The Cultured Hedonist

Art responds to our need of pursuing an activity without end, for
the pleasure of the pursuit, whereas morality compels us to follow
a determinate path to a definite end.

—Emile Durkheim

by Joseph S. Salemi

Religious conservatives often complain that the contemporary world has been corrupted by the pursuit of pleasure. And they will recite long litanies of our sins in this regard, mostly connected with sexual indulgence, gluttony, and the abuse of drugs or alcohol. This is followed by a call for restraint, temperance, and self-denial as necessary steps in our moral reclamation.

Such an indictment is justified to some extent, and in some respects. But on a deeper level, these conservatives are completely wrong. I am now going to make a counter-intuitive statement: The contemporary world is starving for pleasure, and real pleasure is frequently denied it.

Sure, you can have the base pleasures of casual sex and drunkenness and wild partying. No one’s going to stop you from watching as many crummy action-flicks as you like, or hanging out in bars, or twittering, or whatever-the-hell-else inanity happens to appeal to your jaded tastes. But the nobler pleasures? There you are going to face some real obstacles.

The contemporary world is afflicted with a diseased streak of puritanism a mile wide, and one that works overtime to prevent us from being genuinely happy and satisfied in many areas. In music, architecture, painting, dance, and literature, this puritanical streak wants potential delight sacrificed on the altar of “something higher.” And in the name of “something higher,” large swaths of the arts have become sickening wastelands, devoid of anything to which a non-plastic human being can respond with pleasure.

This is certainly true in much contemporary poetry, where willful ugliness, incoherence, and narcissistic self-absorption remain the regular benchmarks of acceptable mainstream work. The tiny formalist rebellion against this hegemonic dominance remains embryonic, and it too is vitiated by the defensiveness and social-climbing tendencies of more than a few of its practitioners. Too many self-proclaimed Rebel Angels are still secretly loyal to Jehovah. As a result, pleasurable poetry remains rare.

Pleasure is always linked to the satisfaction of desire. For connoisseurs of verse, their desires are directed towards order, concordance of elements, clarity, coherent structure, closure, and above all the intellectual delight that perfectly deployed idiom affords. A good poem satisfies all of these legitimate desires. A bad poem thwarts them.

Doubt and uncertainty are not pleasant. They are annoying distractions at best, and soul-destroying toxins at worst. People don’t want questions. They want answers. Overly intellectual types, or what Frederick Turner calls “nuancey-wuancey workshop poets,” have never understood this elemental human trait. Therefore a poetry that insistently raises unanswered questions, or that deliberately aggravates uncertainty (assuming that such poetry is not merely self-absorbed or incompetent) is never going to perform the primary poetic act of satisfying our aesthetic desires. The sophisticated reader will eventually throw up his hands in exasperation and impatience when confronted with such poetry. It does not touch those centers of delight that normal human beings expect the products of all art to touch.

Are there “lessons” or “morals” or “messages” or “information” to be found in a well-made, pleasure-producing poem? Well, that’s a real possibility. And such bits of information may even contribute something to the pleasure. But those things are what you might call epiphenomena of the poem’s overall aesthetic effect. They emerge purely as a secondary by-product of the poem’s pleasure-quotient. In Aristotelian terms, they aren’t the substance of poetry, but only its accidents.

Consider the analogy of sex. For thousands of years of human prehistory, no one made the intellectual connection between sex and pregnancy. Birth was just a magical thing that some women experienced, and the sex act was just an amusement carried on in the back of the cave. And yet sex went on being practiced for century after century, simply because it was pleasurable. When the British arrived in Australia in the late eighteenth century, the aboriginals they encountered still didn’t have a clue as to the link between coition and reproduction.

That’s the way we have to look at all the arts. They serve no purpose external to themselves. They have no goal or agenda other than delighting us with their perfection, and satisfying our innate human need for a “well-wrought urn,” as the great critic Cleanth Brooks once said. Can they be complex and suggestive rather than absolutely clear? Of course—but the complexity and the suggestiveness have to work within an overarching framework of grounded meaning and discursive coherence.

The problem with an aesthetic of pleasure, as I have outlined it above, is that it is always challenged by the criticism of variable personal taste. By this I mean that the following argument will typically be raised against it: “I happen to like poetry that isn’t structured and clear and forthright. I happen to enjoy doubt and uncertainty and open-endedness. I happen to appreciate it when a poet is vague and nuanced. I’m into unending subtlety and ambiguity.”

