|Note: The following essay is a response to a
recent controversy at Expansive Poetry and Music Online (http://www.n2hos.com/acm/). In the
interests of all sides of the controversy being heard, and because Mr. Purdy,
in this essay, displays both erudition and analytical keenness, I am happy to
present this essay to readers interested in Macropoetics. –EC
Gilbert Wesley Purdy
‘THE CURSE’ OF SALEMI
A poetry controversy of sorts has sprung up in one little corner of the vast Internet, it seems. While that should surprise no one, what is surprising is the topic: Didactic Poetry. It is a stunning development, webly speaking, and the reader will perhaps already suspect that the name Joseph S. Salemi must somehow be connected with it.
Doctor Salemi publishes a “monthly column” in the electronic journal Expansive Poetry & Music Online. It is a column, one assumes, by virtue of the fact that it is too short for a full-length essay and seeks to be controversial in support of the Expansive Poetry movement. It is deadly serious, all in good fun and well worth the read.
On the other hand, it is also a column by virtue of its on-the-fly knowledge, its appeal to the reader’s emotions, and its dependence upon the columnist’s “following” to carry its argument. Interesting as the experiment is, the results, apart from controversy, are generally mixed – at times worse. The columnist’s opinions are heavily biased and frequently inconsistent. The columns are too often simple rant and pronouncement with a liberal sprinkling of historical names.
The column which began the recent battle of the titans is entitled “The Curse of Didactic Verse”. (Being a column, we forgive the author as much.) A reply is posted from Mr. Robert Darling, another name from the EP movement. It is entitled “Teaching & Preaching”. (Being a letter, we forgive him as much.) Finally, our columnist rounds on his opponent in “Liberals and Literature”. These will be our immediate texts.
Didactic verse is not all cursed, it turns out. There are two types, we are informed: informative-didactic and manipulative-didactic. Informative-didactic poetry is “a straightforward kind of didacticism that essentially lays out a body of detailed information for the reader.” The Doctor finds it quite acceptable so long as it is well written. Manipulative-didactic poetry, on the other hand, is a great sprawling thing “not especially concerned with information or explication.” Informative-didactic verse is so straightforward, in fact, that it will be adequately dealt with in a single paragraph and the rest of the column will concern itself solely with its evil cousin.
‘I’m highly allergic to any kind of preachiness or idea-mongering in verse,’ the good Doctor informs us. It seems reasonable to assume that these are some of the traits that define the category manipulative-didactic – that and manipulativeness.
Mr.Robert Darling – the correspondent instant –
replies: ‘I don’t think these distinctions hold.’ Certainly, didactic
poetry has not traditionally been expanded in this way. The word
“didactic” is derived from the Greek : to
teach. Before Salemi, didactic poetry (proper) did just that. It did not
suggest, hint, preach, present ideas or political positions, etc. It
Included in the realm of teaching was the
simple story designed to deliver a simple moral. That is to say, fables
and some fairytales are so directly intended to teach that they were
widely considered to fall under the rubric of didactic poetry. It
is difficult to tell if our columnist includes these under his informative
or manipulative category. If the former, then his informative-didactic
is all of what is customarily called “didactic poetry”. If the latter,…
Well, let’s try not to think about that any more than we have to.
What, then, has this manipulative-didactic poetry traditionally been called? What is it if it is not didactic poetry proper? What is this poetry that it in turns (or all at once) preaches, mongers ideas, aims at “propagandizing the reader,” “generally tries to hide its agenda,” “tends to be longish,” includes “rhetorical lures”? This is the list of traits we are given.
First of all, every kind of poetry utilizes
phrases which could be described as “rhetorical lures”. It would be
difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between any two sub-genres
based upon the alleged presence of such “lures”. Furthermore, the word
“lures” sounds suspiciously prejudicial. It does not seem unreasonable to
drop this from the list in order more effectively to answer the question
Next, “propaganda,” in literal terms,
indicates an attempt to propagate something which one values and would
like to see more of. In rhetorical terms, it tends more to indicate a
negative judgment: the propagation, by another, of something which one
opposes and would like to see less of. The latter connotation is the far
more common usage in today’s world and is the one which is referred to by
the author of “The Curse”. Our purpose – to determine what the author’s
manipulative-didactic poetry refers to – will require us to include
both connotations in their proper places. Thus we may say: 1) It is a
poetry which seeks to propagate ideas or ideologies; and 2) Doctor Joseph
S. Salemi actively dislikes those ideas and/or ideologies.
In a related note, propaganda #1 seems to
account for the ideas in “idea mongering”. Propaganda #2 for the
prejudicial, highly charged gerund “mongering”. For our further purposes,
“idea mongering” will be held to be sufficiently synonymous with
“propagandizing” that the former may be dropped as redundant.
