Joseph S. Salemi Interview
Joseph S. Salemi is a widely published scholar, translator, and
poet. As a
translator, Salemi has rendered into English a wide selection of Latin, Greek, Provencal,
and Sicilian poems, and his scholarly work has touched on writers as diverse as Chaucer,
Machiavelli, Blake, Kipling, Crane, Ernest Dowson, and William Gaddis. He has won
several awards, including the Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, the Lane Cooper Fellowship,
and an N.E.H. Summer Seminar Fellowship. He was the 1993 recipient of the Classical
and Modern Literature Award for outstanding contributions to the combined fields of
ancient and contemporary literature, and was twice a finalist for the
Howard Nemerov Prize sponsored by The Formalist, a journal in which his work has
frequently appeared. He was also one of the 1995 winners of the Orbis Prize for
fixed-form poetry, sponsored by the English journal Orbis. Salemi is also
active as a journalist, writing on current academic issues and controversies for
Measure and Heterodoxy. He
is a grandson of the Sicilian poet and translator Rosario Previti. His
poetry books Formal Complaints ($5.00 plus $1.50 shipping) and Nonsense Couplets
($8.00 plus $1.50 shipping) may be ordered from him directly at: 220 Ninth Street Brooklyn,
Michael R. Burch is a
much-published poet and the editor of The HyperTexts.
MB: Joe, I know you're a busy man, and I really do
appreciate your taking the time to do this interview. Can you tell our readers
what you've been up to lately?
JS: Well, my main work remains teaching, as has been the
case for the last forty-five years. I teach three classes in the Classics
Department of Hunter College, and two in the department of Humanities at NYU. I
also do private tutoring on occasion, so instructional labor occupies the bulk
of my time. As for poetry, I write it whenever I have a free moment. My new book
Steel Masks was published last year, and was just reviewed in The
Sewanee Review. I've been doing a good deal of translating recently, mostly
from the Satires of Horace and from Greek lyric poetry. I also contribute
a monthly essay to Leo Yankevich's The Pennsylvania Review, and have done
so since 2008. But my major task is the editing and publishing of
tenth issue of which will appear in October. That issue marks five continuous
years of publication.
MB: Joe, please tell us more about TRINACRIA. What in
heaven's name could have possessed you to launch a formal poetry journal on the cusp of
the 21st century? Are you a masochist, or is there a method to your madness?
JS: I felt that New Formalism was dissipating like a mist
cloud. Too many glassy-eyed enthusiasts were going on about how the movement had
to be "opened up" and "liberated" and "made relevant." And these types were
essentially diluting formalism's identity, both in the metrical and the
rhetorical sense. Some of this was deliberately done by persons who never liked
or trusted the movement in the first place, but most of it was simply due to the
irresistible undertow of the free-verse tide that surrounds us. I wanted a
magazine that was uncompromising in its commitment to real formal poetry, and
not to the vagaries of experimentation. God knows there are plenty of venues for
experimental work. What was needed was a journal that took an uncompromising
stand in favor of tradition. And no, I'm not a masochist. The work hasn't been
painful or onerous at all. Editing and publishing TRINACRIA has been a pure
MB: My friend Richard Moore once said that he was afraid
the new formalism would revert to the old stodginess. In my experience, having
edited The HyperTexts for two decades, there is a considerable degree of
stodginess in contemporary formalist circles, where many of the poets seem to
lack the courage to break from the herd. I think there is also an over-reliance
on "formulas," as if merely connecting the dots of meter, rhyme and form is the
be-all and end-all of poetry. But in my opinion poetry, to be an art, has to be
able to move readers, or at least capture and captivate their interest. Among
the poets you have published in TRINACRIA, are there any whose work might have a
chance to be read by future generations? If so, would you please share their
names and thoughts about them?
