Michael R. Burch,
editor of The HyperTexts
Note: After I published this response to Dr. Salemi's emails about our interview,
he posted an article on another website in which he called me either directly or
in thinly-veiled ways "duplicitous," "simple-minded," "sophomoric," "desperate,"
"pathetic," "fanatical," "delusional," "demented," "scared," "nervous,"
"babyish," "infantile," "puerile," "apoplectic" and
a "hillbilly" (presumably because I live in Nashville). Salemi insisted that he doesn't insult poets, then proceeded to
insult me repeatedly, thus confirming what I and other poets had observed about his riot acts, which make him
the Rush Limbaugh of poetry. As Sam Gwynn pointed out, Salemi is more political
than poetical. A primary goal of both his poems and his essays seems to be
stereotyping other people in order to ridicule them collectively. Being an
ultra-conservative shock jock, his favorite targets are liberals. But because
99.9% of poets are more liberal-minded than Salemi, and because he's so
offensive, he ends up insulting nearly everyone in the larger camp.
Thus, he meets with either resistance or indifference, which he interprets as
being symptomatic of some sort of "liberal conspiracy" against him, when really
it's just people doing what people do when they've been offended. But in any
case, if Salemi had real
confidence in his self-alleged superiority, he wouldn't feel the need to insult
me at all, much less so profusely. Rather than responding in kind, I will stand by what I wrote
A series of contradictory
emails I received from Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
after our recent interview
left me scratching my head. First he threatened to rip one of the most
accomplished poets I know a "new asshole" if he dared to comment publicly, which
gave me the impression that Salemi fears
no one. But when another poet, Quincy Lehr, chimed in, Salemi
complained bitterly more than once, claiming that it was "unfair"
for me to
publish Lehr's opinions, even though I had made
it very clear before the interview began that I was reserving the right
to let other poets speak their minds, if they so chose. Later, Salemi
questioned whether other poets had the "balls" to
address him publicly, as if challenging
cowards to a duel.
These curious, sometimes furious emails support Lehr's
observation that Salemi
often calls other poets "a
bunch of wusses, 'fraidy-cats, knock-kneed PC milquetoasts" and so on. Salemi didn't
refute Lehr's charges, nor do I expect him to, since I distinctly remember
reading essays in which he called other poets cowards and sissies (or
equivalents) for things as innocuous as using prose-style capitalization in
formal poems, or employing more slant rhymes than he
acceptable. Indeed, if I understand one of Salemi's stranger essays correctly,
using one too many slant rhymes in a formal poem produces an "ersatz
obscenity" with possible soul-destroying implications. (More on this later.)
is this a literary theory or a bizarre new religion?
Assuming that Salemi, a devout Roman Catholic, is not speaking as a heretical
theologian intent on creating a new religion, I am left with the following questions:
• Does Salemi consider himself to be a literary critic
whose ideas should be taken seriously by other poets? If so, is insulting his
peers an appropriate and effective way for him to communicate those ideas? Why
in his literary journal's editorial comments did Salemi call other poets and
editors "gutless wonders," "sycophants," "tedious
morons" and "hyperventilating freaks"? Why in his
essays and elsewhere did Salemi employ highly offensive terms like "feminist
bitches," "tightassed feminists" and "idiotic
left-liberal parrots"? Why did he lump millions of hard-working,
college-educated Americans into a "mandarin
caste"? As far as I can tell, Salemi uses such terms in sweeping
generalizations, so that presumably every woman who demands equality with
men is a tightassed feminist bitch and most college-educated professionals are
mandarins because they don't subscribe to Salemi's extremist political views. If Salemi means something else, he hasn't bothered to leave any clues
that I can discern. The reader can decide what sort of person talks about so
many other people with such intense loathing.