A final emotional tripwire is best removed. The
trait “generally tries to hide its agenda” is difficult to discern in a
sub-genre. We may be able to detect an “agenda” and this is clearly
definitive for the good Doctor – however vague the idea of what
constitutes an agenda may be. The “tries to hide” sounds suspiciously
charged with emotional powder. It also ascribes intent to the poet in
question which can not be proved but only alleged. For the purposes of
identifying this poetry, the trait will better be described as “generally
has an agenda.”
So then, the following is a list of the traits of the poetry for which we seek
The traits on this list are -- in part or
altogether -- the purported traits of manipulative-didactic poetry. It is
the assertion of the author that they are wielded in such a way as to
manipulate the reader.
Items 1, 2 and 3, of course, immediately
suggest religious poetry. A number of comments in the column and the reply
to Robert Darling make this possibility more likely. Two of the poems
which are cited, in ‘The Curse,’ as particular examples – Tennyson’s In
Memoriam and Matthew Arnold’s Rugby Chapel – are religious and
moralistic in tone.
But then there is the matter of longish-ness.
Both of these examples are elegies and go on like such poems tend to do –
especially Victorian elegies. ‘One development since Victorian times,’ we
are informed, ‘has been the insinuation of didacticism into the shorter
lyric mode.’ Before the 20th century, then, lyrics – even religious lyrics
– do not seem to merit inclusion in the category of
The particular kind of longish-ness which these
poems display is generally referred to as “discursiveness”. In general
usage “to be discursive” means to speak with frequent digressions. In
philosophy it means to reason from premises to conclusions: a method which
often involves just such frequent digressions. Put the two together and
the result is recognizably Doctor Salemi’s hyperbolically described
manipulative-didactic poet who ‘wants to make sure that you understand
every mind-numbing nuance of his proposals’.
So then, Salemi dislikes discursive religious
poetry. His reasons are clear enough: 1) It tries to convince him to
credit ideas he does not wish to credit; and, 2) It does so through
discursive reasoning, which he considers “mind-numbing,” “manipulative,”
evidence of “the poet’s need to exercise authority,” and simply, and
wholly, inappropriate to poetry.
Philosophical poetry almost always exhibits traits 2 and 4 and often meets all of the criteria for drawing forth our columnist’s ire. While he cites Epicureanism as a positive influence upon the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius, in ‘Liberals and Literature’, it is precisely because he thinks of it as anti-philosophical. Lucretius, the Epicurean, was only trying “to inform people of the truth. That’s not the same thing as converting them.” Being at such pains to separate Lucretius from philosophy, then, philosophical poetry would seem to fall into the manipulative-didactic category. Discursive forms of political and polemical poetry – as close as they are to being one and the same thing -- fall also recognizably under the aegis of manipulative-didactic for the same reasons in spades.
Concerning these latter sub-genres, the Doctor has some ironic company. A notably liberal editor for a paper-and-ink journal of modest reputation warns the potential contributor that she will not even consider “polemical” poems. By this she seems to mean that she rejects poems which take sides on controversial issues. A perusal of the contents of her journal, however, reveals that the poetry often touches on controversial issues. Furthermore, the poems in question go about their business as if there existed no controversy but only a settled matter.
The word polemical is derived from the Greek verb : to fight or engage in battle. The inference is that a verbal violence is inherent in polemic. At the very least, it is “disputatious”. The editor, then, seems to have determined to avoid the potentially extreme emotions of this level of controversy by allowing only one side of it to exist within the pages of her journal. Perhaps better put, she is preserving her physical safety in a hair-triggered world, her standing among her peers and the advertising revenues for her journal by assuming that there is only one side to every argument and that side is to be inferred not asserted.
