.

A widespread distemper in modern life is the insistent need that many people feel to justify themselves and their activities. Countless persons are defensive about all sorts of things that in the past you wouldn’t have given a second thought to.

Suppose you ask somebody how he makes a living. If he doesn’t feel that his job is quite prestigious enough, he’ll either pump it up with euphemisms or assure you that it’s only a stepping-stone to something greater. If someone has a hobby or pastime that he imagines is plebeian, he’ll go through a complex apologia about how he indulges in it only to please his acquaintances, or to be sociable with his neighbors. If a man enjoys cheap fast food, he’ll give you a song and dance about how he usually eats in the toniest restaurants, but sometimes his busy schedule forces him to lunch on hotdogs. And so on and so on.

It’s a pathetic need that arises out of snobbery and social climbing. Rather than just saying you like something, you come up with a bogus explanation as to why your tastes are justified. Many people are ashamed of their preferences, because they believe that other preferences are objectively superior.

In the little world of verse-making, this syndrome emerges among those who feel impelled to come up with a reason “why poetry matters.” Rather than just writing and reading verse for the pure pleasure that it affords, these people have to justify it before the non-literary world. And so they force themselves to generate various after-the-fact reasons why poetry is worthwhile and salutary. It’s silly and it’s childish.

This phenomenon wouldn’t be important except for an unfortunate side effect. Once you start thinking up reasons why poetry matters, you then have to address those reasons in the process of reading and writing the stuff. You become an unconscious captive of your network of justifying explanations. If you have argued that poetry matters because it teaches important lessons, well then, you’re going to look for important lessons in poems, and try to incorporate such lessons into your own work. If you say that poetry matters because it allows for the catharsis of intense emotions, your reading and composition will incrementally be mired in sentimental slop. In short, you’ll be trapped in the coils of your pet theory, just like the jargon-spouters in our English Departments.

Slowly but surely, you’ll become one of the boring pod-people who inhabit the little world of verse-making. You’ll be fixated on some “important reason” for the poetic enterprise, and you’ll judge all verse by whether or not that reason is given due homage.

Here are seven of the more common justifications (other than the two mentioned above) that people dream up when they want to convince themselves and others that poetry isn’t a waste of time:

1) Poetry matters because poets are special adepts with deeper insights than the rest of us. Very few poets have the cheek to bring up this old chestnut (its last major proponent was Shelley), but it lingers like a hangover in the heads of narcissistic types.

2) Poetry matters because it serves a therapeutic function in the lives of poets and their audiences. This idea has taken a lot of hits lately even from free-verse partisans, but it’s still operative in too many workshops and reading groups, where the majority of participants attend just to feel better.

3) Poetry matters because it tells us important stories. This is the key tenet of the Expansive Poetry Movement, which seems to be fixated on lengthy narrative. Almost anyone can tell a story, but very few persons can be poets.

4) Poetry matters because it speaks to all mankind, as a form of universal language. This notion appeals mostly to aging liberals, but it still has some currency among the naïve. Since poems are composed in particular languages, while the vast majority of persons are monoglots, this is really a surreptitious way of saying that only content matters in poetry.

5) Poetry matters because it is a conversation about the world that allows us to build consensus. This belief is nurtured by those who want poetry to serve some extra-aesthetic agenda, usually political. The word “conversation” is now a politically loaded term, and one should always be wary of it.

6) Poetry matters because it helps us to break the shell of our loneliness and alienation. This is a pious fantasy circulated by people who are not really poets, but would-be social workers. If you’re lonely, join a club. If you’re alienated, see a shrink.

7) Poetry matters because it allows us to speak with vatic authority to a world that needs guidance. This is pretty much the same as number one, except that the proponents of this formulation have a dangerous power-lust.

I’ll be generous here, and grant that all of the above-listed rationales for poetry are partially true. Some poems under some circumstances do some of these things. But there are just as many poems that escape the dragnet of these supposed justifications. In fact, one unmistakable sign of a great poem is the way it shocks and overturns the reader’s expectations or sensibilities in a totally unpredictable way. Emily Dickinson famously said that when she felt physically as if the top of her head were taken off, she knew she was reading a great poem. That’s the kind of unplanned literary experience that all serious readers understand. You never can be sure when a quatrain or a line or even a passing phrase will jolt you out of your bovine complacency and your suburban assumptions.

If this is so, then coming up with alleged reasons “why poetry matters” is pointless. Like car engines, poems either work or they don’t. Instead of asking why poetry matters, it’s much more useful to inquire when it matters, and when it doesn’t.

When does poetry not matter? That’s easy. In all elemental human activities (love, sex, birth, sickness, death, war, food, finance) poetry has minimal input. If the fat’s actually in the fire, you sure as hell don’t think of versifying. You don’t need a poet when you’re having a breech-birth, or setting up a retirement account, or hitting the beach at Okinawa. In these crucial human experiences a poet would be a meddlesome distraction, so we only call him in after it’s all over to compose his odes. When the chips are down, poetry is the least of our concerns.

On the other hand, poetry matters intensely when a human mind has the intelligence and leisure to look at a literary artifact and be struck by the power of well-wrought language. Poetry is only about real life at two or three removes. It is a form of mimesis that manipulates images in language for aesthetic purposes. That’s when poetry matters the most—at the aesthetic junction, so to speak, of text and eye. The reader peruses a text with understanding and says “Dammit, that’s well done!”

This is so elemental that I’m amazed I have to state it: Poetry matters when you read it, understand it, and admire it. Unfortunately, in an intellectually incoherent age such as ours you have to keep repeating the obvious. Many people dislike simple answers because such answers, even if true, don’t appeal to their innate vanity. And it is precisely this innate vanity that generates all the superfluous talk about why poetry matters. If you genuinely enjoy poetry, why would it even occur to you to ask why it matters or doesn’t matter? This irrepressible urge to theorize is one of the curses of modern life. It blights our world with verbiage and hesitation and paralysis.

Thorstein Veblen once spoke of “conspicuous consumption” as a social status marker for the rich—wealthy persons spent great sums of money on luxuries not merely for pleasure, but to show the non-rich that they could do so. Well, a parallel tendency exists among the intelligentsia. They disdain simple explanations when they can indulge in the conspicuous consumption of abstruse ones. That’s why we have all this blather about the function, purpose, and direction of poetry. Great poems have no more function, purpose, or direction than a beautifully carved cameo, a perfect mezzotint, or a sublime symphony. As Don Paterson once said, “A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself.” It doesn’t accomplish anything. And we don’t need tedious explanations about why poetry matters. You might just as well ask why a champagne cocktail matters.

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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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59 Responses

  1. Jeff Kemper

    What a joy this article is! I was a literary boob when I had to read Eliot’s Prufrock. I had no idea what it meant. I just knew that I wanted to write poetry too. Why? I have yet to find out. I just enjoy it.
    Thanks, Dr. Salem I!

    Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    Joe, again a bullseye! The truth of it is so simple – that poets become poets by working at it. The poet is one who is filled with ideas that are not always strong or useable. In reading a majority of poems, I wonder if people ever get rid of unworkable poems. Many ideas are only signposts. Genuine poets have no time to theorize until they have begun to create their own fictive artifacts. Like good novelists and writers of short stories, they simply can’t go blathering off in all directions without dispersing their store of creative energy. Many great novelists have talked themselves into thinking they are also great poets when they are not.
    Like cream puffs, tarts, and eclairs, each is a special creation. I can’t think of any poet I admire who has time to ask the assinine question, “Does poetry matter?” because they sense that the minute they did other questions would occur that would lessen the style, direction and quality of what they are writing.
    There is little room for BS in real poetry.
    Thanks for bringing up the topic !

    Reply
  3. Paul Freeman

    As always, a highly readable and entertaining essay, Joe.

    Although I’m in full agreement with most of what you’re saying, there is an area where I think poetry does matter – the documentation of momentous events, such as those experienced by the War Poets. Much of our collective memory of the First World War is referenced from these young men’s experiences – from Owens’ onomatopoeic ‘Gas! Gas!’ in ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, to McCrae’s poppies blowing ‘In Flanders Fields’.

