.

When I was eighteen years old, something happened that had a profound effect on my view of the world. Next door to us in Woodside there lived an Irish family with two daughters, both of them under ten years of age.

One day the elder of these two girls (I believe she was five or six) ran her tricycle into the thin plate glass outer door of her home entrance. The glass fractured into long sword-like shards, and one of them came down to inflict a severe gash on the little girl’s forearm. I’m talking about a major, life-threatening wound, of the sort you read about in the battle scenes of the Iliad.

The girl’s mother went into a fit of pure panic, and my parents and I came running when we heard her hysterical screams. When I saw the sheer volume of blood, I became woozy. My father, a combat veteran from the Second World War, was more dependable than me. He had gone through Tunisia, Sicily, the Anzio beachhead, and the Po Valley. He immediately instructed my mother to get a terrycloth towel, to run it under warm water, and to wring it out. When this was done, my dad carefully wrapped the little girl’s forearm with the towel, picked her up, and put her in my arms, with the slashed arm directly against my chest. He then said “Hold her in that position. No matter what, keep her arm against your chest. If you take the pressure off that arm she’ll die.”

My father was absolutely calm when he said this, and as cool as Castiglione’s courtier. I was terrified, and held the girl as tightly as I dared. I could feel her throbbing pulse, her rhythmic shallow sobs, and the warm blood soaking my shirt. I barely allowed myself to think the following: This little girl may die in my arms. We got into a car, drove to the hospital, and there with great relief I turned the wounded child over to the medical staff. She needed seventeen stitches in that forearm.

As we drove back home, I shuddered with repressed fear. My shirt was drenched in blood. My body was dripping with nervous sweat. My face must have betrayed my state, because my father glanced at me and said “You’re going into after-action shock, Joey. Don’t worry—it’s very common in combat.” And he smiled with a look of utter sprezzatura, of the sort that makes every fear meaningless, and every peril just another occasion for beau geste.

My father got me home, wrapped me in a couple of warm blankets, put me to bed, and told me to sleep it off. The next day I was fine. The plate glass was swept up, the blood hosed away, and the little Irish girl survived.

After that experience I realized that one had to handle all fear that way if life was to be bearable. If you didn’t, you’d just be an emotional wreck who goes into conniptions whenever a crisis arises. Fear is one of the most demeaning and debilitating things on earth. It turns one into a quivering mass of jelly, and paralyzes all power of decision and action.

About twelve years after the incident, I recounted these same details to a woman in the “health professions,” as the current jargon has it. She affected an attitude of outraged shock. Her vocal level ratcheted up a few notches, as often happens with human lemmings when their basic assumptions are threatened. “What?” she screeched, in a voice of pretentious indignation. “You mean you handled it yourselves, without calling 911 and the emergency services? How could you do that? That’s not proper procedure! You’re not professionals!”

Now I was only dating this woman because she was a nurse, and my friends had assured me that she got horizontal faster than a carpenter’s level. So I didn’t argue with her. Men put up with a lot when a woman is putting out.

Nevertheless, I realized that the difference between my father’s attitude and that of this silly nurse was a measure of the deterioration of the Western world’s confidence during the twentieth century. My father had no fears. He just looked at a situation and handled it. But the nurse was in the grip of unexpressed, spectral terrors: the terror of not doing the right thing, of not consulting “experts,” of not running to the proper authorities, of not living up to orthodox expectations, of not covering your legal ass with all sorts of shyster-prompted excuses. How utterly contemptible her attitude was! She’d have let that little girl die simply out of allegiance to an idée fixe of what was proper and acceptable. Rather than thinking of a human life, she thought about her image as a “health professional.” Her mentality encapsulates why paralysis instead of initiative now dominates the Western psyche.

Make no mistake—this is a systemic and culture-wide problem. Consensus-driven thinking infects nearly everyone, and renders us helpless. One sees it everywhere: in the workplace, the schools, and even in personal relationships. We have been brainwashed to follow “proper procedure,” and procedure is dictated by experts to whom we reflexively defer. We train young people to worship a flashy thing called “expertise,” and then we define expertise in terms of a paper credential or a title. Meanwhile real expertise—the ability to do something in an intelligent and efficient manner—is devalued and ignored. We don’t ask if something has been accomplished; we ask if the proper procedural steps in an approved process have been followed. Procedure and process have become more precious to us than outcomes.

I have seen faculty members in a department meeting go into apoplectic fits because “due process” wasn’t followed in regard to some stupid triviality. I have watched political meetings degenerate into bitter squabbling because some moron was upset that “the proper steps weren’t followed in the approved manner” in coming to a decision. It used to be that obsession with procedure was a bureaucrat’s disease. Now it seems to afflict everyone. We’ve all become pettifogging lawyers and kosher butchers, fetishizing process into a quasi-religious ritual that is an end in itself.

Does this affect poetry? Apple-so-lutely, as Chico Marx used to say. In the demimonde of the workshops, this disease manifests itself in the belief that putting together a poem is somehow more significant than the actual finished product. (This is in fact the received orthodoxy in composition studies, one of the most fatuous and cant-spouting of our newer academic fields.) Workshop nerds are not just proud of their poems, but also of the fact that all their little buddies contributed two cents’ worth of advice to the project. That’s why they are so gushingly effusive with thanks to everyone, like breathless Oscar winners, whenever one of their efforts sees print.

But what kind of poetry comes out of this “proper procedure,” with its deferential bowing and scraping to every workshop denizen? Committee-approved, peer-vetted, and vaccinated, it is the poetry of safety and consensus, of bien pensant solidarity, of Martha Stewart blandness. Without the slightest fire or sizzle, it’s a poetry that, like the nurse I dated, is “professional” in the worst sense of the word.

