Art and Belief

by Joseph S. Salemi

When I consider the question of art and belief, I recall the words of the world-famous Indian dancer, Sujata Rubener. She was born a Christian in Bombay, but she was the premier dance interpreter of the various myths of Hinduism and Buddhism, as expressed in the complex dance traditions of India and nearby regions. She and her husband Asoka spent their entire lives perfecting and enhancing their skill in Indian ritual dance, and their performances spread the knowledge of it around the world. An interviewer once asked her whether she had any problems dancing the stories of religious beliefs and gods that were not her own. Sujata replied “You can believe the myths or disbelieve them. But in either case you can perform them to the best of your dancing ability.”

This always struck me as a brilliant, aesthetically proper answer. Sujata knew that the dances were an ancient and precious part of her Indian cultural heritage, and she was going to dedicate her career to preserving them and honoring them. Today in India, all traditional dancers look upon Sujata and her husband Asoka as the pinnacles of achievement in that field. Whether they actually believed in the myths that their dances enacted is irrelevant to the discussion. Art is independent of belief. Art is self-contained, sui generis, and follows its own internal rules and mechanisms.

I bring the matter up because a major misunderstanding mars aesthetical discourse today, and it involves what I have facetiously called “the three miseries”—that is, meaning, message, and moral. The misunderstanding is shared by poets of all political and ethical persuasions, so much so that one hesitates to pigeonhole it as part of a particular approach or commitment. Leftists, liberals, moderate conservatives, religionists, and hard rightists can be found who unquestioningly believe that poems are written for the primary purpose of delivering some message, or persuading others to accept an argument or point, or defending a certain worldview, or inculcating some moral imperative.

Before people start screaming that I am a moral relativist with a cynical view of existence, let me assure my readers that I am innocent of that charge. I can be just as dogmatic and inflexible as you like on some questions, and I believe ethics are important signposts in both private and public life. But here’s the big difference between me and some of my readers: I believe that ETHICS AREN’T EVERYTHING.

People who think about ethics all the time are deeply unpleasant. They make life miserable both for themselves and for those around them. A great deal of human activity goes on without specific fixations on what is “moral” or “immoral.” Much of what we do is neutral, in that we aren’t forced to agonize over every single choice or weigh all the alternatives or go into spasms of painful introspection about each decision we make. Whole stretches of our existence are free from that kind of torment, unless we deliberately choose to enslave ourselves to it.

Today, however, such enslavement is almost universal. In the Western world, the general collapse of religious belief has had the psychological consequence of summoning up into consciousness substitute moral imperatives to take the place of traditional religious ones. A new secular religion is in the making, and its outlines become more visible with every passing year. Equity, animal rights, environmentalism, woke ideology, sex and gender perversion, hatred of masculinity, anti-white racism, extreme feminism, Deep-State tyranny, medical mandates, along with blatant censorship and savage lawfare against anyone voicing opposition—these are just some of the characteristics of this new and very militant faith.

Above all, this new faith justifies itself on the grounds of morality. Like all committed fanatics and proselytizers, adherents to this new substitute religion scream in tones of outrage at whatever they deem evil or unacceptable or inappropriate. Rather than reasoned argument, they prefer shocked fury and accusation against anyone who dares to question their views. Gasps of horror, clutching of pearls, spouting of slogans and mantras—these are the forensic tools of the new faith. “Morality” is always the trump card in debate—how can you defend something if it is “immoral”? And the new faith sees everything in moral terms.

As is the case with all mass movements, this new secular religion (in the process that C.G. Jung called enantiodromia) has called forth its polar opposition. Conservatives and Christians who object to this rampaging new psychosis have also become a bit fanatical and moralistic. Their anger and resentment also begin to rise several decibels higher on the sound scale, and their temperature climbs the thermometer. And they too start screaming about “morals” and “ethics” and “propriety,” as if categorical imperatives were sacred icons.

Let’s look at how this affects approaches to poetry. No one denies that poems (at least the ones that presume to use language clearly and rationally) have something to say, and that what they say probably (but not necessarily) reflects the views of their authors in some manner. If what is being said is purely personal or descriptive, then there is no cause for argument, except perhaps over the poet’s skill or lack of it. But if the poem touches upon issues of belief or worldview or political opinion, then the Furies enter the scene (or the fat hits the fire, to use a homelier metaphor).

Both sides in the battle scream at each other, each quoting their favorite mantras or political leaders or sacred texts. And neither perceives that such attitudes and behavior undermine the art of poetry, which is not about ideas but about the language that carries ideas. The worst notion floating around in the backwash of third-rate modernism is that a poem is praiseworthy if it is “sincere” and “honest.” In other words, if its “ideas” are custom-checked and acceptable, and if they reflect the actual beliefs of the poet, then the poem is “good.” The other calamitous notion is that serious readers of poetry come to it be ratified in their tenets of what is right and wrong (depending on which categorical imperatives they cherish). Both of these false notions turn poetry into advertising campaigns for selling products, rather than allowing poetry to do what it is properly intended to do.

What is the proper task of poetry? It is simply this: to delight by its expert use of language and figures, and by its careful mimesis of all aspects of human life, without didacticism or morality-mongering. I could say that poetry is merely entertainment, but that would oversimplify the matter. Poetry also informs, reveals, elucidates, frightens, titillates, surprises, questions, warns, celebrates, and outrages. This last is important in satire and lampoon, where the poet goes out of his way to offend, attack, and mock those whom he dislikes or disagrees with. As I have said many times, it is a licensed zone of hyper-reality. The poet says what he wants, and is answerable to no one, except in those cases where he shows incompetence in his composition.