    Thanks again for an essay that begs returning to to keep it real.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, I agree that the war poets documented their experiences, and did it well. But recall that their poems were written after these men got home, when the action was long over. They certainly weren’t thinking at all about poetry when they were in the trenches, or going over the top, or facing machine-gun fire.

      That’s what I meant when I said when “the fat’s in the fire, you sure as hell don’t think of versifying.” Poetry is a leisure activity, indulged in when the other more pressing and important tasks of life are finished.

      Reply
      • Paul Freeman

        I get what you mean. By the way, I enjoyed the idea in your essay of the soon-to-be-dad scribbling away between shouts of ‘push’, when of course he should have been catching the event on his mobile.

    • Julian D. Woodruff

      1) Sorry, in responding to Paul, I hit the wrong button.
      2) This is a marvelous essay, Joe. Thanks! I am in a bit of doubt about the Shelley comment. Would we bother with him if he were the last major figure to manifest the “poet as prophet” quality? It seems to me we just take a deep breath and plow on (if we’re willing) with him, with the immensely skilled George (if you want to read German), with late Stevens when he’s on the subject of poetry; other readers could extend this list of poets. In prose, it’s the Melville that makes the early pages of Moby Dick very slow going. In music it’s the Copland of A Lincoln Portrait. I wonder if it isn’t an ever-present danger.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Shelley was a good poet but also an insufferable radical windbag, and he died too soon to improve. The metaphor of “poet as prophet,” or the source of vatic utterance, goes back to the Platonic notion that poets are just mouthpieces for divine speech, over which they have no control. But it’s just a pretty metaphor, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

        What Thomas Edison said about the process of invention applies just as well to aesthetic endeavor. He said “Genius is two percent inspiration, and ninety-eight percent perspiration.”

  4. Julian D. Woodruff

    Paul,
    Your comment reminds me of Flanders’s (of Flanders and Swann) comment: “If God had meant us to fly he would never have given us the railways.”

    Reply
  5. Guy Warner

    I remember reading a cringy comment online somewhere that Bob Ross’s paintings were not art because they never gave voice to minorities or oppressed people to challenge the prevailing power structure. Apply that to poetry, I think that’s what you’re getting at. Poetry and art are enjoyable for their own sake, they don’t have to serve a higher purpose.

    But it’s not uniquely modern to attach higher function to poetry. The ancient philosophers described poetry and drama as means of retelling the stories of the heroes and gods for inspiration and moral instruction. Christians did something similar, focused of course on Christ and the Bible. On through the ages, ranging from self-expression and emotional depth to art for art’s own sake. And each group produced poetry that is enjoyable, as you say. I think that’s because poetry and art in general ARE more than simple enjoyments. Poetry takes us to another place when it is done well, and I think we’re always trying to understand why. It becomes insidious when someone tries to leverage that effect for their own manipulative goals – that’s what we call propaganda.

    So I have no embarrassment in liking what I like, but recognize that there is something wonderful and universal behind well-crafted poetry. Whatever can utilize the medium with the greatest amount of skill and also tap into that artistic mystery (and thereby blow Dickinson’s mind!) could be said to “matter” more. There’s no shame in enjoying McDonald’s, to use your example, but there is certainly more craftsmanship to be appreciated in a 24-hour smoked brisket.

    Very thought-provoking article! Well done

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for your kind words.

      It’s certainly true that poetry can be legitimately used for secondary non-aesthetic ends, such as teaching people, or recording facts and events, or recounting cultural myths. No argument there. And of course (as you point out) there is a major qualitative difference between a simple amusing limerick, and a world-class epic.

      But both the limerick and the epic depend primarily on excellent craftsmanship, and the sheer playfulness of fictive mimesis that creates lines of verse for their arresting beauty and excitement and unexpectedness. Does such mimesis contain something “wonderful and universal”? Sure — sometimes. But at other times it might contain something “horrifying and universal.” I just want us to stop reflexively putting positive, child-friendly, Smiley-Face buttons on what we call “great poetry.”

      Reply
      • Paul Freeman

        If poems are written to flatter,
        or just form a verbiage-strewn splatter,
        they’re no better than
        a filling-less flan
        or fillets of cod without batter.

  6. Margaret Coats

    I can’t remember a single thing Helen Vendler said about poetry itself in teaching “Poems, Poets, Poetry.” It was almost all poems. There was a little “poets” to give the background of the writer or the setting of the poem. A lot of storytelling because students can no longer be expected to know Bible stories or classic myths that go into poems. Like you, Vendler made the point that anyone can tell a story–and stories are a mode of speech that everyone is comfortable with, while many persons have an aversion to poems. Instead, they want information as quickly as possible. Even narrative poems are suspect because they take too long to arrive at the destination. And those poems in which poets theorize about poetry? I know I’ve read a certain number, but right now I can’t think of a title. They must not be memorable.

    Anyway, I’m happy to see that you haven’t hit on my own theory of what poetry is (I don’t have one about why poetry matters). My theory is not useful in close reading, which is what I prefer to do. But thanks to this essay, I may take a little more care to let each poem interpret itself as I read.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, there is a strong aversion to poetry among most moderns. They dislike its wordiness, its indirection, its use of suggestion and nuance. This aversion is peculiarly American, since ours is a culture rooted in the Puritan hatred of earthly beauty, rhetorical figures, and playful delight. Americans are deeply impatient with anything that doesn’t “get to the point” immediately, without frills or flourishes. It’s a combination of Calvinism and Pragmatism.

      I look forward to hearing about your theory of what poetry is.

      Reply
  7. Norma Okun

    Shelley described Life in his poem “Adonais” (quoting from the ‘A Short History of English Literature’ by Saintsbury Page 670 commenting on the life of Shelley and his amazing life and writings) saying:

    “Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
    Stains the white radiance of eternity”

    To me the title of your essay says it all. When something is important it is always important. I see no need to lessen poetry by saying when it is and when it isn’t. You also don’t know exactly what the poet was doing at the time they wrote the poem. The quote is from Shelley’s elegy to Keats. How do you know it was not written from his heart. The purpose of poetry to me is actually to make all that is important to people important.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      No one knows what any long-dead poet was doing or thinking when he composed a particular piece. You ask “How do you know it was not written from his heart?” Well, I don’t know. But neither do you.

      I do know this, however. People who always write poems “from their heart” are usually lousy poets.

      Reply
      • Norma Okun

        Joseph,
        Your comment proves my point.
        If it is not sincerely felt a poem is nothing but a fake.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Oh really, Norma? I suggest you think a lot harder on the subject.

        According to your view, all poems are “fake” if they are fictive artifacts dealing with matters that the poet was not personally involved with or committed to. That excludes the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, the Song of Roland, Idylls of the King, and a helluva lot of love poetry that was written to imaginary ladies. All of this great literature is “fake,” according to you.

        You view of poetry is a narrow bleeding-heart modernist one that is based on sentiment and feeling above anything else.

  8. Yael

    Interesting essay and not too long either, I was able to read the whole thing and enjoy the content. Justification # 4 really cracked me up as I had read Regenlied by Klaus Groth on Julian Woodruff’s page just prior to reading your essay. I can’t imagine the original German version of that poem, which is very beautiful to most any native German speaker, to be meaningful to anyone who’s not an experienced German speaker with an advanced understanding of the language. I suppose this proves the point you were making.

    Reply
  9. Cynthia Erlandson

    I agree with the others — I really like this essay. Your fun passing phrase “bovine complacency” certainly jolted me into a laugh-out-loud moment!

    When you referred to one of the supposed “justifications” for poetry — to teach important lessons — it brought to my mind a lurking uncomfortable question I’ve had, regarding writing politically-themed poems. In spite of an instinctive desire I’ve always had to avoid using poetry for political subjects, in the current political climate (which I consider to be a crisis), I have been unable to prevent myself from spending quite a bit of writing time on these subjects. (I’ve also read many such poems by SCP poets that I thought were very good.) I understand that these wouldn’t work if they weren’t artfully constructed with well-wrought poetic elements. But I would be interested in your comments (or even a future essay) which would discuss the subject of when, or under what circumstances, political poetry is laudable, and when it isn’t.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Ms. Erlandson —

      You’ve asked two hot-button questions that have also been troubling me for some time. There has indeed been a lot of strong political poetry here at the SCP. I also publish much more of it in TRINACRIA than I did in years past.