The proper answer to such criticism is as follows: “Well then, you don’t really like poetry. You may like some sort of substitute that passes itself off as poetry, but you don’t like poetry in the traditional sense. Instead you prefer something that appeals to your corrupted taste, and that satisfies your sick need for anomie and rootlessness.”

A harsh answer, to be sure. But it is the only honest answer possible to those who are afflicted with the general corruption of taste that followed hard upon the triumph of modernism in the last century. A great many people became trained to appreciate garbage art, and to value it above the genuine product. The claqueurs for modernism became ensconced in the universities and academies and publishing houses, and built themselves a little empire. The reaction against them is still only in its incipient stages. Is it any wonder then, that large numbers of badly educated people have been trained like aquarium seals to jump through all the right hoops, and to sing the praises of garbage art? It is just a melancholy proof that bad education can warp people into disregarding their own best impulses and interests.

Sensible and uncorrupted persons, however, still respond positively to well-made and intelligible art. They haven’t learned to cauterize the pleasure-centers of their souls. Snot-nosed modernists always patronize and sneer at people who say “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” This is presumed to be a philistine response by the untutored. Such condescension is rooted in the unspoken assumption that one has to be disciplined—against one’s better judgment and honest reactions—to like the pseudo-music of Schönberg and John Cage, the pathetic absurdities of Tristan Tzara, the wretched prose of Gertrude Stein, the mystifying blather of Samuel Beckett or late Joyce. But in fact the normal and healthy human response to disconnection and asymmetry and incoherence is distaste and revulsion. If you don’t like the pointless dribbles of Jackson Pollock, or if you think the Pompidou Center is a disgrace to France, that doesn’t mean you are a country bumpkin. It means you still have a grip on aesthetic sanity, while the people who look down on your supposed ignorance have lost it.

What we need is a rebirth of cultured hedonism in the arts—a quantum leap in the demand for that which is gratifyingly designed and aesthetically pleasurable. We need people who refuse, without apology or explanation, to accept the garbage art that is offered to them by a moribund establishment, and who order their art in the same cool way that they order their meals in a fine restaurant—by consulting their own cultivated tastes.

The Greek word for pleasure is hēdonē, from a verb that means to enjoy oneself. And the Latin voluptas is rooted in the verb velle, which means to want or to will something. That’s what pleasure is: the will to enjoyment fulfilling itself and indulging itself. If the arts can’t give you that, they have failed. Don’t let any stupid puritan tell you otherwise.



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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31 Responses

  1. Paul Erlandson

    Mr. Salemi,

    I read your essay through the eyes of a visual artist, who has his finger on the pulse of much of what is happening in the visual arts these days. It is much the same in that arena.

    I concur with your thoughts, and I hope my work is in some measure contributing to your hoped-for “rebirth of cultured hedonism in the arts—a quantum leap in the demand for that which is gratifyingly designed and aesthetically pleasurable.”

    At some point, the visual arts were stuck in the same quagmire as poetry (about which I know considerably less), but I see hopeful signs. I see a huge renaissance of Realism taking place. I have a few friends who still explicitly state their desire to make ugly art — because that’s how they see the world and that’s what it makes them happy to create. Most of them are Abstract Expressionists. And the “gatekeepers” of the visual arts world (e.g., museum curators and gallery owners) largely still adhere to the old “orthodoxy” we hope to overthrow. But I also see younger artists finding ways around these gatekeepers (there are hundreds of brilliant “cultured hedonist” artists on Instagram, for example).

    Still there is much work to be done. Many of the new Realists only have adopted this higher quality painting style to communicate their political views, and not for the sake of the aesthetic excellence itself.

    Thanks for your valuable thoughts!

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Mr. Erlandson, thank you for your insightful comments. It’s certainly true that some of the artists who stubbornly cling to anti-beauty canons do so out of spiteful malice towards the general public. Many of them have told me that they have deliberately pulled stupid and obnoxious stunts solely to “epater le bourgeois,” and to shock human sensibilities. It is also true that curators, gallery owners, and big museums are pretty much in lockstep orthodoxy against that which is comely and well crafted.

    But your last point is the best, and potentially the most controversial. Many artists (in poetry, at least) have adopted formalist techniques not so much for aesthetic reasons, but for ideological and political ones — that is, as a way to express a message or to put across some debating point.

    To make no bones about it, this procedure is a big mistake. It merely confirms the left-liberal narrative that formalist poetry is simply a cover for expressing non-leftist ideas, and therefore is not to be taken seriously.