The whole point here is freedom. The poet is under no compulsion to do anything in his art except what he chooses to do, and to do it with excellent and well-wrought language. One major problem in literary criticism is that we are burdened by the tradition of Horace and Sir Philip Sidney, who deliberately falsified what it is that poets do. Both men were brilliant, and were able to foist upon the world a catastrophic misdirection. Horace said that poetry’s purpose was to instruct and delight, while Sidney said that poetry always served a higher moral purpose than mere linguistic excellence. I think both of them knew better, but labored and wrote under certain compulsions—Horace under the political conservatism of the Emperor Augustus, and Sidney in the face of Low-Church Puritan fanaticism. So they feigned that poetry had some external purpose that could be related to sturdy Roman virtue, or to Bible-thumping moralism. These ideas have plagued us ever since.

The modern manifestations of this problem are legion. Some claim that poetry must follow strictures laid down by the gaseous sonorities of eighteenth-century German Idealism. Some insist that the prose vaporings of Romantic poets must be honored. Some demand that religious pieties must be paramount. Some want apologies for racism and sexism and lots of other -isms to be the compass of poetic labors. Everybody wants something, and the want is backed up by outraged moralism.

In the highly polarized and polemical world of today, almost everyone approaches a poem with the idea that it necessarily expresses what the poet actually believes or feels or thinks or wants to promote. Such an idea is fatal to reading many serious poems properly and perceptively, but it also has the even worse effect of creating an atmosphere where individual poets feel compelled to compose in such a way as to register their loyalty to popular beliefs, or to disguise their unorthodox personal ones. On the one hand, sarcasm and irony and sardonic feigning are lost sight of; and on the other hand, freedom and honesty are swallowed up by time-serving conformism. We have a bogus poetry, the lineaments of which are as manipulated and group-focused as a cornflake commercial. This is intolerable. I know everything is for sale in America, but do we have to write poems by checking out the market specs, and making sure a majority of potential customers isn’t offended? Or if you have an excellent idea for a poem, do you necessarily have to make sure first that it isn’t in conflict with your personal religious or ethical biases?

Those who debate me on these points almost always fall back up the argument of “audience.” They will whine If we don’t pay attention to our audience, we won’t have one! This is of course an excellent argument if one is at a board meeting of an ad agency, but it does not apply to the higher realms of fine literature. Serious poetry has never really found a wide audience in any century, except for those works that have the luck to be chosen as school texts—which usually happens long after the death of the author. If you want to have a wide audience in your lifetime, become another Rupi Kaur. Just don’t expect a niche in the classical pantheon.

But the best response to the “audience” argument is that the question has to be considered sub specie aeternitatis. This is the Latin for “taking the long view of matters.” Right now, while you are living, you have only a very limited idea about who is reading your poetry. Material published on-line is read all over the Anglophone world, by persons of many ethnicities and nationalities, ages and beliefs, professions and attitudes. If you have published some books, through how many hands have they already passed and been perused? If this is so, how much truer will it be a century from now? Can you have any possible idea of what your audience will be like in 2223? Audience is unimportant, and in any case is out of your hands.

The other argument that I have to counter is the one that states We have to say what we believe in our poems! It is our obligation as Christians (or Mormons, or Jews, or Moslems, or Social Justice Warriors) to promote and defend those sacred ideals to which we are committed! Here again, we are faced with an intrusion of an old error that has attached itself to literary thinking like a forest tick to a bear’s leg. It is Kant’s absurd notion of “The Categorical Imperative.” Kant thought up this verbal sophistry as a way to create a groundwork for absolute moral obligation (which is generally indefensible on purely secular terms). Kant explains the categorical imperative as something that a rational human being obeys at all times, without regard for his own personal interest, and with the understanding that what he does should be considered as universally binding on all other persons in all situations. It’s just a complicated German way of saying “You will do it because it is righteous.”

This categorical imperative scam has long been cherished by left-liberals as a way to defend those moral viewpoints that they would like to impose on everyone else, without providing an explanation of the same. But the zealotry with which they have employed the phrase has generated fire in many others who are NOT left-liberals. Countless other persons now are infected with the fanatical idea that what they believe has to be inculcated into all others, since is it morally indefensible that anyone else might think something different from what they would think. And if you believe that, you are going to use your poems as sledgehammers to pound your opinions into the heads of your readers. That’s not going to delight or entertain, at least not always.

That is the plague of moralism that afflicts us now. Another symptom of the distemper is the tendency to read and interpret every poem from one’s political, religious, or ethical viewpoint. Rather than simply enjoying a poem for its wit and artistry, readers feel compelled to find something in it that can be connected with their categorical imperatives. Thus a left-liberal finds something about “social justice” in a poem, a religionist is reminded of some quote from the Bible, a moralist finds some lesson that can be explicated for children. They can’t be condemned for doing this, but one laments the fact that such tunnel-vision readings generally miss out on the sheer aesthetic enjoyment that a good poem should provide. It’s like eating an excellently prepared gourmet meal at someone’s home, and then congratulating the host on its vitamins and nutritional value. What kind of brain-dead guest would do that?