      My normal reaction is to dislike overtly political poetry because it usually comes from the left, and supports a great deal of cultural degradation that I hate. In addition, I have always been impatient with openly “didactic” poetry that presumes to lecture the reader.

      But you are absolutely correct — the current situation, with the almost total takeover of political and media power by a fake “president” Biden who was seated in an openly rigged election, and a viciously radicalized Democratic Party trying to erase our freedoms, and Antifa scum and BLM thugs in the streets while the police are defunded or shackled… well, the situation is extraordinary. We have to fight back with language as best we can.

      I’d say “Write as much hard-hitting political poetry as you can! Scream bloody murder!”

      But on the other hand, to answer your second question, I must add a warning, and I’m sorry if it offends some people here. If you write political poems that try to convince our enemies that they are wrong, or that take the rational stance of a debater, or that urge conversation and consensus, or (worst of all) if you emit that treacly, oleaginous fake-Christian piety about “peace and understanding” and the “brotherhood of man,” and “why can’t we all just get along”… well then, I say forget the whole thing. If the political poems we write aren’t hot, biting, and in-your-face in an aggressive manner, it makes no sense to bother at all.

      We are at war. There is no good will on the other side. The enemy wants to kill us, and has made no bones about it. They don’t just want to disenfranchise us with rigged elections. They don’t just want to tax us into poverty to support their parasite welfare and illegal immigrant class. They don’t just want to disarm us. They don’t just want us to be put out of work by globalist mega-corporations. THEY WANT US DEAD.

      In that extraordinary situation, all normal bets are off. The only political poems that you can write are savage, no-holds-barred attacks and satires and lampoons on the enemy. Many poets here have done that, and I salute them for it. But others here are still mired in the absurd idea that we can convert the enemy by being nice and understanding, and extending the hand of proffered friendship.

      The time for pietistic peacemaking is OVER. Christianity was never intended to be suicide pact!

      Write political poems. But make sure they are as hard-hitting and offensive and destructive as a full broadside from a man-o’-war. Make sure that your poems hurt. Find the things that the left loves, and pitilessly attack and ridicule them.

      That’s the best I can do to answer your questions.

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        I agree, Joe. Speaking of Trinacria, Susan and I love the latest issue. I have a feeling that it is the most beautiful and conservative poetry quarterly available. It is worth every penny. Every page is a treasure. The perfectly apt illustrations, that have been added by hand (I believe), make Trinacria a labor of love and a joy to own. You should make a special deal for the entire collection! 🙂

      • D.G. Rowe

        Mr Salemi, where does one find access to this publication of yours I keep reading about, TRINACRIA.

        Is it an online publication as well as being a material publication?
        Is there a website where I can subscribe to receive it in the mail?

        I’ve tried putting certain key words in the search engine, but can’t seem to find what I’m looking for.

        I live in England, so in short is it possible for me to get hold of the publication this side of the Atlantic?

        Cheers.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Dear D.G. Rowe —

        TRINACRIA is a privately printed and privately published poetry journal that appears twice a year (Spring and Fall). There are no subscriptions. Poets whose work appears in any given issue receive two free copies of that issue as payment. Anyone else who wishes a copy must buy it directly from me, for the price of $15.00 US money.

        I will send copies of TRINACRIA overseas to the UK (at a loss) if anyone there can send me his mailing address plus $15.00 per copy. But I can’t tell you how to obtain American dollars in the UK. You’ll have to do that on your own.

        If you want my postal address in the United States, please contact the webmaster Evan Mantyk by e-mail. Tell him he has my permission to give it to you.

        We no longer have an on-line presence.

    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Cynthia, I thank you for an eloquent and perfectly illustrated question that is dear to my heart. Dr. Salemi, I thank you wholeheartedly for your powerful and honest answer. I have never been a political poet. In fact, I didn’t start writing political poetry until I came to this site. After a recent verbal scuffle in the comments section of one who wanted to “convert the enemy by being nice…” I decided not to write another political poem for this site. I decided to take a break and concentrate on the pastoral. Cynthia and Joe, thanks to both of you… I will be back! And the pastoral can take a running leap!

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Dear Mike and Susan —

        Many thanks for your kind comments. Yes, the illustrations in TRINACRIA are pasted in by hand, individually, by me. It takes weeks to do the entire run of 150 magazines.

        Susan, I don’t know the “verbal scuffle” to which you refer, but it is certainly true that we have some people here who still forlornly hope that our current civil war can be patched up by peaceful intercourse and friendly debate with an enemy that wants to eviscerate us.

        You’re right — it’s not the time for the pastoral, or for any more pulpit-talk.

  10. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you, Dr. Salemi, for addressing my questions. I agree that both pietism and didacticism are right out; I have always had a gut reaction against them. And, like Susan, I don’t think I’d ever written anything with a political bent until the tyranny of 2020. In a way, I still don’t want to — but I can’t help it. It seems almost impossible for a writer not to write about what is, unfortunately, continuously on one’s mind and in one’s face.

    Reply
  11. Joseph S. Salemi

    Dear Mike —

    There’s a small typo in the title of this piece. Its printed “As Essay by Joseph S. Salemi.” It should be “An Essay…”

    I didn’t notice it until now.

    Reply
  12. Norma Okun

    Joseph, you are wrong. You said you know “people who always write from the heart are lousy poets.” What are you suggesting? Why do you think that? What body part plays when you write a poem?
    My objection is to your title. I believe poetry always matters in any century.
    To me, it is a way of honoring reality. A unique, personal and wonderful fun or serious or whatever you want to call it way to honor the wide and endless world of our imagination and what we see as real. This includes what matters to any person in any century. Poetry to me matters all the time. Please do not think I am trying to lessen your points of view. I simply do not see a reason to say I use only one part of me to write a poem. I use all of me to honor what I see, this is the beauty of poetry. You can apply it to what is ugly, detestable, beautiful, and see it in a poetic way that is everlastingly gorgeous. Life and poetry matter every time we take a breath and our heart beats no matter in what century.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Norma, I don’t want to fight with you. We have very different approaches to poetry, and it is unlikely we shall ever agree.

      “To write from the heart” is just a metaphor. All it means is that someone writes using his own sentiments and feelings and personal experiences in a confessional manner, and presents his work as therefore “authentic” and “real” and “genuine.” Most such poetry is tedious and unappealing, since it lacks the wit, craft, and ingenuity of poets who use fictive mimesis to produce work that is striking and interesting.

      “Fictive mimesis” is a catch-all phrase that includes imitating life by means of the imaginative choice of fictive situations or scenes, the use of language in arresting and dazzling ways, or even just making things up out of whole cloth, and saying them in an interesting and appealing style. It’s totally cool and professional, like an experienced mason doing brickwork.

      People who “write from the heart” simply don’t do any of that. They are feeling-freaks, desperate to “express themselves” and lay open their souls. That’s why they are usually lousy poets, because they fail to consider what could make their work interesting and appealing, and instead just think about how they can be “honest” and “open” and “sincere.” That makes for lousy poetry. Poetry without craft is just emotional drooling.

      You claim “Poetry to me matters all the time.” Frankly, I don’t think that’s true. Does it matter to you when you’re defecating, or painting your toenails? Does it matter to you when you’re balancing your checkbook, or shopping at the supermarket? Does it matter to you when you’re desperately trying to find a parking spot for your car?

      Be reasonable, Norma. Poetry is a wonderful thing, a great gift, and a blessing. But it is just ONE small part of any human being’s life. That’s why it pays to be careful and professional when composing poetry, rather than just overly enthused.

      Reply
  13. Norma Okun

    Joseph, our ways of seeing poetry is different. I certainly give you all the respect. I believe poetry for me is unique because I use only my five senses. I do not need a camera, or a canvas, or anything else. Other than my five senses. I can see all I want in a poetic way. Including the things that we all do, or perhaps girls like to do. It is I think what brought me to write “from the heart” this is the poem that came to me from our discussion.

