reads as uninspired, unoriginal and contrived. The problem is not with the subject so much as the difficulty inherent in the treatment of such a subject. While Irving spoke of the mutability of language, and the fact that things, customs and the world around us changes, in the case of the bible, it doesn’t change, the subject is by its nature fixed and unchanging, which makes it easy to sound dogmatic and contrived i.e. not creative when treating a biblical or related theme. Regardless, Mr. Moore succeeds!

        In each poem, the poet succeeds in somehow originally treating and resolving some of the inherent paradoxes of the human condition. By succeeding, and succeeding in doing so through beauty, I’d say their poems succeed in meeting a timeless standard.

        As I said, I don’t think it’s possible to give a prescriptive definition for Beauty, or Truth or the Universe, one ultimately has to take it one example at a time.

        Best and Merry Christmas!


      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Once again. Mr. Gosselin, you show a knack for ducking the question. I didn’t ask you about which poems you liked, but about which ones you DIDN’T like, and for what reasons.

        But since you have mentioned the three poems of Carter, Sedia, and Moore, let’s consider them and see what they reveal about your tastes. All are good work — there’s no denying that. But all (perhaps not Carter’s to the same degree) are ethereal and dreamy. They seem to spoken by some troubled and tumultuous soul, gripped by nameless longing, and gazing into the clouds for some Sturm-und-Drang insight. In short, they are pure Romanticism.

        There’s nothing wrong with Romanticism, to be sure, and as I said, all three pieces are fine work. But quite frankly, that seems to be ALL that you want. Aren’t all your poems about “dreams”? Don’t they aspire to a wordless ecstasy, a reaching upwards to infinity, to the state of “timelessness,” as you constantly keep repeating like a mantra?

        Nothing wrong with that — don’t get me wrong. But a diet restricted to that kind of gaseous stuff would be intolerable! You seem unwilling to accept any poetry that has a dash of humor, or controversy, or sex, or satiric pungency, or narrative fire, or violence, or shock, or rambunctious tumble, or anything else that might actually be of interest or entertainment value to ordinary human beings. You’ve been reading too much of Shelley, and not enough of Villon or Lord Byron. Sure, Shelley was a good poet — but he was also an awful windbag.

        I except Jared Carter’s poem from some of my critique here, because it begins with a wonderful scenario of arrowheads turned up by a plow in a field, and then being made noticeable by falling raindrops. That is something that anyone who has looked for arrowheads will know — the best time and place to locate them is in a plowed field, right after rainfall. That image is interesting, compelling, and visually tangible to the reader. He’s not being asked to go “beyond the world,” or to escape into a Platonic world of Forms.

        But then again, let’s ask my original question: which poems here at the SCP do NOT fit your category of “classical” and “timeless”?

  21. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    “Poetry is the song of the intangible, the echo of the beautiful, and the breath of the invisible.” ~ S.J. Bryant

    The Pious Poet

    He tells us he won’t bask in pomp and praise
    So, don’t indulge in inapt adulation,
    For here on earth his task is but to raise
    Awareness of God’s lyrical salvation.

    The task has forced this bard to center stage
    With words beyond all mortal expertise.
    Their sacred eminence ignites the page
    In limelight that might blind us with prestige.

    This pompous poet claims his holy light
    Eclipses the great canon as it stands.
    All laic verse is prose that’s but a blight,
    With iambs that dishonor sacred lands:

    Lands that only blessed feet can grace,
    With meter that won’t teeter into realms
    Of irreligious stanzas – commonplace
    Doggerel – stale sin that underwhelms.

    He’s oracle and arbiter of odes.
    Linguistic heresy is his bête noire.
    Don’t brush up on your Shakespeare, heathen toads,
    For even Will is not quite up to par.

    Just face the fact each rhyme you pen is dire
    Unless you are a self-declared messiah.

  22. BDW

    If one really wants “a trenchant argument about exactly what ‘classical’ means, there is none better in English than T. S. Eliot’s “What is a Classic?” It is the “gold standard”.

    I do understand Mr. Salemi’s frustration with the word, such that he would like Mr. Mantyk to rename this site, “The Society of Traditional Poets”; I think, partially because so many use the word differently.
    I hope, however, Mr. Mantyk does not change the name.