• If Salemi really doesn't care what other people think, as he maintains, why
does he bother to write and publish essays about aesthetics? Is he, perhaps,
just preaching to the choir and showing off for those strict formalists who
already agree with him? In other words, are his mockeries of less corseted poets
self-aggrandizing affairs, rather than serious literary criticism? Is his goal
in his essays the same as in his satirical poems: to stereotype people who are
more moderate, then ridicule them collectively in a coarse, crass joke?
• Does Salemi make any sense?
While Salemi purports to "know"
Lehr's innermost desires, motivations and thoughts, I freely admit that I lack
such extrasensory superpowers. I'm more like Clark Kent without the Superman
alter ego: perpetually adjusting my
glasses, squinting, furrowing my brow, and depending on my ability to reason
things out, because I lack x-ray vision. Thus all I will say about the
first question is this: I can't understand why Salemi chooses to mock,
ridicule and browbeat other poets, but I know that I don't like it. He has tried to defend this
boorish behavior by pointing out
that it isn't very successful, since other poets seldom if ever convert to his
beliefs or write according to his rules. To me, that's like saying that if a
playground bully tries to force other kids to play by his rules, and they run
off or ignore him, he wasn't really bullying them because he didn't get his way.
However, I see no point in preaching sermons that are almost certain to go
unheeded, or demanding apologies that are unlikely to be offered, so I will
leave the other questions above for Salemi to answer, if he so chooses, and
address the last one.
Does Salemi make any sense?
If Salemi doesn't make sense, then perhaps we can dismiss him as a literary critic, or at the
very least take everything he says with great heaping
doses of skepticism. If he does make sense, the questions of civility and
propriety remain, but at least his ideas merit
consideration. But no, in my opinion Salemi's Dilemma is that he doesn't make sense, and this makes him
unlikely to be accepted by independent-minded poets as any sort of authority. (And thus it
may be a very good thing for him if he really doesn't care what other people think,
since they probably won't care what he says.)
To illustrate why he doesn't make sense, I have assembled the "Ten Commandments of
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi." Six were taken
or adapted from his "Statement of Core Principles." Others were taken or adapted
from his published essays and editorials. As bizarre as these commandments
sound, I think they really do reflect the man's mindset. And because Salemi's first six Core Principles
are included, if we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that
they don't make sense, we may have determined what to do with his
advice, in general.
The Ten Commandments of Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Thou shalt only bring Formal Metrical Verse into our Hallowed Halls. We have
absolutely no tolerance for free verse. [CP#1]
Thou shalt always employ the "correct meter," or be summarily excommunicated
from the High Church of Strict Formalism, for lack of regularity. [CP#2 plus essay]
Thou shalt not offer up any syllabic verse, regardless of its excellence. [CP#3]
Thou shalt not use mid-line breaks or violate typographical conventions, however
minor or inconsequential. [CP#4]
Thou shalt always capitalize the first letter of a line of poetry, or be branded
a coward. [CP#4 plus essay]
Thou shalt not engage in the "ersatz obscenity" of
excessive end-line slant rhymes and assonance, or be mocked as "incompetents."
[CP#6 plus essay]
Thou shalt not innovate, or be ridiculed as a "feckless twit." [Essay]
Thou shalt not change the tradition (i.e., don't do what Dante, Chaucer, Wyatt,
Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Whitman and Dickinson did). [Essay]
Thou shalt display "the severity, the asceticism, and
Apollonian coldness that are essential to the pursuit of high art."
Thou shalt always be at war, since it is far better to tilt at windmills than to
live in peace and harmony with people with more liberal tastes and aesthetics.
Let's quickly examine Salemi's injunctions, to see if they make sense. Can
anyone define the point where metrical verse ends and free verse begins? If not,
why be so dogmatic about excluding all free verse? Who can presume to define
what "correct meter" means? Should we exclude Dylan Thomas's excellent poem "In My Craft or
Sullen Art" because of its syllabic meter, even though it reads wonderfully
well? What on earth is wrong with mid-line breaks, if they're effective?
