I went to my first opera when I was six years old. My mother took me to the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street, on the condition that I be a good boy and behave. It was some time in December of 1954, and my aunt (the soprano Elisabeth Carron) was singing. I was much more interested in seeing my Aunt Lee—that’s what we called her—on stage than anything else. My mother hoped that the evening would be the start of some musical interest in me. Alas, that never happened. Despite sitting through dozens of operas over the next decade, my enthusiasms were doggedly literary and not musical.

Opening night at the opera always brought out celebrities back then. My mother pointed out to me the film actor Franchot Tone, and the singer William Warfield. She also said “See that man on crutches? That’s the famous Cole Porter.” I remember a cadaverous figure whose face was a mask of pain, with eyes blackened by his suffering, hobbling along slowly on spindly wooden crutches. I didn’t understand how he could possibly be interested in hearing an opera.

Following the performance we went back stage to see Aunt Lee. I was bursting with childish enthusiasm after sitting for three hours, but my mom warned me to be silent. She said to me “Do you see that thin woman over there?” I looked and saw a striking lady in brown taffeta. My mother intoned “That’s the great Marlene Dietrich. Don’t you dare make noise!” I was suitably cowed.

Marlene, however, did make some noise. It happened to be a mild December in New York that year, and I recall Miss Dietrich saying, in her low husky voice, “It’s like spring outside! Spring!” In any case, I liked my mother’s evening dress of black taffeta with tiny rosebuds much better than Dietrich’s ensemble.

But most of all I remember Cole Porter, and that terrible burden of pain etched into his visage. He had been in a horrendous riding accident in 1937, and the doctors had advised a double amputation of his hopelessly smashed legs. He refused, and instead endured over thirty futile operations over the following fifteen years, with most of that time spent in chronic agony.

Nevertheless, in the twenty years between the accident and his final retirement, Porter produced some of his most memorable work, such as the immortal songs from DuBarry Was A Lady, Mexican Hayride, Kiss Me Kate, and Can-Can. How strange to think of all those lighthearted and breezily perfect lyrics coming from the pen of a man whose limbs were racked with pain.

Is suffering a prerequisite for the making of great art? No, of course not. There are many perfectly content persons who have produced masterworks of creativity. What suffering might well do, however, is add urgency to one’s labors. Because suffering is merely the anteroom to death, its presence focuses our awareness on the third of what the Church calls the Four Last Things: Heaven, Hell, Death, and Final Judgment. Suffering cuts through the silly hubris of imagining that one has unlimited time.

Suffering can’t make you an artist. Your artistic skill comes from study, training, development, practice, and innate gifts. If it were otherwise, we could simply torture budding poets and musicians until they did good work. But no one can escape trouble and tribulation totally, and the best of us use it as a spur to our labors.

I recall the retirement several years ago of one of the heads of our state poetry societies (you know them—the organizations run by what Dana Gioia calls “the trinominate blue-haired ladies”). At her somewhat syrupy retirement speech, the lady said that poetry had only three valid subjects: love, suffering, and death.

Can you imagine the utter limitation of such an aesthetic? A poetry with no comedy, no satire, no argument, no rodomontade, no wit, no intellectuality, no myth, no politics? But that is what happens to poetry when you think that only intense emotion is allowable in it. It becomes walled in, like Fortunato, behind the bricks of three boring commonplaces. Love, suffering, and death the only subjects? Great—let’s all talk about our most recent amour, our arthritic limbs, and how we are dreading the grave. That kind of constricting stupidity is what makes a lot of contemporary poetry unreadable drivel.

What lies behind this nonsense is the unspoken Puritan assumption that a poem ought to be a reflection of what you are actually feeling and experiencing, and if it isn’t the poem is somehow “dishonest” or “inauthentic” or—to use one of the most idiotic terms in contemporary literary criticism—“unearned.” Yes, there are some dorks in English departments who call the effects of some poems “unearned,” as if they were discussing income from bonds. If there is no genuine feeling behind a poem, they say, then any literary effect it may have on readers is illegal or at least unfair.

