. Many years ago I gave a talk at a scholarly conference at Queens College, C.U.N.Y. My section of the conference was dedicated to contemporary translation, and the bulk of the papers presented were deadly dull rehashes of critical theory (as is usually the case at academic events of this type). The majority of the audience was nearly asleep by the time I rose to read my paper. I spoke on “The Translation of Offensive Material,” while distributing handouts of some of the most scabrous and improper epigrams of the Roman satirist Martial, and of the comically indecent Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, along with my English translations of the same. Wow, did the audience wake up! They laughed, they came to attention, they buzzed with excitement, and of course a few of the tight-assed types got up and left in high dudgeon. The atmosphere became electric as I discussed the work of Martial and Poggio, and the kind of literary obscenity that existed in the Roman Empire, and in Renaissance Italy. All sorts of enthusiastic comments and questions came up. When I finished speaking, there was a rush of people to the lectern to ask me for extra copies of my handouts. It’s a small example, but it indicates something: even academics (the dullest and least imaginative people on earth) respond to that which is exciting and titillating. Every audience wants to be entertained and intrigued, not bored stiff. Certain persons have complained that my choice of subject matter for poems leans towards the unpleasant, the repulsive, the obscene, and the violent. Someone even suggested that I am only interested in “the dark, vile underside of things.” Well, I certainly deny that—anyone who has perused my books knows that I touch on religious and mystical subjects, historical oddities, political and ideological issues, aesthetic questions, eroticism, comical japes, and of course satirical targets. But I will agree on one thing: I always try my best to be interesting and fascinating, and that might explain why some of my poems tend to get under the skin of certain straitlaced readers. How so? Well, let’s be honest here. If you write poems that are exclusively child-friendly, celebratory, nice, heart-warming, happy, and festooned with birthday-party streamers and dotted with Smiley-Face buttons, then my work is certainly not going to be to your taste. But I also think that you’re not going to have many readers for your work, except among pietistic types and the geriatric set. When it comes to subject matter, most readers are drawn to that which is strange, edgy, unorthodox, nerve-wracking, and unusual. They want to hear about some fact they may never have been aware of, or an event that has been dredged up from distant history. They enjoy a bit of violence and sex, and straight-from-the-shoulder hard narration from an unafraid poet. They like poetry that lashes out against received bien-pensant thinking, that shocks and titillates them with its honesty and fearlessness, and that makes them sit up at attention rather than snooze silently in their seats. That’s why poems on unpleasant subjects often have a head start over the safe and predictable ones that are written in the tedious boilerplate of a syrupy Hallmark Card. Readers like the crack of a whip, not the soporific motion of a rocking chair. To understand how that which is objectively ugly or unpleasant can be incorporated into a work of art, it is instructive to look at a traditional element in Chinese culture: the Foo dogs. Foo dogs (sometimes called shishi or guardian stone lions) are paired sculptures, one male and one female, that are placed at the entrance of a home as symbols of protection and stability. Each statue represents a lion of the strangest, wildest, and most terrifying appearance, the purpose of which is to frighten away evil spirits or any other negative influences with their savage ferocity. The Chinese artist who produces a pair of Foo dogs is faced with a thorny aesthetic problem—how does one create two figures that have all the repulsive unpleasantness of threatening and dangerous beasts, while at the same time making a work of art that is nevertheless pleasing to the human eye, and evocative of the visual delight that we expect from a fine sculpture? Foo dogs can be made of stone, wood, ceramic, metal, resin, and very fine ones are of polished jade. Expertly crafted Foo dogs do two things: they fascinate the viewer with the strange and uncanny image of monsters out of a nightmare, but they also fulfill his aesthetic desire for balance, symmetry, harmony, and control. Another example would be the famous Laocoön statue in the Vatican, which shows the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two young sons being killed and devoured by serpents. It is a terrifying image, but one which the sculptor has made so compellingly beautiful that viewers simply cannot keep their eyes off it. A more abstractly precise instance is the Roman Dionysus mosaic discovered near the cathedral in Cologne, Germany—it depicts the god with various wild beasts, in all of their frenzy and fury, but each beast in the mosaic is framed by perfectly squared and elegantly arranged quadrangles, as if its natural ferocity were subdued by the purely human impulse to bracket the slovenliness of nature into straight-edged and delineated cubicles of mathematically precise dimensions. When I first saw the Dionysus mosaic, this counterpoint staggered me. And that is what lies behind the Chinese Foo dogs. They are meant to be frightening, unpleasant, nightmarish, and upsetting. That’s how they scare off evil spirits from a house. Their job is to be apotropaic talismans that keep away bad luck. But the job of the artist (like a medieval sculptor carving a garish gargoyle) is to overcome the intrinsic ugliness of the subject by using all of his native skill and command of learned technique to make something an aesthetic delight to the eye. My maternal grandparents had a set of Foo dogs that sat on the top of a cabinet of books. As a small child, whenever I stayed at their home I spent much time gazing in wonder at these strange beasts, utterly fascinated by their vivid colors, their unearthly shape, and their unfathomable mystery. I was in fact afraid of them (which is precisely what the Foo dogs were supposed to accomplish!) but I was also in love with the perfection of their form and design. What is done in these visual arts is also done in literature. The sanguinary slaughterhouse of Book V of the Iliad presents us with all of that hand-to-hand killing embedded in the perfect hexameters of Homeric Greek. The shocking murders in Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are given to us in crystalline prose. What about the horrific pictures of hell and its demons painted by Milton? Or Wilfred Owen’s wrenching descriptions of death in the trenches? If you think that such poems are “not beautiful,” then your problem is the old one of thinking that poems are primarily about their subject matter, and that if the subject matter is not in accord with your bourgeois pieties, the poems can’t be good. Beauty in a work of art is not dependent on its subject! The head of the Gorgon Medusa can be beautiful, when it is painted by Caravaggio. An arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian is beautiful when engraved by Albrecht Dürer. All of which might be taken as an apologia for my own style and choices in poetry, but that was not my primary intention in this essay. My larger concern is to suggest that formal poets should take on subjects of a less saccharine and conventional type than they are wont to choose. And I don’t mean subjects that are simply politically controversial or polemical, but ones that have a real sexual, linguistic, or skeptical edge that upsets conventional bourgeois readers. The last thing formal poems should do is remind people of TV shows like Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Lawrence Welk. Poems of that nicey-nice sort only make us look ridiculous. Let’s get sexier, and a little tougher. . . 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.