Haven't mid-line breaks been used effectively in metrical poems and plays for
centuries? Was e. e. cummings a coward, or a courageously eclectic
heretic? Were Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen "incompetents" because
as young, unknown poets they
employed slant rhymes? (Would they be known and admired today if they
hadn't?) Were Dante and Chaucer "feckless twits" because they
innovated to the point of changing languages, when they chose to write in vernacular
Italian and English rather than scholarly Latin and French? Was Anthony Hecht
another "feckless twit" because in his article on sonnets for Encyclopaedia
Britannica, he said that canonical forms like
the sonnet invite innovation? Were Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard and
Shakespeare wrong to work with an experimental form, the sonnet? (Would we have
the sonnets Salemi has written himself, if they hadn't innovated long ago?) Was there
something wrong with William Blake, Robert Burns and Walt Whitman because they wrote warmhearted,
poems, eschewing "Apollonian coldness"? Is it better to always be at war over
trivial things, than to be tolerant and live in harmony with other people in a
diverse society? Is conservatism invariably good, and
liberalism invariably bad?
Mind you, I'm not suggesting that there's anything wrong with an editor preferring poems that are more rhythmic, more rhyming, more
traditional. I happen to enjoy and publish such poems myself. But I am
questioning the premises and logic of Salemi's injunctions and the tone of
The Problem of Hypocrisy
And then there is problem that Salemi has hypocritically violated his own Sacred Dogma.
Does he really believe what he says himself, enough to write and publish
according to his commandments for other poets? I submit not.
For instance, Salemi frequently uses slant rhymes in his own poems, even though in
his essay "Our Ersatz World" he called the excessive use of slant rhyme an "ersatz obscenity"
which reveals its employers as "incompetents who can't get a rhyme."
As examples of what he meant by ersatz, Salemi cited "tasteless margarine"
for butter, "hideous plastics" for natural materials, and computer sex for real
sex. To help us understand the truly terrible condition of the modern mentality that (according to
Salemi) lusts after ersatz products, he used terms like "perverse,"
"deep-seated sickness" and "brooding soul-sickness." Okay, we definitely get the
picture now. To avoid perversely destroying our own souls, we need to eat butter,
not margarine. And to produce real poems, real poets need to
use real rhymes, not those tasteless, hideous, cheap, artificial, fake,
soul-destroying slant rhymes. The only poets who would ever consider using such
horrible substitutes for the real thing are "incompetents who can't get a
[perfect] rhyme." It all makes perfect sense, if one buys Salemi's a priori
assumptions that slant rhymes are to perfect rhymes as margarine is to butter,
and that eating margarine destroys one's soul. I for one am not buying any of
this, since in the
earliest English poetry slant rhymes were far more
common than perfect rhymes, which would make the latter the soul-destroying
entities in Salemi's highly doubtful version of the Apocalypse. (Also, I
sometimes eat margarine and my soul remains intact.) But let's assume
for the sake of argument that I'm wrong because Salemi is the expert here, and continue going with his flow,
to see where it leads us ...
Salemi seems to have left himself a convenient out to use those hideous slant rhymes
in his own poems, by inserting the modifier "excessive." But does that make any sense? If something real can
greatly improve my life, while something artificial will destroy my soul, and if I am a real poet capable of
producing real rhymes, why would I ever mix the hideously fake with
the sublimely perfect? So let's cross out "excessive" as an error of logic, and
take a quick peek at Salemi's journal ...