One of the most pathetically hypocritical aspects of this situation is the way in which people will blather on about how wonderful it is when poets “take risks.” Whenever I hear this, I don’t know whether to laugh or to vomit. Take risks? These little workshop lemmings? These timorous wilting flowers who allow others to go through their drafts with the fine-tooth comb of liberal orthodoxy, removing anything that might upset someone’s equanimity? Gimme a break. These people are more risk-averse than Swiss bankers.

No—when these dorks talk about “taking risks,” what they really mean is screwing up the rhetoric and structure of a poem, messing with the meter, and denying it proper closure. It means writing a lousy poem for the sake of appearing daring to one’s peers. It means trumpeting one’s avant-garde status as an “innovator,” in the hope that associates will think more highly of one’s rebellious persona. But it certainly doesn’t mean taking any actual risks. That would be risky.

The real risks in poetry today are being taken by those who dare to be traditional—who have the nerve to follow our inherited literary forms without turning them into unrecognizable experiments. The risk-takers are those with the courage to keep the meter and the rhyme real, and who write on subjects—political, sexual, cultural, and religious—that the workshop lemmings deem “inappropriate” or “offensive” or “inflammatory.” Risk-takers are those who don’t give a swiving damn what their contemporaries think or feel, but who serve art alone. To put it in a nutshell, they are not afraid.

.

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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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55 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe –
    Your story puts me in mind of a situation that happened when we were still living in the city, in a lovely little cul-de-sac. Our landlady, in her eighties, liked to go into the small park in front of the house and look at the stars. On one side of the park was a food pantry, and there was a constant stream of recipients coming and going to the pantry. We were used to these transients offering to sell the food they had just received, and often had to clean up eggs they had thrown away to save them the trouble of cooking them.
    One such miscreant had spent the afternoon in our park, and saw this lady looking at the stars, and thought he might as well gain entrance to the house.
    It was late at night, and most of the neighborhood was tucked in bed when I was awakened by a woman screaming FIRE! I recognized our landlady’s voice and rushed out onto the second floor balcony, yelling “Where are you??
    Here !! was her response. Apparently, after demanding that she disrobe, he became frustrated and came upstairs to try to get into our place, he could not, and return to downstairs to look for money and jewelry.
    But he didn’t know there was a back door. I shouted to her that my husband was calling the cops and I was coming to get her.
    There wasn’t time for me to be afraid. I ran downstairs, out the front and into the back. Where are you? I shouted.
    HERE !! came a voice. She had hidden herself in the bushes, where I found her and together we went upstairs.
    I watched as this creep ran out and up the street. We spent the rest of the night sitting up with her, and the next day my husband put barriers on the windows.
    This woman had a bad heart, and could easily have dropped dead.
    The next day things went on as usual, except that we were now a lot closer. I admired her for refusing to remove her clothes, and she had more respect for me for coming out, come hell or high water, rescuing her. The thing was, I never once stopped to think, equivocate, even say a prayer. I knew
    what the right thing was, and did it, and now I knew I could.

    Reply
  2. Russel Winick

    Mr. Salemi:
    This is very interesting and timely to me. When I started looking for journals to submit my poems to just over a year ago, I noted that many journal websites stated the editors were looking for poems which “took risks.” But never was such risk-taking explained or defined. And still after more than a year of heavy immersion into poetry reading and writing, and even researching the issue a bit, I continued to have no idea what “risk taking” meant in a poetry context. I did, however, quickly reach the seemingly obvious conclusion that formal and traditional poetry seems the most “radical,” or at least rare, forms today. Thank you for sharing your insights and views.

    Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I am always loath to comment on an essay from a person who knows far more than I do about life and literature… but, your words, Dr. Salemi, simply have to be addressed.

    The picture you paint at the beginning of your essay transported this reader straight into the scene and had her heart pounding for the poor little girl’s plight and the overwhelming desire for your father and you to save her precious life. To use this shocking experience as a reference point for modern-day attitudes to long-gone values is a stroke of genius.

    You make your point perfectly. It reminds me of two nurse friends of mine. One was educated a considerable number of years before the other. I was walking with her in my neighborhood when an horrific accident occurred. An elderly gentleman was knocked down by a car. The older nurse trusted her instincts, ran, checked that his back and neck weren’t broken by testing his reflexes, lifted him up and steered him to a seat at the roadside while we waited for an ambulance. The other nurse was beside herself for the same reasons you describe… yet if nurse one hadn’t followed her instincts instead of protocol, that dear gentleman may have died.

    Joe S., your essay, with its vivid and heart-rending analogy, endorses my fearlessness when it comes to writing poetry without a thought of the current PC consensus and its insane ideology. Thank you for spurring me on!

    Reply
  4. Cynthia Erlandson

    All I can say is, wow — a great and insightful essay.

    Reply
  5. Mike Bryant

    Dr. Salemi, you’ve nailed the problem with the ridiculous reliance on the experts. I’m afraid that the entire world has been conditioned, over the last sixty years or so, to trust the so-called “experts.” I wonder if there is any hope at all that we can save ourselves from this precipitous descent into the merciless hand of a worldwide technocracy. Brilliant essay, as usual, perfectly presented.

    Reply
  6. Paul Freeman

    I take a risk every time I write a comment.

    But seriously, I enjoyed the essay. It feels like I’m there witnessing first hand whenever you relate a tale from your boyhood. The detail is pretty incredible, the anecdote understated and profound.

