The HyperTexts

Tom Merrill's and Michael R. Burch's Responses to Joseph Salemi's article "The Totems of Poetry"

TM: In response to Joseph Salemi's article "The Totems of Poetry," in which he lists ten notions about poetry to which he believes many habitually pay lip service without really believing them to be true, and which he apparently regards as fallacies, I thought a demurral or two might be in order.

MRB: In the interest of presenting multiple vantages of the picture to younger poets and beginners of all ages, I'd like to tag along and add my two (or three) cents' worth, if I may ...

TM: Consistent with Salemi's breath-saving method of debunking all ten alleged fallacies, he dispatches the first of them—that poets should "express what they truly think and feel"—by asserting, as if it were self-evident, that "They're supposed to lie through their teeth, if necessary, to create a good aesthetic effect." That being his entire rebuttal of the alleged fallacy, no supporting argument being offered nor a single shred of evidence given to substantiate it, apparently we are just expected to know what he means, understand and agree, and regard the case as closed.

MRB: Tom, I agree with you here. While I tend to sympathize with what I believe Dr. Salemi is saying—that poetry doesn't have to be absolutely factual o be good—his statement that poets must be willing to "lie through their teeth" for the sake of a "good aesthetic effect" is more than a bit off-putting to me. This isn't what I would tell a young poet. Rather, I would say that poetry is often a process of embellishing facts with fiction, for a specific purpose. The specific purpose might be to create a mood, to set a stage, to help a story along, or to make something clear (or clearer) to the reader. Yes, poets can and do "make things up." But everything in a poem, or in any work of art, should exist for a purpose, and that purpose should be larger and grander than merely creating a "good aesthetic effect." Nor do I see any point in lying simply for the sake of lying. If poetic license is used, it should be used to further the main objective of the poem. And the main objective of the poem should be, in my mind, communion between the poet and reader. What we seek as readers in any such communion is revelation and emotion: a moving experience. It seems to me that poets are almost always trying to convey a truth or revelation to their readers. Yes, they may employ fictions liberally, but seldom if ever "false" fictions, if that makes sense. As a poet, when I "make things up," I am never "lying," but merely trying to aid and abet the truth as I see it at a particular moment, in the context of a particular poem.

TM: Personally, I regard Salemi's contention as quite misleading. Having written what some have seemed to regard as passable lyric poetry myself, and having a pretty good notion of its sources and aims at least in my own case, I am quite sure that lying through the teeth is wholly inaccurate as a description of what I personally have ever been doing when composing a poem or when sometimes, either in whole or in part, it has seemed to compose itself. Quite to the contrary in fact, I've been, if anything, intent on getting myself right—on self-documentation—and on translating, from an inchoate state into as representative a verbal facsimile as possible, the emotion or mood, idea or experience or memory that was the moving force and impulse behind my effort at concretizing my own peculiar spirit and sensibility in some given or created poetic mold. I would argue that even in poems in which some of the action is imagined, rather than directly experienced or remembered, such as Eliot's Prufrock perhaps, the poet's temper or essential spirit is bound to seep through and be palpable.

MRB: "Prufrock" is a good poem to cite, as it's one of the masterpieces of early Modernism. In "Prufrock" Eliot uses a wide variety of literary devices, including overstatement and obscurity, but always with a specific purpose in mind: to make the reader see Prufrock. I don't think Eliot is "lying through his teeth," but is perhaps revealing the "inner workings" of a romantic poet wriggling on the excruciating pin of modernity. If there are exaggerations in "Prufrock"—and I don't doubt that there are—those exaggerations are not meant to mislead the reader, but to reveal essential truths more fully. Prufrock is, in a sense, both Hamlet and Polonius, both tragic hero and comic anti-hero. I believe that Eliot's "essential spirit" lives and breathes palpably in Prufrock, just as Whitman's myth of himself lives and breathes palpably in "Leaves of Grass" even though Whitman seems not to have been the outrageous carouser he portrayed himself to have been. And I think something of the essential nature of Robert Frost lives and breathes palpably in the small, forlorn voice of the boy who narrates "Directive." Are there fictions and embellishments in the works of these three poets? Undoubtedly. But I believe these fictions and embellishments are, Lexus-like, in "relentless pursuit" of the truth.