In the very first issue of TRINACRIA, the
second poem, a translation of Baudelaire by Salemi's wife, Helen Palma,
contained one of those hideously obscene slant rhymes. And in his own poems, for Chrissakes,
the Evangelist of the High Church of Strict Formalism has rhymed Caesar/Visa, Jehovah/over, ills/corpuscles, antsy/fancy,
fraud/board, propositions/mission, etc. The last four slant rhyme pairs excessively appeared in a single poem
titled "A Verse Epistle to My New Students." Should it have, perhaps,
been subtitled, "Don't do as I do, do as I say"? Is Salemi practicing
what he preaches to other poets? Is Salemi an "incompetent" because he
employed obscenities excessively in his verse
epistle? Is Salemi
a coward, by his own
definition? And did Salemi subconsciously have himself in mind when he told his
students (my italics):
If tired blood's a symbol for
Weak logic, then a metaphor
Of pedagogy's current ills
Is pale and flaccid corpuscles.
You won't find worse anemia
Than inside academia
Where brainless twits are daily stirred
To think up things that are absurd.
Good scholars, if they had their druthers,
Would much prefer a simple lecture
That offers facts without conjecture ...
What can be more absurd than calling slant rhymes "obscenities," then
weaving advice to one's students out of such pale, flaccid, hideously
(Well perhaps the woodenly awkward line "To think up things that are absurd"
may be more absurd.) When will Dr. Salemi follow his own advice and offer facts without conjecture,
abandoning the nonfactual conjecture that it is "obscene"
to use slant rhymes because they're "ersatz," when in fact they are more traditional than perfect
rhymes in English poetry, and thus according to Salemi's own premise and
logic, more genuine? When will Salemi abandon his own weak, pedagogic
Regardless of anything Salemi has written himself—good,
bad or middling—the benefits of slant rhymes have
been proven by outstanding poets like William Blake, Emily Dickinson, William
Butler Yeats, Wilfred Owen and W. H. Auden. And it makes absolutely no sense to
insist that slant rhymes are inferior, ersatz materials, when superior
poems have been constructed out of them for more than 1,000 years, from the kennings
of Anglo Saxon scops to Louis MacNeice's wonderful "Bagpipe Music."
Wilfred Owen's use of pararhyme in his great war poems may have been
"excessive," as in nearly every line, but the results were so amazingly good that
he leaves Salemi lacking a logical leg to stand on.
I submit that any poet who presumes to define the "correct meter" for other
poets to employ exclusively in their poems, and who spurts venom at
them over such trivial things as not using initial caps, has overstepped his
bounds. I started to use the term "control freak" but I want
to avoid name-calling and I don't know Salemi well enough to understand his
inner nature, as he claimed to be able to do with Lehr. So I
will not accuse Salemi of being a control freak. I do wonder, however, why he
berates other poets so stridently. Whatever can be his goal, his
Perhaps he can explain his motivations; I certainly can't. But my educated guess
is that his goal in his essays, as in his
satirical poems, is to insult the targets of his ire—other
people who are more liberal-minded—not to
help poets improve
In any case, Salemi rarely if ever bothers to
explain why other poets should follow his lead. To do so would require
evidence and logic. Take, for example, the question of initial caps. Let's do a
quick Einstein-like thought experiment. Suppose Shakespeare had chosen to use
prose-style capitalization, and other poets had followed his lead. Wouldn't
Salemi now be arguing just the opposite: that formalists must use prose-style
capitalization, or be branded cowards? Obviously the rule is arbitrary. And if rules were made to be broken, surely the arbitrary
ones should go first. Furthermore, I believe the use of initial caps in English
poems was a convention invented by printers, not poets. So for all we know,
Shakespeare wrote his sonnets down the normal way, and the fancy-schmancy
initial caps were the brainstorm of some ink-stained, slave-wage, illiterate
printer's devil who was running short of lower-case letters and decided to
improvise in order to avoid his master's wrath. (Perhaps he had a boss like Salemi.)
Better Beginning Premises
A philosopher is only as good as his initial premises. I believe this is also true for literary critics,
who need to avoid building on foundations of straw.
I submit that if we are going to make a priori
assumptions, the following assumptions are far better than Salemi's:
Civility is better than insulting one's peers.
Diversity, the alchemy of multiple traditions, is better than conformity
to a single inflexible tradition.