I’ll end this long essay by saying the following: What you happen to believe, and what you write when composing your poetry, do not always need to correspond with each other. Like Sujata dancing a tale from the Ramayana, you can be wholly detached from the substance of your art. Like an actor, you can play many different roles. You can write whatever you like, without pre-judging it by non-aesthetic standards. Try it some time. You might be amazed at what you can produce.



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.

NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

CODEC Stories:

35 Responses

  1. Peg

    Thank you for taking these thoughts and the time to write your essay…
    Much to ponder.

  2. James A. Tweedie


    Much to ponder, indeed.

    With all respect (and tongue in cheek), might there possibly be a bit more “gray” in the “matter” than your essay suggests?

    High Church, Poetic Puritanism

    The poet, Dante’s, moral indignation
    Spawned terza rima rife with passion puritanical.
    Indeed, his rash and fevered inclination
    To separate the sheep from goats was most fanatical.

    He stole St. Peter’s keys and wielded them
    According to his edgy, fierce, judgmental disposition
    To loose and bind, to pardon and condemn,
    Anticipating what was later called the Inquisition.

    Some souls he parceled out to the Inferno
    With other sinners purified in Purgatorio.
    Still others canonized in Paradiso
    With lyric praise much like a Handel oratorio.
    Of right and wrong and in-between, dogmatic;
    A multitude of hypocrites unmasked as he intended;
    His meaning, message, morals most emphatic.
    Despite these faults, of course, his poetry’s to be commended.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      If you’re writing a poem about Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, you are discussing persons who are deceased and therefore “out of the game,” so to speak. Their choices have been made, judged, and rewarded. You can simply describe what they did, and comment on it retrospectively.

      My essay talks about modern living persons, and their tendency to become obsessed with categorical imperatives and moral whining and preachy didacticism.

      • James A. Tweedie

        So the non-moralistic poetic principle does not apply to poems written about dead people—only living ones, like Biden, Trump, the Pope, China’s Xi, etc.

        If we were to put this principle into practice at SCP, how would that speak to the sort of poems that are posted here?—yours and mine included? I’m not arguing for or against anything. Just curious about actual application.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I think we have to distinguish between polemical, satiric, and lampooning poetry, and other types like the lyric and the narrative. Poetry of attack naturally goes after the living, and no holds are barred, as they say in the wrestling ring. The living are the natural targets of attack verse. And poetry of attack is weak if it depends on moral outrage — the best satires and lampoons and other aggressive styles work because of ridicule, contempt, and sheer disdain for living targets. If the poet structures his attack by orating about moral principles and categorical imperatives, the reader gets bored. People don’t want sermons. They want to see the bad guy get beaten up.

        This is why it is a mistake for the poet of attack to present some kind of moral argument about why his attack is justified. No one cares about that. What they care about is sharp and excellent language doing a major hit-job on the enemy. It doesn’t have to be nice, it doesn’t have to be fair, it doesn’t have to be child-friendly. It just has to be satisfyingly devastating. It has to work just like those visual memes put up on the internet, which are savage in their take-downs of liberal hypocrisy or lies.

        You see, it’s like this — once you start appealing to moral or ethics or religious principles or standards of decorous behavior, you will be drawn into a trap. You come across as a preacher rather than the tough guy in the back alley with a stiletto. And anybody who preaches anything can be argued against and debated by some other brand of preacher.

        If your poem of attack doesn’t put the enemy target into a blood-rage of fury and resentment, your poem has failed. You have to enjoy baiting and outraging him. And only a living target can be baited and outraged.

  3. James A. Tweedie

    Thank you for your reply. As re poetry: From henceforth moral reasoning or reasoning of any kind is out and stilettoes are in. Poetry that attempts to persuade in any form is out, but poetry that smears like an eco-warriors slathering cream on the Mona Lisa is in. Shock and Awe, in. Diplomacy, out.

    Sorry, Joe. I cannot go there. Reason and beauty (including moral suasion and preaching to the choir) have their place in poetry alongside mean, base and ugly attempts at verbal assassination. If, as you say, the poet must be free to speak, then neither heart nor mind should be denied their voice.

    If push comes to shove, I can give as well as take a good blow, especially when attacked.

    But personally, I would just as soon use humor to disarm my nemisis. For there is nothing evil hates more than to be laughed at.

    I simply can’t buy into the idea that poetry must of necessity be meaningless, pointless, immoral/amoral and unreasonable to be authentic.

    • Joshua C. Frank

      Who says it has to be either/or? My poems “Two Empty Chairs” and “The No-Life Algorithm” were not written as attacks; they were simply expressing what was written in letters to the editor of a Catholic magazine over 20 years ago. Yet Conor Kelly was clearly angered by both, as not only was the thing he remembered most about me (as he wrote a short time later after “Unholy Orders”) that I would ban contraception in addition to abortion (I think that would be a good move for any country), but after “The Certainty of Kelly Green” 7 months later, he wrote that I write against contraception “frequently” (check the record: I don’t). That tells me the poems really stuck with him, just as songs on the radio we hate still stick with us after many years. That, in turn, tells me I’ve done something right.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        You are correct, Joshua. Conor Kelly was utterly gobsmacked when he came here and saw our stuff, and he was dumbfounded that we had the nerve to fight back fiercely when he dared to attack us for it. You can’t do that anymore in the Emerald Isle, which is now run by leftist scumbags. He has even confessed publicly (at The HyperTexts) that he is addicted to reading our discussion threads — he’s probably reading this right now!

