The HyperTexts

Joseph S. Salemi: How the Mighty Have Fallen

Is Dr. Joseph S. Salemi really "America's greatest man of letters," as the Keystone Scops have claimed more than once?

How the Mighty Have Fallen!
by Michael R. Burch

This essay was written on June 7, 2017 when, to my surprise, nay shock, I first learned that Dr. Joseph S. Salemi had become a member of the Advisory Board of the Society of Classical Poets. I had always been under the impression that Salemi had high standards as an editor for the poetry he published, so I was taken aback that he had thrown in with a group of poets I have come to think of as the Keystone Scops.

It recently came to my attention that Dr. Joseph S. Salemi is now a member of the Advisory Board of the Society of Classical Poets. While I have not always been a fan of Dr. Salemi’s methods, which in my opinion have been heavy-handed at times, I have found him to be knowledgeable on the subject of poetry and a competent writer; indeed, I have published several of his poems myself. So I decided to check out the Society, which appears to be what it calls itself.

According to a Society-published article by Joseph Charles MacKenzie, Dr. Salemi is “our nation’s finest classical poet” and one of the “shining stars of a small pléiade of poets” which includes Evan Mantyk, “America's top editor of traditional verse,” James Sale, “the foremost English poet of our time,” and Samuel Gilliland, “the great bard of Scotland.” MacKenzie describes this poetic foursome as an “illustrious cluster.” I found the term “illustrious cluster” intriguing, although it’s not one that I would apply to myself or to other poets.

As the old saw goes, “the proof is in the pudding,” so I decided to dig in and sample the Society’s wares. According to the Society’s website, its 2016 journal contains “the best poetry being written today in the English-speaking world” plus “a mini-textbook on teaching classical poetry suitable for educators of all levels.” So I decided to start with the poetry and prose in that issue ...

Evan Mantyk is the president of the Society of Classical Poets and a high school English teacher in upstate New York. Salemi and Mantyk seem to have quite a bit in common, both being New York educators, in addition to being America’s greatest classical poet and its greatest editor of traditional poetry, respectively. Mantyk’s stated purpose is to resurrect Classical Poetry to its former glory. To achieve this impressive goal, Mantyk has written and published a “how to” guide for poets. So let’s take a quick “sneak peek” at excerpts from the Society’s landmark manual, How to Write Classical Poetry ...

By Michael Dashiell

... This pristine orbs,
Seem hopeless until they reveal
A rainbow patch ...

The example poem above is just a warm-up, leading to the really heavy stuff, provided by the President of the Society Himself ...

Writing a Sonnet: Easy to Hard
By Evan Mantyk

“Put simply, a sonnet is a 14-line poem. You might write one for any number of reasons: a class assignment, a birthday present, or visions of poetic paradise and posterity. Let’s begin. I’ll take you through a simple guide that can lead to a basic sonnet in 10 minutes at the easy level to one that demonstrates literary mastery at the difficult level.”

Skipping quickly ahead, here is the promised “literary mastery” at the “difficult level” ...

On William Bradford’s “Sunrise on the Bay of Fundy”
By Evan Mantyk

A steady wind slaps me on my boat and face,
And rolling waves try to tip my legs and feet,
Yet, the world of light rises up in grace,
Which makes my roughshod life seem soft and sweet.
Our ship has not yet raised its measly sail,
My mate and I have much hard work ahead,
And yet, toward heaven’s clouds, blows the gale
That could lift us up t’where the angels tread,
To where our hearts and minds are freed and cleansed,
Expanded by the wide horizon line,
To where the softest clouds above ascend
Into a color free from earth’s confines,
Beyond the mighty ships that gather round,
Beyond my flesh, which to the sea is bound.

Here are more examples of “the best poetry being written today in the English-speaking world,” in the form of excerpts of poems published by the Society on its website:

"Beauty is eternal truly,"
I heard that beautiful rose say
But who can for me find such a beauty
Who won't one day just fade away?


And while this life we passage,
Your bloom will help me bear,
My feelings for you, waiting,
Until your standing here.


In that part of the day that briefly follows night,
before the turning finds the steady lying line
from where the biggest star will mount and will get bright,
I turn me inside out and start to lift my spine.


Then smash the ocean hits the land
And pounds upon the coast;
I see a battle vast expands
And shakes my earthly post.

One wonders whether even Dr. Salemi’s reputation can survive such an Inferno! Is Dr. Salemi proud of his affiliation with the Society, or have the self-alleged mighty fallen to unprecedented depths?

