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“American pragmatism insists that words are for use, not enjoyment; American puritanism insists that expression is a duty, not a pleasure.” —Richard A. Lanham

Everyone knows that poems work on different levels. Even if you just believe that a poem implies or suggests a bit more than it says on the surface, you are acknowledging this fact. Only the simplest and most elemental poem (perhaps a nursery rhyme) contains nothing other than its overtly expressed statement. Consider:

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Mary had a little lamb—
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

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We would rightly dismiss anyone who tried to find a deep and hidden meaning in that as a silly obscurantist—though an arrant fraud like Jacques Derrida might try to convince us that there lurks a profound sociopolitical critique in the four lines.

However, in poems that go beyond this simple level there’s always the possibility—even the probability—of a wider meaning. It’s natural in ordinary speech, where we are constantly aware of the context of a statement and its implications. Suggestions, hints, innuendo, and unspoken specters haunt every conversation, so why shouldn’t we expect the same in the highly formalized and ritualized thing known as a poem?

For this reason, poets and scholars have for centuries tried to explain the various levels on which a poem might function. In his famous letter of 1321 to Can Grande della Scala explaining his procedure in the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri outlined the basic “senses” in which any text could be understood. They are the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. This division was not unique to Dante, but a common medieval notion. In fact, a four-line Latin mnemonic device was employed to express it succinctly:

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Littera gesta docet,
Quod credas allegorica;
Moralia quod agas,
Quo tendas anagogica.

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Roughly translated, this means “The literal sense tells you what occurred, the allegorical sense what you should believe; the moral sense what you should do, and the anagogical sense where you should be heading.” The distinction between the last three is not always sharp, and Dante himself said to Can Grande that they could all just be lumped under the rubric of allegory.

These four divisions, in medieval times, were found to be useful when explicating certain Biblical texts. Let’s say you were reading the story of Noah’s ark in Genesis. For a medieval reader, the story would have four levels of meaning. In the literal sense, the text told you a historical truth: Noah at God’s command built an ark to save himself and his family from the flood. In the allegorical sense, the ark symbolized the Church and its teaching, in which one had to be a member and a believer, since outside of it there was no salvation. In the moral sense, the story of the ark enjoined proper behavior: Noah had to be a just and upright man who followed God’s dictates in order to be saved. And finally the anagogical sense (from the Greek anagoge—a “leading up”) taught you that your ultimate goals in life were reconciliation with God, avoidance of spiritual destruction, and arrival at a final place of safety called heaven. It’s all very precise: Noah is the just man; the ark is the Church; the flood is God’s wrath against sinners; and Mount Ararat is paradise. To the medieval reader, the story of Noah’s ark was a perfectly encapsulated mini-symbol of the entire economy of salvation.

Dante had no trouble believing in the historical (i.e. literal) reality of Noah’s ark. He took the “literal sense” of the story to be true. Indeed, for Dante all the other interpretative senses implicitly depend on the story’s factuality, and assume it as a given. But what happens when we can no longer accept the account as anything other than a myth? It’s clear today that the tale of Noah is merely a late Hebrew reworking of an earlier Babylonian flood story as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

This is a perennial question in our approach to literary texts. Sophisticated readers know very well that the great majority of literary writings are simply false when it comes to Dante’s “literal sense.” To put it pejoratively, they are lies. Indeed, this is why certain religious groups have a deep and abiding distrust of fictive literature. Edmund Gosse’s parents, who were members of an extremely narrow Low-Church Protestant sect, would allow neither poems nor novels in the house. Gosse’s subsequent career as a literary critic, in their eyes, was as morally repugnant as if their daughter had become a harlot.

In the case of men of great literary talent who come out of the Low-Church Protestant tradition, like Milton or Blake, this is a nagging problem. Milton could solve it by producing a massive synthesis of religious “truth” and pyrotechnical literary expressiveness called Paradise Lost; while Blake could do the same by rejecting the Old Testament altogether and inventing his own mythology. But it is only a problem at all for those who assume that the literal sense of a text is somehow more important or respectable than the oblique senses that Dante termed “allegorical” or “figurative.” This poisonous assumption still infects American thinking, which remains doggedly Low-Church Protestant.

For this reason, a serious study of poetry has to be divorced from both religion and morality. If we can banish from people’s minds the crypto-devotional notion that poetry is supposed to “teach” them something, or be “good” for them, or “support something positive,” or “make a better world,” then we can clear the decks for poetry’s real task: to delight via figurative imaginings. We can keep the allegory while dumping the inconvenient obstacle called literal truth.

I find it strange that many people can’t accept this in poetry, even though they have no trouble doing it in regard to scriptural myth. Apart from a few Bible-thumpers in the boondocks, religious believers realize that the story of Noah’s ark is fictional, while still accepting the larger truths that the story tells on the allegorical level. Well, if it can be done in regard to scripture, it can also be applied to our reading of poems. We can totally disregard them as statements of fact, and read them solely as figurative discourse.

Now this doesn’t mean that poems can’t be religious. Anyone familiar with my work knows that I have a penchant for writing poems on religious or mystical subjects. And it doesn’t mean that poems are forbidden to “say” anything—after all, if they are composed with coherent sentence structure they will make some sort of propositional sense. What it means is that the raison d’être of a poem is not its subject matter.

This is a hard sell to a lot of people, especially Americans. They have a strong disinclination to accept the fact that the subject matter of a poem is merely one more element in the poem’s rhetorical structure, and nothing more. Subject matter has exactly the same weight as the meter, the diction, the rhyme scheme, the tropes and figures, and the punctuation. It isn’t “privileged” over these elements. It doesn’t take a prior position. It enjoys no prestige that the other elements lack. It’s just one brick in the wall. As Richard Lanham says, American pragmatism and puritanism gag on this idea.

Who objects to this truth? Here again, we find ourselves talking about religion. As I have argued in many essays, religious persons are not just those pious folk who go to church and temple. You are religious when you are in the grip of some consuming conviction or judgmental mindset that colors your entire approach to the world. You can be an atheist or agnostic and still be as thunderously moralistic as any televangelist whooper.

It’s this sort of person—and believe me, by this definition a huge number of practicing poets are devoutly religious—who cannot accept the equal status of subject matter and all the other structural elements in a poem. They fight against the idea. It troubles them. It leaves them uncomfortable. They are so in love with their religion that they can’t conceive of doing anything (including poetic composition) that doesn’t comport with their belief-system and the task of proselytizing on its behalf. Perfect examples of this are those lesbian poets who can only write poems that deal with or defend their lesbianism; or those leftist poets who must allude to their sociopolitical views in every poem that they write. This is pure fundamentalist religion, no different from howling out hallelujahs in the Bible Belt. American Puritanism is as alive and kicking in these types as it was in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1640.

If we accept that a poem is a beautiful fictive artifact, or what Don Paterson calls “just a little machine for remembering itself,” we are liberated from the shackles of this dreary fundamentalism. Poems aren’t obliged to teach us or tell us anything. Or if they do so, it happens as an afterthought to their literary perfection. I like to compare good poems to a collection of magnificent eighteenth-century snuffboxes that I once saw in France. They were unbelievably lovely things in gold, silver, amber, ivory, multicolored enamels, and rare woods. They were objects of pure daedal creativity, showing all the ebullience of Versailles and Fragonard and Boucher. They were Mozart in the shape of little boxes, each one an exquisite instance of painstaking craftsmanship. Well, needless to say, they don’t hold snuff anymore and no one expects them to do so. Does that mean we should throw them out?

American pragmatism would say yes. American puritanism would say absolutely. And when it comes to appreciating poetry, that attitude constitutes a major problem.

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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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89 Responses

  1. Paul Erlandson

    Not sure if I’m an obscurantist, but I’ve always assumed that “Mary had a little lamb” was about the Virgin Mary, the Incarnation, and the early childhood of Jesus Christ.

    Have I been deluding myself?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Maybe, or maybe not. Your take on the poem turns it into an allegorical metaphor, but frankly there isn’t a lot of meat on the skeletal structure of those four lines to make a strong case.

  2. Lionel Willis

    That was elegantly argued and beautifully said, Joe! Thank you for keeping our eyes on the right ball.

  3. C.B. Anderson

    Honest to God, Joseph, if I ever do any of those things that you call into question, then please chew me out. I don’t usually write poems with any clear intention, but if I ever do, and I submit them to you, then please tell me to go stifle myself.