    Poets are going to have differences; and that is good. Nothing is more tedious than continual praise of poets by poets for poets…especially their creative, innate qualities… blah, blah, blah. As I recently told Mr. Mantyk there are differences, and they are important; for example no one at this site shares my vision of rhyme; to name just a few, some on this strand, Anderson, Bryant, Coats, Cook, Foreman, Gosselin, Harris, Hartley, Juster, MacKenzie, Phillips, Robin, Sale, Salemi, Sedia, Southerland, Tweedie, Whidden. I would not place the late Mr. Yankevich in this lest, partially because he was closer to my accentual-syllabic attitudes.

    So charge forth pious poets and puffed-up poetesses!

    • David Gosselin

      Dear BDW, Mr. Mackenzie and James,

      A lot has been said. For clarity’s sake, I think a glaring irony has to be pointed out.

      The classical ideal as it was expressed by Homer, the ancient Greeks, Dante, the Renaissance masters, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley and Poe is quite clear. Shelley and Poe and Schiller all articulated the idea quite well in their works of literary criticism.

      Mr. Salemi’s argument and the aesthetical approach he has advocated for, regardless of whether it involves ”formalist” principles or the use of ”traditional” forms is LIBERALISM at its core. Mr. Salemi advocates for the adherence to certain formal principles or rules, but as far as content is concerned, Mr. Salemi’s argument is pure unbridled liberalism. ANYTHING goes. He is essentially saying ”How dare you judge the content, thoughts or ideas found in a poem and ascribe some kind of merit or value to them, you have no right to do that! You are authoritarian!” Plato sought Truth, so that makes him an authoritarian? Really?? That sounds like radical left idealogy to me. Of course, Mr. Salemi is entitled to his opinion, but it seems like the irony involved in a formalist staunchly attacking any question of content or value in a poem has been largely overlooked. The only difference with Mr. Salemi’s argument, the only condition, is that the poem has to have the right kind of packaging… This is very similar to political correctnes: is not so much judged based on the content of one’s ideas so much as whether they formulate their opinions according to the prescribed norms and rules. One is essentially judged based on their use of language, rather than any idea of content.

      Regardless of how one tries to square it, that is a very superficial idea of poetry, in my opinion.

      Thus, Mr. Salemi’s idea of poetic freedom is an unequivocal defense of radical liberalism. It may take a peculiar kind of conservative or traditionalist ”form” at its surface, but at the core of his argument is a radical liberal ideal. Technically, according to Mr. Salemi’s logic, if a free-verse poet decided to write according to the correct set of rules and use nice language, they would not be a free-verse poet anymore, but a Formalist, as if it was all just a question of what rules they chose to follow.

      So if we are to throw around all sort of terms, I think it should be clear that Mr. Salemi is in essence advocating for Liberal Formalism. Anything goes, as long as the words and language are presented in a specific form.

      By refusing to say anything about the quality of idea or content in poetry, and insisting that one cannot judge the content contained within the form, that such matters are merely a question of poetic freedom, and that anyone who questions that is therefore an authoritarian, I mean, this is essentially what a radical progressive would argue… In fact, Liberalism is actually quite tame compared to the outlook Mr. Salemi has come out defending. ”You are NOT allowed to question the content or value of an idea. How dare you?!?!”

      Apparently, if one tries to do that in art, that person is a radical authoritarian.

      This glaring irony seems to be lost on almost everyone commenting, except for Mr. Mackenzie.

      Change my mind?

      • Mike Bryant

        Freedom IS a radical idea. Our founding fathers were revolutionaries.

  23. Joseph Charles McKenzie

    Mr. Gosselin,

    You are thus far the only one addressing the problem as a defect of teaching.

    For, anyone can state the basic truth that neo-Marxist ideologies are intellectually crippling and then go on about how horrible the crippled are in a tone of contempt and scorn—the very opposite of agape. Just as crippling, however, is the defective extension of this problem, ex parte preceptoris, to include all beliefs and intellectual traditions as an encroachment on the highly questionable idea of “poetic freedom.”

    If “poetic freedom” is imparted as the supreme dogmatic law of poetry, then it quickly devolves in the revolutionary “Liberté” of the Terror, not freedom at all, but a weapon to be wielded against anyone who still believes in the old eternal truths of civilization or adheres to his faith—an Antifa version of freedom. How quickly the preachers of freedom become the real oppressors.