While she and the Doctor share this superficial agreement upon polemics – and both share a deeper distaste for discursive poetry – the resemblance resoundingly ends there. The liberal editor does nothing but encourage the Doctor’s manipulative-didactic poet. Her non-polemical lyricist is the most recent of a strain of poets which has furthered “the insinuation of didacticism into the shorter lyric mode”. The poets in such journals often collectively forward a vaguely coherent set of ideas which may suggest an agenda. They are not necessarily even aware of it. It is an “agenda” – perhaps better called a “perspective” – which drives the Doctor to distraction and columns.
In fact, Salemi’s ‘Curse’ is little more than a screed against Liberalism masquerading as a column on didacticism. Knowing the author, it might seem more precise to say “against Political Correctness,” but, on this occasion, he goes well beyond PC to all things liberal and more than a few things moderate. He does not like to read poetry with – or even redolent of -- liberal content. These promise to be the salad days of Conservatism (such as it is presently defined). The moment is propitious and a few problems of definition are not about to hold him back.
Robert Darling, blissfully unaware of the hidden agenda of the column, replies as if it were what it represents itself to be: a column on didacticism. He attempts to defend Tennyson’s In Memoriam. “Liberals love In Memoriam,” Salemi thunders back, undeterred by the fact that, as a rule, the liberal literati dislike long poems of any sort. Long religious poems, in particular, are anathema to them. He, on his part, dislikes the poem and Liberals, by virtue of which they bear a compelling, undeniable relationship in his mind. By Herculean personal pronouncement, he moves all of the boundary lines of contemporary poetry until they suit his purposes.
Darling mentions that Milton’s Paradise Lost would seem to fall within the bounds of the good Doctor’s manipulative-didactic. ‘Gimme a break!’ is the reply. The theology, we are informed, is ‘a sideshow, as it were, to Milton’s aesthetic achievement’. ‘Moreover, as early as the eighteenth century,’ he goes on, ‘Blake saw that Milton was of the Devil’s party, despite all that claptrap about justifying God’s ways.’ None of it has anything to do with the point his interlocutor has advanced. In line with the original column, he supports his arguments with little more than epithets and personal pronouncement.
Horace’s classical dictum Aut prodisse volunt  gets in the way, as well, and we are introduced to a private theory that the whole thing was ‘nonsense’ and ‘just a convenient cover story by Horace.’ It turns out that it was said tongue-in-cheek. He never meant it to be taken seriously. Poor Horace to have met with the incredible critical acumen of Salemi.
The good Doctor’s habit, in his columns, of citing sources is an excellent one, but it amounts to mere name dropping when even the most respected are dismissed out of hand. Milton is not a didact because we are told he is not, however much he fits the description of the manipulative-didact with which we are supplied. Besides, he is included in the Devil’s party by Blake. None of this is explained. Poor Blake’s painstakingly ironical views on God and the spiritual world are coöpted and simplified into a mere tool. Milton has gotten on the wrong side of the Doctor’s immediate needs and has been swept aside. Better for us all if the whole matter had been dropped and we had assumed that our host knows all of the authors necessary to his argument intimately well and that we must simply take it on his personal authority.
Doctor Salemi makes a proper observation that discursiveness is more often a liberal than a conservative trait. Conservatism thrives on simple formulae intended to continue its dominant status. It is more purely tribal: depends more on identification and ritualized interaction. It allows greater reign to selfishness: a trait positively hindered by anything more than immediate practical knowledge. Liberalism is a tenuous, shifting confederation of much smaller, less powerful tribes, and exhibits the greater complexity that such a relationship requires. It relies on a cooperation among its parts in order that those parts may avoid domination by the more powerful tribe. It survives by consensus and by out-thinking its stronger opponent. Simplification of formulae to too great an extent is a grave danger. Liberals survive by evolving new strategies through a continuing conversation. Conservatives dominate by impeding the same.
To discredit ideas and discursive reasoning in poetry is to leave nothing more than simple entertainment and wordplay to recommend it. To the Conservative, seeking to reduce his society as much as possible to immediate practical knowledge, this is exactly as it should be. To the Liberal, it is one more threat to vital lines of communication.