    Mothers and Trees
    The trees have no leaves
    They all lay withering
    They died when they fell off
    The tree stayed
    When spring came
    It bloomed, it grew
    Little buds of spring
    All the leaves returned
    The tree looks full
    The children came home
    Until winter comes
    A mother lived
    A baby like a dead leaf
    Became other
    The tears, the broken heart
    The baby is gone
    The tree like the mother
    Survived another winter
    And came spring
    The tree gives birth
    To other little buds
    The clock went on
    Tick tock
    It is 2:42 in the afternoon
    A Saturday in the month of July 2021
    Both mothers and trees are
    All leaves are like our children
    Temporarily for a while we are together
    That is all and no more
    Until we come together again
    A leaf or a child
    Mothers and trees
    Tells us about
    Permanency and transitory reality
    Copyright by Norma Okun

    Reply
  14. Margaret Coats

    As I now have some leisure to tell it, here is my theory of what poetry is. Poetry is wisdom. That involves having something to say, and saying it well. The idea came from noticing that the poetic books of the Bible are the books of wisdom. Poetic structure can sometimes be seen elsewhere in Scripture, but only the wisdom books are entirely poetic, or entirely concerned with using poetic form to say something well.

    This is no great theory. One advantage I have as a scholar is having been required to study many literary theories. Most offer some insight, but they all have limits. The idea of poetry as wisdom falters when it comes to nonsense verse. I can find wisdom (something to say) in almost any poem, but nonsense verse at least pretends to have nothing to say. The charm of it lies in saying nothing well–an extremely difficult task. Words have meaning; grammar and sentence structure serve meaning if they are well used. Nonsense verse, to say nothing, must usually cheat by using words unknown to the language, or by violating the established grammar and structure of the language. You, Joseph, can tell how difficult it was to compose your “Nonsense Couplets” in ordinary words with ordinary usage in a common poetic form, and yet convey as little sense as possible.

    I suppose I could say that language with agreed meaning and standard usage, AND employing known forms to make the presentation strong and beautiful, is poetry. But this is too theoretical and too easy to deconstruct. Poetry is wisdom because it turns a factual sentence into a memorable proverb. Now let’s admire the proverb.

    When I say that my theory is not useful in close reading, that’s because we have to go back to word sounds, meaning, grammar, and usage, and poetic form, in order to read. When we insist on adding any theory of what poetry is, or why it matters, or any idea about the poet’s psyche, to this mix of practical concerns existing in the words of the poem, interpretation may become what you would call “gaseous.” And this may be why some writing is gaseous.

    Reply
  15. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you, Margaret. That’s a good, clear statement.

    Nonsense verse has to be in pure, perfect, idiomatic English, so that the reader has something to lean on when perusing the text. What is said in the poem need not necessarily be pure nonsense (like modernist surreal opacity), but can be something that holds together as narrative or commentary while presenting itself as facetious and comical. That’s what I tried to do in my book Nonsense Couplets and Other Jeux d’Esprit.

    I agree that poetry might be seen as wisdom expressed well, but not all wisdom is Biblical.

    Reply
  16. David Bellemare Gosselin

    If there were one thing I would have liked to see, it’s a few pedagogical examples to “show” what you mean. I think people may read your essay and actually have quite different ideas about what the outlook articulated above might look like when put into practice.

    Would Hart Crane’s “Voyages” fall under this category? Would Eliot’s “Wasteland” or “The Journey of the Magi?” What about Yeats’ “Byzantium” or Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts?”

    Virtually all the Modernist twentieth century poets would agree with your arguments above, but I don’t think a Dante would, or an Aeschylus, a Goethe, or a Shakespeare. In fact, I know they wouldn’t. However, that doesn’t mean they would necessarily fall into the alternative categories that you have created…

    I simply say this because the way you frame your argument, it’s made to sound very common sense, as if anyone who doesn’t think that way is some blind ideologue or pedant. But Dante, Homer, Aeschylus, Goethe—none of them would agree with the outlook above and how you have framed it.

    The outlook articulated above is essentially just the twentieth century Modernist aesthetic that a TS Eliot, Auden, Yeats, Hart Crane and company would all agree with. But none of the classical poets that came before the twentieth century would support your aesthetic outlook or approach to the question of the arts.

    I think that’s worth pointing out, given this is the society of classical poets.

    However, that’s fine, and I enjoyed reading the essay, but judging by the comments, it doesn’t seem like most people recognize the fundamental difference between what was articulated above and the classical tradition that existed before the twentieth century, whether in the East or West.

    When giving a speech and speaking about Robert Frost’s legacy, JFK said the following on poetry, which I think might serve as a healthy counter-balance to what you have outlined:

    When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

    That’s probably a useful counter-balance to the kind of argument you’re making. Perhaps, you even agree with some of what Kennedy said. I think an Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, or Goethe would by and large agree with these words.

    That being said, the words above do not mean there is a specific formula, code, or set of rules for writing great poetry, but that great poets and poetry manage to achieve these effects in one way or another—through beauty—and finding new original ways or metaphors by which to do that is one of the great challenges of writing truly great and timeless poetry.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Gosselin, besides being neurotically fixated on the words “great,” “timeless,” and “classical,” you are an incorrigible name-dropper. Dante, Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Frost, Goethe — I suppose you omitted Shelley and Schiller simply because you felt that quoting them verbatim for the umpteenth time would have really looked obsessive.

      Also, since when did John F. Kennedy become an important literary critic? This is the second or third time that you have quoted that piece of political boilerplate rhetoric from him. The quote is a tissue of gaseous cliches from a politician, and I’d think you’d be embarrassed to bring it up in a serious literary dispute. Whom else will you quote? Mao Zedong? Justin Trudeau? Hunter Biden? Does a man of letters (which you claim to be) normally make reference to politicians when analyzing poetic productions?

      But then again, since you seem to favor the Rising Tide Foundation and Ms. Chung’s views, I suppose you follow the party line there that links “classical” poetry with some sort of desired political and governmental establishment.

      I did not quote any passages of poetry because my essay was NOT ABOUT individual poems. It was about the various false justifications for poetry in general that silly persons put forward. The essay’s essential point is that poetry (like all human activities) has its limits and cannot dominate every aspect of our lives, not even the lives of poets. There are scores of things we do that of necessity have nothing at all to do with the writing of verses. Do you deny that?

      I did not express an “aesthetic outlook” in the essay. All I said on that score was that poetry matters when the human eye reads it, grasps it, and is “struck by the power of well-wrought language.” And in the comments thread I mentioned that poetry is a leisure activity, enjoyed by persons who are intelligent enough to appreciate the skill and craft that the poet has used to compose something.

      How the bloody hell is that opposed to what any of your well-referenced heroes might have believed? Frankly, I don’t think you have a clue as to what “Dante, Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Goethe” would have thought on this issue. They were very different men from various times, places, and historical contexts, with widely disparate views on religion, politics, cultural values, authority, and methods of governance. For you to keep on piling them up in a big, name-dropping heap, like a group of celebrities wearing a collective halo, is immature and presumptuous.

      As for the modernists whom you hate (Crane, Eliot, Yeats, Auden), I have no knowledge as to what their reaction might have been to my essay. All I know is their written work on the page, some of which is of absolutely stellar quality. Unlike you, I do not dismiss these modernists out of hand, despite my disagreement with some of their practices and attitudes.

      By the way, if you’re so interested in “pedagogical examples,” why not go back to the wealth of posted material here at the SCP, both my stuff and that of many other poets, and tell us which poems you like and which you don’t like, and why.

      But you won’t do that, will you? You come here not to critique individual poems, but only to promote an agenda, and proselytize for a certain politico-philosophical viewpoint.

      By the way, a free tip — it’s not the sign of a man of letters to say that you absolutely “know for sure” what poets who died many centuries ago were thinking. It’s the sign of a fanatical true believer.

      Reply
      • David B. Gosselin

        Dear Mr. Salemi,

        My previous comments were fundamentally misunderstood.

        You wrote the following:

        I don’t think you have a clue as to what “Dante, Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Goethe” would have thought on this issue. ***They were very different men from various times, places, and historical contexts, with widely disparate views on religion, politics, cultural values, authority, and methods of governance.***

        That’s essentially the point of a “classic” or timeless work: despite them being from very different backgrounds, having different language cultures, opinions and experiences, all these poets still managed to express something immutable about human nature, the soul, and the mind.

        Despite Homer’s characters being from the Bronze age, the reason we still read Homer is because we can actually still deeply relate to these characters, their journeys and experiences, despite the vast sea of time that separates us.