Freedom, including the freedom to innovate, is better than irrational, arbitrary rules.
Tolerance is better than intolerance, which invariably results in unnecessary
Equality is better than bigotry, which also invariably results in unnecessary
The American Civil Rights Movement was a natural and expected response to
The Women's Rights Movement is a natural and expected response to male
The Gay Rights Movement is a natural and expected response to homophobia.
In conclusion, if Dr. Salemi really doesn't care what other poets think, there
is no reason for him to write and publish essays on aesthetics. If what he really
wants is to be accepted by
other poets as someone whose ideas merit consideration, in my opinion he ought
to (1) test his theories to see if they make sense and can actually fly in
the real world; (2) either write according to the basic premises and
logic of his aesthetics, or tone down his rhetoric; and (3) consider more
reasonable, civil methods of communication. But as things stand now, he
strikes me as being the Rush Limbaugh of poetry: a shock jock whose only
are the people who agree with him without ever questioning, much less analyzing,
their shared beliefs. The only people who "know" that Limbaugh is "right" are
the ones who never examined their own beliefs closely enough to realize how very
wrong they are.
Granted, I have only examined ten of Salemi's ideas to this point. What I
have written so far doesn't prove that he isn't an absolute genius in some
One reason for my relative brevity is that I don't want to wear out my welcome,
or my readers' patience. But I think I may have at least spotted and pointed out
a trend. Given more time, I believe I can
demonstrate that there are other highly dubious ideas emanating from the same source.
But for readers who are now satisfied that Salemi can be safely ignored, or that
anything he says should be taken with large pinches of salt, this may be a good
place to exit, and I thank them for their time. For readers interested enough to
continue reading, I will provide more food for thought.
Other Areas of Disagreement
I disagree with Salemi that the failure to write "real" formal poetry (i.e., the
severely corseted kind preferred by Salemi) is a manifestation of "fear." I
don't write freer poetry because I'm afraid to write formal poetry. I just
prefer the freedom to ignore arbitrary rules that seem nonsensical and/or
counterproductive to me, such as the ones Salemi seems to specialize in.
During our interview, Salemi suggested that free verse is "experimental,"
as if that's a bad thing. But
sonnets and blank verse were once "experimental." After
great sonnets and blank verse poems had been written, the forms were
no longer experimental, but tested and proven. I think it's safe to say
at this stage that free verse has
also been tested and proven by highly accomplished poets like
Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. So
it makes no sense to call all free verse "experimental" in a blanket statement,
although some individual poems may fall into that category (which still doesn't make
them automatically bad).
I also disagree with Salemi when he says that free verse is an
"aesthetic dead end" that "was cute and interesting for a while, but
hey, let's move on." After all, he admitted that free verse poets have produced
masterpieces. Is it wise to write off masterpieces and the methods
of their makers so cavalierly?
In his essays, satires and other public utterances, Salemi has chosen to
stereotype people ("liberals") and damn them
collectively. Since 99.9% of poets are presumably more liberal than Salemi, he
seems to be damning other poets in general. And his tendency to ignore anything good or potentially good in
the people he summarily dismisses makes him seem exceptionally close-minded and
intolerant, to the point of being a bigoted church of one.
During our interview, Salemi claimed that "The real battle for New Formalism was to
break free from the stranglehold of free-verse habits of thought and
composition." But that seems wrong to me, as well-known problems with formal verse existed
verse came into vogue. Modern free verse was largely a reaction against
the various inertias of formal verse that had become overly formulaic and
metronomic. One cannot accuse a reaction or attempted remediation of being the
underlying disease, although it seems clear that some of the modernists went
overboard in their proposed "solutions." But I don't think Salemi's proposed
solutions are any better, as they would box poets into very narrow corners.