Imagine if Cole Porter wrote about his “feelings” during the time when he was in great pain. Imagine if all he could commit to paper was how he “dealt with suffering.” Suppose he had turned—God help us—to one of those fatuous “self-help and self-awareness” texts that pollute the shelves of our bookstores. Suppose he could only bloviate pompously on the serious aspects of love, suffering, and death. Would a single lyric of his be remembered?

But he didn’t do that, thank God. He didn’t focus on himself and his perceptions, the way too many of the arrested adolescents writing poetry today do. He knew that the important thing was not himself, nor his pain, nor the process by which he managed to create, but only the product that he would wrench out of nothingness and leave behind. Poetry is product—nothing else.

This is a truth that it takes many poets years to assimilate, and the longer it takes the more time they have wasted. No one cares about your pain. All they care about is what you make of it, poetically.

If you read poetry because you want to hear about the trials, tribulations, joys, sorrows, and emotional vicissitudes of a particular poet, then you are not a serious reader of poetry. You should become a counselor or a social worker, and listen as losers tell you their hard-luck stories. Poetry isn’t about that at all. Poetry is about what a human mind can make out of the whole cloth of language, plus whatever input a poet might require from his personal knowledge or experiences. Remember Cole Porter on those crutches.

.

.

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.


NOTE: The Society considers this page, where your poetry resides, to be your residence as well, where you may invite family, friends, and others to visit. Feel free to treat this page as your home and remove anyone here who disrespects you. Simply send an email to mbryant@classicalpoets.org. Put “Remove Comment” in the subject line and list which comments you would like removed. The Society does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments and reserves the right to remove any comments to maintain the decorum of this website and the integrity of the Society. Please see our Comments Policy here.

24 Responses

  1. Mo

    Dear Joseph,
    Thank you very much for confirming my thoughts of what I call sappy poetry. I felt a bit guilty thinking that a friend’s poems were silly. She expresses just what you said…emotions that do not mean anything to anyone but her. Thanks for providing me a kind of freedom!

    Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    This is a marvelous account of something you must have known since you were at least six. And accolades to your mother, who understood the respect due to those willing to part the theatre curtains and look backstage to whatever might be lingering there.
    Poetry is a fictive artifact. That is the essence of what you told me many years ago. It summarizes what you are saying in this illuminating essay. It’s had a very good effect on my poetry, and by extension, my paintings. I continue to mention it whenever I can, as I know the power of that short phrase. Thank you beyond words for the further illumination of that simple phrase, which flew through the mail to inoculate me. I know I will never be the same, having been inoculated against sentimentality by your brief words.

    Reply
  3. Paul Freeman

    Some vivid, memorable and educative recollections. I’ll keep Cole Porter in mind whenever I’m getting maudlin at the keyboard.

    Reply
  4. Daniel Kemper

    To try to riff off one of your earlier comments…

    Ut musica poesis!

    Reply
  5. Julian D. Woodruff

    Those nerds in the university
    Love self-pitying poetry,
    So if you would wow them pay heed now, please:
    Concentrate on your aching knees.

    Reply
  6. Tonia Kalouria

    Entertaining, enlightening and validating!
    (I loved the little personal detail comparing the two taffeta gowns.)

    Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    In high school English class, I received a single sheet with two columns of word “opposites” under the headings, “Classic” and “Romantic.” Classic “skill” or “craft” was opposite romantic “feeling” or “emotion.” And thus I have always attributed excessive focus on feeling to the continued and prevailing influence of romanticism in art, even though art (and criticism) have moved through many stages following the Romantics. The great Romantic poets were great, of course, because they had very significant poetic skill at their craft. Focus on feeling to the neglect of craft led elsewhere. I am interested to see you name a “Puritan assumption” as also responsible for this neglect. This makes sense, of course, given the Puritan insistence on personal sincerity, and the principle of private interpretation in spiritual matters.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Margaret, to be more specific I could have said (instead of “Puritan”) the words “Low-Church, dissenting, evangelical Protestant.” This religious persuasion does favor emotion over rational discourse, and is also historically hostile to any kind of superfluous ornament or beauty, which it considers a Satanic “distraction.”