  4. Margaret Coats

    Joseph, you may believe that John, Ed, Dave, and Paul had Gilgamesh in front of them when they were writing the Pentateuch, but you should know equally well that most cultures (writing or not) have flood stories, so they didn’t need it. I mention JEDP because that theory (although now often questioned) once had more currency to it than your Gilgamesh re-working theory. Are you hoping Bergoglio will appoint you to the Pontifical Biblical Commission?

    There is no reason to for you to insult the intelligence of Catholics of all eras (and some others who do more Bible-thumping than we do) who believe in the literal truth of Noah’s Flood. The teaching of the Church on inerrancy says that God is truly the author of Scripture, and that divine inspiration extends to all of Sacred Scripture, fortifying each and every part of it against all error. With regard to Biblical typology, the literal sense is primary; it is what is true. You are well enough educated to know Augustine’s dictum that if you find an error in Scripture, it is because you have a bad text, a bad translation, or (most often) a bad interpretation. Scripture is not a fictive artifact used by God to teach the really true allegorical things concerning salvation. As far as I recall, that idea is a modernist misinterpretation enshrined in Vatican II’s Dei Verbum.

    I have every sympathy with your notion that American puritanism and American pragmatism interfere with American appreciation of poetry. As you rightly pointed out, concerning Edmund Gosse, this is often the case where Low Church views have prevailed in the English speaking world. It boils down to hatred of the human imagination that began in late 16th century England. I recall my own work on the poet Fulke Greville, who tortured himself with the idea that he could not trust his mind to be anything other than idolatrous, as long as it was creating anything, instead of contemplating nature and Scripture (God’s work and God’s word). I see no reason to defer to such sick psyches and go to the sick length of saying that serious study of poetry must be divorced from religion and morality. That makes about as much sense as their smashing of statues and stained glass.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you for your comments, Margaret. Certainly puritans and pragmatists are missing a great deal of the profundity of Scripture by believing ONLY the literal aspect of its stories. But is there any way in which the figurative aspects are diminished if one also believes the stories to have actually happened? Why would Scripture’s Author limit His work in history by being careful NOT to let events actually happen, which He will also use to communicate other levels of truth? Why would He, having thought of such great stories (though they also have deeper meanings than the literal), not bring the stories to pass in the world?

      • Cynthia Erlandson

        (My questions are to say I agree with your comments, Margaret; looking back, I’m not sure if I made that clear.)

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Cynthia, if we take the words of Genesis literally, Noah’s ark was approximately 500 feet by 75 feet by 45 feet. That’s smaller than a German pocket battleship from the Weimar period.

        Do you seriously believe that such a modest craft could have contained pairs of every living animal, bird, and insect on earth, when even today we can barely count up the number of living species that exist? And what would have prevented the naturally predatory beasts from killing and eating the others?

        You might say “It was a miracle.” I say even miracles have to have a modicum of plausibility.

      • Martin Rizley

        Belief in the historical accuracy of the flood can never be based on rationalistic attempts to explain the event in terms of strict naturalism and that which is “scientifically” possible. Miracles by definition occur outside the boundaries of God’s ordinary providence, and therefore, outside the boundaries of that which is scientifically possible (for example, there is no scientific law that could ever explain how Jesus was able to change water instantaneously into fermeted grape juice; such things do not and indeed cannot happen in the ordinary providence of God by which He upholds the world in accordance with regular patterns of natural law. Ordinarily, in everyday life, wine production necessarily involves a complex process of grape growing, harvesting, crushing, then fermenting of the juice in vats, a process which involves much time. Jesus dispensed with the time element altogether- as well as the need for whole, uncrushed grapes!- and simply made by an act of immediate direct creation fermented grape juice from H20, bearing all the marks of process and apparent age within itself. That was an “impossible” event that actually did occur in history through the unlimited power of God.

        Likewise, the flood will never be explained scientifically. It is not an event that could ever take place on earth apart from a suspension of the rules of God’s ordinary providence and a miraculous, divine intervention akin to what took place at the wedding of Cana in Galilee. It was a real event that occurred in history, but not a natural event. Here is an article that will by no means satisfy Deistical canons of plausibility, but which serves to clear away certain commonly repeated misconceptions about what the flood event would have involved (https://www.gotquestions.org/Noahs-ark-animals.html).

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        On the one hand, you say that a miracle can do the impossible, and on the other hand you link us to an article at a Biblicist website filled with absurd special pleading about how all the animals, birds, and insects might possibly have fit into such a small and incommodious vessel. Which is it? Do you believe it is an out-and-out miracle, doing the impossible, or do you believe it is a naturally explicable event?

        I can easily believe the changing of water to wine at Cana, or the curing of the blind and the lame, or the casting out of demons, or the trans-substantiation of bread and wine to Jesus’ flesh and blood, or the feeding of crowds via the multiplication of loaves and fishes, or the resurrection of the dead Lazarus, or the calming of the troubled water, or any of the other miracles in the New Testament — first, because we have them on the authority of the written Gospels; and second, because they are small-scale events within the purview of human understanding. They don’t grossly violate God’s own laws of size, shape, and dimension.

        But you have not answered the question about the pre-existing myths of Sumerian and Babylonian tradition that are CLEARLY the literary sources of the Noah story. The Noah story comes from them just as surely as Spanish and Italian come from Latin.

        God can change water into wine with His omnipotence. But not even He can violate His own laws of spatial dimension and extent by cramming several thousands of animals, birds, and insects into a craft that was smaller than a German pocket battleship. And since you are a Biblical literalist, you MUST accept the measurements of the Ark as given in the Hebrew text.

        I would like to ask you this: what is your personal opinion about the age of the earth, the evolution of species from earlier species, and why an abundantly sequential fossil record exists in the the rock strata of our planet? Let me also add, as a philologist, that the evidence for the development of the Romance languages from Vulgar Latin is not as crystal-clear and evident as the taxonomy that we have for the evolution of dinosaur species. And yet we are all damned sure that Spanish comes from Latin.

      • Martn Rizley

        Dr. Salemi,
        Let me begin by saying I don´t think any authentic miracle could ever be described as “a small scale event within the purview of human understanding.” Any true miracle is an event of cosmic proportions, because it involves the temporary suspension of the cosmic order– even if that suspension occurs at one particular geographical spot at a particular moment of time. Jesus walking on the water may seem a “small scale” miracle, but it is truly an event of cosmic proportions, and it definitely occurs outside “the purview of human understanding,” because it clearly involves a suspension of the laws of physics at one place and one moment of time. According to the laws of physics, a solid human body cannot walk on top of liquid water. Yet Jesus did.

        You insist that the Genesis flood narrative is based on earlier pagan flood myths written by the Babylonians, and claim that it is unreasonable to say otherwise. However, there is no logical reason to discard another possibility—namely, that the Babylonian and the Mosaic flood narratives were written independently of each other, but both drew on earlier source material common to both. Consider a parallel case: there is striking similarity in content and wording between the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke. How do scholars explain these similarities? Do they say that the later written account borrowed from the earlier one—that Luke borrowed from Matthew or Matthew from Luke, and that to dispute the obvious fact that one borrowed from the other is obscurantist? No. Most scholars actually believe Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels independently of each other, but drew on common source material—namely, the Gospel of Mark, which is believed to have been written prior to both. In fact, since common material is found in Matthew and Luke which is not found in Mark, many scholars believe in the hypothetical existence of an earlier source document called the Q document (not to be confused with QAnon!). So some scholars hold to a one-source theory to explain the commonalities between Matthew and Luke, while others hold to a two-source theory. They explain the commonalities in terms of common source materials written earlier which both Matthew and Luke used independently of each other.

        Now, how is it unreasonable to believe that a similar relationship exists between the Genesis narrative of the flood and earlier written Sumerian and Babylonian flood narratives? How can one discount automatically the idea that all these accounts were written independently of one another based on common source material they were all using, namely, oral tradition dating back to the the time of the flood itself, which was passed on by succeeding generations and possibly recorded on clay tablets or other materials, which predate the writing of all extant flood documents now in our possession? This is not at all an unreasonable hypothesis.

        You have asked me a personal question that has nothing to do with poetry or your article, but I will answer it nevertheless. You asked, how old do I believe the earth is. To answer that question in a reasoned manner, one must begin by asking, “What sort of question is this and how is it to be answered?” Is this a scientific question, an historical question, or a religious one?” It is what the philosopher Mortimer Adler called a “mixed question” involving “overlapping domains.” It concerns at the same time history, science, and religion. I believe that fundamentally it is an historical question, dealing with how much time has passed since the universe began. From a Christian worldview perspective, history is the stage on which the Almighty God of the Bible has been working from the beginning of time to bring about His sovereign will both by natural and supernatural means. Science, on the other hand, is the study of merely natural phenomena and processes; it focuses on nature itself, rather than the God of nature. Since the God of history is not bound to have worked always through natural means to produce changes in the natural world, we cannot assume that the methods of a naturalistic science are adequate to provide by themselves alone an answer to the question of the earth´s age. That is because scientific and historical questions are not identical.