The Society's slogan, prominent on its website, is "Rhyming, rhythmic and rapturous." More false advertising, perhaps? Is there anything “rapturous” about the poems above?

According to the Society: “English poetry has been in existence for at least 1,400 years. This tradition continues alive and well at The Society of Classical Poets like nowhere else.” More false advertising? Shouldn’t the Society publish only exceptional poetry before making such earthshaking claims? And if classical English poetry goes back 1,400 years, shouldn’t we junk all this newfangled stuff—iambs, rhymes, sonnets, etc.—and return to alliterative verse? If radical innovations made in the early 1900s are non-classical, what about the radical innovations of iambic pentameter and the sonnet form?

The eminent Dr. Salemi (at least according to his new partners in poetic crimes) is now a member of the Society's advisory board. Shouldn't he advise the Society to stop making such outrageous claims, or at the very least to stop publishing such terrible poetry before making them?

Here’s another odd claim made by the Society ...

One can become an "Accredited Classical Poet" by paying the Society a fee, submitting a single poem and analyzing a single classical poem! Can it really be that easy? Did Mantyk or Salemi bother to “analyze” the poems above?

But who cares about the quality of poems, when one can acquire impressive titles simply by making donations to the Society?

$50: Troubadour; Trobairitz
$100: Patron of Poetry; Patroness of Poetry
$500: Lord of Poetry; Lady of Poetry
$1,000: Golden Griffin
$2,000: Platinum Pegasus

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that there are no “Golden Griffins” or “Platinum Pegasuses” to be found. If there are, I definitely want a piece of the action!

But at least the Society has the stellar criticism of President Evan Mantyk to fall back on ...

Excerpts from “10 Greatest Poems Ever Written”
By Evan Mantyk

This poem ["The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost] deals with that big noble question of "How to make a difference in the world?" ... [it] tears apart the traditional view of individualism, which hinges on the importance of choice, as in the case of democracy in general (choosing a candidate), as well as various constitutional freedoms: choice of religion, choice of words (freedom of speech), choice of group (freedom of assembly), and choice of source of information (freedom of press).

I think Robert Frost would be surprised to learn that his famous poem has anything to do with “democracy,” “constitutional freedoms,” “religion” and/or “freedom of press.”

“Ozymandias is believed to have been the villainous pharaoh who enslaved the ancient Hebrews and who Moses led the exodus from. If all ordinary pursuits, such as power and fame, are but dust, what remains, the poem suggests, are spirituality and morality-embodied by the ancient Hebrew faith. If you don't have those then in the long run you are a ‘colossal wreck.’ Thus, the perfectly composed scene itself, the Egyptian imagery, and the Biblical backstory convey a perennial message and make this a great poem.”

I think Percy Bysshe Shelley, a skeptical atheist, would be shocked to learn that he had written a poem endorsing Hebraic faith and spirituality!

“What would have created such a dangerous and evil creature [as William Blake's ‘Tyger’]? How could it possibly be the same divine blacksmith who created a cute harmless fluffy lamb or who created Jesus, also known as the ‘Lamb of God’ (which the devoutly Christian Blake was probably also referring to here).”

William Blake, who called the biblical god “Nobodaddy” and claimed to be his own deliverer, with no need to be “saved” by “faith” in Jesus Christ, would surely be amazed to learn that he was a “devout” Christian!

“This nine-stanza poem (‘A Psalm of Life’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) ... seems to be a reaction against science, which is focused on calculations (‘mournful numbers’) and empirical evidence, of which there is no, or very little, to prove the existence of the soul.”

Oh really? Terrible grammar aside, it seem obvious from Longfellow’s poem that the “mournful numbers” are those of the psalmist, not of science, which did not exist when the psalms were being written!

“ ... The attack on a summer's day (in ‘Sonnet 18’ by William Shakespeare) is not arbitrary ...”

I think Shakespeare would be very surprised to learn that his famous sonnet was an “attack on a summer’s day.”

Yes, the eminent Dr. Salemi must be very proud of his affiliation with the Society! Or have the self-alleged mighty fallen to unprecedented depths?

Related Pages: A Review of the Society's Literary Journal, Laureates 'R' US, Joseph Charles MacKenzie: Poet or Pretender?, Evan Mantyk's Poetic Tic, James Sale's Blue Light Special, Bruce Dale Wise or Un-?, "How to Write a Real Good Poem" by R. S. Gwano, Salemi's Dilemma, Salemi Interview and Responses by Other Poets

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