TM: To characterize lyric poetry as a vehicle for lying through the teeth merely to achieve a lovely effect, to my mind devalues the genre irretrievably. Fortunately I can't think of a single lyric poem I've greatly admired that fits Salemi's description.

MRB: I believe Dr. Salemi has employed overstatement and perhaps shot himself in the foot in the process. I don't believe we will find great poems that are out-and-out lies. Rather, as the Gnostics did, we find poets creating wild, mysterious myths in order to explain the inexplicable. In his "Directive" Frost tells us to "drink and be whole again beyond confusion." Of course we don't know how to do that. Nor does the poem's narrator. Nor did Frost. And yet somehow we know that the goal of man is not to return to the "ignorance is bliss" state of pre-fall Eden, but to acquire knowledge and, hopefully, wisdom. If the poet has knowledge or wisdom, he will convey it. Lacking knowledge and wisdom, he will conjecture questions and cast aspersions at all "knowledge" that proves to be merely the flip side of the coin. If the poet cannot erect castles, he will knock down those made merely of hot air.

TM: But maybe Salemi's qualification "if necessary" was to indicate that dishonesty in poetry might be more the exception than the rule, and that truth is only subordinated to beauty by poets as a last resort, as when—but no, I had better forego pretending I can think of a real example. Suffice it to say that Salemi's implicit suggestion that poets give more weight to their composition's line and proportion than to the substance with which they inform it, I think invites argument. It would be interesting to see an example—if there be one—of the sort of poem that Salemi had in mind when making this claim, the essential point of which would seem to be that at least sometimes, beauty is exalted above truth in the poetic hierarchy of values. I think it could be argued that beauty without truth is rather shallow, essentially disappointing, and perhaps bound to lack staying power, something that may be as true of literary works as it is of people. "Beauty is not enough," said Millay in an entirely unrelated context, and I completely agree.

MRB: I believe Dr. Salemi is correct if he means that poetry should not be held to some artificial standard of "absolute truth," which seems to lie beyond the grasp of man and probably also the gods. But his choice of words is unfortunate. Poets should be the creators of world-explaining and world-expanding myths, not lies.

TM: Salemi's second alleged fallacy, that "poetry ennobles and heightens human consciousness," is swept away with another whisk of his wand. "This is like believing a college degree makes you a better person," he says, "or that learning French will improve your moral stature." While I doubt sainthood or heroism will result from acquiring French or a degree, I'm not at all sure that becoming acquainted with some of the works of poetry's more authentic representatives can't raise one's standards of speech, nor that the raising of such standards can't have a healthy influence on general discourse. Poetry at its best lends a voice and dignity to the human predicament all of us find ourselves in, and sets before us a standard of expression, and also of self-examination, worthy of emulation.

MRB: I believe that one of the wonderful functions of poetry is that it compels us to aspire to it. To read Blake's lovely, touching poems about chimneysweeps is to understand that poetry can and does make things happen. Child labor laws have changed. My children and yours will never be chimneysweeps. Poetry speaks to our hearts, to our souls. It forces us to question ourselves. We have eternal lines that have changed the world:

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.

Here, we have three famous quotations by Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill. They each used a literary device, the chiasmus, to make essential declarations. Their words became memorable as a result, and today we remember what they said. Some of us take heart from them, and a few of us live by them. Poetry can and does make things happen.

TM: Familiarity with fine poetry can heighten our awareness of language's potential for unlocking truths about ourselves and also for preserving them. And it is ennobling, it seems to me, to come to terms with ourselves through such a medium and to seek to define ourselves in the most unpretentious of ways. The best poetry sacrifices image to truth, and there is nobility and a kind of courage in self-exposure, an honesty that betrays the heart we commonly keep hidden.