    I get what you mean about taking a risk. With poetry, I’ve always felt that rhyme is right for me and predominantly write ‘traditionally’, even though I find that free verse helps me focus on, and deepen, description to enhance my prose.

    I think you’ll enjoy this example of taking a risk. Pre-pandemic, I used go to a book club which had a few university professors in it. Instead of going to meetings armed with what Sparks Notes said about the books, or having a pre-meeting conflab to synchronize opinion, I went with my own ideas. I got ridiculed for suggesting The Road was based on The Wizard of Oz (which I still believe) and that the Woody Allen film Sleeper was based on the HG Wells book The Sleeper Awakes – someone in the HG Wells fan club later confirmed I was right.

    As your anecdote illustrates, taking the risk and bucking the trend is sometimes the better course of action. However, I think we should acknowledge, even though we may not like their work, that the likes of Joseph Turner, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and, dare I say it, Jackson Pollock, took a risk.

    I’ve rambled on enough, I think. Thanks again for a great read that will help me a lot with the progress of my latest prose project.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I’ll agree that men like Turner, Van Gogh, and the others you mention were not poseurs or frauds, and that they were sincere in their efforts to create a new and different art. They may have gone in directions that I consider wrong, but I don’t necessarily dismiss their work in toto.

      It’s just that today, when people in the po-biz world talk about “taking risks,” they mean the EXACT OPPOSITE of what those two words say. The words actually mean “sucking up to the powerful establishment of money, academia, mainstream critics, and major publishing houses that determine who in the poetry world gets rich and famous.” That’s not a risk. That’s a career move.

      You want to be showered with grant money and job offers? Write amorphous free-verse slop in broken lines of jive-talk, with attacks on anything traditional or inherited or Western. The very rich editors of Poetry Magazine will be glad to bankroll you.

      Reply
  7. Joe Tessitore

    “Men put up with a lot when a woman is putting out.”
    “How utterly contemptible her attitude was!”
    As reluctant as I am to do so, there’s a darkness in these lines that I can’t ignore.

    Reply
    • LoisIB

      I was taken aback by that line too. However, after a split-second I realized how true and honest it was. Growing up as a Baby Boomer, I never understood why some rather homely (that is an honest assessment and no polite PC way of stating it) teenage girls were so popular with the best-looking guys in the neighborhood. That is, until someone told me. It’s something as old as time. My aunt, who is now in her eigthties used to tell me “That girl knows tricks” if we passed a handsome man with an ugly woman.
      Please do not be so naive to pretend that is not how life works nor criticize a writer for telling his story.

      Reply
  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    A great deal of life is darkness. Even if moralists are upset by it.

    Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        To Joe T —

        What exactly are you objecting to? The nurse in question would have let a small child die out of adherence to “protocols ,” while my father and I saved the child’s life. And you don’t think that the nurse’s attitude was contemptible? Why? Do you have a better word for it?

        Do you object to my word-play on the verb “put” in the other sentence that you quote? This is a LITERARY website. We deal in witticisms, verbal facetiousness, and all forms of linguistic intricacy. What problem do you have with that?

        I don’t appreciate anyone telling me that my words are filled with “darkness,” and lacking in “life,” when my narrative was about how a human life was saved.

      • Joe Tessitore

        You were being witty and facetious?
        Forgive me for being so slow on the uptake.

      • Joe Tessitore

        You were being witty and facetious?
        Forgive me for being so slow on the uptake and forgive me for asking:
        How is it that you went from acknowledging the darkness in your first response to me to objecting to it in your second?

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        The world and life are filled with “darkness” in the sense that huge stretches of it are unpleasant and nasty, and packed with things that pietistic moralists can’t handle. That was the substance of my first brief response. By the way, YOU were the one who brought up this whole “darkness” metaphor, not me.

        What I objected to in my second response was your suggestion that the nurse’s attitude wasn’t “contemptible.” You still haven’t answered why you think otherwise about her. And you have avoided explaining why my two sentences are not “about life.”

        The difference is this: you use the word “darkness” as an all-purpose pejorative, without explaining why either of my quoted sentences deserved to be attacked. I used the word “darkness” as a figurative manner of replying that life is frequently harsh and hard-bitten and vulgar, in ways that wilting flowers and triggered weaklings can’t bear.

        You can use the metaphors of “darkness” and “light” in a pietistic Novus Ordo sermon. You can’t use them in serious polemics. At least not with me.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        On reading the comments of two fellow poets I’ve come to like and admire, I feel prompted to say this. Everyone is flawed. If we’re talking in terms of the Bible, the lustful and untrustworthy David (responsible for the murder of Bathsheba’s husband just so that he could have her for himself, even though he had many other wives) was a favorite of God’s.

        All of us have thoughts we shouldn’t have. All of us have a dark side. I’m sure the majority of us make an avid effort not to give in to it. But even so, we are all human and unpalatable traits simply come with the territory.

        Should we or shouldn’t we reveal those lustful, greedy, covetous, slothful human traits in our writing, especially when writing in the first-person persona? I say, it all depends on the writer. To my mind, Joes S. writes with a bold fearlessness that pays homage to the written word before the tastes of a readership. He writes with a take-it-or-leave-it honesty. Your reaction to this, Joe T., reminds me of a quote about Trump, the press and his audience. It went something like this: “The press take him literally but not seriously. His base take him seriously but not literally.”

        I think in looking at the bigger picture, in seeing the overall point of Dr. Salemi’s essay, saving a little girl’s life trumps (pardon me) all else. And, only God can see into our hearts – he saw something very special in David. In saying this, I’m not for one minute suggesting that Joe S. is anything like King David… but, hey, what do I know?!

