.

There are a number of ways to go wrong in poetry. Unfortunately, the Poetry Establishment is only willing to admit the existence of a select few of them. The others are either kept under wraps, or disguised as acceptable options.

Let’s start with the common errors—that is, the ones that all the mainstream teachers and workshop jockeys agree upon, and which are therefore well known to pretty much everybody. These errors are lambasted and ridiculed so often that they are tatterdemalion scarecrows, universally familiar. Here goes:

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1. Using too many words when fewer would suffice. In general, yes, this is an error. Concision and pithiness are in most cases preferable to long-winded blather. Don’t be a Polonius.

2. Being overly dependent on adjectives. You can pull off multi-adjectival usage if you’re in the league of Francis Thompson, but in most other poets it’s a sign of self-indulgence and showiness.

3. Editorializing in an open and blatant manner. Unless you’re writing hard satire, this is to be avoided. It’s common sense not to be an earnest poltroon, straightforwardly orating to one’s readers.

4. Depending on abstract nouns rather than concrete images. As a rule of thumb, there’s little to argue with here. Too many abstractions swathe a poem in vagueness, and hamper the reader’s ability to visualize your language.

5. Employing extremely old-fashioned diction. Again, who could disagree? Using eftsoons, aught, methinks, or the older hath and doth conjugations is probably over the top.

.

The strictures against these errors are sort of like the rules for proper behavior in a playground. They are practical guidelines, not divine decrees. Exceptions can and do occur to every one of them. But if you consider the five “errors” as a whole, a very interesting picture of mainstream poetic expectations emerges. Avoiding them is really about maintaining loyalty to two contradictory things: immediacy and indirection. On the one hand they reject rhetoric, abstract language, and archaism as obstacles between the poet and the reader; and on the other hand they call for a reticence and a crypticism that hesitate to come right out and say something. In short, they represent the quandary of classic modernism: How can we have the robust earthiness of Robert Browning within the chaste confines of Hilda Doolittle?

It can’t be done, of course, but that has never stopped partisans from adhering to an ideal. The entire modernist enterprise in poetry has been an attempt to square the circle, so to speak. Modernism wanted a poetry that hits you like an endorphin rush, but that also shrouds itself in crypticism and mystery. It asks that we be mightily moved by that which is small and obscure.

In fact, you might even boil down modernist aesthetics in poetry to the following recipe. Let’s title it “How To Write A Modernist Lyric”:

.

Take some ordinary little event or perception, and blow it up into a quivering
epiphany. Do it without adjectives if possible, or any overt use of rhetoric.
Employ only the first person singular, and the Plain Style. Make what you are
saying sound somehow important or serious or urgent, even if it is as opaque as
a tar pit.

.

A perfect example of this recipe is William Carlos Williams’s poem about the plums:

.

This is just to say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

.

Another is Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.

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Both of these poems are attempts to incarnate the modernist aims of immediacy and indirection, the first by describing an utterly mundane event and pumping it up with the helium of pseudoreference; the second by taking a visual impression and wrenching it into a suppressed metaphor. Are they good poems? Well, yes, I suppose so—if you like that sort of thing. It’s a matter of personal taste. To me they are crabbed, pinched, and minimalist, and represent what the poet Henry Weinfield once described to me as “American Puritanism applied to poetic expression.” Such poems are like haiku—reading more than three of them at a sitting is mentally enervating.

There’s something else to be noted. A fellow poet once wrote to me saying “How can anyone take the dictates of modernism seriously, when Pound and Eliot obviously didn’t?” And he’s right. Take a look at Pound’s poem: there’s the abstract noun apparition, and the paired adjectives wet and black. Williams’s poem uses three: delicious, sweet, and cold. Besides this, you can run through Pound’s oeuvre and find dozens of quaint uses of thee and thou, and hast and hath. As for abstractions, how about Eliot’s “Superfetation of to en”? Or Wallace Stevens’s “Complacencies of the peignoir”? As for over-the-top archaic adjective-mongering, can anyone beat the Imagist Amy Lowell’s “Firesouled, vermilion-hearted”? It seems a safe conclusion that the early modernist theorists thought up a lot of regulations that modernist poets simply ignored. But they’re still being imposed on the rest of us by the MFA martinets who run poetry workshops.

In any case, let’s now talk about the errors that the Poetry Establishment doesn’t want to discuss, for prejudicial reasons of its own. These ones haven’t been trumpeted like the five above-mentioned errors. But they can be just as deadly, and they are a lot more common. Here goes:

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1. Writing in a tone of Portentous Hush. I discussed this error at length in my essay “Why Poetry Is Dying” at the Expansive Poetry On-Line website some years back. No one—not even the redoubtable Philip Hobsbaum—dared to address my argument on this point.

2. Worrying about audience response. This is like worrying about a tectonic plate shift. It’s utterly futile. Your only concern should be your poem. That’s what you can control.