  3. Gregory Ross

    Mr. Salemi,

    I agree with your general observations written in your essay. I think the fault begins with our anti-culture’s inability to give its people a real formation. Our secularist ideology has caused us to ignore the soul for too long.

    Your point about hedonism is spot on; we champion people who fulfill their petty desires. We celebrate and encourage everyone to pursue their dreams and desires – without once stopping to ask if the object of their desire is worth dreaming about. Or more to your point, is there more to be desired? Yes, there is!

    Bluegrass and Rock music is wonderful and has its place, but people should be able to recognize there is a hierarchy to music. A hierarchy within art. Beethoven is not The Bee Gee’s. Norman Rockwell is not Raphael. They all have their place. Sadly, within poetry, it appears the situation is worse than music, in that poetry that has form and structure, and clarity doesn’t have a mainstream home within our culture. (anti-culture)

    Hopefully websites like this are able to contribute to the good fight.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for your comments. I too believe that all kinds of art (high and low) have their place. Sometimes we want a fancy gourmet dinner — other times we just want a hamburger and fries. The point is that both meals satisfy WHAT WE WANT.

  4. Julian D. Woodruff

    This thread might turn very informative. Music is my area of knowledge, so not of sufficient interest here to warrant comment. But it seems to me that with poetry (and probably creative prose, too), as well as music, dance etc. it’s most constructive to speak both of general tendencies and specific traits that may exemplify them, rather than simply championing or trashing whole movements or individuals whose productions are taken principally (or so one might readily assume) as reflecting this or that movement. Without getting deep into the esoterica of aesthetics, perhaps it would be helpful to say, e.g., what’s attractive/solid/compelling in Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” as compared with his “The Palm at the End of the Mind.”

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I think of Wallace Stevens as one of the greats of modernism, and for that reason I never attack him, as I might attack Beckett or late Joyce. A sophisticated reader will always appreciate that which is good (aesthetically speaking), even if it comes from a source that follows different methods and approaches.

  5. Martin Rizley

    Dr. Salemi,
    Let me begin by saying that I agree with the conclusion of your article regarding the necessity of art being pleasurable. Art which gives no aesthetic pleasure of any sort cannot rightly be regarded as art. I agree with that, because if art holds up a mirror to life in order to reflect some aspect of human experience from an intriguing angle, and if that is done in a skillful manner that is life-enriching or life-intensifying in its effect, that must, on some level, bring pleasure. Who does not find it pleasurable to be wakened out of the dull somnolence of everyday routine by an object of contemplation that stimulates one´s aesthetic faculties and intensifies one´s experience of life itself. Such pleasure must inevitably be one of the chief effects of good art. “If the arts can´t give you that, they have failed.” I agree.

    Your essay, however, begins with a quote that seems to focus, not so much on the effect of good art, as on the reason for art´s existence, a reason that constitutes (apparently) the chief or principal motive behind the creation of all legitimate art. That reason is stated in what could justly be described as “reductionist” terms– art exists for the purpose of giving pleasure. This purpose is then set in sharp contrast to the purpose of morality, which is “to compel us to follow a definite path to a determinate end.” By juxtaposing the purpose of art and the purpose of morality in this way, the quote seems to draw a sharp line between the two. The effect of such a juxtaposition would seem to have the effect of calling into question the value, legitimacy, or integrity of art that is produced for anything other than aesthetic motives. At the very least, it seems to set up an uneasy tension between art which has as its purpose a purely “artistic” end and art which has as its purpose a “moral” end.

    In other words, this opening quote goes far beyond what you say in your conclusion about the effect of good art being the producing of pleasure. I say that, because the “effect” of good art is one thing, the “purpose” of art and artistic creation is something altogether different. It is one thing to say that all good art has the effect of giving aesthetic pleasure; it is something very, very different to say that all good art is produced for purpose of giving aesthetic pleasure with no “ulterior motive” driving the artist to create. If one defines the purpose of art exclusively in terms of the giving of aesthetic pleasure, that inevitably calls into question the legitimacy of art that has clearly been created for purposes that transcend that very limited goal.