I disagree with Salemi's claim that art can only be truly appreciated by
experts who understand how art works. He seems to believe that only someone
who has studied the methods of painters
can really appreciate painting, while less knowledgeable people have nothing
more than a "naive appreciation" of art. To me, this is like saying
that only physicists can enjoy sunrises and sunsets, since laymen don't
understand how sunrises and sunsets "work." I know very
little about physics, music and art, but I can still enjoy sunrises, sunsets,
music and paintings.
Salemi also claims that children are limited in their ability to appreciate art. He said, "I've
taken many classes of students to see Shakespeare, and what they get out of it
is merely the enjoyment of surface phenomena."
Salemi also claims that children's reactions to works of art are "essentially
visceral," as if they're small, feral animals who lack intellects. I will leave the reader
to judge such statements, which strike me as absurd, since not so very long ago
I was a very inquisitive child who devoured hundreds
of books, reading with considerable comprehension. And who knows that
I didn't see and understand things Salemi may have missed? I'm sure that many
children have listened to Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy,
understanding what he was saying, and why he was saying it. I understood
passages of poetry when I read them at a young age. As I pointed out to Salemi,
my childhood response to great writing was both emotional and intellectual. I certainly wasn't like a dog
panting for a bone, or chasing its tail in circles.
Salemi doesn't stop at speaking
dismissively of children. He also casually dismisses the ideas of major poets like Robert
Frost, Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare. For instance, Salemi dismissed
Frost's opinion that "Poetry begins with delight and ends in wisdom" as American
"crackerbarrel" when it actually makes perfect sense, because if a
poet delights me with his words, I am more receptive to his ideas. Salemi
said that Dickinson "didn't say that her reaction to good
poetry was actually physical" even though Dickinson used the word
"physical" in her description of how poetry affected her: "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
Salemi discounted the opinions of these acknowledged masters of the English
language by saying that "famous poets are notoriously undependable
when it comes to giving explanations for aesthetic practices, whether their own
or anyone else's." But Salemi frequently cites himself, usually without providing
verifiable facts, examples or evidence of any sort. Why should anyone consider
him more dependable than Shakespeare?
Salemi mentioned his "dislike of any sort of proselytizing and evangelizing,"
saying, "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." I find
this hard to believe, for two reasons. First, Salemi has repeatedly preached
his strange vision and peculiar dogma of the "correct" way to write
poetry. Second, Salemi is a devout
Roman Catholic who once told me that he believes Catholic popes are capable of speaking infallibly.
Well, what did those "infallible" speakers do, for the better part of two thousand years,
but constantly preach that all the world should
accept their beliefs and authority? Millions of people were subjected to
horrific inquisitions and/or were forced to convert at the edge of a sword.
While I detest Protestant evangelization as much as Salemi does, having been its
victim in my youth, the simple truth is that the Roman
Catholic Church has evangelized far and wide, using "hell," "purgatory,"
"limbo," torture and the sword to spread its highly dubious message that it
knows the "will of God." Today both major Christian denominations use very
similar methods to evangelize and are very hard to tell apart, except that the
RCC is officially more medieval on things like celibacy and contraceptives,
while right-wing Protestants are more medieval on things like creationism and
evolution. But mostly they are like twin peas in a very peculiar pod.
Yes, as Salemi correctly pointed out, Protestant missionaries have "complicated
and wounded the psychic lives" of their would-be converts, and no one should
gloss over the psychic pain they've caused with their visions of an eternal hell and an infinitely cruel,
unjust, judgmental God. But Catholic "missionaries" often
tortured and slaughtered their would-be converts when they
resisted conversion to belief in the same cruel, unjust, judgmental God.
Protestant missionaries are the kindergartners of evangelization; Catholic popes
are the professors, with a 1,500 year head start and a much larger endowment.
Salemi claims that his "The Missionary's Position" is an "anti-liberal" poem,
but it is actually an obvious condemnation of his own church, if applied
honestly and equally. It's a poem about adults terrorizing children with visions
of the cross and its implications: judgment, condemnation and hell. Both major
denominations are guilty of child abuse, but no Christian organization has
reached more children with that frightening message than the Vatican.