        Thank you both for making life that bit more challenging and interesting as far as poetry goes. I’m proud to be in such talented company, and it would be interesting to hear how others feel about how far we should go with our words, especially when writing in the first person. I rarely rein myself in. Perhaps I should… in my comments as well as my poetry. 😉

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Please don’t rein yourself in, Susan. The last thing those of us on the conservative side need now is more reticence and propriety. It only serves enemy purposes.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Joe S., you’ll be pleased to know, I couldn’t rein myself in, even if I tried… and believe me, I’ve tried.

      • Joe Tessitore

        Dear Susan,

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts, which are on a par with your poetry, which is unparalleled. Thank you as well for having the courage to enter into this.

        If someone writes with a “take it or leave it” approach, does the “leave it” side of the equation proceed to the conclusion “and shut up about it”?
        In “A Man For All Seasons” Thomas More tells those who are holding his trial that silence must be construed as consent.
        Catholicism recognizes sins of omission and commission – what I have done and what I have failed to do.
        If I hear an offensive remark, am I not then obliged to say something about it?

        To declare that someone is contemptible – presumably after having just had slept with that person – is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The ramifications may well have a geometric progression to them.

        I believe that when we declare that someone is contemptible, we are intruding on the power of God and on His mercy, and that we run the very severe risk of rendering ourselves contemptible.

        Am I “a moralist”?
        Is the Dottore “an amoralist”?

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I said that HER ATTITUDE WAS CONTEMPTIBLE! Not her as a human being! Can you not see the distinction?

        I had sex with a promiscuous nurse, and I commented on the fact in rather salty Noo Yawk language. I was blunt, but I was truthful. That’s the way of the world, and it isn’t Catholicism but a form of ethereal utopian angelism that objects to it.

        By making this big stink about a couple of sentences, you are only acting like some kind of self-appointed Grand Inquisitor. And posing as St. Thomas More? Are you for real?

        If you were actually to take your own arguments seriously, you would jump up and object every time you heard salty or sexually suggestive language in the street or on a bus or in a store. I’m sure you don’t do that, because as a New Yorker you certainly know that such a response would leave you with a split lip and a broken jaw. So why the hell are you making a big scene here about the sexual idiom of “putting out,” and the simple fact of calling someone’s attitude “contemptible”? This isn’t a damned parish council meeting!

        I am fed up with this petty moralistic chickenshit. It’s just political correctness with rosary beads.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Dear Joe T.,

        I can’t answer as a Catholic, only as a person of faith who cares about freedom, people, poetry, and the truth.

        Having studied literature at university for five years, I came across the likes of Zola, the author of the outrageously politically controversial ‘Germinal’, Flaubert, the author of the naughty ‘Madame Bovary’, Lord Byron and his racy ‘Don Juan’ and many others (including Shakespeare) all of whom trod on the wild side in their personal life and their art. The depiction (considered autobiographical by a court) in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ sent Wilde to prison. Many people spoke out against these authors and their outlook, whatever side of the political fence they were on.

        Some of them I agreed with. Some of them I didn’t. Some of them shocked me, including a professor’s interpretation of Stoker’s Dracula – blood is semen and all Victorians were Xenophobic. Yet, I embraced the fact that this wild array of words was out there. I learned from them. Some words even changed lives, and they weren’t pretty to read – Hardy and Dickens spring to mind.

        I’ve come to the conclusion that when one is writing a literary opinion piece, whether in poetry or essay form, one uses the voice they see fit to get the maximum effect from the words they’ve chosen… words that make reader’s sit up… words that get the reader’s blood pumping… words that hit readers square between the eyes with their punchy message…otherwise, what is the point? Everyone adopts their own style. Everyone has their own voice. What is offensive to one isn’t to another, and that is the path the author treads.

        I honestly admire your moral stance and your courage to stand up for what you believe in. I hear what you say and see exactly why you’re offended. I wouldn’t like a man to flatter me to secure his position between the sheets… but, that is a fact of life, just as women who apply their scarlet lip-gloss, put on their low-cut blouse and flutter their eyelashes to secure financial security from the rich men they drip their charms all over.

        I don’t know Joe S’s circumstances or whether he was tapping into his younger self or just being witty. What I do know is, he’s a man who thinks just the same as you and I, but he has his own unique way of showing it when it comes to his art… and, his essay spoke to me, regardless of or because of the style – I’ve not yet worked out which.

        What I do know is that I wouldn’t want to see his writing compromised or banned because he doesn’t meet a certain moral standard.

        I’m speaking as honestly as I can and hope you appreciate that, Joe. One thing I do know is that you, Joe S, and myself are all on the same side when it comes to freedom.

        I thank you for this discussion – I’ve loved every minute.

      • Joe Tessitore

        Thank you, Susan, and thank you, Joseph – I appreciate the fact that both of you took the time and made the effort to respond.

        It’s unfortunate, Joseph, that we find ourselves so diametrically opposed to each other.

      • Joe Tessitore

        Joe S.

        Once again, I am sorry for the way things are between us and for the part I’ve played in bringing them to this point.
        Please forgive me.
        I will do my best to insure that it never happens again.

        Joe T.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        To Joe T. —

        May God bless you and keep you. Or as my father and grandparents said in Sicilian, “Sa benedig…”

  9. Julian D. Woodruff

    Prof. Salemi,
    Thanks for an interesting thesis. 2 thoughts:
    I think it is near the beginning of The Second Coming that Walker Percy says something to the effect of one never feels more alive than when one is being shot at. This is similar to what you faced. WP was also convinced that most certainty about how to live had been drained out of Americans in the course of the history of the USA.
    2) Concommitant, it seems, with the “risk taking” required in current American poetry is an astonishing amount of navel gazing. I oened a recent issue of Rattle yesterday and found that 8 of the 1st 10 poems include “I.” I won’t even start in on Poetry.