JS: Richard's worry about stodginess, while valid, was
misplaced. The real battle for New Formalism was to break free from the
stranglehold of free-verse habits of thought and composition. And if some
practitioners of the art are stodgy, that may have to do with their own limited
talents, and not necessarily with the art itself. The blunt fact is that there
are simply too many people today trying to be poets. Naturally in a situation of
that sort a good deal of the poetry in any particular movement is going to be
Your point about good poetry "moving" readers is fine in
the abstract. But when the great mass of our contemporary readership is
basically clueless about what actually makes for good poetry, then trying to
"move" them is both useless, and self-defeating for one's art. I have always
felt that worrying about the reactions of an external audience is the worst
possible thing that a poet can do, and I have expressed this view numerous times
in writing. Your task as a writer (if you're actually serious about the matter)
is to please your interior audience of values, criteria, and stylistic
preferences. Betraying them for the purpose of moving some anonymous pack of
readers (whom you can't know or identify in any case) is pointless.
I prefer not to single out any particular poets in
TRINACRIA for praise. I liked them all, or I wouldn't have published them. As
for the opinions of future generations—well, I simply am uninterested.
MB: Joe, you seem to be saying that readers need to
understand how poetry works in order to be moved by it. But I can enjoy good
music without knowing how it works, never having studied music. If I can be
moved by a song like "Danny Boy" and children who have never studied poetry or
theater can be moved by performances of Shakespeare's plays, doesn't that prove,
or at least tend to confirm, that knowledge of art has little to do with
appreciation of art?
JS: Naturally there is a naive appreciation of any art.
People can "like" a fine painting by Tiziano or Da Vinci, but still be
unaware of issues of perspective, foreshortening, palette, composition, brush
stroke, and all the other incidentals of a knowledgeable painter's craft. The
problem with saying that emotional reaction is all that really matters in art is
that it is vulnerable to the de gustibus non est
disputandum response. Suppose someone is moved by absolute garbage, or
tasteless trivia, or sheer ineptitude? Just look at some of the gushing praise
that is given at on-line workshops to poems that you and I both agree are
pathetic failures. And yet apparently such poems "move" some people.
Music is not a good example to choose, since music (as
Schopenhauer pointed out) is specifically directed to the will and to
instinctual urges. Savages can be "moved" by drumbeats and rhythmic cries. But
traditional formal poetry is a linguistic art, and therefore it demands a
certain rationality and verbal awareness and associative memory.
As for those children being moved by performances of
Shakespeare's plays—what in fact is moving them? It's not Elizabethan poetry, or
early modern English, or the manifold allusions to classical myth. What's moving
them is the mere fact of performance itself: the strange costumes, the action on
stage, the rough-and-tumble of fighting and swordplay, and a day off from
school. Don't mistake Joseph Papp razzle-dazzle for a real appreciation of
Shakespeare. I've taken many classes of students to see Shakespeare, and what
they get out of it is merely the enjoyment of surface phenomena of that sort.
MB: Joe, it sounds as if you're saying that most human
beings must be unable to appreciate the beauty of sunrises and sunsets because
they don't understand the physics involved. And what sort of reaction to beauty
can there be, other than an emotional response? Is there any intellectual reason
to believe that sunrises and sunsets are more lovely than overcast skies? Why,
when a rainbow appears in one of those overcast skies, does it seem like a small
"Danny Boy" has lyrics, quite evocative ones in my opinion, even without the music.
I didn't say that an emotional reaction is "all" that matters.
Why do you speak so dismissively of children, I wonder?
When I was a child, I was fully able to appreciate poetry without any of the
trappings you mentioned. Without any formal training in poetry, I read poems
independently and I recognized the great poets by their unadorned words and my
emotional and intellectual response to them. Emily Dickinson said that she knew
real poetry by her physical reaction to it. Robert Frost, perhaps the greatest
strict formalist of recent times, said that poetry begins in delight and ends in
wisdom. Shakespeare himself wrote: "The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, /
Doth glance from heaven to earth, / From earth to heaven." Do you think they
were "naive" to believe there is more to art than following its brushstrokes?
JS: A sunrise or a sunset is not a literary artifact, Mike.