        Suppose we had tried to be nice and polite and well mannered with him. He would have smirked and ignored us as just another bunch of pietistic losers who are no threat to leftist hegemony.

    • Evan Mantyk

      To Jim Tweedie, I don’t think Joe Salemi is saying it must be meaningless, pointless, immoral/amoral, and unreasonable. My understanding of his essay is that it is a matter of priorities. We live in an age when meaning, message, and morality have taken the place of artistic excellence. This problem is especially problematic when, by academia and the poetry establishment, the meaning, message, and morality have been reconfigured toward a non-traditional direction that is ultimately self-destructive to poets and to civilization itself. So much of this discussion is theoretical and depends on a specific reader’s aesthetics (how does one define morality and artistic excellence exactly?), such that I think it helps to return to the specific concrete examples: Sujata Rubener and briefly Rupi Kaur. These points are relatively straightforward. In the case of Rubener, she almost certainly would not be known as a great artist today and left such a deep impression if she under-prioritized excellence in art in her career. Rupi Kaur is an example of an artist who had entirely embraced meaning, moral, and message in the mode of the new destructive direction; this has led to popularity in the short term, but almost certainly will not last and no one will remember her in 10 or 20 years… in fact the number of people who know her work even now is very limited.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Evan, many thanks. Your point about academia and the poetry establishment is right on the mark. Today they are as ferociously politicized as Dr. Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      James, in my reply I was talking about poetry of attack, not all poetry. Of course one is free to write as one wishes, and of course moral suasion and pure reason can be used in argumentation and debate. And all the other genres of poetry can use whatever methods and styles are best suited to them. But right now, in the raging culture wars, niceness and courtesy in polemical poetry do not work. You might as well tell a Marine hitting the beach at Okinawa to be sure to be polite and well mannered when confronting the enemy.

      As I said in the essay, poetry does a lot of things. It “informs, reveals, elucidates, frightens, titillates, surprises, questions, warns, celebrates, and outrages.” I’m trying to recapture for poetry ALL the possibilities that it traditionally had, and rescue it from the dreary modern tendency to limit it to a preaching or self-expressive function. And I followed the above-quoted words with these: “The whole point here is freedom. The poet is under no compulsion to do anything in his art except what he chooses to do, and to do it with well-wrought and excellent language.”

      I don’t see how this prevents anyone from doing what he likes.

      I never said that poetry should be meaningless and pointless. Only the Dadaists and Surrealists and related freaks would say that.

    • C.B. Anderson

      My impression of what Salemi wrote here is not that a poet must abstain from expressing his true feelings, but that he or she is not required to do so. His reasons for a poet not to be preachy are mostly practical reasons: for one, because most readers won’t find it aesthetically pleasing. No one, including Salemi, would fault you for appeasing your foes, except that doing so doesn’t always work out well, but he insists. that we have the choice of being mordantly satirical if we choose to do so. And he definitely has not taken a stand against beauty or moral reasoning in poetry; he simply insists that such a poem should exhibit all the craft that makes a poem interesting to read.

  4. Brian A. Yapko

    Thank you for this thought-provoking and extremely insightful essay, Joe. There is so much in it that is worth re-reading and learning from. I for one am unfamiliar with both Horace’s and Sidney’s work and so you have educated me on their (perhaps dubious) contributions to the spirit which underlies poetry. As someone who thinks the progressive movement has yielded more poison than tonic, I was particularly struck by your insight that “…the general collapse of religious belief has had the psychological consequence of summoning up into consciousness substitute moral imperatives to take the place of traditional religious ones…” I agree that this is exactly so and it is quite a dangerous development in Western thought as it eliminates any shared objective system of ethics and substitutes some gauzy subjective emotional-need basis as the leftist foundation for reality.

    Forgive my digression as I realize this is not the subject of your essay. I believe what you are saying is that poetry should be divorced from moral imperatives, that we are not missionaries, that a poem should not be judged for its “message” but for its literary quality. All points well-taken. I come at this from a slightly different direction which I believe, however, is compatible with your views. When it is stripped down to its essentials – forget the poetic devices, the rhyme, the meter, etc… – poetry is simply a form of communication. A genre with a wide range of possibilities. Some is more effective than others and it’s not always about ticking the boxes of convention. Rhyme and meter are great but they are not essential. We can read the 23rd Psalm and it is great poetry without having any rhyme or meter. (I’m referring only to English translation.) It conveys a message and an emotion which many find incredibly moving. In contrast, we can read poetry which does indeed have rhyme and meter and it can be utterly lacking in any type of quality, the only response to which is… yawn. Effective communication for me is the key, and sometimes that means the bells and whistles work to make a better poem, and sometimes they are a hindrance. Like you, I don’t see why moral imperatives are relevant to the issue.

    Just speaking for myself, my work is sometimes didactic, sometimes frivolous, sometimes heartfelt, sometimes not. But to me the key to good poetry is the ability to COMMUNICATE – a word which is cognate with COMMUNE. I am trying to share a thought or a feeling or an insight with a reader. Sometimes a laugh, sometimes a tear, sometimes a jawdrop. The ability to communicate clearly is my aesthetic imperative and, I believe, this aesthetic imperative is shared by many. The best poetry elicits a reaction, whether intellectual, spiritual, inspirational, visceral … or whether it just tickles your funny bone. One way or the other, where there is a moral purpose behind it or not, I strive to make my work an effective communication between myself and my reader. I most appreciate the poetry where others do that as well.