    Throughout history, it has in all likelihood been a small minority of artists who have been driven to create their works of art motivated solely by a concern with aesthetics or outward form. The vast majority have had a number of motives in creating their art, and quite often, those motives have involved highly exalted religious and moral goals– to such a degree that their art would never have come into existence otherwise. Think of the great cathedrals of Europe. Is there any doubt that these were created with an explicitly moral and religious purpose, and that they would not ever have come into existence apart from that purpose? Yet this “ulterior motive” that is clearly religious and moral in nature did not in any way interfere with, detract, or render questionable the aethetic value of what they made. Think of the music of great composers like Palestrina, Byrd, Schutz, Bach, etc.– the motets, chorales, cantatas they produced were clearly composed with a moral and religious purpose in view, and would not have come into existence otherwise. But that did not in any way render questionable the artistic value of their creations, or diminish in the least the aesthetic pleasure one receives from listening to their music.

    What I am saying is that, from an aesthetic standpoint, a work of art must be judged by the effect it has in producing aesthetic pleasure. But the purpose of art– meaning, the reason for art´s existence and the varied motives that compel artists to write, paint, sculpt, compose, etc., — can by no means be limited to a concern for aesthetic pleasure. There are a variety of motives that drive artists to express what is inside them, and no one motive can be “prescribed” across the board for all. The creation of art is therefore like breathing or eating– it is born out of necessity, from a compelling internal impulse to respond creatively to life itself as one passes through and engages with a variety of life experiences from cradle to grave– but just like breathing or eating, what is born out of necessity turns out to be highly pleasurable in its effects. After all, what could be more delicious than to breathe deeply the fresh mountain air or to enjoy a steaming plate of “pasta a la Norma.”

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      One of the reasons a writer places an epigraph before his essay is to present (in quintessential form) that basic thesis he is defending. Durkheim’s quote encapsulates my belief that art MUST be kept separate and independent of moral aims and agendas.

      An artist can deliberately use his work for some moral or religious aim, but when he is working he is free to do whatever he thinks fit to create the work in hand. But if his aim is primarily and personally “moral” or “religious” or “in proselytizing mode,” then he is really not an artist, but someone who is using art to make a point, very much as an advertising agency will use whatever material or photos or images they have to sell a pack of razor blades.

      We have had this argument before, in other discussion threads. As I mentioned in my fourth paragraph, if the artist has a puritanical, moral, non-aesthetic streak, he is going to insist that his art serve “something higher” than pure aesthetic delight. And that’s where the problem starts. The “something higher” pretty much always gets in the way of the art, and uses the art merely as a convenient tool for conversion purposes. Will the art still be good? Yes, sometimes. Which is why even atheists and agnostics and non-Christians (if they are what I call “cultural hedonists”) can appreciate the beauty of the cathedrals that you mention.

      It is a category mistake to compare fine art with breathing and eating. These latter activities are physiological necessities, and we take pleasure in them because it is perfectly natural to do so. Everyone with a healthy body does so. But art is FICTIVE, not natural. We create it from thinking and imagination and memory and fantasy, which some persons manage to handle better than others.

      • Martin Rizley

        I will grant you that much bad art has often produced for proselytizing purposes, but I disagree that one can therefore draw the sweeping conclusion that strong religious motivation as a driving force behind artistic creation must necessarily taint, squelch, or hold down the “pure” creative impulse to bring forth objects of art that are truly delightful, fun, and aesthetically pleasurable. I think that, in many cases, just the opposite has been true. I mentioned J.S. Bach who, upon completing every composition, wrote the words “soli deo gloria” (to God alone be the glory) upon each manuscript. He did this so that all who performed his music would know that his motive in writing was to show forth the beauty, magnificence and majesty of God through His music. Call that “proselytizing” if you like, but does anyone believe that Bach´s religious motivations got in the way of his creative impulses or hindered him from being a “real artist” and producing aesthetically pleasing compositions? Hardly. In fact, it seems that he would hardly have been as prolific or creative as he was apart from those motivations– for it was those very motivations that stimulated his creative juices and moved him to such heights of creative expression. So it has been with many artists throughout history. So I don´t see why there has to be any necessary tension between the religious impulse and the aesthetic impulse when it comes to the creation of art. These two impulses operate in many individuals, not only harmoniously, but in a way that is so intertwined as to be inseparable. Bach´s religious motivations made the man the artist he was. They literally drove him to create, since he viewed music as a gift of God through which the musician may show forth the reality of God´s presence in the world through the creation of music that exhibits attributes such as beauty, order, harmony, etc. As he put it, “The aim and final end of all music should be the glory of God and refreshment of the soul.” Had a music teacher cast stern, disapproving glances at Bach´s religious motivations in his youth, shaming him for those motivations or warning him that such motivations would prevent him from being a “real artist”, it would have been like pouring cold water on a flame. He may not have turned out to be the prolific composer that he was. Bach believed in his art, and he believed in the rightness of the religious motiviations that stirred his creative juices and moved him to compose, and we are all blessed as a result.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        No one is denying Bach’s religious impulses. He may have been a very pious man. But many people have deep religious impulses and they produce no art at all, or lousy art. This indicates to me that the religious/moral impulse and the aesthetic impulse are separate. They may work together, but they do not depend on each other.