        That is timelessness.

        The same can be said about Dante or Shakespeare and their works. They are true “classics.”

        On the other hand, if we take something like Eliot or Auden, the vast majority of their work is really just them trying to work out their own neuroses. From Eliot’s fragmentary and free-associative approach, which Crane and others copied, to Auden’s Christian existentialism and Yeats’ occultism and obsession with symbolism, it’s all very Freudian—to say nothing of Shaw’s outright Satanic eugenicist Fabianism.

        In the USA, this outlook took a particular and unique expression with the whole Nashville Agrarians and Fugitives, “Ransom’s Boys,” who were by and large also a bunch of actual racist (racist by real historical standards) weirdos. Ironically, these people are still celebrated while people who make fat jokes today are cancelled.

        Aside from his awful political (and racist) views, Pound had some interesting views on the whole East/West relationship in art, however his method made something like his Cantos barely readable. He was trying to “make it new.” All of it is just patch work, cubism, bunching various references, translations and other texts together, veiling his rather straightforward messages with layer upon layer of tedious and obscure references, giving the work an appearance of sophisticated and depth, and claiming to have done something “new.”

        The Modernists in general mistook novelty for originality, and complexity/erudition for depth. They are very different.

        What all these works essentially have in common is that they served as mirrors for the collective neurosis and zeitgeist of their age. They called it “Modernism,” an “Age of Anxiety.”

        That being said, Eliot and company had talent. I definitely don’t hate them, or anyone. Even the most evil people that I can think of, I still wonder to myself “I wonder how they got that way, and what happened, how did they allow such darkness to take them over?” Even in the worst case scenarios, part of me is more curious, and feels pity or disgust, but not hatred.

        Like they say: “hate the sin, not the sinner.”

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Gosselin, you have a real skill for ignoring points raised in debate, and going off in irrelevant directions that allow you to parrot your same old arguments. A few examples:

        1) You utterly disregard what I said about your quoting of a politician on literary matters. Do you really think that JFK is the best source for aesthetic principles?

        2) You decline to answer my point about your linkage of good poetry with political governance and statecraft, in the manner of Cynthia Chung at the Rising Tide Foundation. What exactly is your agenda?

        3) You answer nothing at all to my point that my essay was neither about individual poems, nor did it express an “aesthetic outlook.” I mentioned certain reasons that are sometimes given for “why poetry matters,” and why I thought them foolish. You did not address a single one of them.

        4) You still refuse to say what poems here at the SCP are “classical” or “non-classical,” according to your way of thinking. I’ve brought this matter up a few times in our exchanges, and you resolutely decline to provide an answer. (If you decide to answer eventually, please do not use the word “timeless.” The only thing that is timeless is a broken clock.)

        OK, so you’re not trained in polemics. No one can blame you for that, since most persons aren’t these days. But you could at least avoid making the same silly mistake over and over — that is, speaking in gaseous abstractions and then refusing to instantiate them with direct explications. When you say that the poets whom you prefer “still managed to express something immutable about human nature, the soul, and the mind,” and that “this is timelessness,” you are clearly still mired in a swamp of dreaminess and vagueness.

        I reiterate: Give us, in direct propositional statements, what “immutable” truths you are talking about. Can you do that? Can you express (in clear English) three individual truths (one about human nature, one about the soul, and one about the mind) that are immutable examples of “timelessness”? We’re all waiting to hear.

        Your vicious remarks about the Southern Agrarians and the writers associated with the Fugitive magazine are revelatory about yourself and your bigotries. Those great men were the seedbed of the renaissance of the southern literary tradition, the most important genuine literary movement in 20th-century America. Their collective book “I’ll Take My Stand” was a groundbreaking text not just for literature, but for the political, cultural, and economic re-examination of the stupidities of the modern world. The novels, the poetry, and the criticism that came out of the Southern Agrarians (not to mention great political writers like Richard Weaver) are pure gold. The Southern literary renaissance that the Agrarians helped to initiate gave us Faulkner, Lytle, O’Connor, and dozens of other powerful writers.

        You complain about “modernism,” but from what you write it’s clear that you don’t really know much about it. You actually think that the Fabian socialist G.B. Shaw was a “modernist” in literature? Really? Have you actually read anything by the man, who writes an absolutely lucid and almost Augustan English in his plays, his prefaces, his musical and literary criticism, and his many tracts and articles? Calling Shaw a modernist is like calling Aquinas an agnostic.

        But enough. I think the thing that really annoys me is that you come here in disguise, using the unfortunate word “classical” as a covering device to hide a political-philosophical agenda linked to LaRouche-ism and its globalist thinking.

      • David B. Gosselin

        Dear Mr. Salemi,

        A live debate would make it much easier to answer tit-for-tat. My purpose was to emphasize the nature of the classical tradition, since we are at the Society for Classical Poets, and the resulting contradictions which arise from your literary outlook, as expressed in various recent essays. There is still much confusion about what the historical roots for the term “classical” is, so the points I’m making shouldn’t appear to be left field. The context and history needs to be clear.

        I talk about the same kind of thing anywhere I’m published, including at the Imaginative Conservative or RTF, or in podcasts. So there’s no hidden agenda, I keep saying what I think, and making the point that your views are very ironic in that they represent a pure twentieth century literary outlook, diametrically opposed to the classical tradition, and yet here we are, at the Society for Classical Poets.

        Pointing something like that out at a society for classical poets should not be seen as contentious, hostile, or as some kind of crazy conspiracy… I mean, suggesting that is essentially using the tactics of an MSM Rachel Maddow Russiagate conspiracy theorist. I’m not accusing you of any malicious intent or of being deceptive; I’m simply stating what the different literary traditions are, because there is a lot of confusion about this stuff, largely because the universities have been saturated with Modernism and its Frankenstein babies for over a century now.

        Words like “New Criticism” and “Modernism” were coined because they were signalling a break with the classical tradition, which was to be treated as something of the past. This is the main problem. Classical is not something past, it’s an approach and outlook, not a literary style from a particular place and time. That’s only the most superficial and academic description of the classical ideal. Calling something “New Criticism” and “Modernism” is a self-conscious admission that a break is being made with the past. Your literary criticism is steeped and rooted in this twentieth century New Criticism approach. Whether you are conscious of it or not doesn’t really change anything.

        What’s problematic is that no one else has pointed these glaring ironies out. That’s my purpose for commenting, in a comments section, at a “Society for Classical Poets.” Most of the comments you get are “Ditto Dr. Salemi,” so it seems like a bit of criticism shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. As the saying goes, “Pride cometh before the fall.”

        I gave several examples of the classical tradition across history by naming various poets, but you accused me of “name dropping,” so I doubt a lack of examples is the reason you’re calling me a fanatic tyrannical neurotic. My point was simply to demonstrate various examples of the classical tradition in contrast with the Modernist tradition and its proponents, which you identify with. The literary outlook and approach you have is pure John Crow Ransom Fugitives “New Criticism.” You need to own it, because you’re writing essays which essentially espouse the very same ideas that came out of the Fugitives circles and Nashville Agrarians, but then represent them as your own, which they are not.

        You also seem to support their political ideas. So that means I’m not wrong to bring any of this up, since you yourself admit its influence.

        To conclude, the differences between the Classical tradition and the Modernist tradition are not really questions of style, but of ideas as well. You said that Keats and Shelley, who both very consciously identified themselves with the classical tradition of the Greeks, Shakespeare, and Dante, were essentially stupid ideologues who died before they changed any of their stupid beliefs. But they did write well, especially Keats, so that means that your hostility towards them is over their ideas. This is because the debate between Modernism and the Classical tradition is not about style, or diction, language, form, or “good writing”—though all these are relevant—it’s first and foremost about ideas. It always has been. And to reduce the whole issue to a superficial question of form and rhyme is deeply mistaken and misguided, and I think it also sends the wrong message for a lot of people who aren’t so clear about the richness and importance of the classical tradition for today.

        To have a real revival of a classical tradition, a living tradition, these points do need to be ironed out and clarified.

        I welcome a live debate with the moderator of your choosing. But perhaps you agree with a lot of what I’ve said and the main problem was just confusion over terms and/or history.