Like Salemi, I have a "strong distaste" for American puritanism, "the half-assed
idea that the United States is a 'city upon a hill' and somehow morally
'exceptional'" ... but let's get real ... what the hell has the Vatican
been saying about itself, its doctrines, its popes, and its "saints"
(some of whom tortured and murdered "heretics"), for
nearly two millennia? To my knowledge, no American Puritan has ever claimed
to be able to speak infallibly, but Catholic popes certainly have, while
essentially murdering poor, uneducated people in AIDS-stricken nations by convincing them that
it's a "sin" to use condoms.
I disagree with Salemi that there is anything wrong with making "the planet safe
for equality, feminism, gay rights, democracy," etc.
Salemi said that 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." He claims that it is "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." But that's
a big initial "if" and if, in the
end, there is only good poetry and bad poetry, then perhaps it's the people who create artificial divisions where none actually exist who ought to
rethink their positions.
Salemi claims that it is an "absurd proposition" that formalists "need to write
poetry that rivals the work of free verse poets like Whitman, Eliot, Stevens and Crane, if they want
to be taken seriously." But I think this is only common sense, as a hundred
years from now all the formalists who are no longer being read will be dead,
in literary terms, compared to the great free verse poets who continue to be read.
The History of this Unfortunate Episode
Before the interview I had been thinking
about what my colleague
has called the
Great Poetic Divide,
a longstanding, still-impressive rift which continues to separate many formal and free verse poets
from each other.
I had also been considering what I call the "Formalism Schism,"
a similar rift between formalists who want nothing to do
free verse, and
those who like and write it themselves. I was intrigued by the fact that some
formalists seem to be intent on burning T. S. Eliot at the stake,
while others prefer to adopt him as a fellow formalist. After the interview,
which touched on these matters, I engaged other poets in discussions about the
two divides, venturing my opinion that they are unnecessary and unhelpful. When
I asked for submissions related to the interview, one of
the poets, Quincy Lehr,
submitted an essay. When I asked if he'd ever written anything
specifically about Dr. Salemi and his pro-division views, Lehr submitted another essay in which he accused Salemi of
calling other poets various nasty names for not adhering to formal methods to
his satisfaction. The rest, as they say, is history.
Salemi tried to evade or at least deflect Lehr's criticism by claiming he's a left-wing ideologue envious of
Salemi's success with his
literary journal TRINACRIA. After saying during our interview that
"name-dropping doesn't constitute an argument," Salemi dropped the names of
poets he's published in a not-very-credible attempt to prove that Lehr "envies"
him. But even if this were true, it
charges, since he was either quoting or paraphrasing things Salemi wrote and
distributed to the public in the form of his published essays. And Salemi's claims to
somehow know Lehr's innermost
thoughts, desires and motivations, as if he has ESP, cannot be taken seriously.
In my opinion, Salemi should have stuck
to answering Lehr's allegations. Now I am also accusing Salemi of mocking other poets
and no one can
legitimately accuse me of being an envious left-wing ideologue. I was a Reagan Republican and still
admire the man today, although I refuse to vote for far-right morons and
lunatics like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum and
Bishop Romney. While it may be a cliché, I didn't leave the Republican party; the
party left me when it lost the last of its loose marbles. Nor am I envious of Salemi. When he told me
several years ago that he was being censored by other editors, I offered to
publish him and have done so a number of times, shining our website's spotlight
on him seven times since 2009 (more, I believe, than for any other
non-affiliated poet). I am not envious of Salemi's success; rather I
have tried to help him succeed.
So I don't think anyone can accuse me of having a bias against Salemi, being
envious of him, or bearing him a grudge. Nor do I think I can be accused of treating
him unfairly now, unless it is
somehow "unfair" to discuss and criticize what he has written himself.