3. Keeping the register of one’s diction strictly colloquial. The English language is a magnificent treasure bequeathed to us by centuries of literary achievement. And you’re going to write all your poems using the Fourth-Grade Basal Vocabulary List? Grow up.

4. Composing poems based solely on one’s personal experiences. Unless you’ve had a life comparable to Casanova’s, that’s going to be pretty boring, don’t you think? Poetry is fictive—the very word poeisis in Greek means “making things up.” The medieval Scots called poets “makars” (makers) for this reason. If you can’t lie, you can’t be a poet.

5. Believing that there are “No ideas but in things.” This is like believing that there is “No wine but in barrels,” or “No whores but in brothels.” It’s just a silly slogan invented by a pediatrician in New Jersey. Ideas are everywhere, including books, your mind, daily conversation, and the Platonic realm beyond the cave, just to name a few places.

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In the case of these five errors, mainstream poetry circles are unwilling even to admit that they are pitfalls. Why? It’s just not good for business. Absolutely no one will say a word about the Portentous Hush problem. Audience response? Everyone, from laureate to State Poetry Society poetaster, is desperately anxious to cultivate it. Keeping diction simple and colloquial is practically a religion in the chatrooms and workshops. Shoals of worthless poets write because they think you want to hear about their “personal experiences.” As for the cliché No ideas but in things, well… it’s one of those grotesque lies to which everyone is forced to pay public lip service, like “All men are created equal,” or “Democracy rests upon the consent of the governed.” Asking the Poetry Establishment to point out and condemn these very profitable errors would be like asking Wall Street to speak out against easy credit. It ain’t gonna happen.

And to be perfectly fair, these five errors (just like the earlier five) are subject to exception whenever a poet feels that he is aesthetically required to commit one of them. As I mentioned, all strictures against poetic pitfalls are in the nature of rules for behavior in a playground. We tell children to wait their turn to shoot hoops, and to not take sand out of the sandbox, and not to pull Samantha’s pigtails. All these are useful guidelines, but they aren’t the basis for a full-blown system of morality. In the same way, the strictures against the ten poetic pitfalls aren’t the basis for a full-blown system of aesthetics. Like everything else in the arts, they are just rules of thumb.

Be aware of all ten pitfalls, and don’t skew your attention solely to those ones that the modernists warn you about. Are you going to avoid excessive use of adjectives? Fine—but also recognize that a relentlessly Plain-Style colloquial diction will prevent your poems from soaring. Are you going to stay away from abstract nouns? Fine—but recall that human beings have brains as well as senses. Are you planning to eschew any editorializing? Fine—but remember that if you resolutely say nothing, people will wonder why the hell you picked up a pen in the first place.

The crucial element in poetic composition is the poet’s interior conviction that he is free to say what he wants without being hobbled by orthodoxy or—as is more common these days—a climate of received opinion. Whatever his degree of training, whatever his level of reading, whatever his native skill—if he lacks that interior conviction his art will be strangled in the cradle. And that is why I say to all poets the following: If anyone tells you that poetic guidelines and rules of thumb are anything more than mere conveniences, regard that person, for all practical purposes, as an enemy.

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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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18 Responses

  1. Paul Freeman

    Your words,
    like toothpaste squeezed
    from the top
    of the toothpaste tube
    epiphanise the awe and ire
    of this rendered reader.

    (Don’t all clap at once!)

    Thanks for the heads up / reminders, Joseph.

    Reply
  2. Cheryl Corey

    I’ve enjoyed a great many of your essays over the years. I’d love to see one about our national Poet Laureates. What qualifies someone to be a laureate? Shouldn’t he or she be well-versed in all manner of poetic forms? Who was the best that we ever had? It seems to me that the post has become very politicized, the domain of diversity mongers. Thank you for considering my request.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Today the situation with Poet Laureates (both on the national level, and among the states that maintain such a position) is completely politicized, as you say. The position is purely honorary (you’re not expected to write any poems), and all you do is act as a publicity shill for absurdities like “Poetry Month” or various conferences. And your personal skill in writing poetry counts for zero. I couldn’t possibly devote an essay to it, because it is a total joke.

      Reply
  3. James A. Tweedie

    The first five playground rules more or less hold true for all poetry written in either free- or formal-verse. The second five are certainly helpful in regards to classical forms but modernist poets, by ignoring them–indeed, flagrantly flaunting them (as if this were something very brave and cutting edge commendable)–is what has created the current poetic culture of narcissistic mediocrity; a culture that has reduced poetry in the New Yorker (to use one example of how far mighty have fallen) to the level of insipid self-parody.

    The little paragraph titled “How To Write A Modernist Lyric” is as concise a description of the consensus editorial standards for contemporary poetry as I have seen. Indeed, these standards now serve as the cancel culture template for poets to follow if they ever hope to see their work published in a “major” poetry publication.

    Last year I had a poem accepted and published in the California Quarterly/California State Poetry Society. When I received my copy I was stunned to discover that mine was the only formal poem in the entire journal. How I slipped through the cracks I have no idea.