You're confusing natural phenomena with complex cultural creations that are the
product of thought, deliberation, and the remembrance of one's verbal
I did not speak dismissively of children. I simply pointed
out that they do not usually have the sophisticated appreciation of a text that
comes with age, learning, and experience. What's so upsetting about that? A full
and mature understanding of a literary text comes out of what I have called "a
literary sensibility"—that is, a sensibility that has been steeped in the
careful reading and long-nurtured appreciation of one's linguistic traditions.
Naturally children won't have that until they've gotten many years of reading
under their belt. And until they do, their reactions to works of art will be
essentially visceral. There's nothing evil about such a reaction, but there's no
need to canonize it into something wonderful.
Frost's remark about "delight and wisdom" is merely a
crackerbarrel American version of Horace's dictum from his Ars Poetica that
poetry's task is to "delight and to teach." As I argued with Robert Darling many
years ago, the dictum is purely a cover story, utterly unconnected with anything
that Horace does in his own poetry, and basically unconnected with how real
poets produce their poems.
You're putting words into my mouth by claiming that I am
suggesting that art is no more than "following brushstrokes." I never said that.
What you don't seem to understand is that there are many possible reactions to
beauty (or anything else, for that matter) other than an emotional one. As for
Emily Dickinson, she didn't say that her reaction to good poetry was actually
physical. She said that when she read something good it was as if the top of her
head were blown off. That was only a metaphor on Emily's part. She meant that
she had a complex inner experience of intellectual perception, critical
appreciation, linguistic fascination, and yes, affective response. That's light
years beyond the emotional gush that inundates us now.
MB: Joe, I am not "confused." I made the point that human
beings don't have to understand the source of beauty to appreciate it. If I
don't have to understand the physics of sunsets or the biology of songbirds,
then I also don't have to understand the mechanics of human art. I know very
little about music or painting, but I still appreciate great music and
paintings. I can't explain what makes women beautiful, but I sure as hell know
beautiful women when I see them. And I think Socrates would question how much
you really "know" about art: do you fully understand every aspect of the
physics, chemistry and biology involved? The universe is full of mysteries and
honest scientists admit that they still have a lot to learn. So if you
appreciate great poetry and art, and yet can't explain every aspect down to the
quantum level, you have helped prove my point.
I am not "upset" about what you said about children; I just
disagree with you. Richard Wilbur said, "I credit them with the brains and sense
of humor that they really do have." I agree with Wilbur. And having been a child
who read poetry independently, I can assure you that I got a lot more out of
what I read than an "essentially visceral" response. Young children have amazing
intellects. They learn much faster than adults. My childhood response to great
poetry was both emotional and intellectual.
Frost, a man who knew the meanings of words and used them
precisely, said that poetry begins in delight, not that it delights and
teaches simultaneously. He also defined poetry as an expression of emotion: "A
poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love sickness. It is
a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem
is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words."
Wordsworth said something very similar: that the source of poetry is recollected emotion.
Wilbur said in an interview that the poems of Frost's that he loves best are his
emotional, lyrical poems. Sidney said that his Muse told him to look in his
heart and write. Shakespeare and Dickinson were obviously talking about the
emotional aspect of poetry as well. Dickinson said, "If I read a book and it
makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel
physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." She
actually used the word "physically." These major poets knew that great poetry is moving. If you appreciate great poetry
without knowing this, you have just helped prove my first and second points.
JS: Arguing about "the physics, chemistry, and biology" of
a poem (or one's reaction to a poem) is meaningless. A poem is a cultural and
linguistic artifact. It can't be examined like a biopsy slide under a
microscope. And neither can the intellectual response of a reader.