        Respectfully,

        David

      • Mike Bryant

        Great David… you can start now by answering Dr. Salemi’s questions. Many would like to hear your answers.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        He’ll never do that, Mike. He’ll never answer a question directly.

        That’s why it’s supremely ironic when he says that “these points do need to be ironed out and clarified.”

      • Mike Bryant

        You’ve answered Dave’s questions but he won’t answer yours.

      • David Bellemare Gosselin

        Salemi didn’t answer the basic assertion I made, which is that his views are that of twentieth century Modernism, and are not classical at all, despite writing for the Society of Classical Poets. If that irony is lost on some, that’s on them.

        The only caveat for Salemi is that he prefers a more strict adherence to formal characteristics, like line length, rhyme and stanza structure. They are just details. It’s still pure Modernism, with a bit of lipstick.

        The four points Salemi made were basically an indication that the argument I made was not understood, or intentionally avoided.

        That being said, a quick point for point:

        1. Who cares if Kennedy wasn’t a literary critic? Only literary critics can comment on what makes great poetry great, or poetry’s role in society? JFK wrote Profiles in Courage, he was a Nobel laureate. It’s a terrible point, that’s why I ignored it.

        2. You decline to answer my point about your linkage of good poetry with political governance and statecraft, in the manner of Cynthia Chung at the Rising Tide Foundation. What exactly is your agenda?

        Answer:

        Poetry has played a vital function in society, especially when it comes to shaping the level of discourse and ideas. For the classical Greeks, the dramatic stage was where the greatest ideas and paradoxes concerning man and nature were presented. Dante’s Comedy had a similar effect, people even read it in Church, it was recited everywhere, it shaped the Italian psyche in an immeasurable way. They say Da Vinci knew it by heart. The title “Divina” was given later, which speaks to its level of impact, as essentially a quasi-sacred text. Shakespeare had a similar effect on England. Lincoln actually recited Shakespeare to his generals and staff during the civil war. He had internalized Shakespeare’s insights into state craft, human nature, etc…

        So the effect on governance and statecraft is immeasurably great, rather than some practical measurable question.

        But you’re a classics professor Mr. Salemi, so why should the role of poetry and Art in state craft and in history need to be explained to you? Again, it seems like an absurd question. Cynthia and I definitely share a lot in common in respect to this outlook.

        My “agenda” is to promote and defend “classical poetry. As I’ve repeatedly tried to do lol. We’ve both written on it. As have many others. The only difference is you are defending a twentieth century modernist outlook, and I and others are defending a classical outlook. That’s really it. It’s a good debate, and an important one to have.

        3) You answer nothing at all to my point that my essay was neither about individual poems, nor did it express an “aesthetic outlook.” I mentioned certain reasons that are sometimes given for “why poetry matters,” and why I thought them foolish. You did not address a single one of them.

        Answer:

        Separating the idea of an aesthetic outlook from the motivations for writing a poem or it’s effects makes no sense. They are all facets of the same subject. Trying to separate things into nice neat Aristotelian categories doesn’t work.

        4) You still refuse to say what poems here at the SCP are “classical” or “non-classical,” according to your way of thinking. I’ve brought this matter up a few times in our exchanges, and you resolutely decline to provide an answer. (If you decide to answer eventually, please do not use the word “timeless.” The only thing that is timeless is a broken clock.)

        Answer:

        I liked your poem “The Bogman,” your “Demetrius, Maker of Gods, Recounts a Conversation with Saint Paul.” I’d say Michael Burch, Jared Carter, Kevin Nicholas Roberts, and Daniel Leach are all examples of timeless poets today. Sedia is another good example.

        There was an ad on the SCP for Profiles in Poetry: Kevin Roberts for several months, an expose and recitations of many of his “beautiful” pieces could be found there. Can I use the word “beautiful” or is that forbidden too?

      • David Bellemare Gosselin

        Correction: John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize.

        Just in case that ends up being the only thing focussed on, thought I would clarify. But if one has to be winner of some award or hold the official title of “critic” or professor to discuss literature, then a serious problem arises, it’s just more of the cult of “experts” and “authoritative sources” we see today.

  17. Norma Okun

    David, I welcome what you say because of what is known as the “Semmelweis reflex” which is a metaphor for the “reflex like” tendency to hate new knowledge because it threatens the status quo. This is what has made new discoveries in every field almost impossible. Even the suggestion to doctors in the mid 1840’s to wash their hands when delivering babies to avoid infecting mothers was met with vicious aggression and resentment and Dr Semmelweis was committed to an insane asylum where he was beaten to death by the guards there. I believe the sclerotic mind had detered progress and change. As it is is really a miracle how classical and modern have a way of staying together. Somehow what is beautiful wins in the end in any field including poetry.

    Reply
  18. Joseph S. Salemi

    Gosselin must be the only person left in the world who doesn’t know that the book “Profiles in Courage” was ghostwritten by Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen. Can he really be that out of touch?

    More coming up, as further comment.

    Reply
  19. Joseph S. Salemi

    I’ll try to be as clear and concise as possible in this posting, but quite honestly I don’t think it will help. Gosselin is fixated on discrediting my approach to literary texts, and colonizing the SCP for the LaRouche-ite aims of the Schiller Institute and the Rising Tide Foundation. That’s what all this fake blather about “the classical tradition” is about.

    Gosselin’s core problem in understanding my views is two-fold: he can’t distinguish between New Criticism (which is an approach to textual analysis) and Modernism (which is an entire aesthetic manner and sensibility). They are two entirely separate categories, like plants and minerals. Gosselin sees both New Criticism and Modernism as mortal enemies to his hypostasized fetish-idol of “classicism” (God, how I wish we could banish that absurd term!) but he simply doesn’t understand that they have nothing to do with each other.

    New Criticism is not “new.” That adjective was attached to the literary approach by mere historical accident, after the influence of Ransom’s book and the criticism of Cleanth Brooks, Yvor Winters, and (to a lesser degree) Northrop Frye became widespread. It was called “new” because it hadn’t really been practiced previously in American literary criticism, which in the past had largely been biographical, emotional, religious, and moralistic. As a matter of fact, New Criticism is simply the close reading and careful examination of written work, or what had long been called “explication de texte” in French schools. It is deeply traditional, and has nothing to do with “modernism.”

    New Criticism just means examining a literary text to understand how it is put together, what literary or rhetorical devices are being used in it, what genre it falls into, and what past models it may follow as exempla. It prescinds from the absurdities of “reader-response,” or “moral significance,” or “authorial intention” — all of which are extraneous to the work’s intrinsic structure and design. As a methodology, New Criticism can be used to analyze and explicate ANY TEXT AT ALL, from ANY PERIOD. It has no ideo-logical or political commitments (which is why it is hated by LaRouche-ites).

    Modernism is a much wider and more complex phenomenon, stretching across poetry, prose, drama, dance, music, the fine arts, and architecture. It is essentially a rejection of inherited aesthetic models and fixed stylistic habits in favor of fragmentation, discord, disharmony, random-ness, and idiosyncratic modes of expression. It may produce striking and memorable work at times, and after a while it can become an acquired taste for some people. But in general it has never had any wide popular appeal, except among those conformists who wish to appear as elite cognoscenti to others.

    Have we got all that straight now? OK. Then let me say this: I am certainly NOT a modernist in my poetry, nor in any other aspect of my literary criticism. Gosselin is just trying to smear me with that word because he knows that “modernism” is largely rejected by persons here at the SCP, whom he is trying to recruit for his LaRouche-ite agenda. Calling my poetry “modernist” is like calling Alexander Pope’s poetry “surreal.”

    Do I deal in New Criticism? Yes, of course, because “explication de texte” is the very best method for approaching literary texts in a professional and sophisticated manner. I never claimed that my literary approach was my own invention, and I resent Gosselin’s insulting suggestion that I have done that, or that I am ignorant of New Criticism as a field of study. I was reading Cleanth Brooks when Gosselin was still in diapers.