    I recently submitted a series of formal poems about soldiers at war to a veteran’s journal (that publishes military-related poetry) and received a polite response that they liked the content but the poetic form and rhyme were a distraction and suggested that they might be interested if I rewrote them as prose!

    Joseph, I commend you for the restraint you showed in writing these words. No doubt that restraint required great effort on your part.

    Popular poetry, like art, has descended to a level of equity where a poem written by a laureate is all too often indistinguishable from one written by a first-year university student.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I deliberately avoided saying anything about meter or rhyme in the essay, because I didn’t want it to become just another free verse/formal verse argument. My main concern was the procedural rules for writing that are unconsciously inculcated into everyone who tries to learn about poetic composition at present. The first five errors that I listed are now virtually a religion in the mainstream workshops, and that includes the workshops that are supposed to be teaching you how to write formal, metrical, rhymed poetry. That is why there is such an eerie similarity between so-called “formal” poems and free-verse effusions these days. The poets are all working under the same assumptions.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Ha! Yes, Joseph, I have found that adjectives are completely unnecessary, unless one wants to describe a noun. As recommended,
        I will take all ten rules with a large grain of salt.

    • C.B. Anderson

      I’m glad you brought up the New Yorker, James. I haven’t read a good poem there since Richard Wilbur died. If you want more good examples of crummy poems, then read an issue or two of Poetry at your local library. Placing the sole formal poem in a free-verse publication is a dubious distinction I have experienced more than once. I’m not sure what this means, except, possibly, that something in such a poem might have reached out to something innate that the editors have tried mightily to repress, or that the poem was too damn good to pass up the chance of using its publication as proof that they are openminded and appreciative of all schools of poetry.

      Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      Yes, Mr. Tweedie,
      Rewrite them as prose, and guard zealously against the intrusion of poetic values–especially meter and cadence: don’t want the idea of conformity and organization to invade our armed forces!

      Reply
    • Paul Freeman

      Although in danger of being called a show off, James, today was a red letter day for works I submitted being published.

      A blank verse ‘double acrostic’ poem in the Spectator’s weekly competition won me 20 quid, a limerick about Tory ‘parties’ appeared in the Daily Mail and a sonnet about our place in the universe got an honourable mention in a monthly poetry boards’ competition.

      I think half our problem is we don’t submit our formal poetic work for publication because we assume it will be rejected.

      Maybe the California Quarterly received only the one metrical poem.

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        Congratulations! We’d love to see links to your poems, Paul.

  4. Julian D. Woodruff

    An entertaining essay, Joseph. Your “How to Write a Modernist Lyric,” with its exquisite line breaks, should grace the pages of Poetry, The New Yorker, and hundreds of other prestigious publications.

    Reply
  5. Margaret Coats

    Amusing Ten Commandments to keep us on our toes. I find that I have consciously curved Guidelines One through Eight, but have no covetous inclination to bend Nine or Ten.

    Reply
  6. Damian Robin

    A tote of thanks to J Salemi, who’s gone and done it again

    It’s more than luck to have you here
    to chart the bogs and trenches,
    To torch through free flow diarrhea
    and muck that sucks and drenches.

    We see soft paths and threadbare aisles
    where feet play games of horseshoes
    And scansion looms in loosened piles
    concealing only more poos.

    We smell its squelch, we feel its slip,
    its deep demoralizing,
    Its hearts outpouring feeling’s tip,
    its Eden pip downsizing.

    You give us tags and maps and routes,
    stick signs on dead-end allies,
    Advise on backpacks, weapons, boots
    for our cross-country sallies.

    We are a liberating force
    we carry fine tradition,
    We walk, as you do, sense’s course
    right through today’s perdition.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Damian —

      Thank you for your response. I’m glad that I can inspire poetry on occasion!

      Best wishes…

      Joe Salemi

      Reply
  7. Tamara Beryl Latham

    Dear Joseph S.

    Your essay is not only informative, but beautifully expressed and also very helpful for new poets in general.

    As well, there are some poets who design their poems for the reader to figure out the subject of their poem. The reader does not have the time to go through layers and layers of the poem (like that of an onion) to decipher its meaning.

    Harvey Stanbrough, the former Editor-in-Chief of “Raintown Review” once stated, something to the effect, “If you are writing for an audience of one, I would not be interested in publishing your poem in Raintown Review.”

    Harvey also wanted the writer to include in his or her poem the articles (definite and indefinite) necessary for everyday language. Without these Harvey refused to publish the poem in his journal. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    Harvey did demand clarity — I remember that. He had no patience for surrealism or obfuscatory modernist posturing.

    The omission of necessary articles is also a problem with some “perfect meter” poets, whose obsessive syllable-counting forces them to leave out “the” or “an” as a way to keep to rigid equisyllabic lines. It makes for an intolerable awkwardness in their verse.

    Reply

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