      The ironic thing is this: the current representatives of this mindset today are left-liberals and “progressives,” although they have completely dumped or forgotten the original religious presuppositions of their views.

      Reply
  8. C.B. Anderson

    Robert Frost famously said (or wrote): Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance.

    In the past year there have been a good number of poems posted on this site that dealt with grievances, and many of them were excellent, which just goes to show that no one can be right about everything all of the time.

    Now, it’s true that love, suffering and death may be intrinsically interesting subjects, but if you write about these subjects, then you better have something new and interesting to say about them. A treacly love poem, for instance, will be a hard sell. But to restrict poets to these three subjects is tantamount to insisting that everyone wear a straightjacket while in polite company — the surgical mask taken to the extreme.

    I recall something you wrote in another essay: (to paraphrase) the point of poetry is not to say something good, but to say something (whatever it might be) well. I have plenty of poems that you yourself published, which might not be a good fit for the SCP. Too bad for me, and too bad for them, but I will keep on writing such scurrilous poems as long as I draw breath and can lift a pen. Fictive artifacts are my lifeblood and my stock in trade. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, Kip. I appreciate your words.

      What amazes me is how many millions of Americans think that poetry is “about one’s feelings,” or how it “expresses timeless truths.”

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        They think the first because most of them have read little, if any, verse that was not printed on a Hallmark greeting card. They think the second because they themselves don’t know a single timeless truth. I know only two. The first one is a classic: This too shall pass. The second one is Gresham’s Law: The bad drives out the good. This is true not only when it comes to currency (money); it’s often true of art, for instance.

  9. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    What a wonderful essay. It says so much about the attitude of an era – an era when children listened to their parents, and not the other way around; an era when (as my grandmother instilled in me) there was always someone worse off than you and your ability to grin and bear your lot was an admirable trait.

    For me, books have always been my means to escape the stark glare of reality. They have taken me to magical places; places that have lifted me from the maddening and the mundane. Although, I am partial to a bite of bitter truth beneath the delicious linguistic delights that raise me above the fuss and fray of reality. A quote by Eliot comes to mind; “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” I always think poetry should offer the reader an alternative view of reality… a diamond in the dust heap of life… otherwise, what is its point?

    Joe, you make an excellent point, eloquently and masterfully, with a touching story that carries with it a truth that should assist every aspiring poet with their works. For that, I thank you.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      T.S. Eliot’s words about poetry are truly a restorative in this age of personalism and sentimentalism. When he says that poetry is an escape from emotion, and a step into the impersonal, he is saying what has been known to mature poets for centuries — poetry is an ART, and one that is just as cool and collected as that of the goldsmith, the cameo carver, the tapestry weaver, the enamellist, and the engraver.

      Yes, your “personal feelings” can be expressed in a poem. But if that’s all a poet is doing, he’s wasting his time and his readers’ time.

      Reply
  10. David Watt

    Joe S., your excellent essay brings to mind an anecdote my father told me years ago about a teacher he later greatly admired. This teacher taught essay writing by assigning topics such as ‘doorknobs’. There was no sentimentality or flashiness to the choice of topic. The point of the exercise was to create something original, and above all, worth reading. This teacher knew the importance of product, even if it grew from unlikely origins.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      That was a great idea in a composition class! When I taught the subject, I made the students write, for their first assignment, a Theophrastan character sketch in which they gave a concise definition of an abstract noun, followed by an illustrative portrait of a person who embodied that abstract notion.

      The jackass who ran the Writing Program complained that I was “encouraging stereotypes.” I replied “Yeah — that’s what a Theophrastan character sketch does.”

      Reply
  11. Cynthia Erlandson

    I agree with the thoughts in this essay, and am very glad you wrote it. It is much needed!