Of course, matters are not so distinctly black and white. Conservatism, for example, has come to learn that its dominance can be greatly enhanced by technology. Developing technologies requires more than immediate practical knowledge and it has expanded its boundaries accordingly. Some of the tribes which compose Liberalism have been allowed a gratifying share of the wealth and status of society, in recent heady economic times, on the other hand, and have permitted traditional skills to degenerate in favor of more popular leisure time activities.
When all of the tribes are members of a single nation, such as our own, the dynamic is also modified. The sense of a threat to the national wealth can make for a single tribe. A sense of international advantage can impress all of the tribes that simplification, identification and collective dominance are in their best interest. The other smaller nations, then, become the new Liberals (or Radicals), and the tenuous confederation is reconstituted along entirely other lines. Some few from the old confederation identify for a time with the new. But identification is never complete in Liberalism, to begin with, and most slowly drift away. In each of these cases, Conservatism makes rapid gains within the nation in question.
There are other observations, in ‘The Curse,’ however, which are beneath Doctor Salemi. To compare “discursive poems” to speeches by Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, for example, is unconscionable. To suggest that discursive poets write lies and overcome the implausibility of those lies by constant mind-numbing repetition is worse than questionable. Modern dictators, it bears remembering, have as a rule been resoundingly conservative. That they chattered as much as a flock of gabbling Liberals pales in light of the fact. The terrible destruction those dictators wrecked on the world is only extended by invoking their names as liberally as we have grown in the habit of doing.
Mr. Darling, being an Honest John, apparently feels obligated to walk directly into every abuscade. “[T]he ethics of a poem are vital,” he declares. It is not that he is necessarily wrong. It is rather that he advances a word like “ethics” so unadvisedly – almost as unadvisedly as the anti-ethical response, that he is bound to receive, will ravage it with wild Dionysian frenzy.
Here the good Doctor surges with fresh streams of adrenaline. He springs. His attack is only too familiar: “The only response to such cant,” he replies, “is to ask “’Whose ethics? Yours? Mine? The guy’s down the street?’” It is a popular line of argument and an obvious red herring.
Nor is Darling altogether wrong if Salemi properly detects, in his letter, a suggestion that the columnist is “a cynical post-modernist”. “The most cavalier perusal of my published prose and poetry reveals that I’m a right-wing Roman Catholic reactionary, and fiercely proud of it,” Salemi rejoins. But lack of an ethical position, on his part -- convenient and popular as it is to forego one – is none of the above except “fiercely proud”.
The dominant parent of the “Whose ethics?” argument is undeniably Post-Modernism. It is the reductio ad absurdum of the Liberal call to cultural tolerance which grows normally out of its confederating impulse – yet another over-simplification which suggests that Liberalism may have become its own worst enemy. In all fairness, it is a question that can not help but be asked at the historical moment we have reached. The problem is that Liberalism has yet to accept any available answer to it – even provisionally. As a result, Conservatism commands the field with dangerous simplifications.
While its dominant parent is Post-Modernism, however, millions of its progeny use it to simplify poetry, prose and life. It is Salemi’s categorical imperative -- to simplify every issue to immediate practical knowledge -- that has driven him into the camp of the anti-ethical, of Post-Modernism. In a manner of speaking, he has struck a deal with the Devil in order to remove all of the yucky, confusing, frustrating stuff out of his writing and life. It gives him a feeling of power, freedom and popularity, and it does so merely because he chooses to ignore that ethics exist whether he acknowledges it or not. Pressed he would almost certainly have to admit that the end of ethics means to him that a sub-stratum of social relations will “naturally” regulate people’s behavior. That substrate – as any freshman history survey course will adequately demonstrate -- is the white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, male dominant ethical system that has been inculcated for five centuries, laid over a medieval, European, Catholic, male dominant ethical system inculcated for at least twelve more. If he has gained any real freedom, the source of it should be clear. It is not in the least nature.
There are, indeed, many different versions of ethics. As we’ve learned, of late, some of them run to corporate fraud, insider trading, predatory lending practices, ramming jets into sky-scrapers, anthrax and sniper attacks, sexual abuse and much much more. And, while the worst of these cases are not likely to be reduced by an active discourse about ethics, the myriad petty thefts, credit card frauds, shop-liftings, breaking-and-enterings, scams on the elderly, perjuries, intentional transmission of biological and electronic viruses, manufactures of defective goods, pollutings, etc., that ravage our time and our peace of mind, just might be. They are, after all, generally committed by people who rationalize their behavior.
