The HyperTexts

Dr. Joseph S. Salemi Interview



Dr. 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, N.Y. 11215-3902.

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 TRINACRIA, the 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 pleasure.

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 sub-par.

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 miracle?

"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 inheritance.

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 have said.

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 about it.

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" approach?

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 work.

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 yourself.

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.

The HyperTexts