    Reply
  12. BRIAN YAPKO

    This is a phenomenal essay, Joe (if I may call you that.) First, I love your story about opera and Marlene Dietrich, who I admire very much not just for her performances but for her strength of character. Second, I happen to be a big fan of Broadway musicals and history so your focus on Cole Porter grabs me immediately. Kiss Me, Kate is a masterpiece (how I love the lyrics of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare!) and how can you argue with songs like “Anything Goes,” “Night and Day” or “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”? I knew about his terrible injury. I don’t think I’ve given him his due concerning bravery and discipline. What you say about how he was able to avoid self-pity and pain in order to write some of his best works is truly deep and meaningful. Imagine Milton going on and on about his blindness, or Keats his consumption. I believe pain is meant to fuel the artistic impulse rather than to suffocate it. Thank you for the reminder and for a very valuable read.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Brian. Sure, just call me Joe S.

      You mention a few of Porter’s songs. Do you recall “Friendship”? It’s sung at the end of “DuBarry Was a Lady”, but I believe it may have come from some earlier production.

      One thing about his lyrics — he never misses a beat, he never has an awkward spot, and his diction is as sharp and sleek as an oiled bayonet. Not like modernist crap.

      Reply
      • BRIAN YAPKO

        Yes! Friendship is from Dubarry. A very fun song which you can find on Youtube performed by Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr. I totally agree with you about Porter’s lyrics. Lyric-writing was an extremely sophisticated art. The lyrics of “Well Did You Ever” from High Society are brilliant and hilarious. On the other hand, Porter could write a very simple song like “True Love” and reveal an inner core of sweetness and decency. On a final note, I love how he rhymed “Bianca” with “Sanka” in Kiss Me, Kate!

  13. David B. Gosselin

    Nicely written piece Joseph. I think I saw some Agape in there!

    Your piece is original and raises many profound points, so I think it’s worth taking the time to discuss some of the relevant matters using good old fashion long-form communication.

    For starters, your point about suffering not being a prerequisite for great art is important. Mental illness and neurosis are not a requirement for creativity. In fact, creative genius and mental illness are in many ways very dissimilar. The problem is that there are many confused notions about the nature of creativity. That’s the real issue. The same problems you are trying to identify within the world of poetry also exist in all the other domains of art as well. It’s the result of a more systemic outlook, which I think needs to be addressed. If there is confusion about what creativity is in general, or how it functions, then there will of course be a natural confusion within the realm of poetic composition and the final assessment of the a poetic “product,” as you call it.

    So some of the issues you raise warrant our venturing beyond the domain of poetry per se – at least for a little while.

    A general working definition of creativity as such—whether expressed in painting, poetry, music, or even scientific investigation—is important. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe describes precisely this issue when he writes the following in his essay on the poetic principle:

    “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. Our present theme, however, has regard only to its manifestation in words.”

    So we should be able to see all forms of timeless art as simply different manifestations of essentially the same thing, like variations on a musical theme.

    On the whole, the idea of creativity, suffering and/or mental illness being closely linked has in many ways its origin in the Freudian notion of sublimation – the sublimation of Eros and neurosis. Thus, according to Freud Da Vinci was a great genius because he was a highly sexualized child who ended up focussing this energy into creativity and discovery; Mother Theresa was a saintly figure because she was better than most people at re-directing and “bottling up” all that sexual tension. Many people express similar opinions in their own way and in their own words, but there is a common theme: creativity is anchored in something irrational and chaotic, which is by its nature unintelligible. The pinnacle of this is perhaps best embodied by Modern abstractionist painting. I think such a notion of creativity is very destructive and misleading.