        So what if Bach signed all his scores ‘soli Deo gloria”? That could mean any number of things. Maybe it was just a signal of personal loyalties, as when a Marine signs off his e-mails with “Semper Fi.” Maybe it was just a protestation of his humility, so that no one would think that he was arrogant and proud. From my limited knowledge of the man, I recall that he wrote a number of purely secular pieces of music, unconnected in any way with liturgical services. If he also signed those “soli Deo gloria,” he could only have meant “I acknowledge a higher power than myself in everything.”

        Do not believe what many artists tell you about the motivation and source of their art. These are always “after-the-fact” justifications, usually concocted to add more fictive glory to their curriculum vitae. And many artists learn the rudimentary skills of their craft long before they have developed any coherent ideas about religion and morals.

  6. James Sale

    A great article with much to chew on; it is certainly the case that our collective tastes have been debased by the march of modernity and so-called ‘progress’. My only minor caveat with this is the paragraph on the aborigines. I believe that the first man/woman, men/women certainly knew what sex was for, because I believe in the Golden Age which so many myths, and our own Genesis allude to. Equally, I believe in the law of entropy to which the aborigines and possibly other tribes succumbed to, as what was, got lost lost along with much else. This happens all the time – I mean, how did they build the pyramids? – and is part of the historical narrative that flies in the face of ‘progress’, unless by ‘progress’ we simply mean ‘change’. But so far as art and poetry are concerned, as Joe makes clear – I love examples that include those pretentious inanities Beckett and Joyce – we have created ugliness and monsters of no delight at all. And our challenge now is to re-find the sources of beauty and delight.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I was perplexed by that part, too, James, thinking about how Sarah told Abraham to “go in to” his concubine Hagaar in order to produce a son.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Well, James and Cynthia, it is quite possible to consider the Genesis accounts (as I do) to be fictive-metaphorical rather than strictly literal. It seems highly implausible to me that the Australian aborigines knew how babies were produced, and then, over the course of thousands of years, managed to forget it. But Captain Cook and other explorers reported that they were completely unaware that sex led to pregnancy.

      Not everything can be reconciled with what the Bible says.

      • Joshua C. Frank

        Actually, if the earliest Aborigines lost most of the tribe’s members and had only children left, such a scenario could happen.

        Plus, I’ve read extensively about the knowledge and skills we’ve lost because of industrialization, so it doesn’t surprise me.

        Myself, I consider Genesis to be as historical as the American Revolution. Evolutionary theory simply has too many holes in it to make sense to me. In fact, I spent many years studying evolutionary science on my own to try to fill these holes and only found speculation. Eventually, I gave up… but when I became serious about my faith, I found creation science, and its apologists have very good rebuttals to any objections to an historical interpretation of Genesis.

      • James Sale

        Yes, totally get your point Joe, and for the avoidance of doubt I am not a Biblical literalist! Indeed, my latest article for The Epoch Times is on Genesis chapter 1 (https://www.theepochtimes.com/bright/the-creation-of-meaning-and-beauty-genesis-ch-1-post-5435201) and hopefully makes that point clear. No, but I take the Genesis account alongside all the legends, Greek, Indian, etc. that posit a Golden Age of mankind from which we have fallen away: from knowledge, virtue and even longevity. This idea of a ‘falling from …’ I find much more compelling than the idea that we were ignorant apes working our way up to being humans. It’s a big issue and I’ll say no more about it now, since it does not detract in any meaningful way from the power of your arguments about the culture we find ourselves in now. Excellent article: top marks!

  7. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Thank goodness for SCP and the mission of elevating the art of poetry!

  8. Brian A. Yapko

    I’m not sure if this is on point, Joe, but your essay reminded me of a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia in which — on our way to the lavish palaces of the Tzars — we saw multiple blocks of apartment buildings built during the Soviet period. They had clearly either been built under Stalin or in the Stalinist style. They were utilitarian but notably ugly and spartan. It’s as if the architect had been instructed to eliminate any possible interpretation of joy in his work.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      That horrible Soviet brutalist architecture is a good illustration of deliberately ignoring beauty (which ALL normal human beings enjoy and want) in favor of “something higher.”