    As it happens, my taste runs towards poetry which is historic, spiritually uplifting, moral. But that is a question of taste. I recognize that others have different taste and that is their business.

    Thank you again for your thoughts, Joe, and for giving me an opportunity to consider my own.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Brian, many thanks for this perceptive analysis. I am especially struck by your comment that today the current way of thinking “eliminates any shared objective system of ethics and substitutes some gauzy subjective emotional-need basis as the leftist foundation for reality.” This truth is probably at the unconscious core of my complaint, though I did not allude to it directly. You and Martin Rizley have compelled me to see it clearly. I have a negative reaction to moralizing because the left moralizes endlessly and mercilessly (listen to the world-wide whine about Gaza). The left uses the language and rhetoric of Judeo-Christian and Western morality as camouflage to impose its own alien and invasive morality on us. Because we have foolishly allowed them to do this, we have to be very careful about falling back on moralism in our expressions, lest we fall into the trap of being co-opted by the enemy.

  5. Martin Rizley

    I completely understand and agree with the idea that poetry which is poorly crafted and exhibits a lack of eloquence, linguistic richness, skill, inventiveness, etc., should never get a “free pass” because of its devotion to a “higher purpose”. Poorly written poetry should not be praised simply because of the noble or elevated aims of the writer,.

    I fail to see, however, why this must lead us to conclude that in order for poetic excellence to be safeuarded, poets must deliberately expunge from their writing anything that could be regarded as a “moral message”. They must somehow disentangle their pursuit of linguistic beauty and craftsmanship from any concern over the goodness or the truth of what they are writing.

    Of course, some poetry is like a roller coaster ride, in that it has no other function than to provide a few moments of pleasure or fun or hilarity– and we very much need poetry like that. We need poetry that makes us laugh out loud because of its wit and sarcasm and clever turn of phrase. But how can it be set down as a requirement that poets avoid being philosophically profound? There are, after all, a number of celebrated poems like Robert Burns “To a Mouse” or Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” that are deeply philosophical in their tone and are born out the poet’s reflection on life and human experience– what he regards as true.

    It seems to me unnatural, therefore, to insist that the pursuit of formal excellence in poetry be separated from any concern over the truth or goodness of what one is writing.

    Truth, goodness, and beauty are all features of the real world in which we live, and therefore, the union of these features– not their disunion– seems to provide an “oxygen-rich” environment in which creative plants like poems and paintings and plays have so often flourished. That is true even of a works like Macbeth which are full of dark and evil things like witches and ghosts and conspiracies and madness and murder. What makes Macbeth work is that these dark realities are set with the context of a moral universe in which evil acts reap their just recompense and sinners do not prosper in the end. No one could call Macbath a sermon aimed at “moralizing”, but the events related in that play could only develop as they do within the context of a universe with a moral center, and Macbeth is no less authentic a work of art for conveying that “message.”

    So while I agree that poetry does not have to be “moralizing” to be good, I would add that the presence of a moral message does not automatically disqualify a poem– or any work of art– as automatically bad, misguided, or artistically inauthentic.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Mr. Rizley, you are in fact quite right. But the flaw in your argument is this: when you speak of Truth and Goodness and Beauty and Morality, you are unconsciously speaking of the traditional versions of all those things — the versions nurtured by centuries of Christian and classical thought, and that were up until recently accepted by the overwhelming majority of persons in the West as normative. Almost everyone — male, female, young, old, rich, poor, religionist, atheist, agnostic — accepted a code of ethics and decorum that, with a few perverse exceptions, was recognized as being as universal as the Periodic Table of Elements.

      That is no longer the case. One subtext of my essay was that the powers that be today are working furiously to create a counter-ethics, and are deliberately using the language of traditional mortality and piety to make the trick work. That is why we hear so much claptrap about “moral outrage” and “what must be done” and “the rightness of certain proposals.” It isn’t your Christian morality that is being talked about, Mr. Rizley! It is something new and sick and invasive, like a parasite invading a helpless host and sucking the life out of it. Today, “meaning, message, and moral” are being used to promote NEW meanings, NEW messages, and NEW morals, and unfortunately the partisans of this change have convinced a great many sincere but utterly naive Christians to go along with the plan. Just look at the mainstream churches — are they anything that you or I would have recognized in 1950?

  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    What an informative and thought-provoking essay which has quite naturally prompted many an interesting comment. Thank you, Joe. Much ground has been covered and I’m enjoying the discussion. Here are my takeaway points:
    The loud observation: “ETHICS AREN’T EVERYTHING” speaks to me. In an age where words are considered weapons, the meaning of truth has been twisted every which way, and people are outraged by anything that doesn’t nod in the direction of their particular brand of truth, poets are being stifled by zealous interpretations of their work. In my case this has led to handwringing, mud-slinging mayhem in the comments section… all because my brand of satire or my take on life is not in keeping with the mantra of the day… never mind that the poem is in the third person, never mind that the poem is chock full of hyperbole to make an exaggerated point about today’s society… if it’s not speaking the language of dogmatic readers with an agenda, it shouldn’t exist.