No one is denying that children have brains and a sense of
humor. But putting their untutored reaction to a literary work of art on the
same level as that of a trained adult reader is utopian. Look—when I was a kid
(about seven or eight years old), one of my favorite poems was John Masefield's
"Spanish Waters." The main reason I liked it was because it was about buried
treasure, a subject that fascinated me back then. I could read the poem, and I
understood its basic gist, and I enjoyed its rhythmic flow. But there was much
of it that was utterly beyond my ken. My mom had to go over it with me line by
line, explaining difficult passages and recondite vocabulary. How else could I
understand a line like:
Longing for a long drink, out of silver, from the ship's cool lazareet
or the line "Jewels from the bones of Incas, desecrated by the Dons"
or a phrase like "bezoar stones from Guyaquil"? Or how
would I know that the name of the beach in the poem, Los Muertos, meant "The
Dead"? All of this had to be carefully explained to me by my mother. She told me
about inversions, and the poetic license that allowed Masefield to say
"lazareet" instead of "lazaret," and who the Incas and the Dons were. Without
her adult understanding and explanation, my reaction to the poem would have been
utterly maimed and superficial.
You end your question by quoting a raft of authorities:
Frost, Sidney, Wilbur, Wordsworth, et al. Why should that prove anything to
anybody, Mike? As a matter of fact, famous poets are notoriously undependable
when it comes to giving explanations for aesthetic practices, whether their own
or anyone else's. Such explanations are always after the fact, and they are
frequently self-serving. Name-dropping doesn't constitute an argument.
MB: Joe, I don't agree, but rather than beating a dead
horse, let's move on to your poetry. In my opinion, your best poem is "The
Lilacs on Good Friday" and I also especially admire "The Missionary's Position."
Please tell us how you came to write those poems: their inspiration, how your
faith informed them, and anything else you care to share with our readers.
JS: Yes, we can agree to disagree and move on. I know that
you like the missionary poem, so I'll start with that one. It was written many
years back, and I can't fully recall the circumstances of its composition, but
it's very likely I wrote it for submission to the Howard Nemerov competition
that used to be run by Bill Baer's The Formalist magazine. I produced a
large number of sonnets just for that contest. As for its subject matter, it is
related to my dislike of any sort of proselytizing and evangelizing. I have a
viscerally negative reaction to anything that is hortatory or preachy, or that
has the aim of converting strangers to one's way of doing things. So I imagined
a missionary speaking and defending his successful attempt to convert savages to
Biblical precepts. I tried to show how the missionary did understand that he had
in fact complicated and wounded the psychic lives of his converts, but how he
also refused to admit that his actions were bad or harmful. I close the sonnet
with him saying that the Word of God is "better endured in grief than left
unheard." That to me is the evil side of evangelization—the notion that even if
what we are bringing to you is painful and upsetting, it's nevertheless "good"
for you. People often read that sonnet as an anti-Christian poem, and its
incidental imagery supports such a view, but in fact I meant it more as an
anti-liberal poem. The title, of course, is comical and ironic—it alludes to the
practice of many missionaries of compelling their native converts to have sex
only in the face-to-face position, as if the position one takes in coitus had
some sort of religious or moral significance.
The second poem ("The Lilacs on Good Friday") is much more
complicated in both its subject matter and its compositional motivation. I wrote
it around 1997, at a time when my father was seriously ill, and the sense of
impending mortality was very heavy in my mind. The poem's basic armature is a
description of some very old and tall lilac bushes in my parents' garden in
Woodside. I have always associated lilacs with Easter and the Resurrection,
simply because they tend to bloom around that time of year. What the poem does,
in a dozen quatrains, is to conflate a memory of Christ's Passion, death, and
impending burial with images of falling flowerets and the beauty of lilacs, as
well as alluding to the gardens of Eden and Gethsemane. I also make use, via
concise translation, of the versicle and response from the Office of the Holy
Cross (Domine, labia mea aperies / Et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam),
when I write "Open my lips, O Lord, and let my tongue / Announce thy praises".
So the poem is a complex meshwork of fear, sorrow, prayer, and concern for the
impending death of a loved one, placed in the family setting of a garden, on the
most sacred of days for a Roman Catholic.
MB: One might say that taken together your poems contrast the
good and bad of Christianity. I know from essays and other poems you've written
that you particularly dislike American puritanism and protestant evangelism.