In a highly diverse society, such as our own, there necessarily are many competing ethical systems: personal, cultural and professional. This is not a sign at all that ethics do not exist. Rather it is a sign that matters have become far too complex to support the primitive tribal requirement that ethics be “universal” and “eternal”. More precisely, the universal/eternal style of ethics loses its universality once it is forced into coexistence with others.
Three basic reactions are available in the face of the fact. 1) One can attempt to become powerful enough to reestablish – to impose -- the “universality” of the ethics of one’s tribe. 2) One can participate in the harried, frustrating and fascinating process of redefining the ethical. 3) One can choose “none of the above” and declare that ethics simply do not exist. Make no mistake about it, though: to choose “none of the above” is a resoundingly ethical choice and results in an ethical system. The power and freedom which seem to come from this choice are nothing more than the power and freedom of not caring.
But the Good Doctor is in his virtual domain. Realities hardly matter there. There, only specious ‘liberal schoolteachers… drone on about meaning’ or ‘…”what a poem says”…’. There,
Somehow, there, this amounts to a compelling argument.
It is amusing to find “good ethics” referred to in the same column where ethics are supposed not to exist at all. This glaring inconsistency aside, there is a particular mistake in this argument that inadvertently gives Darling a parity that he is not able to manage for himself. The question begs asking: Why is brilliant, unethical poetry any more a ‘wall’ to the ethical than brilliant ethical poetry is a wall to the unethical? Once again, personal predilection and playing on the emotions of the reader would seem to be the substance of the argument.
While the Doctor has perhaps mortally wounded his own thesis, after this fashion, it is only the beginning of his problems. In context, his point is that exceptional ethics do not make exceptional poetry: of course, he is correct. But, at the same time, he has failed to consider that he has let ethics in the door and now must deal with it. Surely, he does not mean to say that the excellence of Villon’s poetry, for example, imposes upon the reader an approval of thievery, prostitution and much more in the same vein. Or that the reader should come away with a neutral perspective on these matters to apply to his or her life. Villon is alleged to have committed at least one murder. The poems portray a person who could, under relatively easy circumstances, commit such an act, however much he is also tremendously likeable. Perhaps the reader should be neutral about that, as well. To address these questions, however, is to end up right in the middle of a conversation about ethics. The dilemma seems clear enough – and highly instructive.
Ironically, the reader may quite properly approve of Villon’s lack of ethics. While reading, he or she is free to identify with the worst possible behavior. It is part of what makes the poetry so attractive: the catharsis it provides for the anti-social emotions which otherwise might build up in us without finding an acceptable outlet. Because of the unique emotional-intellectual blending in poetry, the picture of that way of life is subtly painted and we feel the degradation that it involves as well. Even more remarkably, we come away with insights into the legitimate humanity of people who are trapped in such lifestyles. The context of the ethical changes – arguably for the better.
Martial presents the uncontrolled lust that brought about the excesses of late paganism. Chaucer shares the simple catharsis of jokes about farts. Skelton offers the question: Have we lost the force of a good healthy love and hate? Donne is archetypal of the wantonness of youth arriving at the repentance of age. Their poetry, of course, does much more. All exceptional poetry does.
Of the names Doctor Salemi has advanced, only Martial may have been completely divorced from any consciousness of moral and ethical considerations. After his hormones subsided, even Rochester wrote such lines as:
When his health failed he became a convinced Christian: too late, perhaps, for heavens, but not too late to give his debauches, and the poetry which came from them, a wider context.
But this does not change the fact that each wrote a thing or two (or more) which brazened forth the worst kind of behavior – or that these often are our favorite poems and passages from their work. If ethics and morals are the collective social suppression of behaviors which we have had to leave behind in order to live in ever more complex societies (and they are), then it should be no mystery why poems such as these succeed so well and why they are necessary. What is equally clear is that neither they nor their popularity in the least form an argument against the ethical: only a concession.
As presented, Doctor Salemi’s position reduces to little more than personal predilection. His “argument” against discursive poetry freely utilizes every abuse he alleges to such poetry and a few more besides. Only the limitations of his examples work in behalf of his thesis. His habit of summarily dismissing others that sort against that thesis is the stronger evidence.