    If a teacher in the classroom imparts this false idea of poetic freedom in combination with the error that a poem is nothing more than the sum of its meters and rhymes, then who is really to be blamed if his contemptible cripples retreat even further into themselves without ever caring to know the splendors of tradition? And so I understand precisely what you mean by Agape, the one great absent in the narrative.

    The failure of formalism is above all a failure of teaching,, and we can talk later about the formalism as a defective concept to begin with, when it is really poetry that is at stake. Hovering above this problem is the old Latin proverb “quem non habet non potest dare.” One cannot impart what one has not received. Nor can one impart what one has rejected. But your notion of Agape deepens the problem of teaching in a wonderfully radical way. What a shame this has not been taken up in the discussion. Instead, it was immediately shot down: “You have a coercive agenda!”

    I will quote your one of your statements because it is by far the most important I have read in this venue:

    “Eliot, Hart Crane, Yeats, they are all examples of that. In a word: they didn’t have Agape, they didn’t have a passion for developing the creative spark innate within human beings, and helping others to develop that quality within themselves. It would be more accurate to say that they idolized language, they loved virtuosity and technical prowess, and they were obsessed with novelty, as opposed to genuine originality of thought and classical composition.”

    Even St. Paul’s “resounding gong” and “clanging symbol” are too shiny and attractive as metaphors for today’s empty formalism. More accurate is the dull, repeated click of the metronome reducing all of literary criticism to a single phrase: “You missed a beat.”

    I would be surprised, Mr. Gosselin, if you have by now taken note of how things normally proceed on these threads. In the name of “poetic freedom” any expression of belief in the things of faith or civilization are immediately maligned as “ideological handcuffs” or “moral imperatives.” The hue on cry is raised as soon as truth is spoken, as a sycophant rushes up with the insults.

  24. Joseph S. Salemi

    Is this an example of “gaslighting,” Mr. Gosselin? Accusing someone of a fault that you the accuser are in fact guilty of?

    I have NEVER told anyone in or out of the poetry world that they have no right to judge the idea content of a poem, or even that they are compelled to compose poetry in a certain style. What I have said it this: if you are philistine and amateurish enough to judge a poem by its philosophical, ideological, or theological content rather than its formal excellence, you are not my idea of a competent literary critic. And in regard to formal and metrical rules, I have NEVER compelled anyone to follow them. What I have said is that not following those rules is your choice, but I (personally speaking) probably won’t like your work. There is a very big difference between expressing an opinion, and telling people that they are obliged to follow it.

    And you have the cheek to call that “Liberalism”? What exactly are you smoking? The things I have mentioned above are MY OPINIONS. I have neither the power nor the inclination to force them on anyone. What I do is express my views, in as trenchant and articulate a manner as possible, without apologies. If people like what I say, I am gratified. If they don’t, too bad.

    The authoritarian here is you, and all other persons who are driven by an allegiance to hypostasized abstractions. When you were silly enough to write that “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” are “universal principles,” I refrained from answering because I thought your statement itself was embarrassment enough for you. Life is NOT a “universal principle.” Life is your pulsating heart, your breathing lungs, your circulation, brain waves, and locomotion. It’s pure Platonic windbaggery to think of life as some abstract “principle.” Liberty is your ability to follow your own choices and decisions without constraint. Sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don’t. And the “Pursuit of Happiness”? That’s pure rhetorical fluff, put in there because some readers of Jefferson’s first draft at the Continental Congress objected to his original word “Property.” Maybe you’ll answer that “inalienable rights” are universal — well, they’re not. Your “rights” only exist when you’ve got the willpower and ammunition to enforce others to respect them. Wake up, Mr. Gosselin — for someone who prides himself on “looking at the universe,” you seem to be in a dream state. And flinging out a gaseous quote from the Declaration of Independence is purely a play for the gallery.

    James Tweedie was the one who touched upon the real weaknesses in your argument, when he asked if you believed that “classical” poetry was obliged to assert a particular worldview to the exclusion of all others; or if you felt that a particular kind of moral code had to be expressed by a “classical” poem; or if belief in the Christian God or any gods was another requirement. You adroitly avoided giving Tweedie an answer.

