Joseph S. Salemi
WHAT DID I TELL YA?
It’s pleasant for a writer to discover that the things he complains of are also troubling other writers in the more august realms of literary journalism. A past issue of the London Times Literary Supplement (April 1, 2016) had a gratifying note by the backpage columnist J.C. on exactly what I griped about in my essay “Freak-Scene Poetry” at The Pennsylvania Review back in August 2015.
J.C., in a brief but pungent bit of commentary on the collapse of both coherent meaning and audience interest in poetry following the triumph of modernism, brings to TLS readers’ attention the work of Fred Moten and Eileen Myles. These two practitioners of what passes for poetry today are firmly in the freak-scene camp, and J.C. provides his readership with truly appalling examples of what they have managed to palm off as quality work. I won’t quote them here, since their poems are easily available on-line at several websites. Let it suffice to say that both writers produce a totally meaningless drivel that delights establishment critics in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, even while being impenetrable to the “educated public,” in J.C.’s words.
Well, that’s exactly what I said about much contemporary poetry in my earlier essay. Garbage art is everywhere, and since any attempt to call attention to the near-universal abandonment of standards is met with outrage and savage dismissal, there really isn’t much for the educated public to do other than give up on contemporary poetry completely as a source of intelligible and gratifying craftsmanship.
It isn’t that the poems of Moten and Myles lack all intrinsic interest; they are curious specimens of the kind of weird, parallel universe of otherworldy discourse that has now sprouted up to replace poetry in the original sense. That makes them arresting and remarkable in the same way that nanobots or cloned sheep or genetically engineered plants are remarkable. The mere fact that they exist at all is intriguing. And at the same time, their structureless, transrational nature makes analytical criticism futile. That’s why “reviews” of such poetry tend to be more in the nature of celebratory publisher press releases than insightful commentary (“Look at this! Isn’t it wild and freaky and exciting?”)
J.C. asks a brutally devastating question: How can one tell a “bad” poem by Eileen Myles or Fred Moten from a “good” one? The answer to that is easy—you can’t, because the people who produce freak-scene poetry simply don’t think in terms of talent, training, craft, coherence, or aesthetic pleasure. These categories are totally alien to their mindset. For them, poetry is more like an event, a happening, an impulse, a glandular reaction. When poets are of this ilk, judgment of their work is impossible or irrelevant. But that hasn’t stopped the po-biz world from bestowing award after award on Moten and Myles (it doesn’t hurt that they are both members of Certified Victim Groups).
What’s scary is the fierce defense and championing of this garbage art by those whom we might expect to be the guardians of aesthetic standards. The New York Review of Books prints a long article of fulsome praise of Eileen Myles. Poetry publishes incoherent maunderings month after month as part of an idiot editor’s quest for what is hip and trendy. What are we to make of this establishmentarian celebration of a poetry that eschews rational discourse?
The best thing that I have heard anyone come up with is what a fellow poet said to me recently: Poetry, in its official and public face, has become nothing more than an in-group fashion statement. That judgment strikes me as valid, since it explains much of the phenomena: freak-scene poetry appears, no one reads it except the poet’s network of friends and supporters, well-positioned critics jump to sing its praises as “daring” and “innovative” work, and big-name publications rush to invite more submissions from the writer. And all of a sudden a freak-scene poet is duly canonized as important and significant. As for J.C.’s “educated public,” well… they don’t enter the equation at all. It’s only the in-group of friends, supporters, and critics that matters.
Of course, defenders of this predicament can always answer that the same is largely true for much formalist poetry. Coteries of friends and sympathetic critics do the same sort of favors for coherent English verse that follows traditional patterns. But this is only so because poetry as a whole has disintegrated as an art form in the last hundred years. All of us labor under the disabilities generated by modernism, and the concomitant withering away of audience expectations. Besides this, there is the general disappearance of any rigorous poetic pedagogy in most schools. We’re not just inundated with freak-scene poetry; we’ve been virtually severed from the normal continuity of poetic tradition. All of us, of whatever persuasion or school, practice a boutique art for small cliques of the like-minded. A siege mentality is universal.
Cliques are comforting to those who are in them, and they do in fact provide a measure of moral support and solidarity to an otherwise lonely and self-sequestered artist. But joining one has its costs. The first is presumptive loyalty to other clique members; another is the self-censorship of one’s critical function when dealing with their artworks. In military terms, everyone is expected to have everyone else’s back. A well-known instance of this is the case of D.H. Lawrence, whose poetry is a mishmash of Victorian-Georgian fustian, but who was a part of the modernist clique surrounding Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. No one in the clique made a critical peep about Lawrence’s markedly non-modernist verse, which was published in The Egoist along with everyone else’s. They couldn’t. He was “in.”
Nevertheless, some cliques seem to have more privileges than others. If you’re one of the freak-scene poets, the chances are you’ll be feted and lionized and showered with grant money. Even though the only persons reading you will be some critics at the New York Times, Poetry, and the New York Review of Books.
Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize. His upcoming books, Gallery of Ethopaths, and a collection of critical essays, are forthcoming.