    This is why this essay is important. Art should be for art’s sake and not written to cater to PC tastes through fear of backlash and cancellation. A poet should be able to adopt a persona that has nothing to do with who they are. I once wrote a poem in the first person about a dustman by day who was a closet transvestite by night. I am not a man. I am not a dustman with a silk-knickers fetish. And I wasn’t making a point. I was simply indulging my creative bent.

    This observation makes me smile with delight: “The whole point here is freedom. The poet is under no compulsion to do anything in his art except what he chooses to do, and to do it with excellent and well-wrought language.” I believe this to be the crux of the essay. One can write a poem “to instruct and delight”. One can write a poem “to serve a higher moral purpose than mere linguistic excellence” in true Horace or Sydney tradition, BUT ONE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO.

    Poets should be free to write what they like without being judged on forceful moral grounds. If my satirical poetry, or any poetry for that matter, is not socially acceptable enough or redemptive enough for some, so be it.

    It’s all about the right to write as one chooses… isn’t it?

    • James A. Tweedie

      Susan, I would put your final sentence in italics to emphasize my complete agreement. Joe says much the same, which I note with some relief. As with yourself I have no hesitation to write on non-Christian themes as I have done with Greek and Roman theology and stone circles in Ireland. Some tales are simply worth telling whether they have a moral or a higher purpose other than entertainment (Canterbury Tales) but, sadly, I concede that we live in an age where opposing forces have become entrenched beyond reason or moral suasion in ways that resemble the Western Front in the Great War.

      The trees have grown back in the Ardennes Forest, but the landscape has been forever altered and scarred from that pointless conflict from hell.

      Sadly, the fact that we in the West have now reached the political, social, worldview equivalent of World War 1 suggests to me that the scarred landscape of our nation and the world will remain long after whatever resolution is attained.

      “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

      Whether this is true or not, we must keep writing as if it were.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        James, I agree with you when you say “we live in an age where opposing forces have become entrenched beyond reason or moral…” only we’re not fighting together in the trenches to keep the enemy from taking over our nation and stealing our freedom… we’re fighting against each other with one side wanting to keep the global government from destroying all our forefathers in WWI and WWII fought for, and one side hating the Western world culture so much, they want to destroy every last shred of its existence. This is why words matter. This is why words are “mightier than the sword”. Once voices and choices are removed by anyone who wants to drive words in a direction other than the poet’s vision, all the Western world stands for on the freedom front is lost.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Susan, God bless you.

      You see right into the heart of things quickly and clearly. All I really wanted to do in the essay was talk about freedom from compulsion, and from the moralizing tendency to read and judge every word from a fanatically ethicist and politically custom-checked point of view. I never wanted to limit any poet’s choices. When I think of poetry and the po-biz world today, I recall the frightening words of Blake (“they were binding with briars my thoughts and desires”).

      The poem about the transvestite dustman sounds amazing! You have the true poetic knack of putting together improbable things and making them into fictive artifacts. Whitworth was the same — is it something about Kent?

      You have received a great deal of vicious, nasty, and uncalled-for abuse for your satiric poetry. All of that disparagement was driven by the sheer compulsion of the left to tyrannize and browbeat anyone who dares to question orthodoxy, convention, and “the current thing.” Let me say something here — your work will be remembered and cherished long after your detractors and enemies are lying in “the tongueless silence of the dreamless dust,” as Robert Ingersoll said.

    • Joshua C. Frank

      “I once wrote a poem in the first person about a dustman by day who was a closet transvestite by night. I am not a man. I am not a dustman with a silk-knickers fetish. And I wasn’t making a point. I was simply indulging my creative bent.”

      What an interesting concept! Just imagine a person, write in his voice, and see what develops.

  7. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Art is belief. There is no other reason for the existence of art than an internal mechanism in the mind that believes the artistic production is worthwhile preserving, presenting, and/or pontificating. That alone makes it belief. Each individual has individual perceptions of beauty, envy, jealousy, wrongdoing, humor, politics, society, religion, ethics, and the list continues. Sculptures, paintings, drawings, illustrations, acting, singing, playing musical instruments, poetry, literature, and I suppose dance are among the categories of art. When a poet writes about trolls, fairies, or other mythical figures one is presenting substitutes for the real-world characters that have mystical qualities the poet believes others will find fascinating, humorous, beautiful, flawed, and most of all applicable to the real world if they really existed. Often categorized as a dream state or wishful thinking, the poet engages in metaphors, similes, analogies, and allegories to portray an idealized world, reveal foibles or make a moral point.

    Ethics, morality, message, meter, and rhyme matter to the classical poet. I call meaning, message and morality the three imperatives stemming from a belief structure built on a foundation inculcated in us as children and flowering to fruition as an adult. By that time, education, knowledge, logic, and experience have all become part and parcel of our persona. A poet writing without some conviction is a fool susceptible to any way the wind blows, and it shows in their poetry, maybe not in each poem, but in their body of work. If a poet were judged on the one poem we happen to read, that poet could be praised for something they are not or condemned for their message and attempting to sway public opinion with some atrocious concept.