        Consider what I said earlier about the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine. If a modern-day oenologist, who has scientific knowledge of wine production, had been present at the wedding of Cana in Galilee, and if someone had asked him to explain, for the benefit of the guests, the history of the wine they were drinking, if that oenologist knew nothing of the miracle that had occurred, he would no doubt give an answer based on his knowledge of the ordinary natural processes by which wine comes into being, from the crushing of the grapes through the whole process of fermentation. He would estimate the age of the wine, based on his scientific knowledge, in terms of months or possibly years; his answer would be scientifically plausible, no doubt, even “reasonable,” but at the same time, it would be historically wrong —for that particular wine had only been in existence for a few minutes. It had an extraordinary, rather than an ordinary origin, which the oenologist could never know about nor discover through the methods of naturalistic science.

        Now to answer your question: since there was only one Eyewitness present when the world came into being, I choose to take Him at His Word when He tells us how the world came into being. Personally, I think the world came into being, as the Bible indicates, not by merely natural processes but by supernatural means, through a series of outright miracles that took place successively over the space of six rotational periods of light and darkness, on the order of thousands, rather than millions or billions of years ago. The end result was a universe that, while rapidly created, was created in a fully functional and mature state, which therefore appears to be much older than it actually is, when viewed through the lens of naturalistic science. It was created thus by God to be the setting for that redemptive drama which is the raison d´etre as to why the world was created in the first place.

        I don´t believe that the fossils were “placed there by Satan to deceive people.” I believe that countless fossils of animals, buried alive under many layers of water-deposited sediment, with marine fossils located at the top of high mountains all over the world, from Everest to the Andes, is mute testimony to the fact that the entire world was at one time under water. Those mountain tops were obviously underwater, then pushed upward as a result of tectonic activity through crustal plates colliding and pushing the earth upward to form modern mountain ranges. The common order of fossils, with simpler marine creatures found in the deepest rock layers, and more complex animals found in higher layers, is most likely owing to the way in which different ecosystems, which were located at different levels of the ancient topography, were buried one on top of another by successive waves that swept across continents during the event of the flood. More complex animals escaped to higher ground as the earth was flooded, and so would be buried last by the rising floodwaters.

        I am not a geologist, and am open to revising my views on geology, but I am not open to abandoning my Christian worldview for the Deistic and often atheistic worldview that dominates the world of academia today and underlies all purely “naturalistic” accounts of origins, such as Darwinism.

        As I said, I give you this answer only because you asked me for it; otherwise, I would have said nothing, since I realize a poetry website is not the ideal forum for extended theological discussion and debate.

      • Paul W Erlandson

        Hi, Martin.

        I suppose that, indeed, there are a lot of Flood myths.

        This discussion reminds me of one of my favorite passages in Chesterton:

        “Learned men literally say that this pre-historic calamity cannot be true because every race of mankind remembers it. I cannot keep pace with these paradoxes.”

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Martin, I am totally absorbed by your answer to Dr. Salemi’s question. I believe Christians are better served by the Biblical account of creation than any view held by Darwin or Dawkins. And I believe your comment shines the light of truth beneath the dark veil that obscures God’s word today. Many of today’s churches are politicized. They are pushing “social” justice and looking to BLM, The United Nations, and Critical Race Theory for answers to injustice. The answers don’t lie in the sinful minds and weak flesh of humankind. They lie in the spiritual… the way, the truth and the light. Thank you for the much needed reminder!

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        To Mr. Rizley —

        There is an old logical law called “Occam’s Razor.” The Latin is
        “Essentia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.” The concise meaning is that simpler and more economical explanations are always presumed to be valid, rather than unnecessarily more complicated explanations. For example, it is simpler and much more concise to argue that the Grand Canyon was cut by the Colorado River over several million years, rather than to say that divine power created it 6000 years ago in a flash to serve as a 20th-century tourist attraction (which one of my Catholic fundamentalist friends has actually argued). Moreover, the prior explanation has a lot more detailed and solid evidence for it than the latter one, which is purely fideistic.

        You’re going to get yourself in hot water with your fundamentalist friends if you start talking about the Q document and the synoptic Gospels. If the Q document really existed (and most Scriptural scholars agree that it did) then all the Gospel texts that are based on it or that make use of it are by definition DERIVATIVE, and therefore subject to textual critique.

        Your explanation of the age of the universe, Noah’s flood, and the existence of a fossil record is a tangled web of suppositions, unproven assumptions, and plain wishful thinking. Everything you have said is a tortured attempt to “save the appearances” while maintaining a surface fidelity to an ancient Hebrew text. Well, saving appearances can have a surface plausibility, as the theory of epicycles once had, but we need to acknowledge that their purpose is not a disinterested ascertainment of the truth, but merely to stave off unpleasant and inconvenient facts.

        When you say “there is no logical reason to discard another possibility — namely that the Babylonian and Mosaic flood narratives were written independently of each other…” you are disregarding Occam’s Razor. The simpler, more concise, and more economical explanation is that the earlier text is the source of the later text. In addition, when you admit the possibility that both accounts might be based on shared folk traditions, you have already undercut your argument that there is something special and sacrosanct about the Genesis account. (By the way, do you actually think that the Genesis account was written by Moses?)

        All scientific measurements (by astronomers, physicists, geologists) indicate that the universe is approximately 13 billion years old, and the earth itself is about 4 billion years old. These are not guesses or assumptions or dreams — they are sober, unprejudiced, and carefully computed conclusions. Are they off by a few million years here or there? Sure, that’s possible. But there is NO LOGICAL WAY that anyone can argue that the earth is merely 6000 years old, and that all life was created in a flash to be in the form that we have it today. Your intricate interweaving of the words “historical, scientific, and religious” is only a way to avoid answering a simple question: “How old is the earth and the universe?”

        Your entire approach to this debate is fideistic, meaning that for you everything is to be taken on faith alone, and on the Protestant “sola scriptura” principle. And everything else has to be made somehow to fit your preconceived views.

        By the way, the Bible also clearly implies that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun moves around the earth. It also seems to hold that the earth is both flat and square, in the reference to “the four corners of the earth” in Revelations. Is the Bible wrong on this?

      • Martin Rizley

        I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my response. I´m sure we could continue this conversation indefinitely, but seeing how this is a poetry website, I feel hesitant to do so. I will just say one thing about Occam´s razor. It is a principle that has been used to “shave away” consideration of explanatory hypotheses that are unnecessarily elaborate, fanciful, or complicated, and which make superfluous assumptions involving multiplied factors or entities, when a much simpler explanation, involving fewer assumptions, will most likely prove true.

        No doubt, this is a useful principle to guide scientific investigation in everyday life. It should be pointed out, however, that as a Christian, William of Ockham, to whom this principle is attributed, qualified the use of the “razor” by asserting that no explanatory hypothesis can possibly be true which does not harmonize with reason, experience, and the Bible. So when choosing between two explanatory hypotheses, it is not enough to ask which is the “simpler” explanation; one must also ask if the two hypotheses are in harmony with biblical teaching; if one is in harmony with the biblical teaching and the other is not, the one which contradicts biblical teaching cannot possibly be true. To say otherwise would be a misapplication of Occam´s razor, Occam would say. ”

        Apply this to the question of the relationship between the Babylonian and the Genesis flood narratives. Occam would definitely reject the theory which says that, in actual fact, there was no historic flood; rather the flood story is an entirely fictitious story first made up by pagan idolaters in Sumeria and Babylonia and later copied by the Hebrews, who revised it to fit their monothestic beliefs and presented it as a real historical event, which it was not. Why would Occam reject this theory? Because it rejects the teaching of Scripture which affirms that the flood really took place. For that reason alone, Occam would reject the use of the razor as a tool to undermine the historical reliability of the record of the flood given in Scripture.

        It should be pointed out that in modern universities and science academies, an appeal to Occam´s razor is used to dispense with all explanatory hypotheses that mentions God, miracles and the supernatural. All suggestions that miracles might have played a role in shaping the earth are scorned as a violation of Occam´s razor. Dr. Richard Lewonton, a professor of biology at Harvard wrote of how he automatically “shaved off” in an a priori manner any explanation of phenomenon involving the miraculous or the divine: “We take the side of science, in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its concepts. . . because we have a prior commitment to materialism. We cannot allow a Divine foot in the door!”