      If you had asked those in the Communist bureaucracy why they authorized this kind of awful architecture, they would have said something like this:

      “The higher purpose of architecture is to create livable homes for the proletariat, and to create them quickly and cheaply. We have no time for wasteful decor and finials and lovely facades and colonnades, which mark the architecture of the oppressive capitalist-Tzarist period.” Hence the ugly and spartan apartment blocks you saw.

      See what I mean? When you have people with some kind of sick Categorical Imperative in mind, or some obsessive ethical concern, you are going to see beauty, charm, fine craftsmanship, design, and what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life” all go right out the window. And persons who have to live in that kind of brutalist setting become brutalized themselves.

  9. Cynthia Erlandson

    This is a very thought-provoking article. I have a question, Dr. Salemi, about your paragraph that begins: “Doubt and uncertainty are not pleasant. They are annoying distractions at best, and soul-destroying toxins at worst. People don’t want questions. They want answers.” Reading this, I was immediately very interested in how you would analyze the poetry of the book of Ecclesiastes, in which the author addresses (beautifully, I think) humanity’s universal doubts, uncertainties, and questions, without providing answers.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Ecclesiastes is a religious text, written by a deeply religious author (either King Solomon, according to tradition, or more likely someone using the name of Solomon).

      Sure the book asks questions, but it does so rhetorically. The answers are already presupposed by the author in the minds of his devout readers. They are very straightforward answers — all things are empty and vain, human folly surrounds us, much of life seems meaningless and purposeless, all that matters is obedience to the will of God.

      These things may be phrased as questions, but in fact the author’s purpose is profoundly didactic — the title of the book is usually translated as “Preacher,” which is very appropriate for the book’s purpose. The author of Ecclesiastes gives answers to every question he raises.

  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, thank you for a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking essay. It has produced some excellent observations.

    I have read your answer to Mr. Rizley’s interesting questions and understand from your response that art should not be primarily concerned with “something higher”. Yet, it appears to have been in the past and still is today. How would any reader know whether a political poem (a poem written to make a profound statement about the society in which they live) has been written because the poet has put aesthetics or “something higher” first? I believe the political poems listed below were written to convey “something higher” than aesthetic appeal and the medium of poetry was chosen because the composers had a rich vocabulary, and metrical and rhythmic skill – necessary requirements of the craft which are also necessary requirements to gain maximum attention:

    Wordsworth, ‘London 1802’; Shelley, ‘England in 1819’; Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’; Kipling, ‘Recessional’; Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’; Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’ – to name a few.

    Why is the employment of form “to express a message or to put across some debating point” a “big mistake”? If “it merely confirms the left-liberal narrative that formalist poetry is simply a cover for expressing non-leftist ideas, and therefore is not to be taken seriously”, why should the poet care for the left-liberal narrative… a narrative which (in my opinion) is often not speaking in the interest of art. And how can it be proven that aesthetics or “something higher” is first and foremost in the artist’s mind? It feels like the chicken and the egg argument. If the poetry has aesthetic appeal, does it matter why and how it came about?

    I heard (on YouTube) the views of the type of critic you mention, a critic who has labeled me a ‘TERF’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). Because my controversial subject matter adheres to strict form, my poetry falls into the non-aesthetically appealing category, apparently. This critic warned poets who favor formalist poetry not to veer from the pastoral. I’ve answered poetically… or not. I suppose it depends on the reader’s perspective:

    Expert Advice for a Poetic Heretic

    Pastoral scenes! Pastoral scenes! Don’t stray
    To realms that shun the timeless tread of sheep.
    All wayward flocks of words have fallen prey
    To wolves – recall the grief of sweet Bo Peep!
    Bucolic is the stoic way to go.
    Don’t frolic in forbidden fields. Free speech
    Is only meant for poets in the know –
    Those who covet plums or eat a peach.
    To lambaste lambs in iambs penned with wit,
    To let a well of fervid fancies swell,
    To blast linguistic fire with guts and grit,
    Will irk my ilk who’ll screech like bats from Hell.
    Non-conformist bees beneath a bonnet
    Secure the cancellation of a sonnet.