MRB: One function of poetry, I believe, is to lay bare the human heart and acknowledge it for what it is. The human heart is undeniable: its cares, its sorrows and its soaring triumphs. Man is noble because his "god" condemned him to death, and yet he still lives and perseveres, not knowing who he is, or why he lives, and suffers, and dies. The great heroes didn't know where they were going, or why, and yet they set out just the same: Ulysses, Moses, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Columbus, Whitman, Einstein, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Elvis, Princess Diana. The gods ignored, then slew them, as they ignore and slay us all, and yet today these men and women are immortal. Poetry commemorates the struggle, the injustice of life and death, the horror of living, of death and hell. Poetry is the record, in Coleridge's "best possible words" of man's struggle with the gods, with evolution, with the universe, with Death itself.

TM: Shelley's observation that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind" is the third alleged fantasy to be summarily dismissed. It was born of Shelley's "frustrated power-complex," Salemi says, adding that the "very thought of poets having actual political power is as horrifying as Jurassic Park." One of the more acknowledged poet-legislators was Senator Yeats, who may have been a dinosaur, who knows, although neither Pound nor Eliot seemed to think so. And Milton also, a polyglot fluent in eight or nine languages, ancient as well as modern, when recruited for the position of Secretary of Foreign Languages in Cromwell's England and during a period of considerable upheaval there, wrote numerous influential treatises and exerted some hefty pulls in the perennial tug-of-war of debate. But an observation about books that he made in his Areopagitica, published in 1644—that they "preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect bred in them"—perhaps brings us closer to what Shelley may have meant, which perhaps was nothing so literal as Salemi's interpretation, but only that those with the most advanced and compelling mastery of language can, and typically do, exert considerable influence on human thought and, to the extent that thought yields action, perhaps on human behavior as well.

MRB: Yes, I agree. If poetry is "the best possible words" then surely among our poets we number Socrates, Plato, Jesus Christ, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln. The words that inspire us, that cause goosebumps to form on our arms and our hair to raise—do we gain nothing from them? I think of the Bible, and of ringing verses like "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." And then I think of Pilate washing his hands, asking, "What is the truth?" Two thousand years later, the debate continues. I remember reading somewhere that 98% of the words of Jesus Christ were recorded as poetry. The King James Bible is poetry. The words of Paine and Jefferson and Lincoln are, often enough, sheer poetry. It seems all the best questions and many plausible answers frame themselves as poetry: To be or not to be? Isn't that the ultimate question? Who legislates between life and death, if not the poets?

TM: The power of the word, when well conceived and a vital distillation of the human spirit, should perhaps not be underestimated. It seems fair to say that in general, great literature is bound to be influential, since language is the principal medium of thought, and ideas powerfully expressed can give rise to movements and action, for better or for worse. The Bible, a book full of poetic passages and whose less acknowledged authors were men, men with quite a gift for composition, with its undeniably awesome and still enduring authority in human affairs is perhaps unrivalled in literature for its legislative impact.

MRB: Yes, and see how compelling and powerful the Bible's conceptions and interpretations remain to this day. Galileo hazarded death at the hands of the Inquisition for suggesting the earth revolved around the sun, which it undoubtedly does. Michael Servetus, the discoverer of the nature of pulmonary circulation system, died at the hands of John Calvin for having the temerity not to believe in the Trinity. Saint Thomas More, the penner of "Utopia," whose ultra-civilized inhabitants always chose war as a last recourse, himself had "heretics" burned at the stake. Because of a few obscure verses in Genesis, most Christians seem more than willing to call their beloved children "evil worms" and willingly foist "original sin" on all unlucky mankind, even though the fossil record clearly shows that death reigned on this planet long before man appeared on the scene. Who, indeed, can deny the power of poetry, if it can convince men they're responsible for trillions of deaths that occurred for billions of years before they even existed?