    I think you did not answer him because you knew that any kind of honest reply would have marked YOU as the authoritarian. I’m not the one telling people that they must write a certain way. I simply ridicule what I consider rotten poetry. But you’re the one who keeps going on about “imperatives” and “requirements” and “universal principles.” That sort of coercive language is truculent and pushy, and it happens to be exactly the kind of language that is used by left-liberalism today. Hadn’t you noticed? All the “woke” millennials are blathering on about “justice” and “morality.”

    I’m not a liberal. I simply see poetry as a realm of freedom, a licensed zone of hyper-reality where all that matters is one’s literary skill. You tip your hand when you complain that I believe “Anything goes” in poetry. It’s clear that you believe the contrary, and that for you some things “do not go” in poetry. How about being forthright, and telling us exactly what you think “doesn’t go” in poetry? Are you a vociferous Roman Catholic like MacKenzie, who believes that no poem is good unless it is weighted with theology approved by a Papal Decree? Or are you like the rather tight fundamentalist Protestants who show up here sometimes, complaining about “bad taste” or “indecorous language”?

    Answer Mr. Tweedie’s questions. What precisely is your ideology and world view, and why exactly do you think they have to be glorified and propagandized in poetry? Is it moral? Is it religious? Is it political? What is your agenda? What are you pushing? By the way, the moral, religious, and political assumptions of Homer are light years apart from those of Dante. And as for your hero Shelley, he was the sworn enemy of all social authority. I notice you haven’t said a thing about the man’s fierce radicalism and atheism — maybe you feared getting into an argument with your new ally MacKenzie.

    One other thing: you speak of “Modernism” and “New Criticism” as if they were both literary movements. Modernism is a general tendency in all of the arts, but New Criticism is just a method of critique. It can be practiced on poems from any time or place. Yes, it involves close reading, but that is what genuine literary criticism always does — it read texts closely, to examine their structure and style and meaning, and it does so without obsessive reference to the biographical details of the writer’s life and circumstances.

    I’ll end with a general observation. I wrote the essay which heads this discussion thread to discuss pedagogical problems. I tried to explain the difficulties that I have encountered with students over the years. The essay’s
    essential thesis is that if a student decides (against all the odds) to undertake the mastery of formal poetic techniques, he is going to have to do much more than just learn about rhyme and meter and tropes and figures. He’s going to have to FIGHT. He’s going to have to stand up to the mindless liberalism and radicalism and anti-intellectualism that pervade contemporary culture. But now I think I should add the following: he had also better watch out for people who are fixated on hypostasized abstractions, even if they pretend to be “traditionalists.”

  25. BDW

    Mr. Gosselin’s argument on what is classic is excellent. He is alerting us to the poetic power of Homer through Dante and others. It’s just not enough for me. Here in this New Millennium, against the traditionalists @ SCP, I embrace the Realists, the Modernists, and Postmodernists. And in case anyone hasn’t noticed, Poetry is having a hard time. That is why we should be grateful for figures, like Mr. MacKenzie and Mr. Salemi, as well as Mr. Gosselin. And though I disagree with some of Shelley’s examples in his “A Defense of Poetry”, its spirit is amazing. Yes, it is brilliant. I love his colourful language. But is it a brilliant dissertation? No, not in my mind.

    When I think of the phrase brilliant dissertation what immediately comes to my mind is the 19th century “On the Hypotheses which lie at the Basis of Geometry” by Bernhard Riemann. It transformed my mind and how I look at the universe. Like Plato, I embrace mathematics; like Aristotle, I embrace science; and in short, I embrace the entire Western canon in poetry and philosophy and mathematics and…

    So when it comes to what is a classic, I think T. S. Eliot’s essay “What is a Classic” is the best (not second best) definition to that question at this time on planet Earth.

    [Of the hundreds of poems I have written this year, I am grateful Mr. Mantyk prints some of my political poems, but a poem this week which draws on Shelley would not be the type he would be interested in.]

    Though everyone @ SCP will object vociferously at my example of Riemann, and I could give so many more examples, it’s because I wish the people @SCP would get their heads out of their gases and look at the World.

    But, as Mark Twain could have put it, I ain’t holdin’ m’ breath.


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