In poetry circles that's par-for-the-course literary criticism. My main criticism of
Salemi is this: I believe it is wrong for a poet to
insult, mock and browbeat other poets for not writing the way he prefers, even if he is
correct in his aesthetics.
are other very obvious problems with what Salemi says, and how he says it. Here's
what one accomplished poet said in an email after reading his responses to
Lehr's essay: "What a bore he is. None of his given reasons for Lehr's alleged
animus are necessary; just reading Salemi will suffice. Salemi's attitude
alone, whatever he happens to be perorating about, his invective, his contumely,
his palpable animus toward anyone who doesn't share his views, whatever those
may be, is more than enough reason for me to flick him off. Who cares to hear
such fulminant bilge. If he had a single shred of charm or wit he might be able
to seduce a reader, but his words are like a viper's spit."
I have to agree, albeit reluctantly, since I have tried to be a friend to
Salemi since he told me he was being censored. But as soon as he began answering my questions during our
interview, I felt my hackles rising. Why? Primarily because he was so incredibly
dismissive of other people and so disdainful of their abilities and opinions. He
dismissed everyone from schoolchildren attending performances of Shakespeare's
Shakespeare himself. Again, it's not just what he says, it's the way he says it. When
Salemi descends to the level of insulting and berating
people who choose not to play by his rules, he seems more like
a surly playground bully than a teacher worthy of our attention and regard. Unless
he's willing to be more reasonable and civil, what he says will
continue to go in one ear and out the other, leaving him with little or no
influence on the literary world. And since he claims not to care what anyone
else thinks, perhaps what he says and does is part of a
self-fulfilling death wish.
Michael R. Burch
Editor, The HyperTexts
November 7, 2013
PS — After I posted this page, the poet I cited immediately
above shared his thoughts with me. I believe they are germane and warrant
... My own remarks, the few you quote near the end, are perhaps the
harshest-sounding ones in the piece. But who knows, maybe hearing his
words compared to "a viper's spit" will please him. I remember his declaring
in one of his off-site essays that hate is the right emotion to fuel satire; and
apparently he likes regarding himself as an aptly hate-driven satirist.
Presumably he believes that the satirist's objective is to ignite that same
emotion, or some cognate one like contempt, in others. But Lehr aptly
questioned whether he really has the makings of a satirist. Satirists, after
all, don't resort to invective and name-calling; they are much too clever for
that. Wit is their customary weapon for skewering whatever they regard as
ludicrous, and wit is the means by which they get others to appreciate their
point of view and join in the fun-making chorus. Effective satirists don't
bring people over to their side by heaping abuse; they bring them over by irony,
by humorous representation of what things really amount to. Salemi's version of
satire falls short because it can never draw anyone in, but on the contrary is
bound to repel. Salemi is what one might call a backfiring satirist (if any
kind at all): the kind of satirist who comes out looking less attractive, and
more ridiculous and risible, than his targets. And any hate he ends up
generating is more likely to be directed against a target he never intended:
I liked how you closed your piece, suggesting that what
might account for the good doctor's style is a self-fulfilling death wish.
He will never expand his party's ranks by "satirizing" people the way he
does. Who could desire to belong to a party that specializes in the fine art of
belittlement, except other small-minded people. He elicits no chuckles
from intelligent readers by calling Lehr's magazine The Draindown Review; he
only exposes another symptom of his smallness, and makes them feel a vague
disgust. He elicits about the same reaction when he talks about Lehr's
political attitudes deriving from his "mommy and daddy." This is very
cheap, very immature talk indeed, and should be given short shrift, which is
what Lehr gave it in his second bout with the good doctor. The reader is
left thinking that the "arrested adolescence" Salemi talks about is perhaps
more applicable to his own personality than to anyone else's. That's the
thought that stuck with this reader anyway.
But your piece also seems to be pulling for him in a way,
almost pleading with him, it sounded at one point, to wake up and come out of
his hypnotic state.