    Reply
    • Paul Freeman

      This reminds me that short stories in the second person became all the rage a while back.

      “You write a short story in the second person and submit it. You sit back and wait for the acceptance letter, smiling smugly at all those bozoes who will certainly reject your brilliance until one – the one – recognises it….”

      Mind you, a few of them were excellent. The rest felt like a writers’ club challenge.

      Reply
  10. BRIAN YAPKO

    This is an amazing essay, Dr. Salemi. It is, of course, frightening in its accurate observation of modern society, but I also find it incredibly inspiring. What a lesson to have learned from the example of your father: you do what you need to do because it makes sense, not because someone’s going to giving you a gold star. If you have a life to save, you do it and play the cards that you are dealt. The story of the nurse is extremely sad. People are so willing to trade common sense for groupthink. Unfortunately, I think you’re only too correct about people’s slavish devotion to protocols and minutiae at the expense of common sense, authentic risk-taking and independent thinking. But how you connect this to the subject of poetry is particularly fascinating: meaningful art requires discipline, boundaries and independent thought. One can’t acquire originality from consensus, pandering or slovenly efforts masquerading as something avant garde any more than a student can deserve an “A” simply for showing up. You’ve given me a great deal to think about. Thank you.

    Reply
  11. Paul Freeman

    One of the Oscar winners this year, the Danish film ‘Another Round’ (Best Foreign Movie), is about four risk takers who experiment with alcohol to transform their lives. It’s excellent, one of those films you keep going back to in your head for weeks afterwards.

    Reply
  12. Daniel Kemper

    I hate to seem an alternative sort of ditto-head, but I think the essay is spot on. Like almost all Americans, I feel the compulsion to say something I didn’t like before I say something I like. Not this time.

    The “taking risks” reverso-speak that you note, Dr. Salemi, I’ll sing a Hallelujah to (as if you needed a witness). It is like Mao gathering for self-criticism and then murdering everyone who criticizes.

    The most grating might be the rationalizations after the fact, “It would have been alright, if only…” but the “if only” is never realizable.

    More important than ever to wade into those circles, or find at least one circle, and find your hill on which to take the stand.

    Reply
  13. C.B. Anderson

    As usual, Joseph, your essay was mesmerizing. You are a social critic beyond the pale, and the damn shame of it all is that Poetry itself has fallen into such a dismal state. I’m pretty sure that meter and rhyme will soon be declared Eurocentric and racist. When that happens I will gladly declare myself a Eurocentrist and a racist, because by that time there will be nothing left for me to lose. My hearty thanks to you for pitching in in what might be a lost (but not forgotten) cause. They want us to forget, but there are too many of us who can still remember.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Darkness, whether in the sense of natural disaster, plague, tragedy, war or malicious evil either breaks us, numbs us to a state of moral paralysis, takes possession of us, or moves us to action in opposition to it. Joseph’s father was clearly steeled both by his upbringing and by his immersion in the darkness of war to stand against it in whatever way he could. The opening story illustrates what true valor and courage look like—how to shine light in a moment of darkness by knowing the right and good thing to do and then taking the risk and actually doing it, while teaching his son a lesson that has since become inseparable from his character.

      After being shot in the leg and falling to the ground in agony in Times Square last week a young mother recounted how a crowd gathered around her taking pictures and shooting videos with their cell phones without a one of them responding to her screams for help or attending to her need for medical attention. If such should ever happen to me I would pray to God that Joseph Salemi or someone like him was nearby.

      We may not see eye to eye on everything and, if I chose to do so, I could find things to challenge in his essay, but there is truth in what he says.

      There is a place in the Bible where it says, Count it all joy when you encounter various trials. Why should we count it joy? Because it is in those moments that we have the opportunity to become and to be the good person we were created to be. It is at such moments, if our hearts are properly prepared for it, that we can dare to risk everything in order to do whatever right and good thing is required of us at that moment. To be light in a world that is, at times, a very dark place.

      Reply
      • Gail

        I was genuinely refreshed and encouraged by this contribution to the conversation. Thank you.

      • C.B. Anderson

        Have you ever written a sermon, James? I’m sure you have, and this one was especially edifying.

  14. David B. Gosselin

    Finely written piece Joseph. I like the story-telling quality, which is always something powerful.

    I would quibble over the use of the word “tradition” and “traditional” however, simply because it’s one of those words that all sorts of people throw around in all sorts of different ways. It’s sort of like using the word “capitalism.” If you ask a hundred different people for their idea of capitalism, you’ll get a hundred different answers—most of them bad, virtually all of them superficial.

    It should be noted that though we would call something like Dante’s Comedy a classic, or that Dante was in many ways writing in the “tradition” of the epic poets of the past, Dante also did something fundamentally original and new. It was orthodox in many ways, but it was also radically new. Honoring a great poetic tradition doesn’t just mean copying or imitating the forms, structures or ideas of the past, it also means doing something new and original, BUILDING upon the greatest traditions of the past. The radical orthodoxy will say that this is somehow sacrilege or hubris. On the other hand the Jacobin “year zero” folks will say we have to tear everything down or start from a blank slate, tradition being either oppressive and unoriginal or “tired.” So the idea of tradition can be attacked or perverted in many ways and by both its opponents and proponents. I’d argue that in reality the best way to honor tradition is not just to imitate the past, but to build on it.

