.

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.

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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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19 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    Quite obviously, it is good to fight evil. We know there are many ways to do this.
    So why do so many acquiesce to it?
    The arts are a good battlefield, but when we hear it at the door too many of us think if we ignore its scratching, it will go away. We may see ourselves too high-minded; others may think virtue-signaling is the better choice. There are dozens of reasons for ignoring the wolf; he knows them all, and licks his chops.
    I am no intellectual, but I am a creative. As such, all I can do is tell you what I believe.
    Any individual attempting to increase good is worthy of respect.
    There are many ways of causing evil, some very subtle. As individuals it is up to us to confront them and root them out.
    It is never enough to complain without investigating the underlying reasons of another’s reasonsl That’s how you learn.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Well, I’m not sure how this applies to my essay on Foo dogs. My basic point is that any subject can be treated in poetry, even unpleasant, ugly, or salacious ones, but no matter what subject a poet chooses he must make his fictive artifact attractive and fascinating. It’s not an issue of morality, but of aesthetics.

      Reply
  2. Paul Freeman

    In reference to the first part of your essay, Joseph, I’ve noticed that most academics who teach Chaucer (part of the problem is they believe Chaucer belongs to them), when pushed, will admit the bawdy Miller’s Tale is their favourite, not one of Chaucer’s more pious offerings. The Miller’s Tale, I imagine, reawakens the juvenile, younger self in them.

    On to an anecdote to warm your heart. I often have work submitted to a monthly poetry site which has a different guest judge every 3 months. A particular judge was universally choosing free verse winners (and before you fly off at free verse, this is not always the case), so ‘to stick it to the man’, I arranged for my next submitted entry to be ‘The Miller’s Tale as Told by Dr Seuss’, not realising that the judge was about to change – she placed my poem first, leaving me (and I assume many readers of the site) rather gob-smacked. It also taught me a lesson – don’t be afraid to use words like ‘bum’ and ‘arse’ in your poems!

    I agree fully that we should experiment with subject matter that can make us feel uncomfortable. As always, thanks for an thoughtful read.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      When I was an undergraduate, the professor who taught us Chaucer would not even mention (much less discuss) the Miller’s Tale or the Wife of Bath’s Tale, or the one about the division of a fart. But that was at a Jesuit university.

      You never can tell about judges for poetry contests. I was one for many years, before submitters to the various competitions began to write letters of complaint to the sponsors, charging me with bigotry, Eurocentrism, elitism, misogyny, and all sorts of honorifics that I wear with pride.

      I think that we do have a problem with too many Hallmark-Card tendencies in the formalist movement. It’s as if the ghost of Anthony Comstock were still haunting us, making us shy away from “offensive” words and sexual situations and double entendres. It’s silly. I mean, nobody makes a dime from poetry. So why the hell should we be anxious about audience response?

      Reply
  3. C.B. Anderson

    Aw shucks, Joseph. I was hoping for a poem about puppies and kittens, not an essay about yuppies smitten by uncomfortable subjects. You know: the kind of poem I usually write.

    Reply
  4. D.G. Rowe

    Swinburne! Read him, and read him well, or continue to weep in one’s own tepidness.

    All you’ve postulated, Mr Salemi, is encapsulated and found in the literature of Swinburne.

    Cheers for another solid essay.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      See my essay on Swinburne and his poetry at Expansive Poetry Online:

      expansivepoetryonline.com/SalemiOnSwinburne.html

      Reply
      • D.G. Rowe

        Mr Salemi, to be crystal here, the first sentence in my post was not directed at your self, dear chap.
        It is me being facetious to the general readership, no malice intended.

        Yes. I have read it, and with great delight. Also I see you name-drop the man in a poem that was posted several weeks ago, a poem lamenting what you extrapolate on in the essay here. And seen you mention him very favourably in interviews
        I’ve read given by yourself.

        I have read all your essays, criticisms, polemics ect on the expansive poetry website, and elsewhere.
        For what it’s worth, I have learnt much from your writings.

        Cheers.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        D.G., no offense was taken, and I knew that what you said was not an attack on me. I’m just glad that we both share a love of Swinburne, even if the guy was into sadomasochistic stuff. Wow, did the man have poetic talent!

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe S., I love those Foo Dogs. Your use of their wonder to allude to poetry that matters rocks! Keep an eye out for my fabulous Foo Dog poetic delights… inspired by your highly entertaining essay. Thank you very much!

    Reply
  6. Mike Bryant

    Joe, I read that as a westerner was sleeping on the Great Wall of China a Foo Dog took a crap on his head. When he woke up he started to wipe it off but was stopped by the locals. When they left him alone, he did wipe the crap off his head and immediately died. If you haven’t already guessed… if the Foo shits… wear it!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Oh my God, Mike! Where did you hear that dopey old chestnut? It reminds me of a hoary, corny joke from the 1950s:

      A hungry man gets up at night to have a snack. He goes to his refrigerator and opens it. Inside he sees a live rabbit, stretched out on one of the shelves. He says to the rabbit, “What are you doing there?” The rabbit yawns and answers “Is this a Westinghouse?” The man says “Yes, that’s the brand name of this refrigerator.” The rabbit replies “Well, I’m westing.”

      In 1955, everyone thought that was hysterically funny. It shows you how the sense of humor changes over the decades!

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        Well, Joe, the joke I heard was about the foo bird of Africa… it was easily adapted to match your excellent essay. I read Asimov’s book of Jokes… all corny and I couldn’t stop laughing. I love stupid old jokes… I’m still laughing at the Westinghouse joke.
        When I went to the Doctor’s office with a bad cough, he asked me if I had lost my sense of taste, I said, “No, I always dress this way.”

      • C.B. Anderson

        Which brings to mind two separate ideas: good taste is timeless, and there’s no accounting for taste.

  7. Tamara B. Latham

    Joe, what an extremely enlightening essay you’ve written highlighting foo dogs. The information you provided made me take a second look at my Chinese feng shui bracelet and I noticed two foo dogs facing each other.

    I attended Queens College, C.U.N.Y back in the 80s, where I completed two graduate courses in organic chemistry there.

    You are a brilliant writer and your essays leave the reader wanting much more. I’m just elated I got the chance to read some of your work.

    Keep writing, you’re great!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Tamara —

      Thank you for your kind words. If your bracelet is a Feng Shui one, the two facing animals might be “kirin,” which are chimaera-like beasts, always in pairs. But they could be Foo Dogs. Feng Shui uses both types of creatures for symbolic purposes.

      Reply

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