Those are things we can certainly agree about. Having grown up attending
evangelical Christian churches that churned out bizarre ideas—sex is "evil," the
earth was created 6,000 years ago, Christians must support Israel in order to
escape the "tribulation"—well, in this case familiarity has bred contempt. The
last idea seems likely to ignite WWIII, especially if another "born-again" moron
like George W. Bush occupies the White House at the wrong time. And yet most
contemporary poets seem to lack the wisdom (or is it the guts?) to call
right-wing churches and their religion-addled congregations what they so clearly
are: perhaps the greatest threat to continued human existence in the history of
our planet. If writers oppose the evil collusion of American neocons and Israeli
war hawks, the writers are accused of being "anti-Semites" and "intolerant."
Have you ever been attacked in literary circles for calling a spade a spade?
JS: I've spent a great part of my literary career being
attacked by all sorts of persons. It's what you might call an occupational
hazard of anyone who is a right-wing conservative Roman Catholic white male.
It's true that I have a strong distaste for both American puritanism (the
half-assed idea that the United States is a "city upon a hill" and somehow
morally "exceptional") and for Protestant fundamentalism. This distaste began
with my reading of H.L. Mencken, and was reinforced by both Samuel Butlers (the
author of Hudibras, and the later novelist who wrote The Way of All Flesh). But
this crackpot American idea is represented not just by those conservative
Protestant sects that you dislike, but also by contemporary liberalism. It's not
just pro-Israeli neocons who are trying to force their will on the world. It's
liberals in general, with their insufferable need to make the planet safe for
equality, feminism, gay rights, democracy, and all their other pet causes.
American liberals are now in full imperialist mode, ready to go anywhere in the
world to impose the liberal worldview and agenda on recalcitrant and benighted
populations. Hillary Clinton is a horrifyingly authoritarian bitch, and her
presidency would be as warmongering as Hitler's Third Reich.
I agree with you about one thing: if stupid evangelical
Protestant churches have their way, and encourage Israel to demolish or move the
mosque on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in order to rebuild the Temple of
Solomon and thereby usher in the Second Coming, it will ignite World War III. It
will happen just as surely as World War I was ignited by a little tubercular
Serb assassin in Sarajevo in 1914. It's amazing how fixated on absurdities some
of these evangelicals can be. But remember this, Mike: evangelical Protestants
and American liberals share the same political and ideological DNA, in their
itch to dictate and control. They are "sisters under the skin," as Kipling might
MRB: I don't see anything wrong with making the planet safe
for equality, feminism, gay rights and real democracy (i.e., a system in which
everyone has the same rights and protections). To me those are admirable goals.
I think there are obvious problems when groups demand special privileges and
work through the political system to get them. But who, pray tell, has ever
demanded more special privileges in the United States, than white conservative
men? Are you, perhaps, like a Great White Shark accusing dolphins of being too
aggressive when feeding? But getting back to your poetry, I understand that you
once wrote free verse. Do you still write free verse, or did you make a clean
break with non-formal poetry? In either case, I'd like to know the reasoning
behind your decision.
JS: I'll ignore your tu quoque fallacy and address the question of free verse. No, I generally
don't write free verse anymore, except for short squibs or notations. If I like
what I have done, I may develop it into a formal poem of some sort. But as to
why I largely stopped writing free verse, the answer is simply that it was
preventing me from being free. I couldn't do the best work that I could do if I
had to pay attention to all the prissy little strictures of modernism and its
soul-choking reticence. We've discussed this before, and I recall you saying
something like "Not even the modernists followed their silly rules about how to
compose poetry." I mean, Jeez... just look at the absurd restrictions that the
free-verse mentality imposes on its practitioners: no adjectives, no abstract
nouns, no syntactical inversions, no obsolete diction, no direct appeals to
sentiment, no rhetoric, no tropes or figures, and the most asinine of all, from
the New Jersey pediatrician: "No ideas but in things."