    Personally, I have always admired people rooted and moored in their cultural ethical structure. Although I may disagree with their precepts and beliefs, I know where they stand and from which platform they are preaching or sharing. I have never found such people to be a bore, but rather a stimulus to laugh or cringe at their dogmatic approach, vigorously engage them in debate on their lack of logic or locked minds, and present my own beliefs whether sarcastically, disparagingly, satirically, or in direct opposition and condemnation using a polemic approach or employing wit and humor to poke holes in their arguments. In any event, I must speak out and not remain silent. I do not believe in attacking the person, but in attacking the poem or work of art per se. I enjoy attacking ignorance with knowledge, inchoate analysis with logic, other belief systems both with acerbic and acrimonious dialogue and with my own beliefs. I had the nickname in the military of the “Velvet Hammer,” because I often subtly undercut fellow officers verbally. Frequently they were not aware of the attacks, but others were. Having a firmly established moral base is not enslavement, but freedom to express one’s own perceptions and beliefs with a feeling of accomplishment.

  8. Mike Bryant

    Joe, your essays are always enlightening. Your words are all about freedom and excellence. I think it was that freedom, and the chance to help many to improve their poetry, that drew you to SCP.
    I think that Evan knew, when he started SCP, what kind of website he wanted. And he still knows. He started a free-speech, educational website. People that come here can get tips on meter, rhyme, forms, poetic device and anything else about poetry they’d like to know. People that come and stay invariably improve their own poetry and their understanding of poetry. You are a huge part of the education that takes place here.
    The problem arises when an individual, that does NOT agree with this vision, insists that their own vision SHOULD take priority.
    There have been more than a few, over the last four years, that could not accept that SCP is a free speech platform. These individuals usually make themselves known through comments, emails sometimes, and sometimes phone calls. I believe you are calling out those who try to hijack the site, Joe.
    We should all be grateful for the wonderful poetry, the enlightening, and robust, discussions and the freedom to say, in poetry or otherwise, whatever we like and Evan approves!
    Thanks, Joe.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Mike, deepest thanks for these words. I have come to love this site with a real passion, and am now hopelessly addicted to it. What Evan and you have done is to provide the English-speaking world with a venue for free speech, unconstrained language, and massive information about the art of poetry. I don’t know of another website in the Anglosphere that provides the kind of highly intelligent commentary and critique that the SCP does. It happens because we are free and unafraid.

  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    LTC Peterson, I see your points and I understand them, and — believe it or not — I sympathize with them. What you have said in your post contains much wisdom, knowledge, and honesty. If we have any major disagreement at all, I think it can be explained in military terms — that is, in the light of strategy and tactics.

    It is a commonplace that strategy is one’s larger overall plan and goal, while tactics are the field operations that are carried out to achieve strategy’s goal. In today’s culture wars, I view our strategic plan as this: to discredit the left, subject them to public ridicule, and thereby destroy or limit their political power and influence. How that is to be done is the domain of tactics. Here we can disagree, just as staff officers may disagree on the best way to manage a battle. My tactics for the fight depend on frontal assault, blitzkrieg, very heavy artillery, and a take-no-prisoners policy. Your tactics are more restrained and conventional.

    A crucial weapon in the culture wars is “morality,” or the received impressions that we have about what is proper or improper. The very dangerous weakness that the West has right now is a sundering division within its own ranks as to what is moral. And the enemy is exploiting this weakness by using the words and images associated with traditional morality to paralyze our will to act, and to defend ourselves from attack. As I suggested above in my reply to Brian, the left’s orchestrated whining about Gaza is designed solely to paralyze the Israelis, and to save Israel’s enemies from destruction. These tactics are chosen to exploit the West’s fatal tendency to divinize ethical concerns and make all else subject to them.

    What should our tactics be, in the face of this enemy plan? Well, the first thing to do is to neutralize the entire issue of “morality.” It was our mistake to let it be co-opted by the left. Now that the weapon is in their hands, we need to disregard it and discredit it. I don’t recommend this for ALL poems (a misreading of my essay that that some posters here made), but for poems of attack — satires, lampoons, pasquinades, philippics, limericks, etc. In other words, I recommend this tactic for those types of poems that can be put to military use. Rather than cowering in fear before the left’s use of “morality” to intimidate us, we must pour scorn upon it, ridicule it, and show that it has no effect upon us. I know that this will be very difficult for the religionists in our ranks, which is why I believe they should not be assigned to the front lines.

    Poets can still use sonnets for love or for praise of the saints. They can still write odes to abstractions. They can produce pastorals about the countryside and its beauties. They can still pen villanelles and rondeaux for nostalgia or comedy or remembrance of things past. They can write nursery rhymes for children. Every style and subject and genre is available and open to use. I never said otherwise.

    You are the professional soldier here, not me. And your wide and long experience in combat at all levels of command makes your opinions of great value. But I have some experience in the verbal warfare of polemics, and I think I perceive things that not everyone notices. I hope what I have written above explains my position.

    Thank you for your detailed commentary.

    • Roy Eugene Peterson

      Joseph, we are in harmony and complete agreement. That came through to me in your essay and again in the comments. You are accurate in explaining strategy versus tactics. The only addition I would make is that my body of work in writing poems involves both strategic and tactical thinking with shock and awe, surprise, verbal firepower, opportunity, and the rest of the principles of war over a broad range of subjects using the literary tools and nuances afforded me sometimes directly as a broadside, but in most instances subtly. I have come to realize that most who read my poetry seem to miss my double and triple entendre that I built into my poems, so I am more frequently going to use quotation marks to call attention to the word or phrase used. You wrote a great essay, by the way that has made us all think.