    What is Gosselin’s approach, on the other hand? Very simple: it’s the exhalations of gassy abstractions about “immutable truths,” not one of which he can put into a simple declarative sentence. It’s vague talk about how certain “classic” (sigh!) artworks have determined issues of statecraft and political history in decisive ways (this is another typical notion of the LaRouche-ite worldview). It’s a serious fixation on a few Enlightenment-Romantic writers
    like Schiller, Goethe, Keats, and Shelley, with a corresponding disregard of other fine writers who do not fit the template of throbbing emotional ecstasy. And of course it’s also the endless name-dropping of Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, and Shakespeare, without — I notice — the slightest real critical commentary on what specifically makes them divinities. How about some actual in-depth discussion of the individual works of those men, Mr. Gosselin, instead of just burning incense at their altars?

    I notice that Gosselin says something that he frequently throws into these discussion threads: “It’s a good debate, and an important one to have.”

    I’ll translate that for everyone: “I’m not going to shut up until I have converted the SCP into another venue for LaRouche-ite ideology.”

    Reply
    • David B. Gosselin

      Dear Mr. Salemi,

      I hope you don’t take anything I say as disrespect. I’m not trying to smear you. Perhaps an essay defining what you think it means to write “classical” poetry would be good.

      Based on your arguments, a “Society of Formalist Poets” or the “Formalist Poets Society” seems more accurate.

      Here is what the SCP’s ”About” section says, which I probably should have quoted much earlier:

      ”Good, new poetry cherishes and builds on the perennial techniques, like meter and rhyme, left to us by 1,400 years of English poets, who have also built on the traditions found in thousands of years of Greek poetry, Latin poetry, Chinese poetry, Japanese poetry, Indian poetry, and poetry of other cultures. Such good, new poetry carries a message infused with the profound insights and lofty character of the poet. It touches on humanity’s quintessential quest for virtue over vice, epic over ephemeral, and beauty over baseness.”

      Based on everything you’ve said, it seems that you would wholeheartedly disagree with the above stated view. I’ve simply been articulating the view expressed above in my own words, admittedly, in a much less succinct fashion.

      I hope that helps.

      Respectfully,

      David

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        David, this site is a big tent for poets who want to write rhyming, rhythmic, rapturous poetry. This site is also anti-communist, anti-globalist and pro freedom. Is that simple enough? Please stop with the preaching and write some poetry.

      • The Society

        Dear David,

        I wrote the “About Us.” I read Dr. Salemi’s essay as saying that poets should pay attention to the finished product, whether it is really something that people can appreciate, and not get too hung up on overblown idealizations of what poetry should be, beyond traditional meter and form. It’s not to say that idealizations can’t play an important part, but getting stuck on one notion and pretending that is all that matters is simply a recipe for bad poetry. Dr. Salemi is actually just giving out, gratis, some very insightful and sophisticated insight into poetry writing. The “About Us” is indeed setting up a big tent. The fact is that once you commit to writing a poem in meter and other traditional techniques you are already choosing beauty over baseness and demonstrating a lofty character, regardless of what your poem is about.

        Joshua Philipp, the SCP co-founder, came up with calling us “classical poets,” and I thought it was a good idea based on the broad definition of “classical,” like classical music.

        -Evan Mantyk, Editor

      • Mike Bryant

        From the Free Dictionary
        clas·si·cal (klăs′ĭ-kəl)
        adj.
        1.
        a. Of or relating to the ancient Greeks and Romans, especially their art, architecture, and literature.

        4.
        a. Standard and traditional

  20. Margaret Coats

    Thanks, Joseph, for the clear and brief paragraphs on New Criticism and Modernism. David Gosselin’s difficulties in presenting his ideas seem to arise in two areas contrary to the ideals of the Society of Classical Poets. First is the apparent wish to prescribe a canon of authors to be admired (and others such as the Southern Agrarians to be rejected), whereas SCP is committed to what Mike Bryant calls a “wide tent.” No one can master even the full literary tradition of our own language, but in our efforts to read widely, we should not be constrained by someone else’s choices. I would like SCP members to appreciate the artistry of late medieval French poets (not on Gosselin’s canon) and thus I translate some, and take my turn in presenting them. But SCP benefits from a vast array of influences.

    More problematic is Gosselin’s apparent wish to prescribe or favor certain themes (and again, reject others). Which themes or why they should be preferred is not yet clear. What is clear is that “timeless” themes do not contribute to the writing of good poetry. Recently Gosselin praised Adam Sedia’s choosing incense as an appropriate metaphor for a timeless theme. Adam wrote a good poem. But if the theme of a desire for purification and ultimately for Heaven is timeless, there are a billion good and bad timeless poems on the topic. Incense is a common means of purification, and a symbol for heavenward ascent. The way Adam used it is surely more praiseworthy than the choice to write about it.

    It is intriguing that Gosselin moves from the idea of timeless poems to naming a few timeless poets who have published at SCP. They seem to be ones who are already his associates. Are they a little canon to be elevated at SCP? Again, not in accord with our ideals of simply admiring each well written poem by any of our fellow poets.

    Mr. Gosselin, I’ve addressed Dr. Salemi here because this is his post. No disrespect intended by speaking of you and Mike Bryant in the third person.

    Reply
    • David B. Gosselin

      Dear Margaret,

      I fully agree with passage cited above from the SCP’s “About” section. I think it doesn’t hurt to cite it again:

      ”Good, new poetry cherishes and builds on the perennial techniques, like meter and rhyme, left to us by 1,400 years of English poets, who have also built on the traditions found in thousands of years of Greek poetry, Latin poetry, Chinese poetry, Japanese poetry, Indian poetry, and poetry of other cultures. Such good, new poetry carries a message infused with the profound insights and lofty character of the poet. It touches on humanity’s quintessential quest for virtue over vice, epic over ephemeral, and beauty over baseness.”

      Naturally, some poets are better representatives of the view cited above than others. I simply named poets like Schiller, Goethe, Dante, Keats, Shelley, and Shakespeare as some of the gold standards (rather an exclusive and prescriptive models) who arguably best embodied the outlook cited above. They are examples which may be rightly considered as “classical” or “timeless” as opposed to merely Modernist, Formalist, Contemporary etc…

      I think one of the main aspects of creating truly timeless works has a lot to do with the question of treatment. How one treats a poetic theme or subject is really what it comes down to. Two poets or artists can treat the same theme in very different fashions, and express two very different universes. Most of Shakespeare’s dramas are not wholly original, most were based on stories or legends that had been around much before Shakespeare wrote, but what set Shakespeare apart, what defined his genius, was how he chose to treat these themes, giving them a truly rigorous and profound development whereby the artist is able to, as the SCP about section says, carry “a message infused with the profound insights and lofty character of the poet” and which “touches on humanity’s quintessential quest for virtue over vice, epic over ephemeral, and beauty over baseness.”

      That’s really all I’ve been trying to say.

      The views of Schiller, Shelley, Poe, all typify precisely this kind of outlook, which they all expressed in their own unique and original way within their own particular age.

      Perhaps, I will submit some new unpublished Schiller translations once they are complete.

      Here is Schiller in his ninth Letter on the Aesthetical Education of Man:

      “The seriousness of your principles will frighten them away
      from you, but they will accept them in play; their taste is
      more chaste than their heart, and that is where you must
      take hold of the shy one who is fleeing you. You will
      besiege their maxims in vain, to no avail will you condemn
      their deeds, but you can try your formative hand with their
      indolence. Chase away what is arbitrary, the frivolity, the
      crudeness from their pleasures, and in that way you shall
      banish these, unnoticed, from their deeds and finally their
      beliefs. Wherever you find them, surround them with
      noble, with grand, with brilliant forms, surround them
      with symbols of what is excellent, until the appearance vanquishes reality, and art vanquishes nature.”

      This has many parallels with the SCP’s mission statement. Another example would be Edgar Poe’s take on the question of Beauty, poetry, and its effects:

      “Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: — waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity — her disproportion — her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious — in a word, to Beauty.”

      Edgar Allan Poe – The Poetic Principle

      How one achieves this is up to the artist, but the argument is that truly great and timeless poetry has its greatest effect when the poet is able to achieve these ends in the most natural, original, and compelling fashion. If a poem feels forced, didactic, or contrived, much of the magic is lost. So the creation of new original and profound metaphors becomes one of the key means by which a truly classical or timeless poem is created. The Modernists on the other hand tended much more towards symbolism, the occult, and other novels ways of impressing as Adam Sedia said, “value neutral images.”