TM: Poets do not always write poetry, but like Coleridge, Milton, Wordsworth, Dryden, Pound, Eliot, Housman, Hardy, Santayana—for a few relatively modern examples—and hosts of other formidable writers have exhibited mastery and exerted their singular powers of expression in more than one literary genre. But one important way their more specifically artistic composition can have a decisive impact on thought and action is by posing an enduring challenge to the creative spirit, and firing an aspiration to leave a more durable imprint of one's own peculiar experience on the ongoing legend of human affairs. Great poets can still seem the last word on their chosen themes and overriding concerns long after their brief bright candles have been snuffed. For famous example,

                           "To be or not to be, that is the question;
                             Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
                             The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
                             Or take arms against a sea of troubles,
                             And by opposing, end them?  To die, to sleep;
                             No more; and by a sleep to say we end
                             The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
                             That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
                             Devoutly to be wished.  To die, to sleep;
                             To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub..."

remains a contemplation on the subject of suicide, or the choice between life and death, difficult to surpass, if it is only one of countless such passages in the enormous corpus of this extraordinary poet and setter of the high mark in Western literature, whose formulations today have no less power than they did in the 16th-century to speak directly to our experience and sum up the human predicament about as well as it has ever been done. Writers of such towering eminence will continue to have their influence, subtle or more direct, as they continue to be studied, and to hold sway over the human heart and imagination, and because their legacies to us comprise a vast repository of truth and insight given rare and singular voice in the loveliest and most seductive of forms.

MRB: Agreed. Whether or not poets "legislate" anything, it seems quite clear that they lead, or at least greatly participate in, the debate over all "things human." To understand the human condition, we turn to Homer, King David, Solomon, Socrates, Plato, Virgil, St. Paul, Dante, Chaucer, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson.

TM: The fourth alleged fallacy, "the language of poetry ought to be precisely the same idiom as that used in everyday life," is indeed a fallacy. No one has ever spoken like any poem worth reading. For a poem to be worth reading, its language must excite. Slogging through even a few lines of so-called poems composed, as they often are these days, in some crippled or cryptic alleged semblance of the unadorned vernacular can seem to a reader like an experience of eternity. But even less tortured and torturous examples, ones composed in a flat if more fluent prose for example, typically fail to win a reader's admiration or endear themselves to poetry lovers. I doubt that poetry would inspire so much effort at rivaling its most compelling examples if its rhythms and language were not so different from the common tongue as they are.

On the fifth alleged fallacy, that "creativity breaks rules and transgresses boundaries," Salemi comments that "Creativity puts itself to school, learning everything it can, and then manifests itself as one more facet of the great tradition." Certainly if grammatical rules are to be broken, it is better to know one is breaking them than to do it accidentally or inevitably due to never having learned them. cummings certainly put a different spin on the language, and developed a somewhat innovative style and syntax in his post-collegiate days, but while a student at Harvard he showed himself quite capable of writing good solid standard English, and in fact composed a few poems in his younger years that were decidedly Victorian in style. But whether one writes more innovatively or standardly, for a poet to have authority, readers must believe that he (or she) has command and mastery of his only medium, language. Solecisms, awkward and unnatural phrases, or tortured language in a poem do not inspire faith in the poet who authored it. Putting the cart before the horse is not a good idea, and it's too bad that American education now emphasizes imagination over memory in the formative years of a child's life, when it is easiest to pick up and absorb those fundamentals so essential for expressing oneself competently and persuasively. As long as we're going to continue being here, it seems best that we achieve what we can, and realize some decent fraction of our potential, and we should be equipped and armed with all the tools available in order to have the best shot at doing so.

Against the sixth alleged fallacy, that "poetry teaches us great lessons," Salemi contends that "it doesn't teach us a damn thing. It is what it is, and that's all." One of the great lessons it teaches us is the power of inspired language to arouse our admiration. As with all forms of beauty, it catches and holds our attention and in some of us, gives rise to a desire to emulate and try to equal such remarkable and impressive productions. It can set our sights higher. And it teaches us also that, when handled in a masterly fashion, language can outlive us and preserve a record of our peculiar individual experience after time has erased every other trace of us. It teaches us further that there is at least one small corner of existence where it is perhaps safer—and indeed is common practice—to open a window on our hearts, and where the usual self-protective shields we erect in everyday discourse can be pulled down, and we can express more freely what we customarily keep to ourselves to keep our vulnerabilities out of sight. Poetry can sometimes be a bit like crying in public, and while some philosophers have regarded this as unworthy of men, tears nonetheless can give rise to empathy, and I'm not at all sure that more shared glimpses into our secret and carefully guarded selves, and into our common predicament or tragedy, would not serve to weaken the walls that divide us.