  10. Joshua C. Frank

    I think I understand what you’re after. People think all poems are true stories or things the poet actually thinks. Yet many of us write poems with a speaker other than ourselves, sometimes one whose views are diametrically opposite to ours, such as my poem “A Leftist Rebukes Hamas,” where I wrote in the voice of a staunch leftist. Everyone here knows how much I can’t stand the left, but I did this to bring home the point of what their thinking is like. Yet some people might not understand what I’m doing and would object to such a view being expressed, even though I’m doing this to hold a mirror up to the left. That’s what writing is—you write a character as he would think, speak, and act, regardless of whether you think, speak, and act similarly or not.

    I agree with you on issues of an audience: I agree that people may still be reading my work after I’ve left this world, and that the argument that we have to write for the market is spurious. I’ve written poems explicitly against the market’s worldview, and yet I’ve got a sizable following, in part because of it.

    As for questions of the purpose of poetry, I’ve been thinking about this one. As an analogy, people paint pictures for many different reasons, but that doesn’t mean painting has a particular purpose other than the artistic showcasing of subjects by putting colors together. Similarly, who says poetry has to do one thing or another, as long as it’s poetry?

    However, I couldn’t quite agree with this one: “Or if you have an excellent idea for a poem, do you necessarily have to make sure first that it isn’t in conflict with your personal religious or ethical biases?” I personally would have a hard time writing a poem that goes against what I believe (except in cases where the view is satirized as in the previous example)—not just for reasons of conscience, but because I’d have a hard time mustering up the feeling behind it, and I’d be hard pressed to see what the point of writing such a poem would be.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Well Joshua, we can agree to disagree, can’t we? That’s the civilized thing to do.

      I can recall two cases where I wrote a poem wherein I expressed views totally contrary to my own. One was “The Missionary’s Position,” where I painted a negative picture of missionary activity, even though I fully support traditional Catholic evangelization. The idea for the poem, and part of the language, came to me in a reverie, and the poem was so rhetorically successful that I sent it out for publication. The other was my translation of my grandfather’s 1954 sonnet “Easter,” wherein he expresses disbelief in (or at least skepticism about) the entire idea of human redemption from sin. I did that because I loved my grandfather and his poetry, and because the sonnet seemed to translate itself with great ease, which is very unusual when translating a metrical and rhymed sonnet from one language to another. There probably have been others, but I can’t recall them at this moment.

      I never had any qualms about this, because I have always felt that belief is one thing, and art is another.

      • Joshua C. Frank

        Of course we can agree to disagree. I don’t mean it as a criticism, I just have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea. I saw both those poems as being about the difficulties believers have sometimes, rather than polemics against Christianity; I have no problem with those.

        We may be thinking of different things; I was thinking of some equivalent of me writing (for example) a poem in favor of abortion, divorce, or transgenderism.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        It’s like being an actor or an actress. Someone in the acting profession may be a perfectly honest and decent person in real life, but is nevertheless capable of playing the role of a vicious and immoral criminal, and doing it convincingly. And it works in reverse: an actor who is in real life an unpleasant, sin-ridden creep may play the role of a saint, and do it well if he has the skill and the training. T.S. Eliot was on to something when he spoke of the “impersonality” of the poet.

  11. G.M.H. Thompson

    I wholeheartedly agree with this, and I am glad someone else seems to see this the same way I do– I am so tired of people seeming to do like a “Well, do I agree with the author of this poem’s religious/political outlook?” It’s very tiring when you realize that the person you’re talking to only cares about what your innermost religious/political beliefs are– I’ve had this experience several times & it’s always a bit of a nasty shock to me. In a YouTube video I recently watched yet can’t remember now, the “poet” claimed that the main purpose of poetry was to change people’s minds to her opinion about things, which is just a completely psychotic view to have of poetry. Like you seem to say, the main “purpose” of poetry is to express beauty through language.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for this observation. I also became extremely frustrated when trying to teach poetry, and discovered that most of the students in the class thought that poetry was all about expressing the “correct” opinions and feelings about things, so as to convert readers to proper behavior and views.

      As you point out, we now live in a ferociously ideologized world, where almost everyone “only cares about what your innermost religious/political beliefs are.”

  12. BDW

    as per Aedile Cwerbus:

    Although I very much admire Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry”, it is the poetry of Horace that I think about nearly every single morning, for his topics, tone, and artistry. Perhaps I am too much influenced by Horace, as I don’t think about Pindar’s work, or even any other Greek or Roman’s work that frequently. I did think of Vergil’s “Georgica” while I was raking leaves this week; but I must admit I am also perhaps too much involved in responding to English-language poetry from Philip Sidney on, especially writers, like William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and T. S. Eliot.

    And even though I admire Ezra Pound’s poetry, I take him to task for his absurd comment on Horace:

    “Neither simple nor passionate, sensuous only in so far as he is a gourmet of food and language, aere perennius, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, bald-headed, pot-bellied, underbred, sycophantic, less poetic than any other great master of literature…”

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Well, old Ezra had a tendency to blow off steam recklessly. He called Kipling “Rudyard the Dud-Yard,” and he hated A.E. Housman, though a helluva lot of people are still quoting Kipling and Housman, while you only hear of Pound in graduate school seminars.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.