    I say this because we hear a lot about people writing “traditional” verse, but in many cases a more apt description would likely be “copying the past.” While part of that is good and necessary, it should also be noted that when a young painter intends on becoming a master or making something of himself as an original painter, he learns by imitating the great masters of the past, or his contemporary teachers, but that is just the first step towards developing his own original style and method, using the foundational principles passed down by tradition.

    The great and original artist will then build on that. This is what we see with a traditional poet like Dante, or Shakespeare who adapted the Italian “sonetto.” Shakespeare continued a poetic tradition, but he also did something uniquely Shakespearean with both form and content. Shelley would later also continue in the Italian tradition when he used the terza rima form to write his “Ode to the West Wind.” I think these are solid examples of what honoring and continuing a great tradition looks like, as opposed to just copying or imitating the forms and structures of the past.
    Would you agree that this is arguably a necessary qualification?

    I don’t say this because I think your piece lacks anything as it is, but only that your piece naturally provokes or encourages all sorts of discussion and elaboration of this increasingly popular and “avant-guarde” subject.

    Reply
  15. LoisIB

    This essay was a self-fulfilling prophecy, complete with a risk-taker (the author) whose words are called out by the Politically Correct Police, referred to as “the workshop lemmings”.
    If anyone was truly upset enough by the line “Men put up with a lot when a woman is putting out.”, you need to reread the last paragraph and perhaps grow a thicker skin.
    “The risk-takers are those with the courage to keep the meter and the rhyme real, and who write on subjects—political, sexual, cultural, and religious—that the workshop lemmings deem “inappropriate” or “offensive” or “inflammatory.” Risk-takers are those who don’t give a swiving damn what their contemporaries think or feel, but who serve art alone. To put it in a nutshell, they are not afraid. “

    Reply
    • Joseph Tessitore

      Is it politically correct to argue for respect for each other and respect for oneself? What fear do you see in the one who does?

      How courageous is the one who criticizes another from the position of anonymity?

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        We have PLENTY of people who come here and post anonymously, for any number of reasons. Rather than attack someone for not revealing his or her real name, why not answer the arguments being made?

        You said you didn’t want to fight any more on this subject. But now that you’re going after LoisIB, I’ll chime in once more:

        1) What EXACTLY did I say that you found “dark” and “offensive,” and what reasons can you adduce for making such a charge?

        2) Where did I show any lack of “respect” for another, or for myself? And you’d better be goddamned specific. No quasi-religious metaphors, please.

  16. Joseph Tessitore

    How quickly we respond when it suits us!
    One recalls the self-proclaimed “Sniper of the Page” from years past, locked and loaded, hiding behind a tree, waiting to shoot some unsuspecting … well, you get the picture.

    You could have responded to the Courageous Lois, Joseph, but you failed to do so. It could have been something as uncomplimentary as “Joe T’s poetry sucks and he’s as dumb as a bag of nails, but one thing he’s not is afraid.”
    Your failure left me no choice but to respond to the Courageous Lois myself.

    I am not responding to you, Joseph, and I will not respond to you – there’s no point.

    By the way, if you’re still out there, Courageous Lois, perhaps hiding behind a tree with you-know-who, how afraid and politically correct do I sound to you now?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I did not respond to the post of LoisIB because I agreed with the points that she made. Is that so hard to understand?

      You won’t respond to my questions because you know damned well that you’re caught between a rock and a hard place, forensically. You can’t explain why you think anything I said in my essay was “dark” or “offensive” without sounding like a moralistic prig; and you don’t want to get into a debate over where I failed to show “respect” to anyone, or to myself, because that would only get you further entangled.

      So rather that accusing LoisIB of a lack of courage, perhaps you ought to face up to your own cowardice — the cowardice of needlessly starting a fight, and then trying to weasel out of finishing it.

      Reply
      • Joseph Tessitore

        I can at least try to explain myself.

        Does my grandson have a ring in his nose?
        Is his purpose to be led around by his johnson and to stick it in the first “hole” he happens upon?

        Is my granddaughter one of those “holes”?

        They are not, and if, in saying this, I render myself a moralistic prig, then so be it – I am, indeed, a moralistic prig.

        My cowardice has been with me for many years and is a part of my morning prayers:
        Have mercy on me, Lord Jesus Christ. I am a weakling, a coward and nothing but a sinner. I am not worthy. You are the love of my life.

      • Russel Winick

        We are all just struggling human beings, trying to do the best that we can.

      • Joseph Tessitore

        Since I raised the issues of light and life, I should at least try to explain them as well:

        If I’m wrong and my granddaughter is a promiscuous “hole” and my grandson is an amoral erection, do I see light and life in the choices they’ve made?
        I do not – I see darkness and death.

        And if I see darkness and death in their choices, do I sit in moral judgement of them?
        I do not, because I’ve been there and done that and struggle with the same issues still, foolish old man that I am.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        To Joe T., I say this with all due respect, and sincerely as a friend: will you think this one out clearly?

        Where in my posting did I say ANYTHING AT ALL about your grandchildren? How did what I wrote in that essay have any connection to you or to your family?

        Where did I use the word “johnson” or “hole” or “erection”? Can you find them anywhere in my essay?

        Where is there “darkness and death” in an essay that describes saving the life of a little girl?

        Are you upset that I had sex with a promiscuous nurse? That’s my sin and her sin, not anybody else’s.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Dear Joe T,

        I’m saddened by this never-the-twain-shall-meet argument. I’ve already mentioned that when authors write in the first person, this puts them at immediate risk of judgment. I always think the piece of writing should be judged in the context of its entirety, not on a controversial line pulled from here and there.