      The SCP is an important platform for that, and though the goal is naturally not always achieved, no outlet can ever achieve it, I think it’s important to keep the bar high, to always talk about it, and challenge people to strive for such ideals, rather than lower the bar for fear of offending someone or being caught saying “the wrong thing.”

      Reply
  21. Joseph S. Salemi

    Gosselin seems to suffer from a mental quirk that compels him to quote long and verbose passages from certain writers over and over. He’s quoted that Poe passage so often one would think he gets royalties from it.

    Two things about this mental quirk: 1) it is what logicians call “an appeal to authority,” and is the least impressive form of argument; and 2) it shows an authoritarian streak, as if quotes from famous persons necessarily carry more weight than syllogistic reasoning. But Gosselin seems to be immune to logic — his idea of asserting something is to say that it is “arguably” true (a typical ploy of the sophomore composition student).

    He quotes Evan Mantyk’s words about the SCP (twice, as if we hadn’t read it already!), but he takes those words in a completely ideological sense. Mr. Mantyk was expressing a general desire for good poetry based on inherited traditions, and how some of that poetry has an exalted purpose. Gosselin, in contrast, reads Mantyk’s words as limiting, coercive, prescriptive, and directed solely towards the support of gaseous Platonic windbaggery.

    As Mike Bryant has said, the SCP is a big tent, and publishes quite a range of formal, metrical, and traditional English verse. If Gosselin were content simply to submit his poetry like everyone else, he wouldn’t be getting all this resistance. But no — he’s here as a committed missionary who will not stop pushing his cultic LaRouche-ite agenda.

    The proof of that is in the final paragraph of his last post, where he says “I think its important to keep the bar high, to always talk about it, and challenge people to strive for such ideals.” In other words, he’s not going to shut up until we all join the Schiller Institute and accept his ideology of “timelessness.” This guy is as relentless as an Amway dealer trying to recruit you.

    This isn’t a place for missionary work.

    Reply
    • David Bellemare Gosselin

      I’ve never once mentioned joining any group, LaRouche, Schiller, or any other anywhere on this website… I’m not part of any group. So for the record, that’s patently false. I’ve published and quoted things from the Schiller Institute on Schiller… but I’ve also quoted Poe and others, always to essentially the same ends. The message has been pretty consistent, and it’s the same message I quoted from the SCP about section. I think the point is that outlook is NOT a SCP or SC viewpoint, it’s the classical outlook. That’s why I gave quotes by other classical poets to demonstrate that. The SCP mission statement is virtually identical to how Schiller talks about poetry. That’s a fact. And I genuinely agree with those views. When I put these views in my own words, they were labeled “gaseous” and “fanaticism,” yet when I quoted the same essential outlook on the SCP, it’s considered cool and on the level. My purpose in quoting various passages was not appeal to authority, it was just proof that what I was saying is not some crazy fringe idea, it’s simply various formulations on the same classical outlook.

      In conclusion, I don’t wish to drag the debate out passed its lifecycle, I respect your opinions, but throwing around accusations that I’m part of some interest group, a LaRouche agent, a Communist agent, a Russian agent, serves the same function as trying to “red tag” someone. It’s pure McCarthyism. And it is precisely the kind of thing used to shut down discussion and slander people personally, rather than sticking to arguments. So yeah, I think we’re above the McCarthyism “Putin pawns” and “Larouchite” stuff. It’s a tasteless approach.

      I thank god we’re still able to have some uncensored debate, at least for now.

      Respectfully,

      David

      PS

      I’ll submit some new Schiller and/or Goethe translations. Hopefully they make it through!

      Reply
  22. Joseph S. Salemi

    I too would like to end this debate, which seems pointless. But Gosselin has just accused me of “McCarthyism.” That’s usually the last refuge of left-liberals who have been found out. I am compelled to answer.

    You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of an organization to be a proselytizer for the ideas and policies of that group. A sick bitch like Ocasio-Cortez is a hard-core Marxist, but she isn’t signed up in the Communist Party. She’s just committed, on a deep personal level, to Marxist goals. So a LaRouche-ite doesn’t need to be officially registered as a member of the cult in order to promote a LaRouche-ite agenda.

    This means that we often have to judge the worldview of persons not by their ID cards, but by what they say and do. So let’s make a list of things Gosselin has revealed about himself and his opinions, and see if they comport with LaRouche-ite ideology.

    1) He is partial to the Schiller Institute, a mixed literary-political-cultural enterprise run by LaRouche’s widow Helga to continue her husband’s ideas.

    2) He admits a strong agreement with the views of Cynthia Chung at the Rising Tide Foundation, where the opinions on the linkage of poetry and statecraft, and on the need for massive Third-World development, match those of LaRouche to a T.

    3) He has expressed extreme anger against the poetry of Kipling and against British imperialism, in perfect accord with LaRouche-ite Anglophobia.

    4) He has evinced a visceral dislike of the British royal family (a signature trademark of LaRouche-ism).

    5) His aesthetic views are rooted in a hard-core Platonism, just like those of LaRouche.

    6) He has more than once expressed strong opposition to Aristotelianism and straightforward propositional statements, in accord with the LaRouche-ite view that Aristotelianism is a worldwide curse.

    7) He has attacked the Southern Agrarians and New Criticism, connecting the former with “racism” and the latter with “modernism.” It’s the typical LaRouche-ite tactic of appealing to the extreme left on one hand, and the conservative right on the other.

    8) He uses the terms “classicism” and “classical” as undefined hypostasized abstractions, to be employed as all-purpose mantras, and to provide an imprimatur for certain carefully chosen artists writing on very limited themes.

    9) He believes that poetry must primarily be about good and proper ideas, and only secondarily about linguistic excellence. This fits in with the LaRouche-ite notion that poetry must be used to establish good government and acceptable behavior in citizens.

    10) He’s constantly trying to convert us, he’s upset about “wrong messages being sent,” and he insists that the word “classical” be used in precisely the kind of way that he wants it used, and he considers anyone who trenchantly criticizes his viewpoints as trying to “shut down discussion.”

    Is it “McCarthyism” to point to all of these facts? Do all of them not come together to suggest an “echte Gestalt,” as the Germans say? It’s good to recall old proverbial wisdom: “If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck — well, it probably is a duck.”

    Let no one here misunderstand me — everyone (LaRouche-ite or non-LaRouche-ite) has the full right to his own political, social, cultural, and aesthetic opinions, no matter how unpopular they may be. It’s called freedom of conscience, and it is embodied in freedom of speech, which now in the United States is under the severest attack ever launched against it. Gosselin is absolutely entitled to whatever opinions he chooses to follow. And he has the right to express them out loud, in public. So do I. So do the Southern Agrarians. So do the New Critics. So does Ocasio-Cortez. Freedom of speech is for everybody, or it’s for nobody.

    What irritates me no end is his compulsion to be an insistent missionary for his aesthetic views, and his attempt to come here and discredit mine based on his peculiar definition of the word “classical.” (A definition, by the way, which he refuses to give us in clear, plain, non-nebulous English, just as he refuses to name a single “immutable and timeless truth.”)

    Polemical exchanges, like back-alley knife-fights, are always savage and nasty. Some people think that I enjoy such exchanges. As God is my wit-ness, I don’t.

    Reply
    • D.G Rowe

      I do wonder, Mr Salemi, if you’d allow me a stab, that perhaps if you could find your self in a situation whereby you was afforded the opportunity to spend a few hours chewing the cud all things literary with any Man of Letters past or present that the irrepressible mind of Algernon Swinburne would be very high on your list, if not Top 3.

      After reading as many essay of yours I could find, including the one on Swinburne, and reading intently your various discourses in these pages and their conversational threads; I make this claim to your literary ruminations.

      Cheers.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Well, I’m sure it would be quite interesting to have a discussion with Swinburne. The only condition I would impose is that it take place in a location where there would be no access to whips, canes, birch rods, switches, or a cat-o’-nine-tails. Just for my own safety.

      • D.G. Rowe

        Ha! Yes indeed. No monkeys either! You wouldn’t want to be party to that canard.

        And Ale, not Brandy to soak the palate. Watts-Dunton done a good job weening the stubborn imp off that devilish substance.

        Cheers.

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