    A Poetic Heretic’s Response to Expert Advice

    I will not go the way of odic sheep
    With woolly clouds of cliché-woven fuzz
    Dulling keenest minds – all lulled to sleep
    By verse without a spark. A jolt. A buzz.
    I want my words to blaze beyond the seas
    Of leas that sprawl with ease beneath the blue.
    I want wild lines to gust above the breeze
    Of floral morals with a golden view.
    There is a place for jocund daffodils,
    Hills and dales and tigers burning bright.
    I’ve oft imbibed their lush aesthetic thrills
    But won’t go gentle into that good night.
    I dance in far out fields that aren’t archaic.
    I play with form but not the formulaic.

    Did I write this poetry to convey “something higher” than aesthetic appeal. Did I write it with morality in mind? Yes. I wrote the poems to champion freedom of expression. I believe a poem can still be a good poem regardless of the subject matter or the reason for its existence. Am I wrong?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Susan, it’s not a question of right or wrong. It’s a question of approach and attitude.

      Every one of those poems that you mention is a great poem. No question at all on that score. But the actual occasion that prompted each poem is long gone, and in some cases pretty much forgotten. OK then — why is the poem still great? Wherein does its excellence lie if the world and circumstances that gave rise to it no longer exist?

      The same is true for great classic works of the distant past. The city of Troy and whatever political dispute it may have had with the Greeks are both lost in the mists of time. The wars between Lancaster and York are now just grist for historians. And yet we still consider the Iliad and Shakespeare’s history plays to be brilliant works of literary art.

      I’m just repeating the old Horatian maxim: Life is short, art is long. The subjects on which we write are ephemeral in the long run, but the linguistic skill we have can live forever in written texts that are passed on to posterity.

      You are probably the best satirical-polemical poet writing in America today. In a sane world, you would be honored and rewarded. But we don’t live in a sane world anymore, so instead you suffer “the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes,” from the usual scumbags and creeps who attack you viciously.

      Whoever that flaming jackass was who said that formalist poets should “stick to pastoral” was no critic. He or she was a cretin. We can write on WHATEVER THE BLOODY HELL WE WANT, AT ANY TIME WE WANT, AND AS OFTEN AS WE WANT. That’s why I have always stood up for anyone at the SCP writing whatever they please. If somebody wants to write a religious poem, fine. If somebody wants to write a sexy poem, fine. If somebody wants to write a satiric or lampooning poem, fine. As long as it is professionally done, intelligent, and witty, it’s OK. However, understand this — our enemies will NEVER admit that anything we write is good. But we ought not to make their job of attacking us easier by writing silly, sentimental, moralizing, Hallmark-style poems!

      My main aim in the above essay was to discourage poets from doing what the liberal-left expects us to do: that is, write purely in outrage and anger against the world, with little or no attention paid to whether we sound like hectoring schoolmarms and preachers. Great poems can’t be based purely on subject-matter — they must stand out, linguistically and figuratively, as something great.

      Writing to express a message or to put across a debating point is a “big mistake” only when it is done badly, or sloppily, or with oozing sentimentality, or with syrupy moralizing! And that usually happens when the poet allows his emotions and prejudices to take precedence over aesthetic considerations — in short, when he thinks that “something higher” in his poem is more important than absolute linguistic excellence.

      You have NEVER written a poem that disappointed me, because you have never done that. And I think I am a much more trustworthy “critic” than that dim bulb on YouTube. Your response was perfect.

      • Joshua C. Frank

        Thank you for clarifying this. I had the exact same question about my own poetry.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Joe, thank you for your informative and generous comment that puts a lot into perspective for me. There are very few “satirical-polemical” poets out there simply because there is no place for them to publish their work… which is why I am grateful for the SCP platform. I’m thrilled I’ve met many with talent who are of a like-mind… all those who bring a creative touch of sanity to an insane world.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        … and, most importantly, you are a much more trustworthy “critic” than that dim bulb on YouTube. You are the reason formal poetry still shines! Thank you.

  11. C.B. Anderson

    What I like most about Salemi’s observations an explanations is that they are always dyed in the wool and cut from the whole cloth. And he doesn’t mind if he ruffles a few feathers. Sadly, I seldom get the kind of pleasure from the bulk of formal poetry I read that I once got from reading, say, Arnold’s “Dover Beach” or Wilbur’s “Man Running” and that perturbs me.

  12. James Sale

    PS a small point but I had no idea that Robert Penn Warren was really the actor Robert Duvall! Incredible how these literary types can fool you.