        I am burning to ask one question, and in doing so sincerely hope I don’t offend anyone. I too worry about speaking out and my intention is always to do so from a place of care. I am going to use Donald Trump as my example, as I know you supported him. He used extremely contentious and colorful language to describe how he treats women… grabbing them by the genitalia, or some such derogatory comment. I know many people, especially women, who were avid supporters of Trump who let that comment (plus many others) go, because of the bigger picture. He had the same vision for the country as they did. His heart was in the right place when it came to a brighter, freer future for America. If he was judged on his distasteful language rather than the bigger picture, he certainly wouldn’t have been America’s president. And, as I said before, his base took him seriously not literally… it was only the press who took him literally and not seriously, by design. He was an alpha male bantering and showing off. He was himself, take him or leave him. He certainly wasn’t a slick, smoothly spoken politician with a teleprompter and secret agenda. He spoke off-the-cuff words straight from an unfiltered mouth. Whether one likes that style or not – it is fearless and honest.

        Should dramatic attention be drawn to Dr. Salemi’s brief, colorful descriptions at the expense of losing the essay’s message in its entirety? The essay says that common sense and people’s innate instincts to save a life are pushed aside because of ridiculous protocol. People die because of rigid, non-sensical rules. The real point of this essay is this. Literature will die if we treat it with the same rigid rules. By suffocating the freedom to write fearlessly, and that comes with the risk of offending, we will encourage the tyrannical powers that be to continue to burn our books and history with impunity.

        At this stage, in an increasingly draconian society, unless we embrace the words; “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” we will be in danger of losing all of our freedoms.

        Is this not why many ignored Trump’s crassness and brashness? The bigger picture? As I said before, you, Joe S., myself, and many more on this site embrace freedom of speech and want it to continue. We may have our unique ways of showing this, but our goal is common. Should we be calling each other out for distasteful attitudes, bawdy language, and seemingly embracing the seven deadly sins, or should we, for the sake of freedom, stick together and let our enemies try to call us out and cancel us instead? I say there’s strength in numbers. 🙂

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Susan Bryant —

      I know you’re trying to make peace here, and that’s fine. But there are issues in this dispute that go far beyond any disagreement between Joe T. and myself. The problems of censorship, cancel culture, politically correct speech codes, imposed “diversity,” and the vicious groupthink of “wokeness” are not limited to one side of the political spectrum. As you point out, many women who supported President Trump might well have been put off by his occasionally crude language, though I know some really tough broads who loved it.

      You are an Englishwoman, and perhaps for that reason are not completely familiar with certain social facts of American life. Both Trump and I come from the same hard-bitten part of Queens County in New York, though his family was wealthy and mine was not. We grew up as contemporaries. We are from THE SAME CLASS. We are both passionately and profoundly working class.

      Trump is a multimillionaire, but class in America has NOTHING AT ALL to do with money (that’s an absurd lie that the left constantly pushes for its own purposes). In America class has to do with attitudes, behavior patterns, cultural choices, political loyalties, and mental outlooks.

      Today, we Americans are on the verge of open class warfare. Those who are of the upper class are completely in favor of the censorship, cancel-culture, and “wokeness” that I mentioned in my first paragraph. They are its passionate partisans, and they are the driving force behind the implementation of these sick policies via NGOs, social media, mega-corporations, Silicon Valley technocrats, controlled mainstream media, permanent Deep-State functionaries, and the cesspool known as academia.

      Such upper-class types LOATHE AND HATE the American white working class, and want it marginalized or exterminated. Their entire life energies are dedicated to impoverishing us, and disenfranchising us. I work in academia, and have seen this cancer up close.

      A major element in their campaign is the silencing of white working class speech — not just in its political content, but also in its style and rhetoric. The aim is to denature and geld our speech patterns to make them “sensitive” and “respectful” and “inoffensive.” No cursing! No dirty jokes! No nasty comments! No snide remarks! No sexual innuendoes! No harsh judgments! No sarcasm!

      In short, the goal is to bind us and gag us. Well, that’s not how working class types like President Trump and I speak! We talk tough in Queens County. We talk about grabbing pussy, and about girls who put out. Maybe it’s
      “crude,” but is it any different from what you’d hear in the tougher sections of London’s East End? HOW we speak is just as much a part of freedom as the political opinions we express!

      That’s a long introduction to what I have to say concerning the dispute that started all this. Here goes, so hang on to your hats: we on the political right have a free-speech problem of our own, and it is a endless source of trouble and paralysis. I mean that we have the insistent pressure and carping of certain religious types who are constantly trying to police what we say, so as to make it “nice” and “child-friendly” and “pious” and “Judeo-Christian.” (I could hardly believe it when someone here actually used the latter adjective to support Tessitore’s argument, as if this website were a school of theology.)

      You never win any war when you make concessions to the enemy! And we on the right will never win a war as long as we have these pietistic moralists buzzing in our ears about how we have to “tone down” our rhetoric, or “be understanding,” or “avoid” hot-button words, or — to put it in a nutshell — to speak like milquetoast ministers at a parish luncheon.

      Do you understand that the people who tell us these things (regardless of their religious devotion) are simply fifth-columnists in our ranks? That when push cones to shove, they will ALWAYS side with the censorious left out of some kind of guilt-ridden morality? Tessitore completely ignored the main points of my essay to zero in on two or three words which rubbed his religious sensibilities the wrong way, and he made them the basis for absurd charges of “darkness” and “lifelessness.” What crap! We on the right will not win any battles as long as we have these prissy religious moralists trying to control our speech in the same way that the left does!