When I tried to write poetry that way, I was strangled! It
was like trying to do an oil painting while holding the brush in your teeth. The
poet Henry Weinfield once said to me that modernist free verse was essentially
New England puritanism trying to assert its hatred of the beautiful by paring
poetry down to a skeletal structure. And I think Henry was quite correct. Much
of the impetus to free verse, apart from Whitman, came from a surreptitious and
half-hidden dislike of verbal fullness and richness and abundance.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with free verse, and if
people want to go on producing it that's their business. But I think thoughtful
persons should recognize that at this point in history free verse is an
aesthetic dead end, like the abortive English attempts at classical quantitative
verse in the sixteenth century. It was cute and interesting for a while, but
hey, let's move on.
MB: Joe, I agree with you about the errors of what you call
the "free-verse mentality." I think readers abandoned modern poetry in large
part because so many poets became disciples and evangelists of irrational
literary dogma like "no ideas but in things" and started producing imagistic
post cards rather than real poetry. But I have lurked on formalist forums and
heard the worst ideas of modernism being trumpeted: "fear abstractions," "avoid
sentiment," and so on. The real problem, I believe, is groupthink. Formalists
seem to be as susceptible to it as other groups, believing things that aren't
true rather than examining the evidence and thinking independently. To me,
strict formalists are like the people who once believed the earth is flat, and
wouldn't travel far from land. When more venturesome sailors finally
circumnavigated the earth, rather than accepting the evidence that the planet is
round, the shore huggers noted that some people died on the groundbreaking
journey, and went back to believing in a flat earth because that seemed safer to
them. But surely we should judge a movement by the successes of its best
artists, its Magellans, since none of the failures matter in the long run.
Didn't poets like Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane and e.
e. cummings prove that there really is a round globe rather than flat earth? If
they wrote masterpieces—"Leaves of Grass," "The Love Song of J. Alfred
Prufrock," "Sunday Morning," "Voyages," "i sing of Olaf glad and big"—how can
formalists claim that the work is merely "cute and interesting," and that the
world is once again flat, or will be soon?
JS: Mike, I never would deny that there have been
masterpieces of free verse, especially by the persons whom you mention. No doubt
I've acknowledged that truth many times in my writings on
aesthetics. In the hands of a genuine master, any form (or lack thereof) is
capable of presenting us with something great. The real problem is what you have
just mentioned—namely, that even on so-called "formalist" websites and
discussions rooms, you hear the participants spouting the same old drivel about
"no abstractions" and "no adjectives" and "no ideas but in things" and all the
rest of the orthodox propaganda of the Free Verse Establishment. As I wrote many
years ago, people of this sort have what Franz Fanon would have called
"colonized minds." They think they have broken with modernism and free verse,
but they haven't. Not at all. They are still mentally enslaved to free-verse
habits of thought, and received modernist assumptions. As I tell students in my
poetry class (when I get to teach it), there's no goddamned reason to write in
iambic pentameter if deep down you are still Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg.
You've called it "groupthink," and that is absolutely correct. When Dana Gioia
speaks disparagingly of the "anti-modernists" in the ranks of the New Formalist
movement, what does that tell you? Since when does the putative leader of an
aesthetic movement try to anathematize its core constituency?
MB: Joe, I think you have the more mature approach when it
comes to evaluating the better free verse poets. It's beyond silly for other
formalists to pretend that the best free verse poets didn't produce
masterpieces. And it's equally silly for them to pretend that poets like Eliot
and Stevens were closet formalists. They both knew what they were doing, and
why. Now the bar has been raised, so all poets, from the strictest formalists to
the least inhibited free verses, have to rise to the challenge. I think Hart
Crane understood that, when he read Eliot's work. I remember your friend the
formalist poet Alfred Dorn writing an appreciative essay about Crane that
appeared in Pivot. Richard Moore was an advocate of perfect rhymes who
admired the "extraordinary delicacy" of Walt Whitman. If they saw free verse as
the Devil, at least they were willing to give the Devil his due. Or perhaps they
had a broader, more embracing vision of poetry. But in any case, poets can't
achieve immortality by sticking out their tongues at their betters. Would you
agree that formalists need to write poetry that rivals the work of poets like
Eliot, Stevens and Crane, if they want to be taken seriously, rather than
vacillating between burning them at the stake and trying to adopt them?