  13. James A Tweedie

    I’ve been chewing on the points raised by this remarkable essay and edified by the equally remarkable discussion which has followed. Despite a quibble or two, but it seems to me that Joe has made a solid case for his argument which I wholeheartedly embrace as my own.

    I do, however, wish to note that Joe’s use of the word “pleasure” must be understood as having a dialectically precise meaning. Just like the word “love’ can mean many things–such as sex, or infatuation–context usually determines whether eros, philos, agape or some other meaning is intended.

    Pleasure, in Joe’s essay, does not mean “to enjoy, or like” in a moral or emotional sense, but in recognizing and savoring the aesthetic ‘beauty” created by one who has mastered their particular artistic craft.

    I take pleasure, for example, in reading Dostoevsky, not because I LIKE what he writes, or because I ENJOY reading him–which I don’t (always in translation, of course, being aware that his terse, unrelenting psychological prose may read better in Russian)–but because, of the sheer delight of savoring his masterful use of language to convey thought, emotion, and ideas, from an inside-out perspective that is uniquely his own.

    From an aesthetic point of view, he is a master.


    And great art should always be judged on it aesthetic merits. Whether I like, enjoy, or agree with any work of art is secondary to this.

    I once spent a year reading through a list of what I had heard to be the 50 greatest works of Western literature. At the end of the year, I had read many books which I liked and enjoyed (such as Tolkein and Tolstoy) and many which I did not (such as Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad) but I came to the conclusion that they were all considered to be great works of literature because they WERE, from a strictly aesthetic point of view, great works of literature.

    It’s all in the craft. Dali was a great artist who, in the end, traded greatness for an endless monotony of cliched, money-making, art-society-aggrandizing, lithographic drivel. While Chagal, a far lesser talent, seemingly transcended himself with the aesthetically masterful stained class he created for Reims Cathedral.

    I could apply Joe’s point in a similar way to the art of poetry or music, to medieval tapestry, Persian rugs or Cellini’s salt cellar. Any second-year art student can churn out a Pollack or Roitko, and any first-year music student could church out a reasonable imitation of a Shoenberg.12-tone competition. But only a true master could produce anything close to resembling created by Bach or Bernini.

    I wish that Joe’s essay were required reading in every “Introduction to the Humanities” course, But, on the other hand, I cannot imagine that many teachers would subscribe to it and suspect that even fewer students would be able to understand it.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, James,for your very thoughtful reply.

      Your distinction between different kinds of pleasure is very pertinent. The critic John Simon once mentioned that enjoying food could be contextually understood as dining in a fine restaurant and having culinary masterpieces, or going to the ball park and eating hot dogs sloshed with cheap mustard. Both are “pleasures,” but of different orders of significance, and we should always be aware of their rankings. Nothing against the hot dogs — they are great! — but it is perfectly legitimate to value them and all other meals in clear hierarchical categories.

      Your point about works of literary art that are excellently done but upsetting in their subject matter or approach is parallel to Simon’s mundane food example. I love Flannery O’Connor’s stories, but they are deeply troubling and nerve-wracking, in spite of the writer’s tremendous skill. I feel the same way about Dorothy Parker’s poems and short stories, which are as well put together as a Faberge egg, but also cynical, despairing, and utterly lacking in any religious or mystical element. I sure as hell would prefer to read Dorothy Parker’s hard-bitten, agnostic, secular work than the moralizing, sentimental Pollyanna-preaching of George Crabbe. It’s not necessarily that I reject what Crabbe is saying, but that Parker and O’Connor are profoundly better writers, aesthetically speaking.

      People sometimes object that it is all a matter of taste (“De gustibus non est disputandum”). There’s no real objection to that argument, but it should be noted that because of today’s collapse in the humanities educational system, a great many persons are walking around with untutored and corrupted tastes. I have taught in humanities departments for nearly fifty years now, and I have watched them deliquesce into mindless pools of politicization.

      I’m gratified that you would like my essay to be required reading for humanities students, but I can tell you that the teaching of humanities today (at all levels of education) is completely in the hands of those who judge art by the three miseries of meaning, message, and moral. They do not care about HOW something is said or presented, but only about WHAT IT SAYS, and whether the content is politically acceptable or ethically proper.

      I just don’t want the same thing to happen to us on the right, where we grind out our own political poems with the same lack of concern for aesthetics. That would mean that “something higher” has taken over our poetry, and we become just as censorious and bien-pensant as the left.


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