He must also dismiss a number of other great poems. Another elegy – Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard – is harder to explain away, as is Dante’s longish Divine Comedy. Closer to home, such poems as Auden’s New Year Letter and Eliot’s Wasteland and Four Quartets. Farther, the book of Ecclesiastes, Hesiod’s Works and Days, The Pearl, The Romance of the Rose, Piers Plowman, and The Faerie Queen.
Ranked just below these, perhaps, such poems as Sir John Davies’ Nosce Teipsum, Fulke Greville’s A Treatise of Human Learning, Cowley’s Civil War, Young’s Night Thoughts. The wonderful country house poems, garden poems and “Instruction to a Painter” poems of the seventeenth century, might prove easier work, but who would want to do without them? Who, at least, who has the cultural literacy to read them?
In the introduction to his great poem An Essay on Man Alexander Pope wrote:
Pope’s verse essays are among the crown jewels of English language
poetry. They are exceptionally well reasoned and read almost as fresh
today as they did three hundred years ago. It is difficult to imagine how
the good Doctor could dismiss anything from them as ‘a convenient cover
story,’ ‘a sideshow,’ ‘a lot of vaporous… bromides’ or the like.
But who could have imagined him saying such things about Horace’s Ars Poetica, Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Tennyson’s In Memoriam? Rather than dismiss Horace he might have suggested that poetry has changed since that time. It is a legitimate variation, as they say in chess circles – however much it does not play out well. To call Milton’s theology a “sideshow” is to completely misrepresent the poem. It may be a sideshow to us (or not), but it was not to him or to the readers of his day.
As for In Memoriam, Salemi’s ‘bromides’ were not bromides then. When Tennyson first wrote
they were as fresh as any striking line today – fresher. The fact that they have since become bromides speaks volumes in their behalf. They affected their readers so deeply that they became habitual in their mouths.
In the end, it is Mr. Darling who manages to make a point that the reader can take away to his or her benefit: poets should avoid ‘overt moralizing’. This may leave them accused by Doctor Salemi of having ‘hidden’ an agenda but at least it will improve their chances of writing better poetry. The cost, it seems, is minimal.
Probably a better warning still is to avoid discursive poetry altogether. Not because it is a manipulative power-trip, but because it is presently so much out of fashion and is perhaps the single most difficult kind of poetry to write well. Pope himself may have succeeded so much as he did because he was limited to the heroic couplet and it prevented him from wandering too far afield. Beyond that he took the radical step of knowing his subject exceptionally well: a step that poets rarely consider necessary.
As for content, contemporary poetry could do with a good deal more of it now and again. It is missing for a number of reasons. Foremost, it is difficult to present in free verse. Most, if not all, successful attempts have amounted to poeticized cultural anthropology – that is to say, Modernism. Post Modernism, inasmuch as it can be defined, exists as a resistance to all things Modernist. It tends to denote, and encourage, extremes derived from liberal doctrine, and another of its popular exports is the doctrine of “the fascism of content”. Even the Formalist editor shudders to imagine the prodigious backlash which might result from disobeying the doctrine.
The methods of poetry have only the most limited capability to lull the reader into a hypnotized subject receptive to suggestion. Movies and television are vastly more powerful in this regard; popular music only slightly less. The mere presentation of ideas on the poetic page – no matter how compelling the poet seeks to be – is, by definition, not manipulation but a specialize kind of discourse. If the reader has not been deprived of the skills of reading or reasoning, through poor education, or endless mind-numbing exposure to a series of rapidly moving pictures, he or she will have at least the minimum skills necessary to assess any content insidiously lurking in a poem. Whether the media bombardment surrounding the reading experience can be overcome, however, is a genuine question.
Doctor Joseph S. Salemi is an excellent
Neo-Formalist poet. Happily, he does not always obey his own prescriptions
or proscriptions. His best work finds its way free of them by various
rationalizations. Not surprisingly, conservative content is tucked away in
it here, there and everywhere. His columns are strident and controversial,
and, if that defines success, they are successful. They rank high for even
mentioning (albeit, in passing) such subjects as didactic poetry. However,
if they are required to be well reasoned and well written, in order to
achieve success, they are at best uneven. At worst, they are ‘The Curse’