On the other hand, I think Dana Gioia probably has good
cause to speak disparagingly of the "anti-modernists" in the New Formalist
ranks. Why not take the best the older tradition has to offer, and the best
modernism has to offer, then move smartly forward using a "best of both worlds"
JS: Well look—you've asked a great many questions there and
they involve a number of suppositions that I don't necessarily accept. First,
about Alfred Dorn—he was profoundly influenced by the example of Hart Crane. But
the thing that most moved Alfred was not so much the free verse style as the
sheer rhetoric of Crane. In fact, when Crane was depressed he often dismissed
his own work as "just rhetoric." And yet that rhetorical fire—that flamethrower
of linguistic power that Crane could handle so well—was precisely the thing that
got Alfred Dorn going. And of course when Alfred started writing he did produce
a lot of free verse, much of it quite good. Later on, as a result of his
scholarly training in Renaissance literature, Dorn moved towards more formal
As for "raising the bar," that's merely a metaphor, and
metaphors don't always function well in analysis. If free verse poetry and
formal poetry are qualitatively different, and if they work by using rules of a
singularly different nature, then neither one can be used as a yardstick for
judging the other. It's a peculiarly bad habit of contemporary persons that they
are always trying to create a synthesis or a union or a harmony where no
essential synthesis is possible or desirable. It's this insufferable "best of
both worlds" mentality, and it makes for crappy poetry.
Nobody is "sticking his tongue out" at good free-verse
poets or their poetry. Some of us are simply saying that we want to do our own
thing, and not have to pay obeisance to an aesthetic that we find uncongenial.
We don't ask free-verse types to write sonnets or villanelles. We ask the
reciprocal favor of them that they just leave us alone. Is that too much to ask?
No, I absolutely DO NOT agree that formalists "need to
write poetry that rivals the work of poets like Eliot, Stevens and Crane, if
they want to be taken seriously." Frankly, Mike, that is an absurd proposition.
No poet of any school or movement or persuasion has to do anything at all! The
poetry world isn't a boot camp where recruits take orders. Poets can do whatever
the hell they like or find pleasing. And when you say "to be taken seriously,"
the immediate question I would ask is this: "Taken seriously by whom? Who
exactly do you have in mind as the arbiters of proper composition?" Your
question suggests that there is some sort of privileged group of chosen judges
out there whose opinion all of us have to take into account when working. That
sounds pretty illiberal to me.
As for Gioia, he's doing his level best to make New
Formalism socially acceptable and establishment-friendly. I loathe that approach
and attitude. Dana is a nice guy and a capable poet, but he is perfectly willing
to write a great many good formalist poets out of the history books if he feels
that they are not easy to fit into the in-crowd of po-biz orthodoxy. But let's
not get into personalities.
MB: Joe, I certainly don't have a problem with poets or
editors who have a "formal poetry only" policy. But I think poets are clearly in
a competition to be read today and in the future. Would Shakespeare be
Shakespeare if he wasn't widely read? Shakespeare knew that in order to achieve
immortality for himself and his subjects, he would have to write poems that
continued to be read after his death. If formalists can't write poems as
compelling as those of the better free verse poets, readers will stop reading
the formalists and their work will wither on the vine. And what good are poems
that are unread and thus forgotten? They die along with their authors. I seem to
remember you expressing a concern, once, about preserving information. One way
to do that is through stellar poetry and other forms of art. But when you're
gone, if no one reads your poetry, in what way is anything preserved? Don't you
and other formalists need readers just as much as Shakespeare did?
JS: Mike, you've got it completely backwards. You don't
write poems in order to be read. You write poems that deserve to be read.