        In the hands of Dr. Lewontin, Occam´s razor becomes a meat cleaver to shave off any possible explanation of phenomena that might involve God, miracles and the supernatural. Is it any wonder that so many students come out of these academies atheists and agnostics? A misapplication of Occam´s razor has taught them to equate the supernatural with the superstitious.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Mr. Rizley —

        The principle of Occam’s Razor doesn’t depend on the personal beliefs or attitudes of the man who first formulated it. William of Occam and his personal idiosyncrasies are long gone, but the abstract principle that explanations of phenomena should always be as concise and simple as possible remains valid. Nobody cares what Marconi’s personal opinions were, as long as one’s radio works.

        Do you know what the phrase “Petitio Principii” means? It’s the Latin name for the fallacy that is called “begging the question” in English. Your entire argument in the above post basically says this: “When two explanations for a phenomenon are presented, and the more obvious one shows the Bible to be in error while the other more involuted and complex one does not, the more complex explanation must be accepted, because the Bible is always true.”

        That is a pure begging of the question. It is the basic fallacy behind all literalist inerrancy defenses of patent absurdities in the text of the Bible. Or in the words of that twangy and syrupy evangelical hymn: “How do I know? The Bible tells me so.”

        H.L. Mencken, who reported on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Tennessee back in the 1920s, describes his encounter with a rabidly furious Baptist woman who screamed at him “I don’t need to read any book ceptin’ the Good Book! If a book has somethin’ true in it, it’s already in the Bible! An’ if a book says something that ain’t true, I don’t wanna read it! ALL I NEED IS MY BIBLE!!

        That’s the real face of literalist inerrancy.

      • Martin Rizley

        I don´t agree with the attitude of the woman mentioned who refused to read anything but the Bible. Nevertheless, in her woefully inadequate, reactionary, and overly-defensive manner, she appears to have been trying to hold fast to what is in fact a profound truth– and that is, that if truth is one, it must always be in harmony with itself. If the Bible really is a book that has been given to us by divine inspiration and if it is true therefore in all of its teachings— something which Jesus Himself affirmed on various occasions, as even the most liberal scholars acknowledge—then though not all truth is found in the Bible (you won´t learn from the Bible how to perform heart surgery, or play the piano, or build a rocket to Mars) all statements that are true will be found to be harmonious with the teaching of the Bible (and the biblical worldview), instead of flatly contradicting its teaching. Consequently, it would make no sense at all for someone who claims to be a Christian– who affirms the real existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the deity of Jesus Christ, and His infallible authority as a teacher– to reason in such a way that he embraces as true propositions which flatly contradict his fundamental Christian convictions and the corollaries that flow out of them. It is absurd to consider oneself a logical thinker if one is a completely inconsistent thinker. I can understand someone who claims to be an atheist and who therefore believes that autonomous human reason is the supreme arbiter or judge of truth, elevating Ockam´s razor to the level of an absolute, infallible, inviolable law, instead of using it as a helpful “guideline” in subordination to other, more fundamental, first principles of thought. I cannot fathom a professing Christian using Ockam´s razor in that way. After all, it is obvious that the simplest explanation of things is not always or invariably the right one. Sometimes the more complex explanation turns out to be the correct one, as the history of science and many court cases shows to be true.

        Consistency is not the hobgoblin of little minds; rather, it is the mark of a mind that is reasoning well. Sound reasoning starts from valid first principles, reasons in a manner consistent with them in distinguishing truth from falsehood, then arrives at conclusions which are always consistent with those first principles. A person who reasons in such a way that he embraces certain first principles then immediately proceeds to contradict them by accepting conclusions which are clearly incompatible with them, is not a logical thinker, no matter how logical or wise or smart he imagines himself to be.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        You still haven’t answered whether you think the sun moves around the earth, or whether the earth is a flat square resting on supporting pillars. If you can logically finesse those two absurdities, you must have an advanced degree in casuistry that even a Jesuit would envy.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        And who “interprets these words rightly, according to their intended meaning”? You, and the faculty of Bob Jones University?

        And since you have now admitted that some of the language of the Old Testament is figurative and metaphorical rather than literal, tell us why the account of Noah and the ark has to be taken in a strictly historical and literal sense, rather than a purely allegorical one. And tell us if the same liberty may be allowed with the story of the Tower of Babel, the parting of the Red Sea, and Joshua and the walls of Jericho.

        Be careful. You’re on really thin ice now.

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Ye gods, Margaret — why are you blowing a fuse here? Yes, many cultures have flood myths, but the account of the flood in Gilgamesh (which predates Genesis by several centuries) has far too many verbal and incidental parallels with the Pentateuch text NOT to be its source. The fact of the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people also has to be taken into account — a long stay in that area is solid circumstantial evidence that Utnapishtim is the original of Noah. Denying this is like trying to deny that French is derived from Latin — the written evidence in the clay tablets is just too overwhelming.

    No one is insulting anyone’s intelligence; I’m just asking people to use theirs. If anyone is being insulting, it is you, with these remarks about me (ME?) being appointed by Bergoglio to the Biblical Commission, or the suggestion that I have any sympathy with Vatican 2. People in FSSP communities who are still compelled to call the Argentine creep “Holy Father,” and who silently accept the validity of Vatican 2, have no right to throw stones at those of us who declare openly that the Emperor has no clothes, and that Vat 2 was a latrocinium.

    There have always been allegorical interpretations of stories in the Old Testament. Do you seriously think that the Tower of Babel is a literal explanation for the diversity of human languages, rather than a warning against human pride and overreaching? Or that the universe literally began in 4004 B.C., as Bishop Ussher taught? Or that Jonah actually lived for some time in the belly of a whale?

    It’s not “sick” to say that a serious study of poetry should primarily be based on the art of poetry itself, and not be forced to play handmaiden to religious beliefs, moral imperatives, or political ideologies.

    • Lionel Willis

      OK Joe. But you did announce a “major problem”. Did we not expect the smoke to raise some ire?

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I didn’t expect an outburst of raw Biblical fundamentalism when all I did was discuss how to approach poetry properly. The major problem that we have in America is Low-Church Protestantism, and its innate fanaticism. The plagues of wokeness and political correctness come right out of it, though some of you are loath to admit that fact. Even the Methodists are now pushing Black Lives Matter, just as they screamed for Prohibition in the recent past.

        Mencken, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

  6. Norma Okun

    The beauty, the ugly in reality are what helps a poet bring the personal and impersonal realty of the world to your attention. A radish became tasty to me after a poem was written about it by Martha Baird. Poetry introduced me to pussy cats, white chickens, St. Teresa of Avila, and all the things I would have ignored and not given my attention to. This is why I love any poem that helps me to appreciate the world that the Lord created. I distinctly remember having tears flow from my eyes reading about the death of someone I had never met. It represented my feelings, it gave structure to the deepest feelings about losing loved ones. I do not care to know what category you write about. A poem is my teacher, the poet is my teacher and it helps me to value more and be thankful.

    • Paul Freeman

      You’re ‘radish’ example is tempting me to write a poem about brussel sprouts. Most Brits eat about two per year, force fed to them at Christmas.

      • Norma Okun

        “a poet brings the personal and impersonal reality of the world to your attention. A radish became tasty to me” I want to make the correction to the word reality. It was misspelt. The mean Bishop Hatto by Robert Southey is to me a relief to read. Someone saw what I had seen and made it even more disgusting to see. How vile humans can be. How honorable, how ridiculous. You bring up Brussel Sprouts. It happens to this day be my first born favorite vegetable.

  7. Martin Rizley

    I agree with Margaret Coats that to reject a merely “didactical” purpose for poetry does not have to involve the extreme of divorcing poetry from all concern about the religous or moral worldview reflected in a poem. I don´t see how a poet who is a Christian can possibly divorce what poetry he/she writes from a Christian worldview, even if a particular poem is not explicitly “religious” in theme or subject matter in the sense of being about God, Christ, or redemption. Poetry´s purpose, as I understand it, is to hold up a mirror to life in all its kaleidoscopic beauty, magnifying some aspect of human experience in such a way as to deepen the reader´s sensibility to nature, to life, to the human condition, and to one´s historical and cultural environment. Ideally, poetry should draw attention to the beautiful, the rare, the mysterious, the poignant, the extaordinary, the strange, the delightful, etc., in everyday things, so as to deepen one´s appreciation for and enjoyment of the gift of life itself. Poetry thus conceived gives expression to feelings of joy, pain, wonderment, awe, before different realities we all face in the world. Since a Christian worldview is the lens through which a Christian views all of reality, however, I don´t see how it is possible to write poetry as a faithful Christian without reflecting in one´s writing– if only indirectly– worldview assumptions that are distinctively Christian, as opposed to worldview assumptions that are nihilistic, atheistic, and pagan. There is a world of difference between Milton´s “On His Blindness” and Henley´s “Invictus” or between Donne´s “Death Be Not Proud” and Thomas “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in terms of basic worldview assumptions. Such assumptions cannot remain hidden; they inevitably find expression in how one views and responds to life´s joys and pains.