The seventh alleged fallacy, "if you are going to be a good poet, you must write about things that you personally know," Salemi answers by pointing to Shakespeare, who, he says, "didn't write a single thing about his life in Stratford." But who knows which of his images, scenes or characters may have been sparked by his home life? Just because a poet doesn't specify the local origin of such elements, is no reason to assume that they weren't inspired by the poet's experience in some particular locale. It is impossible to know to which places Shakespeare's memory took him in his writing, or which specific experiences he may have been recalling when roaming the wide inner world of a lifetime's impressions, and converting those impressions into poetic substance. My point is that it is quite possible to write a poem involving memories or impressions of life in Stratford without mentioning Stratford. But with regard to the alleged fallacy itself, I can only say that every poem I admire shows a knowledge of its subject. If it didn't, but betrayed an ignorance of it, I doubt it would stand up very well as a poem, or endear us to itself in the way poems can that speak to our own experience in some vital way. Is Salemi here suggesting poets should write of things of which they don't know? I've seen that done I suppose. Poems in which God's intentions and wishes are stated come to mind. I always find myself wishing the authors of such poems wouldn't presume to know, and that they would focus more on what is more within their ken.

To the eighth one, "that poets see more deeply into reality than the rest of us," he counters that "They see exactly what everyone sees. Poets are simply more skilled in expressing themselves." Perhaps mental acuity, and arguably a sharper and more painful sensitivity, make no difference to perception. At any rate, it is impossible to know what everyone sees, since it is impossible to know anyone's experience but one's own, and even that can remain dark to us if we make no effort at examining it and translating it into lucid terms. Still, it is hard to believe that poetic insight is a common possession, known by all even if everyone does not have the same ability to bring it to light in language. It could be argued I think that such insight does not exist until it takes specific shape and substance in words. But it could perhaps also be argued that to understand another's viewpoint some hint of it must already exist—if perhaps in some less articulated form—in the isolated precincts of one's own mind.

In answer to the ninth, that "good poets are always on the side of the angels," he points to Pound, Neruda and Baraka as clear evidence against. Whose side they were on remains to be revealed. But for me to see what Salemi means by this, some examples would need to be adduced, and some explanation provided.

To the tenth, that "poetry should provide inspiration, uplift, and positive values," he says "Yeah, and we should all be kind to children and dumb animals. Poetry doesn't have to be anything except excellent." And there is certainly much disagreement today over what exactly excellence in poetry is. My own enjoyment of a poem is based on its excitement of my admiration. And my admiration is excited by the beauty and fineness of its composition, combined with the truth and beauty of the sentiment or outlook expressed.

Overall, my response has been a bit like shooting at fog. Several of the alleged fallacies Salemi targets seem somewhat vague and open to interpretation, and his summary dismissals seem equally vague, and also rather arbitrary and perfunctory. As a result, I've been largely busy here trying to interpret words and phrases whose meaning hasn't seemed altogether obvious, but has seemed worth trying to discover, or at least to invent. My own reading of some of Salemi's alleged fallacies has yielded some opinions at odds with his own. Where he has seen patent absurdity and falsehood, and found it unworthy of extended comment, I've been more engaged in an exercise of imagination, trying to expand a few hints and fragments into a viewpoint that might justify them and lend them some persuasive power. At any rate, I think it would help considerably if something more were said by this author about the possible meaning of each alleged fallacy, and if he also offered some substantiating arguments to lend weight and reason to his responses to them. As those responses stand, they are not persuasive, not to this reader at least, and with only a couple of exceptions—his point about writing in the vernacular, his point about breaking the rules—they do not seem at all self-evident. If he is too busy or too impatient, or doesn't care to take the time and trouble to persuade readers, but instead just expects them to see, and nod their assent to his wand-whisking dismissals, I think he may be expecting more than he is likely to get.

The HyperTexts