    The reality is that creativity is itself a principle – it is its own thing – rather than some kind of epiphenomena or random occurrence among certain individuals. The universe expresses “creativity” in a multitude of different ways – willful self-conscious human creativity being only the highest expression of a general principle. All of life in the universe expresses creativity and intelligence in some way, shape or form. The essential difference is that in the case of lower life forms, creativity is largely unconscious and instinctual (for example, the spider crafting its web, bees building their hive, or cats intentionally going for the jugular), as opposed to the creativity found in the more developed self-directed expression of self-conscious willful human cognition.

    In my opinion, the idea of defining or identifying the nature of creativity and the creative process in some more intelligible form is important if art is to get out of the rut in which it finds itself today. The word creativity is thrown around with all sorts of different meanings such that we end up seeing all sorts of different confused notions about what “good” poetry is, or what “good” art is. Again, as can be seen with the world of art overall, there exists an underlying issue which is not limited to poetry alone. In some cases, I think that it’s important to situate the problem within the broader context.

    How is creativity expressed by a great poem? To fully answer such a question, we should start by situating the question of creativity as a whole. What we see expressed as creativity in a poem has its expression in all sorts of different forms. In the case of art, Poe called it the “poetic sentiment” and described how this very poetic sentiment can be expressed in many different forms, including literature, sculpture, music and very interestingly even in the landscape painting (take for example the great Song dynasty paintings).
    In many ways, the question of creativity is very much like the question of God. Everyone is talking about it, but how many really understand God? Can we understand God? What does it mean to understand God? What does it mean to have a relationship with God? In this respect, one might similarly ask: what does it mean to have a relationship with creativity?

    They are similar because in both cases we are dealing with something immaterial, which is the central issue and reason for confusion, in my opinion. Keats famously wrote, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” For most modernists, this is just some quaint meaningless aesthetic device, though the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. Keats is expressing a precise recognition of the existence of not only a material world, but an immaterial world. The Grecian Urn serves as merely one opportunity to investigate the greater questions of timelessness, mortality and human creative endeavor.

    But there is no formula for finding or defining God and there is no formula for creativity. In one sense, it can and has been argued that this realization is itself the impetus for poetry as such – the attempt to define something indefinable, the attempt to say what all worlds fail to express.

    We cannot state or express the existence of either God or creativity with any set of literal terms. We cannot see, we cannot touch, we cannot smell nor can we taste creativity or God, but does that then mean we cannot investigate these things just because we cannot know them as direct objects of our sense? Does that really make them any less real?

    Not at all!

    In fact, since the senses and material things are by their nature subject to change and decay, we could easily argue that immaterial things are by their nature more real because they are more enduring and not subject to the same conditions of the material world. An idea from 2000 years ago is still the same idea today — the idea itself does not change.

    This is essential for understanding the nature of timeless poetry. Timeless poetry speaks to both something that is changing, and something that is unchanging. The artist who successfully weds the two is the successful artist. The artist who places too much emphasis on the changing will likely not create a lasting “product”, while the artist too focused on the unchanging is wont to fail in his/her attempt to achieve a successful poetic effect because their work forces our mind into a more rational state which is necessary to figure out what is being said, but comes at the cost of a full experience of the “poetic sentiment.”

    So I think that you have tried to demonstrate this idea of creativity in poetic and literary composition in your own way by “showing” us how it can be done by virtue of your verbal demonstration i.e. you did not attempt to provide some kind of nominal Aristotelian description – you chose to “show” us how creativity works through the composition of the essay itself.

    However, the more general question persists: what is creativity as such? From whence does it spring? How does one find creative inspiration such that they can write good poetry? Are these just questions of magic and mysticism?

    I think that if we speak of getting art out of some rut, the question of how one finds creative inspiration becomes no small question, and it’s a question that goes beyond the bounds of literature per se — though literature as such is a great domain in which to examine and experience precisely this phenomenon. Whether you intended or not, your essay poses the question: what is creativity?

    The question is akin to the question of God. What is God? How do we know God? How can we find God or see God? Are those even the right questions? How can we understand God or experience God? In both cases, we are speaking of something immaterial, which is why I think many people feel that it is something scary or uncomfortable. However, they shouldn’t feel that way. Human beings express both a material and immaterial nature, such that if we hesitate to investigate the world of the immaterial, we are essentially hesitant to investigate aspects of our very own being.