    With regard to the flood narrative of the Gilgamesh epic, the following article outlines the differences between the Genesis flood narrative and the Sumerian, and points out that there is no reason to assume that the earlier date of the Sumerian writing means that the Genesis account is derived from it. If the Jews passed on by oral tradition over generations the true account of the flood, which the Sumerians corrupted in accordance with their apostate polytheistic worldview, it is not at all surprising that one would find both similarities and differences between the two narratives. In that case, the Mosaic narrative can be seen as the true account of the flood, though written later than the Sumerian, for it is based on carefully preserved oral tradtion and devoid of the fanciful embellishments and corruptions found in the earlier written Sumerian account. https://www.icr.org/article/noah-flood-gilgamesh/

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Do you actually think that “The Institute for Creation Research” is an intellectually serious enterprise? A group that argues for Young-Earth creationism, the rejection of ANY evolution (plant, animal, or human), and the utter literal infallibility of the Bible in every last word? Even William Jennings Bryan admitted that the creation of the earth might have taken “millions of years.”

      The German theologian Karl Barth once said that some American Protestants turned the Bible “into a paper Pope.” Even a Roman Catholic cardinal in the Renaissance said, in relation to fundamentalist absurdities, the following: “The Bible tells us how to get to Heaven. It doesn’t tell us how the heavens move.”

      Let me rewrite one of your sentences, Mr. Rizley:

      I don’t see how it is possible to write poetry as a faithful Communist without reflecting in one’s writing–if only indirectly–worldview assumptions that are distinctively Communist, as opposed to worldview assumptions that are capitalist, imperialist, and oppressive.

      So we have to be fanatical partisans for our religious and political opinions in every word we write? Is that realistic? Is that what great poets have done over the centuries? Were they all just good little mouthpieces for their worldviews? Or did they have the full freedom of fictive mimesis to write as they chose, without having some scriptural fact-checker looking over their shoulder?

      Gilgamesh predates Genesis. There isn’t a serious scholar of Sumerian or Babylonian who thinks otherwise — unless, of course, he comes from Bob Jones University.

      • Martin Rizley

        The article I cite is indeed published on the ICR website, but its theme is not creationism; rather, it concerns the relation of ancient Sumerian flood myths with the Genesis account of the flood. I could have cited similar articles from other web websites that take the same position, including some conservative Roman Catholic websites, such as the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, which says the following about the Babylonian flood account: “Because of the striking resemblances between the two (i.e., the biblical and Babylonian flood narratives) many maintain that the Biblical account is derived from the Babylonian. But the differences are so many and so important that this view must be pronounced untenable. The Scriptural story is a parallel and independent form of common tradition.” (https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11088a.htm)

        Would you attribute that statement from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia to the influence of “low-church Protestant fundamentalists” on Roman Catholic scholars? Because they take the very same view concerning the independence of the Genesis flood narrative from the Babylonian narrative as that promoted by the Institute of Creation Research.

        One does not have to subscribe to a view of poetry as purely didactic, ideological or moralistic in function to disagree with the view promoted by the Aesthetic movement– that art exists for the sake of beauty alone. The writers I mentioned above, Milton and Donne, certainly had a sense of aesthetics, but they did not divorce the pursuit of beauty in poetry from the pursuit of the true and the good.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Mr. Rizley, what exactly does your quote from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia say? Basically this:

        Because of the many similarities, some say that the Biblical account of Noah’s flood in Genesis is derived from the Babylonian. But the differences are so many that this view is untenable.

        That’s not an argument. That’s an unbacked statement of opinion. So is the assertion that “The Scriptural story is a parallel and independent form of common tradition.”

        Lots of different people express opinions and make assertions. But in this particular case the Hebrew tradition is late, and the Sumerian-Babylonian traditions are nearly a millennium earlier. Moreover, since the physical evidence of the clay tablets predates the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, it cannot be logically argued that the Babylonians picked up the story of Noah (and debased or corrupted it) from their Jewish captives. Furthermore, if (as the encyclopedia suggests) both the Genesis account and the Gilgamesh epic are variants from some common lost source, then the Genesis account is equally shown to be derivative, and not original.

        You ask about Roman Catholic scholars following the lead of Low-Church Protestants. Quite honestly, that does happen. Low-Church Protestant thinking is rooted in America’s psychological DNA, and American Catholics are not immune. I often refer to such Catholics as “the Ultramontane Branch Office of the Southern Baptists.” They also have Young-Earth Creationists who think that fossils were planted by Satan to mislead us.

        By the way, have you read any of John Donne’s sexual poems? They are quite fine. Perhaps you can tell us how they suggest “the pursuit of the true and the good.” I won’t ask you about Rochester, Swinburne, and Robbie Burns.

      • Martin Rizley

        Dr. Salemi,
        I have to admit you are right in what you say about Donne. Certainly, there is nothing inherently un-Christian about poetry that celebrates love between the sexes. After all, God made sex and there is an entire book of the Bible, the Song of Solomon, that affirms the purity of erotic love in marriage and the sensual delight that lovers take in each other´s bodies. But it is always possible for gifted poets to cross over into the realm of the salaciously pornographic; and great poets have been guilty of doing that. That is, no doubt, why Donne´s most scandalous poem, “Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed” was omitted from the first published edition of his poems; it was censored, apparentlly because it was considered too lewd and voyeuristic.

        For some proponents of aestheticism, however, there is no line that can be crossed, for poetic creation, as long as it is executed skillfully, is devoid of moral boundaries and devoid of any moral function whatsoever. The poet has no obligation to promote the good and true along with the beautiful. That is where I disagree. I don´t think poetry needs to be preachy; but I believe poets should avoid catering to the lecherous imagination through language and imagery that is deliberately lascivious in nature. If one takes issue with that by saying there are no moral boundaries in poetry whatsoever, then how is one supposed to distinguish between art and pornography?

        By the way, I don´t know what creationist literature you have read, but I have never read any creationist writer who believes that fossils were “created by Satan to deceive us.”

      • Paul W Erlandson

        John Donne’s sexual poems are MARVELOUS!

        I know the comment wasn’t directed at me, but I absolutely CAN tell you how they suggest “the pursuit of the true and the good.” It’s not even hard to do.

        On a related topic (if you have time and the inclination) I’d be interested to see how Puritanical you find a few of my Christian worldview paintings. You can get to my art website via my profile here, I think. If you do, please look for “Dark Benediction” and “Spiritus Ubi Vult Spirtat.” The latter is my depiction of John 3:8. To me (and many Christians) these are “Christian worldview” paintings. There is certainly a difference between painting (or writing poetry) from a Christian worldview and the production of Christian propaganda.

        To others, (including my parents, alas) my paintings are unalloyed pornography.

        In any case, thanks for spurring this interesting discussion!

      • Mike Bryant

        Paul, I am no scholar of the Scriptures but your interpretation of John 3:8 is the most memorable that I’ve encountered.

      • Paul W Erlandson

        Mike Bryant … thank you. I always hope that my paintings will make some sort of impression. Generally speaking, as a response to my paintings, I’ll take an angry glare ahead of a yawn.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Paul, WOW!! You are most certainly a talented artist – your paintings are breathtaking. I am a church secretary responsible for the design of the bulletins – “Spiritus Ubi Vult Spirtat”, the depiction of John 3:8, would go perfectly with next Sunday’s sermon… with your approval, of course. 😉

      • Paul W Erlandson

        Hi, Susan …

        Thank you for the very kind words about my paintings. They are much appreciated!

        I’m pretty sure you’re joking about the church bulletin thing, but in case you are not, the answer is Yes … and I would gladly provide a higher resolution image of the painting.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Paul, the fact that your response to Dr. Salemi’s essay has sent us to your obvious talent and skill in painting is a wonderful talking point that I cannot resist addressing. You say, “To others, (including my parents, alas) my paintings are unalloyed pornography.” I don’t happen to think that, although I wouldn’t print the marvel I mentioned in a church bulletin. The point is, talent should be evident to all when tastes are brushed aside. As for morals and whether or not something is suitable for publication or exhibition, I think it should be left up to the venue. I agree with Mr. Rizley on moral boundaries… but, when it’s a tyrannical government that wants to control every aspect of our lives, that’s when the problems occur – the setting of those boundaries becomes draconian and blurred, which is where we’re at today.