      I have dropped several religious friends of long acquaintance, because I simply cannot stand the mewling, soft-spoken, psalm-singing nasal whine of their voices and their mincing choice of words. I don’t even speak to priests of my own religion anymore. You’re never going to win any battles with allies like that. They all make me sick.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Dear Dr. Salemi,

        Thank you for taking the time and the effort to afford me a detailed and informative reply. I thoroughly appreciate it.

        I have grown to love this site and what it stands for together with the array of characters on it. I often gain from their different approaches to creating poetry, and their responses to it. For this reason, I would never wish to offend a member whom I’ve grown to respect. Because I feel like this, I adopt a polite tone in trying to make my point, which may sometimes detract from the passion I feel.

        I come from a working class family. My father’s a cockney. As a child I was used to attending huge parties with all the raucous laughter and wild talk that went with it. My family’s humor was bawdy, cheeky, non-PC, self debasing, mickey-taking, shocking, side-splitting fun. I’m now married to a Texan plumber. There’s absolutely no difference between his family and mine when it comes to pull-no-punches speech and humor. It’s like home from home.

        Please know, I am not easily offended. I loathe the let’s-not-trigger-the-easily-outraged brigade. Your essay certainly didn’t offend me, and neither did Trump’s manner. In fact, many women in my neighborhood didn’t care about Trump’s private banter on the Access Hollywood Tape. Also, just because I read or hear something doesn’t make me take it literally and it doesn’t make me judge the author’s ethics.

        I agree with you. We are in the fight for our lives where freedom is concerned, and the working class are pulled down because they are the voice of reason in an insane world… and that is powerful. I can, however, understand that people may get offended. There is much out there in the way of literature to offend at any given period in history. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, ‘Madame Bovary’, and the list goes on. But, no author should be canceled because the words are not to the taste of some. That’s a slippery road to serfdom that I don’t want to tread.

  17. Gail Dowler

    You got two things wrong, Mr. Tessitore. Your poetry doesn’t suck, and you’re not as dumb as a bag of nails.*

    Doesn’t a devotion to classicism entail a moral code? Wouldn’t that be based on Judeo-Christianity even if one were not religious? Or is a devotion to classical poetry in the 21st century completely divorced from all other facets of classical thought?

    There are a lot of trees in this forest!

    *(I know you didn’t really say this of yourself or your work.)

    (It’s my real name.)

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      There are a lot of trees in every forest, and not all of them are of the same species.

      Reply
  18. Joseph Tessitore

    Thanks, Gail, I really appreciate it.

    As far as you’re concerned, Giuseppe, you have at it. It’s your living room and whatever you need to do to make yourself feel better, I hope it works.

    I’m outta here.
    Have a wonderful day ❣️

    Reply
  19. Joe Tessitore

    Dear Susan,

    I’m still here.
    Left to my own devices I would have been gone a long time ago. As the Hero recently warned/threatened Margaret, it isn’t safe. But the Lord really is my rock and my salvation, and I am still here.
    Praise Him!
    The Hero will writhe and seethe as he reads this.

    Salemi and I are not on the same page and we are not on the same side and we are not on the same planet – the only thing we share in common is a name.
    He has the audacity to write that we are friends – he knew what he was about, and he laughed out loud when he wrote it.

    I did not call for His Grace to be silenced and, as far as I am concerned, I never even got close to suggesting it.
    If you believe that I have, I would be grateful if you pointed out to me where and how I did so.

    Stepping back from all of this it seems to me that it was a vicious and withering attempt to silence me that – the Lord be praised! – failed miserably and, indeed, pathetically.
    This “take-it-or-leave-it” thing that you propose does seem to me to be a form of censorship – the Hero speaks and we listen, and we dare not criticize.
    To borrow one of his lines, “What a bunch of crap!”.

    I did not comment on the point of his essay and that was intentional. If I had, our devices would have exploded.
    It turns out that it wasn’t necessary, after all – the Hero has shown us who he really is.

    Reply
    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Dear Joe T,

      Thank you very much for replying to me – I appreciate your candor.

      Firstly, I would like to apologize to both you and Joe S. I am obviously in way over my head and I didn’t fully appreciate the depth of this argument. With the benefit of hindsight, my replies now seem superficial and trite. That wasn’t my intent at all. I commented because I have grown to respect and admire you both on a literary level and as people… although, I cannot claim to know either of you to any great degree.

      I certainly didn’t intend to censor or silence you – quite the opposite, in fact. Initially, I was enjoying the discussion and I was merely giving a personal opinion, as you were. I now know my opinion was way off mark.

      As for using the terms “Hero” and “His Grace” to describe Joseph Salemi, I hope you are not suggesting I idolize anyone on this site. I have respect for many and that’s where it ends.

      From here on in I will stick to what I know best – poetry.

      Reply
      • Joe Tessitore

        Dear Susan,

        Your comments were anything but superficial or trite and I do not believe for a moment that you idolize anyone on this site or anywhere else, for that matter.
        I have the utmost respect for you.

  20. Joe Tessitore

    Dear Joseph,

    I hope we can agree that it is time for us to call it day.

    My hand is out to you.

    Sincerely,

    Joe

    Reply
  21. Joseph S. Salemi

    Oh yeah, sure. After the insults, the explicit rejection of my word “friend,” the stubborn refusal to answer any questions I have raised, and the admission that you have nothing at all to say about the substance of my essay, there comes the oleaginous, limp-wristed Christian piety. I’m not fooled twice. Save it for your Novus Ordo parish.

    Ma fa ‘ntu culu, paisan.

    Reply

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