    In fact, the quality of creative reason may be said to be the thing that makes us closest to that which many call “God,” or that which makes every individual in the “image” or likeness of a God. Human beings are closest to that which is called God by virtue of their powers for willful self-conscious creativity. No beast expresses or requires willful self-conscious creativity; they are guided naturally by instinct (which is itself a kind of unconscious of unwilled intelligence).

    Poetry is simply one of the highest and most noble willful forms of this universal creative quality, which is why it’s so important.

    Arguably, one of the best ways of having an intimation of God is to have some kind of understanding and working relationship with one’s own creativity — that quality which makes us in the likeness or “image” of a creator. This kind of idea is embodied in the conception of the Christian trinity, which was most powerfully expressed with the Golden Renaissance and the idea of imago viva dei and capax dei. Plato also defined a similar notion in his Timaeus dialogue when he proposed the idea that an investigation of the universe should begin with the attempt to put oneself in the mind of a creator or composer i.e. how would the creator go about fashion the universe such that it would be the best and most beautiful? And interestingly enough, much later on, Einstein would famously say, “I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.” So these questions go to the heart of science and art.

    Thus, how we go about investigating the question of God is very similar to the way in which we go about investigating the question of creativity. Both deal with the immaterial; and an investigation of either one tells us A LOT about the other; about how we as individuals view ourselves, the universe, and our relationship with the world as a whole.

    In a word: Dr. Salemi is correct when he says that poetry is “product”. However, this “product” is the result of a whole wide-ranging assortment of philosophical and epistemological investigations. The “product” stems from this wide range of immaterial processes and is inextricably tied to that immaterial domain which we come to experience as the final “product.”

    People should read Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Poetic Principle”, Dante’s “De Vulgarie Eloquencia” and “Convivio”, Keats’ letters (especially as it pertains to his notion of “Negative Capability”), Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” or Robert Frost’s essays on poetry such as “Education by Poetry.” Each one expresses their underlying philosophical understanding and principles pertaining to poetry and its composition. These principles stem from more general observations on the nature of the mind and how it works, and a general philosophical outlook on the nature of human existence.

    Reply
  14. Joe Tessitore

    Perhaps one day you will share your thoughts with us on “The Burning Babe” – I would very much appreciate the effort.

    Reply
  15. RF Brooks

    Interesting post, but this last bit doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

    ||If you read poetry because you want to hear about the trials, tribulations, joys, sorrows, and emotional vicissitudes of a particular poet, then you are not a serious reader of poetry. You should become a counselor or a social worker, and listen as losers tell you their hard-luck stories. Poetry isn’t about that at all. ||

    There may be a variety of reasons people read poetry (some of which hold no interest to me or to you) but to say that they’re not a “serious reader of poetry” is supercilious nonsense. A poet may write about their “trials, tribulations, joys, sorrows, and emotional vicissitudes” and also write great poetry. Frost did. Some of his poetry struck so near that he wouldn’t read it in public.

    But I think I might know what you’re trying to describe—confessional poetry? And I probably share your impatience with much of it, but others find it cathartic, in the same way that those old Greek plays are stuffed full of “trials, tribulations, joys, sorrows, and emotional vicissitudes”.

    Reply
  16. Joseph S. Salemi

    Yes, people read a lot of emotionalized junk, and find it “cathartic.” Look at the success of Rupi Kaur, at least among airhead coeds.

    We have no idea how Frost may have revised, altered and refashioned his personal experiences when producing a poem. But if he had merely “expressed his feelings,” he would NEVER have achieved greatness as a poet. A real poet puts his personal experiences through the alembic of transformation.

    As for those Greek plays, they are largely based on received myth, or historical incidents. Whatever “trials, tribulations, joys, sorrows, or emotional vicissitudes” there are in them are the product of fictive mimesis, not personal reportage.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

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