      • Paul W Erlandson

        Susan,

        You wrote (yesterday): “I agree with Mr. Rizley on moral boundaries… but, when it’s a tyrannical government that wants to control every aspect of our lives, that’s when the problems occur – the setting of those boundaries becomes draconian and blurred, which is where we’re at today.”

        In a happy coincidence, I just stumbled across this quote from J Gresham Machen (a hero of mine):

        “In other words, utilitarianism is being carried out to its logical conclusions; in the interests of physical well-being the great principles of liberty are being thrown ruthlessly to the winds.”

        “The result is an unparalleled impoverishment of human life. Personality can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted.”

        – J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Liberalism”, 1923

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Paul, your amazing J. Gresham Machen quote prompted me to download his book “Christianity and Liberalism”. I have been soaking up his every word like a sponge. Although it was written in 1923, it could very well apply to this day and age. It explains a lot. It begs the question, how on earth could we have let such evil slither between the pews without stamping it out?

    • Paul W Erlandson

      Martin,

      I agree with what you’ve written here, with regard to poetry and the Christian worldview. Thanks for your comments.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        To Paul Erlandson —

        I’m not the best judge of painting. You should seek out the opinion of Sally Cook, an artist of high stature and long years of experience. She posts work here at the SCP.

        I will say this — some of those broads in your pictures are HOT.

  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe S., I have read your essay with interest and have returned several times to this point:

    If we accept that a poem is a beautiful fictive artifact, or what Don Paterson calls “just a little machine for remembering itself,” we are liberated from the shackles of this dreary fundamentalism. Poems aren’t obliged to teach us or tell us anything. Or if they do so, it happens as an afterthought to their literary perfection.

    I agree with you that “poems aren’t obliged to teach us or tell us anything” but, I’m not sure I agree with “If they do so, it happens as an afterthought to their literary perfection.” What if the poet doesn’t want to concentrate on the “fictive” aspect of a poem? What if the poet, as Mr. Rizley suggests, wants to “hold up a mirror to life in all its kaleidoscopic beauty, magnifying some aspect of human experience in such a way as to deepen the reader´s sensibility to nature, to life, to the human condition, and to one´s historical and cultural environment.” What if the poet wants to bring the truth to light and uses literary device such as form and figures of speech to do just that? In other words, the literary perfection isn’t an afterthought, but a means to get the truth out there poetically.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Susan —

      Of course, any poet is free to do whatever he or she likes. You may want your poem to be primarily informative, or didactic, or descriptive, or provocative, or sarcastic. I think most of us here at the SCP manage to do each of those things every so often, and many other things as well. That’s poetic freedom, and this is one of the few places on the poetic internet where such freedom is possible.

      So I don’t question Mr. Rizley’s right (or yours) to write a poem that wants to express a particular truth or belief or worldview. Just because my main concern is the structure and form of a poem primarily doesn’t mean that my way is the only way to go. I happen to think that overly didactic poems are painfully dull, but that’s no matter. I’m sure there are plenty of people who can’t stand my work.

      What I object to most vigorously is the attitude (it can be political, or it can be religious, or it can be philosophical) that I or any other poet is required to follow a certain Party Line in composition. It’s the noxious notion that I am under some obligation to tailor my work in ways that make it acceptable and kosher, and that my religious or political or ethnic or social identity must be custom-checked by my tribal readers to make sure I’m not saying or doing anything that doesn’t comport with my socio-religious passport. I’m a Roman Catholic, but I can write whatever the hell kind of poems I please, regardless of what other Roman Catholics say.

      This is what I was referring to when I said that “a serious study of poetry has to be divorced from both religion and morality.” If I write in pure fictive mimesis, or if I write with strict adherence to literal fact, my compositions should not have to pass some kind of moral, religious, or political test. They should just be judged on how well they are put together, and how effective they are as poems.

      I also think that serious literary critics should be able to judge the worth of a poem not on its “message” or “meaning,” but on its poetic excellence or lack thereof. The inability of many Americans to do this is what I meant by “A Major Problem.”

      Let me put in a very pithy manner: “When someone talks about Truth, Beauty, Morality, Goodness, Piety, and Virtue, reach for your wallet and hold on tight. He’s out to manipulate you.”

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Joe S., thank you very much for answering my questions. Your explanation makes perfect sense. I am with you all the way on the freedom front. To steal a word from you, poets should be able to write ‘fearlessly’ and I am most grateful to the SCP for providing a platform for all of us to do just that. And, yes, ‘serious literary critics should be able to judge the worth of a poem not on its “message” or “meaning,” but on its poetic excellence or lack thereof’. An honest critic will always acknowledge the craft first… a mere observer is free to like or dislike on whatever grounds. When commenting, it might benefit us all to take note of the skill in producing the piece before we wade in on the emotional front.

  9. James A. Tweedie

    I am much amused by the give and take in the response to this most provocative essay. My amusement stems from the realization that I both agree and disagree with just about everyone!

    This, I suppose, makes me a bit of a libertarian who believes that good poetry can be written by low church Protestants as well as high church Roman Catholics or just about anybody else, for that matter–and on any subject the poet may feel moved to write about, whether biblical creation, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the experience of feeling “strangely warmed,” grim reckonings along the lines of Wilde, Poe, Burns or Blake, or clever, witty erotica topped off with rhyming, rhythmic, rapturous references to beer and piss. To each his/her own and what tickles your fancy may not necessarily tickle mine.

    For me, Eliot (for example) is like the parson’s egg where parts of it are excellent as is nearly all of Shakespeare and some of Blake. But I see no reason to impose my feelings and reasoning on everyone else.

    Poetry, like music, is expansive in both form and content. I do not insist that true and proper music must be diatonic or framed in Baroque forms or cannot be dismissed as being good and proper if it swings and clashes in impenetrable riffs and seemingly random harmonies of contemporary jazz. In this way poetry and music are also akin insofar as you either like what you hear or you don’t. I don’t happen to like Milton’s extended blank verse because I find it verbose, pedantic and boring. Homer, however, in nearly any translation I may pick up, has the exact opposite effect as does Roland and Dante.

    As for Dante’s four points of poetry, I do believe I can ascribe to each and all of them–as long as they are well expressed and my fancy is tickled.

    • Joe Tessitore

      I seek the Truth and when I’m privileged to find it, I cling to it.
      When I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with everyone I wonder if it isn’t all smoke and mirrors, and if he for whom smoke and flame are constant companions is very near at hand.
      When I find myself using the word “rapturous” in reference to beer and piss, then I know that I have been badly misled and I again reach for the Truth – thump, thump, thump.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Now I lay me down to sleep
        To avoid some dip-shit creep
        Who seems to think that drinking beer
        Is something nice folks ought to fear,
        And pissing in a chamber-pot
        Means you’ll share in Satan’s lot.

      • Joe Tessitore

        Dear Sally,

        Are those insults or adjectives?

        What do you think about “some of those broads in your pictures are HOT.”?

      • Joe Tessitore

        Are you going to advise Paul to make his broads more or less hot?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      What’s the matter, Joe T? Don’t you think some girls are hot? Or is it just something you don’t like to mention out loud?

      • Joe Tessitore

        Lame, really no come-back at all.
        Calm down and try again.
        I know you can do better.

      • Joe Tessitore

        So why’d you back away from “broads”, Joe?
        Only cowards back away.
        Did you have second thoughts about offending every woman in the Society?
        Do you think they’re too stupid to remember?

      • Joe Tessitore

        I know – thoughts of Andrew Cuomo dancing in your head!
        You really are scared!

      • Paul W Erlandson

        The term “broads” is an obvious pejorative … just saying. It is belittling to women.

        How embarrassing for you, Mr. Salemi.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Mike, this link proves that the CDC is no longer an institution that is concerned in any way, shape, or form with health and disease. It is a purely political enterprise dealing in government-sponsored propaganda, groupthink, and brainwashing. Since when do doctors and medical personnel tell you what kind of language you have to use?

      The CDC is now modeled on the Propaganda Bureau of Dr. Josef Goebbels.

  10. Mike Bryant

    I wonder how concerned God Himself is that each and every belief in the minds of believers might not align perfectly with the current accepted scholarship.
    1 Corinthians chapter 1
    Who among us really understands the mind of God?