That's a crucial difference. The intrinsic quality of a work doesn't depend on
its readership, or lack thereof. As far as we can see, practically no one read
the Pearl Poet in his own day, and he had to wait half a millennium before he
was rediscovered and published widely. By then his medieval dialect was opaque,
and his poetic greatness appreciated only by a handful of scholarly readers. But
according to your argument he didn't win the competition for general mass
readership, and is therefore a failure. That's an argument for a car salesman or
an advertising agent to make, not a serious appreciator of literature like
Moreover, you're still comparing apples and oranges when
you go on about some sort of competition between free verse and formal poetry.
As I said above, they attempt different things, and have to be judged by
criteria other than market-share. Sure, everybody wants to be read. But if
audience satisfaction is one's main concern, I'd seriously advise a person to
give up poetry altogether, and start a new career as a designer of computer
games. That's where the big audience is.
And let's be perfectly frank: I doubt that even "the better
free verse poets" are read by many more people than the captive-audience
students who are assigned to read them in college. Indeed, many of these poets
remain in print solely because of pre-semester faculty book-orders. How many
copies of Wallace Stevens (a brilliant poet, to be sure) would be sold if it
weren't for the artificial market sustained by English departments nation-wide?
Face it—poetry is a boutique art, or to put it more bluntly, a mere pimple on
the derriere of modern mass communication. There really isn't anything out there
for poets to compete about.
MB: Joe, I agree with you about the need for quality,
absolutely. But large numbers of people read Wallace Stevens voluntarily,
especially now that his work is available on the Internet. And if no one was
reading the Pearl Poet, he would be an entirely dead poet. If only a few
specialists are able to read his work today, he is on life support, compared to
the major poets. However, a superior translator might make him popular with
larger audiences. Sometimes poets are “resurrected” after their deaths. For
example, I have been working to revive the readership of
Anne Reeve Aldrich, because I think she rivals Emily Dickinson in her best poems.
(You’ll be happy to hear that Aldrich was a formalist.) And I have done
translations of Anglo-Saxon poems like “Wulf and Eadwacer” which are popular
with readers, receiving thousands of page views per year. But without readers,
poets and their poetry are dead, and I think that’s a fate formalists now face
en masse unless they can raise their games in this very stiff global
time-space competition. So once again, we’ll have to agree to disagree. But I
truly appreciate your time, and I commend you for your good work and results
with TRINACRIA, and for poems of yours that—thanks to their quality—have a
chance to be read in the future.
JS: Well, the problem is that it is difficult to compete with institutionalized
idiocy. I mean, consider this: the last issue of Poetry had a truly
mind-boggling essay by Peter Quartermain that essentially said (once you
negotiated your way through the jargon) that rationally explicable and
discursively coherent poetry is just not as exciting or valuable or real as
poetry that presents itself as a "happening" or an "event." In other words, a
good poem is simply something that occurs, like bird droppings on your patio.
When you have that kind of stupefying anti-intellectualism published in the
premier American journal for verse, what hope is there? The notion that poems
just happen, and that they are essentially inexplicable experiences of our
linguistic condition, is appalling in its consequences for the composition of
poetry, its reception, its teaching, and its connection to any world of
reasonable verbal communication. There's no sense trying to talkŚmuch less
competeŚwith an approach of that nature. But my view is the minority view these
days. In any case, I'm grateful to you, Mike, for giving me the chance to speak
at length here. Many thanks.
MB: Perhaps institutionalized idiocy is what one should expect, when the inmates
take over the asylum. It's hard to imagine the editors of Poetry
publishing William Blake, Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, and that makes we
wonder about the journal's title. Is it false advertising? But I have a feeling
the poetic cream will rise to the top in the end, and there are some of us
trying to make that happen sooner rather than later. Joe, while we disagree
about many things, perhaps we agree on the most important thing as editors,
which in my mind is publishing the highest quality poetry with discrimination,
but without prejudice against honest human sentiments, unconventional ideas and
(for God's sake!) modifiers. Once again, thank you so much for your time.