    • Sally Cook

      We humans tend to forget that God is actually smarter than we are.
      Mike Hope you and Susan are escaping the edges of the storm, but I fear for George’s sanity.

      • Mike Bryant

        Thank you, Sally. Ida was a very compact hurricane, and though we aren’t too far away from New Orleans, we haven’t experienced high winds or any rain at all. I feel for New Orleans, but I am thrilled to have missed the excitement. As for George, he’s always a little quirky, storm or no storm. He just walked up to me purring up a storm of his own. I think he knew we were talking about him. Really, what’s more spiritual than a cat?

  11. Sally Cook

    Joe –
    I have rarely seen such a gaggle of equivocation, side issues, and blather in response to what I consider a truly reasonable approach to poetry. In fact, I have always considered the various elements of writing a poem, and actually thought most poets did.
    How else might someone write something worth reading?
    Thanks, Joe – I fear your adjectives may have stepped on some fundamentalist toes.

    • Sally Cook

      And to Joe Tessitore — honestly, who casres if Joe S. or anyone else uses the word broad? Have we all become such wimps that we have choked down the PC
      nonsense wholesale? If so, literature will suffer.
      Suffer, Joe T., —and I am serious.
      Having not seen the paintings in question, I cannot comment on their hotness. But I do look forward to seeing them, and
      certainly there have been paintings of hot loadie/broads down the years. You don’t have to look at them and neither do I.
      I once copied theat large canvas of gang rape called “Rape of the Sabines”, causing great consternation among all my relatives, who were sure I would come to a bad end.
      Of course, I was seven years old, had no idea what I was looking at, or drawing, and they shouldn’t have left that book lying around.
      By the way, Joe T., that is a very beautiful vase you have there. Can you give me the dimensions, and the manner in which iot is signed? Yoiu may be in for a very pleasant financial surprise.
      In case you missed it, I repeat:
      . Joe S. –
      I have rarely seen such a gaggle of equivocation, side issues, and blather in response to what I consider a truly reasonable
      approach to poetry. In fact, I have always considered the various elements of writing a poem, and actually thought most poets did.
      How else might someone write something worth reading?
      Thanks, Joe – I fear your adjectives may have stepped on some fundamentalist toes.
      PS – Don’t think I’ve done too badly in spite of my bad beginnings.

      • Joe Tessitore

        Dear Sally,

        Thanks for getting back to me.
        As far as I can tell with the Dottore and me, it’s about trading insults – I’m not sure that their content matters all that much.
        I once used the line “What broad did they name Broadway after?” to poke fun at the intolerance myself.

        I’m up in the Catskills and the vase is down in The Land of the Walking Dead. I’ll send you a foto of the signature when we head back as well as it’s exact dimensions.
        A ballpark figure would be about a foot and a half tall.

  12. David B. Gosselin

    Excellent essay!

    The reference to Dante’s letter to Can Grande is a great window into Dante’s thinking, and a useful way of cutting through mound after mound of commentary by the many “Dantisti.”

    In his preface to Prometheus Bound, Shelley makes specific reference to Dante and his method:

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

    The more modern poets and aspiring writers study this tradition and take it seriously, the better their poetry will be. The same principles apply as much today as they did in any previous age.

    Good stuff.

  13. Paul Freeman

    Thanks for an, as always, thought-provoking read, Joe.

    I personally find that, just as you say, intransigent left and right standpoints and plugged agendas in poetry, as well as the trouncing and denouncing of any mildly alternative views, does detract from the enjoyment of poetry.

    Playing to a set audience will get you plaudits within that audience (as you say), but not much further.

    When done satirically, and/or as storytelling, rather than didactically, anyone can appreciate a beautifully written poem, even if they don’t agree totally with the message.

    Thanks again for another read that gets the old grey matter ticking over.

  14. Norma Okun

    Joseph, with all due respect I feel your essay does not address enough for me about what poetry is. Poetry to me is not like a fake individual who tries to show emotion over something he does not feel. Who tries to convince me that what he says meant something to him. I believe that Mary had a little lamb is precious because it was not meant to deceive, it was not meant to impress anyone. I believe poetry should be like a tree. Like me, see me in winter and remember me as I bloomed in spring. Poetry to me is a true way of feeling what things and objects do to you. It is not to impress anyone with technique and all rigmaroles. I honestly believe that you either wanted to impress with your technique or tell how affected you really are by what is there. Even if it is a simple poem as you call it, Mary Had a Little Lamb is just as good as the idea that if someone were to understand the flower, one would understand everything. We want one thing to mean everything. As the motto of the United States says, One from many.

  15. Mike Bryant

    One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.
    The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that we no longer need You. We’re at the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, we don’t need you here anymore, you can go your way ”
    God listened very patiently and kindly to the man. After the scientist was done talking, God said, “Very well, how about this? Let’s say we have a man-making contest?”
    To which the scientist replied, “Okay, great!”
    But God added, “Now, we’re going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.”
    The scientist said, “Sure, no problem,” and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.
    God looked at him and said, “No, no! You have to make your own dirt!”

  16. Joseph S. Salemi

    Tessitore, why don’t you grow the hell up?

    Nobody’s “backing away” from the word “broads.” There are plenty of nice broads here at the SCP. Some of my best friends are broads. I’m sure several of the broads at this place are HOT broads. The world is filled with plenty of HOT BROADS. OK now?

    The fact that you felt compelled to post three separate answers in a row only shows that you’re the one who can’t make a quick comeback. Those three short spurts are an objective correlative for you sputtering and choking.

    You think I’m scared? Of what? Of a two-bit pussycat like you? That’s really laughable.

    Mr. Erlandson, “broads” may be a pejorative word to politically correct lemmings (are you one of those, perchance?) but I really couldn’t give a rat’s ass if it is. I’ll use it whenever I want. What’s embarrassing for you is that you are parroting feminist talking points.

    And Joe T. — what happened? After Erlandson made his small post, you didn’t respond in your usual way, by saying “Marvelous! Wonderful” Amazing, Colossal! Great!” What happened, Joe? Did you lose your script? Or did you just run out of adjectives?

    • Paul W Erlandson

      Mr. Salemi …

      Without a doubt, you are one of the most vile, unpleasant individuals I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter.

      I know, I know … you don’t give a rat’s ass.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Thanks for answering my question, Paul. You ARE a politically correct lemming who parrots feminist talking points. Mille grazie for setting the record straight.

  17. Sally Cook

    Joe S, you are obviously a savage, a throwback, and insult to all WIMMIN, and a thoroughly terrible man. Would you kiss your mother with that mouth?
    Well, that’s where we are today.
    Personally, I take pride in the fact that even with a cane and a limp I can still pick up guys in the Save-A-Lot, intend to remain a hot broad till my toes turn up, and I love you.
    After all the careful work of Mr. Shakespeare, we are stuck in a toxic mudpuddle. Please pray, as I know you do, for the future of civilization.
    Wonderful ! Terrific!
    Goodnight sweet prince.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Sally! You are one helluva a broad!

  18. D.G. Rowe

    Hallo, Mr Salemi.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to put out an other quality
    essay for the likes as such as I to find learning from. Cheers, mate.
    You suffer no fools, I like that in you, you seem to be a proper Geezer ( I use that word in the London English vernacular, not the American usage, if you know what I mean )

    Allow me to waffle on here, and apologies for any un-relevant tangents.

    I am a fair novice and beginner in the task of crafting Poetry, and also, I suppose, in the diligent reading of Poetry, having only been doing both of these things on weekly basis for the last 5-6 years, I am 40 years of age, prior to this change in reading and writing habits my poetic indulgence only went so far as reading Kipling and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales on the oft occasion. Writing it was a rare thing and only used on said rare occasions when I felt it necessary, I found my self attempting to pull a Bird and hopefully woo her socks off. Didn’t happen much, but that’s by the by.

    Anyhow, I digress, let try an explain and hope I keep it relevant to the essay.

    After 5 years of diligent heavy reading of Poetry, finding what I like and don’t like I am now confident in saying that I concur with these statements from Swinburne ( In the reading I have done, so far, of all the poets I have exposed my self to; I hold Swinburne to be the poet above all poets )

    Here are the statements:
    “Mere descriptive poetry of the prepense and and formal kind is exceptionally if not proverbially liable to incur and to deserve the charge of dullness: it is unnecessary to emphasise or obtrude the personal note, the presence or the emotion of a spectator, but it is necessary to make it felt and keep it perceptible if the poem is to have life in it or even a right to live…”

    And this, that I paraphrase more than quote truly, cos I can’t find the actual statement, my apologies, but he says pretty much this.
    ” The first job of a poet is to sing…”

    The second statement is what I have found my self using as a yard stick for my ultimate enjoyment when reading poetry.

    I can in no way connect rigidly to the religious sentiments expressed quite often in the poetry of Christina Rossetti (I am Religious/Spiritual but not of the Abrahamic creeds), and quite frankly I care not if I do, it is of no concern to me except in a contained objective thoughtful moment after the fact of reading, and only after I’ve read the poem multiple times. I read Miss Rossetti avidly not because of her pious musings and subservience to her God, but because she sings, her craftmanship is exquisitely good.

    I apply the same to the reading Dylan Thomas, he is a great favourite of mine, and an influence no doubt.
    I understand the problem that people have with Thomas, the charge of writing nonsensical verse, and that his meanings are, for quite a large part, baffling.
    Unfortunately he died too young to improve and become a more lucid poet, though this he was evidently achieving in the poetry he crafted from ’44 till his death, essentially the second half of Deaths and Entrances and what became collected in In Country Sleep and Other Poems.
    But, the sheer uplifting joy and magic of Thomas’s musical craftmanship is bleeding superb, his ear is exemplary, I think second to none since the turn of the 20th Century, in what I’ve read my self, anyhow.

    Please forgive if I’m not concluding these ramblings with a cogent point. But what I’m trying to convey here is that I think craftmanship and song is by far the more important factor in poetry than whatever the poet is attempting to offer in the way meaning or didacticism or whatever else.

    I will finish with asking this of you.
    When one talks of Lyrical poetry or Lyricism in a poem do you accept that this means the poem has a certain high quality of song, of cadence, of rhythm, of general uplifting prosodic musicality and can be applied to any poem of any subject matter; or do you only accept the epithet of Lyrical/Lyricism applied to poems that carp on about personal feelings.?

    Once again, Mr Salemi thank you for the Essays, being a Geezer, and if you’ve sat through my meanderings here, cheers also.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear D.G. Rowe —

      Thank you for your kind words. If your taste in poetry runs from Chaucer to Kipling to C. Rossetti to Swinburne to Dylan Thomas, you have a truly “catholic” appreciation of English literature.

      Concerning your question, the term “lyric” or “lyrical,” when applied to poetry, usually refers to a specific genre. Traditionally it meant short, emotionally intense pieces that were to be sung (accompanied by the “lyre,” or some other musical instrument), and the meters were varied rather than fixed. Today, however, that strict definition has become blurred. What you say about “song” and “general uplifting prosodic musicality” still applies, but “lyric” poetry now often just seems to mean the emotionally intense self-revelation of personal feelings. Since a great deal of modern Garbage Poetry seems to be of this type, I generally try to avoid the term “lyric” or “lyrical.”

      This modern idea of “lyric” and “lyrical” is spreading like ink from a disturbed squid, and is poisoning all poetic endeavor. An American critic, Dana Gioia, has actually said that all poems today, regardless of subject matter or aim, should have “a lyric frisson.” In other words, make your poem sound emotionally intense and from the heart, even if it is a simple narrative or a scabrous limerick.

      What you seem to be driving at in your penultimate paragraph is perhaps better called “intensity.” Every really good poem should be intense, in that it should use language at what metalworkers call “the white-hot range.” This doesn’t necessarily mean spectacularly over-the-top or freaked out and imbued with raw feeling (which is what many Mainstream Mediocre poems aspire to be), but simply powerfully wrought and intricately crafted. Swinburne and C. Rossetti are good examples of this, which is probably why they are favorites of yours.

      • D.G. Rowe

        Rightio, pal. Cheers for that.

        I was having the same concerns with the term ” Lyric” and “Lyrical”. I made the error, in the past, of subscribing to the two main poetry journals here in England; PN Review and Poetry Society, and there was all this talk of Lyric in this poem and lyrical in that poem on and on… then I’d read the said poem, and, well, not much poetry forthcoming. And I wondered what the bleeding hell they were getting at bruiting about those terms wholey and applying it to such insipidness. As apposed to what I assumed it was in the traditional sense. I will take your lead and hold back from using the epithet, I agree. Cheers.

        Thank you for that last paragraph, and the useful similitude of the metal-workers jargon. Yes, hits the nail, cheers.

        Cheers for the “catholic” approbation regarding my tastes. I take is as a compliment, and rightly so, well and truly.

        Anyhow, dear chap, all the best.

  19. Joe Tessitore

    Why is there always so much to wade through when you post something?
    In any event, I grow weary, Little Brother; it’s time for my nap.
    But before I leave:

    Two old bellowing bulls at the rut.
    See how well they do posture and strut.
    See them butting their heads,
    See their faces turn red
    As they both wind up flat on their butts.

    Clean up those stray s’s for me and maybe we’ll have something.

  20. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this essay, especially good poems being compared to a collection of magnificent eighteenth-century snuffboxes seen in France – the images portrayed are exquisite.

    I don’t agree with everything Dr. Salemi says in the comment section, especially when he says, “even miracles have to have a modicum of plausibility.” How can raising someone from the dead, turning water into wine, feeding the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, walking on water, restoring and healing a severed ear… etc. etc. have even “a modicum of plausibility”? I also happen to believe some poetry has an element of spirituality… a touch of the supernatural… a breath of something other to lift the words from the page to realms of the real. I believe words have the power to do many things… heal, inspire, destroy. For me, some poetry isn’t ‘fictive’. It may appear to be, in all its ornate and aesthetically appealing glory, but sometimes, it isn’t only the imagination that has played a part in its creation. I also think no human being holds the definitive explanation for the creative process. But, that’s only my point of view and it isn’t from an intellectual standpoint. It’s from a poet’s standpoint.

    It’s been a real privilege to hear differing viewpoints – viewpoints I’ve learned from, viewpoints that make me consider my poems, and the way I go about creating them, in greater detail. One thing I do agree with – words such as “broad” shouldn’t be removed from our vocabulary. In a world where freedoms are being eroded quicker than we can keep up with, people should be encouraged to speak out, even if the language offends – being offended is the side effect of freedom, and I would much rather be offended than have mouths zipped.

    • Paul W Erlandson

      Just to be clear, Susan, I never called for the removal of “broad” from our vocabulary.

      If people want to use words that reduce women from immortal souls, glorious images of God, to a single physical characteristic, that is their right.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Paul, I understand – it all boils down to this: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The trouble is, these days many are outraged by words while heinous deeds bypass them as if they were a spring breeze. While stabbings, rape, acid attacks, terrorist attacks etc. are becoming commonplace on British and European streets, the powers that be are more concerned with being politically correct in the reporting of and dealing with these evil crimes than the vile acts themselves. I sincerely believe our anger is often focused in the wrong area… by design, I’m certain.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Really, Paul? And yet you’re the one drawing the dirty pictures of half-naked women.

        What mealy-mouthed hypocrisy.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        … I would also like to add, the polished veneer of flattery from charming, well mannered men has done me far more harm in my life than the earthy talk from a true heart.

      • Sally Cook

        Have you no sense of proportion?
        Worse yet — have you no sense of humor?

      • Paul W Erlandson

        Hi, Ms. Cook …

        Everyone fancies he has a sense of humor, but no one is (I think) able to adequately prove that to a skeptic.

        But my sense of proportion is beyond reproach. A brief look at some of the “HOT broads” I have painted will relieve your mind on this matter.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Yeah, the “proportions” on those broads look pretty good.

  21. Joe Tessitore

    Dear Susan,

    No one, as far as I have seen, has suggested that anyone else be silenced.

    I believe that free speech and license are two different things, and that the self-proclaimed sniper of this page hides behind free speech to unleash his vehemence, contempt and disdain.
    Years ago, Mr. MacKenzie described this as a calling to “examine the dark, underside of things” which I believe is, in fact, a “Major Problem”, as opposed to a calling to the Christian world view.

    Simply put, a calling to the darkness, or a calling to the light.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Tessitore, you’re such a pompous hypocritical ass that it defies belief.

      I’ve never tried to censor anybody or anything here at the SCP. But YOU are the one who is always sniping at anything I say. I can’t say “broad.” I can’t say “hot.” I can’t say “put out” or “contemptible.” I can’t say “piss” or “chamber-pot.” I can’t say anything that might offend your grandkids.

      Who the hell do you think you are? The Novus Ordo thought police? And stop spouting the Manichaean bullshit about “light” and “darkness.” You sound like Savonarola.

  22. Sally Cook

    PS – My last post was for Mr. Erlandson, Susan and Joe, not either of you. Sorry – should have included a salutation.