Joseph S. Salemi
THE PROGRESSIVE THREAT TO POETRY
June 17, 2019, Professor Salemi delivered an address at the annual
conference of the Society of Classical Poets held at The Princeton Club
in Manhattan. The event was hosted by Messrs. Evan Mantyk and Franklin
Yu, founders of the Society. Other speakers were James Sale of London,
and Michael Maibach of Alexandria, Virginia. With the Society’s
permission, Expansive Poetry Online here presents Professor Salemi’s
address on a major problem in modern poetry.
Thank you for your kind words, Mr. Mantyk, and for the invitation to speak here today. I hope I can do justice to the subject at hand.
The words “progressive” and “progressivist” are loaded terms, in that they generally allude to a multiplicity of political and cultural opinions that are highly contentious and debatable. I’ve been asked to speak today on “the progressive threat” in contemporary poetry, and I can only begin by acknowledging that for us, here at the Society of Classical Poets, the term progressive is clearly pejorative. We don’t like progressive poetry. We’re fighting against it. We’re working hard to stifle it, just as epidemiologists might work to control a pandemic of infection. Since we are outnumbered the task is essentially hopeless, but we labor out of devotion and loyalty, and not necessarily with any prospect of victory.
But what exactly are we fighting? What is the progressive threat that faces us? Well, the best way to answer that question is to describe the kind of poetry that calls itself progressive or modernist or avant-garde, or whatever other self-congratulatory term is current. Actually, the best descriptive word for it is “mainstream,” since that in fact is what such poetry has become. And describing mainstream poetry is very easy to do, since it is all around us, like a choking miasma. Here in New York City, just read the poetic effusions that are regularly posted in our subway cars, as part of the silly “Poetry In Motion” series. If one ever needed a biopsy slide of the parlous state of modernist poetry, the “Poetry In Motion” series would do just fine. But you can also look into any mainstream poetry magazine from here to California, and beyond those confines to the English-speaking world as a whole. The sameness, the uniformity, and the predictability are overwhelming. And yet they also provide us with a useful template to help recognize what modernist, progressive, mainstream poetry does.
The first thing to notice about mainstream progressive poetry is the absence of any discernible meter, or even any coherent form at all. The poetry presented is basically unpunctuated prose, often in a very loose syntax and with grammatical irregularities. Now I won’t dwell on this aspect, because it is obvious to all readers, and in fact has been the subject of intense argument and commentary for the last half-century. The debate between formal metricists and free-verse partisans is now too well known to rehash here. We folks at the SCP think that meter and form are, and have always been, essential to poetry in the genuine sense; our enemies believe that these things are unnecessary and disposable. End of story. I’d rather go into issues of subject, approach, and tonality, for it is in these areas that we can really see the core problems of mainstream progressive poetry, and why so many of us find it exasperating.
Look at the typical progressive, modernist, mainstream poem, and you will notice the ubiquitous first-person pronoun. I… I … I… me… me… me… — it goes on like a broken record. The poets all speak as if they were giving a legal deposition about themselves, or telling their sins in a confessional. But it’s more than simple egoism or narcissism—the choice of subject, the approach to that subject, and the predictable tone used all mark contemporary modernist and progressive poetry with a regularity that is symptomatic. You can recognize it at once, like a full-blown case of smallpox.
The most obvious subjects can be epitomized in three sentences:
1. I had a small epiphany.
2. I remembered a minor fact.
3. I saw some little thing.
And from one of those three starting points the poet will go on, for about ten or twelve lines, trying to impress upon you, the reader, that the small epiphany or the minor fact or the little thing is profoundly important. He will try to accomplish this in a semi-mysterious or pseudo-mystical tone that I call “Portentous Hush,” which is a kind of incantatory whisper that suggests deep significance or urgency. In short, he’ll try to make himself sound like a priest, and his poem sound like a liturgical prayer.
There’s more to it than that, however. The mainstream modernist poet will express a clear but sharply limited range of emotions. They will usually fall into one of the following five categories:
I’m blissfully happy, and I hope that it lasts.
I’m deeply unhappy, and I hope that it changes.
I’m disappointed, and it’s not my fault. I’m outraged by something, and I trust that you are also. I can’t accept something, because it’s just too horrible.
As a result of this narrow bandwidth of emotional
possibility, the mainstream progressive poem usually resolves itself
into an ecstatic proclamation, an angry outburst, a whining complaint, a
brief philosophical or querulous comment, or—if everything else fails—a
small-scale description of something. That description is typically of
an animal, an insect, a plant, a tree, a landscape, or the poet’s
migraine headache. Another problem is that a great deal of mainstream
progressive poetry seems to be written by persons who simply are
unfamiliar with the structures and idioms of the English language.
Willard Spiegelman, the editor of The Southwest Review, in his comments
on younger poets today, said “Only a small percentage can satisfy the
technical prosodic demands and also write a syntactically accurate
English sentence.” That’s actually quite frightening, when you think
about it. Here are persons presuming to write and publish literature,
but who have an imperfect grasp of their own language. It’s bad enough
that much contemporary poetry since Allen Ginsberg has been “nihilistic
free verse oral diarrhea,” as the poet William Childress describes it.
But that its creators can’t even put it into coherent English? That’s
In fact, nowadays this is becoming one of the major divides between classical formal poetry and the mainstream variety. Formalist poetry is written by persons of many different sociopolitical viewpoints, and formalist poetry has a significant number of conservative and hard right-wing practitioners. This is emphatically not the case in the world of progressive mainstream poetry, which consciously excludes or suppresses the work of any poet who does not toe the line of left-liberal orthodoxy. Anyone with strongly expressed conservative views will be hounded out of a poetry workshop, or asked to leave an on-line discussion group, and his work will be reflexively rejected if he submits it to a mainstream magazine. This is real, this is actual, this is happening right now, today. The world of modernist poetry has turned as politically rigid and uncompromising as the old Soviet Central Committee. As the poet Joseph Charles MacKenzie once very aptly said, “poetry has become the eunuch of the left.” And since Poetry magazine, the flagship of mainstream modernism, now has a multimillion-dollar bequest from that daft pharmaceutical heiress, Ruth Lilly, things aren’t going to change radically.
But I don’t want this talk to be one that merely attacks our opponents while anointing our own movement with the oil of self-congratulation. We need to address our own failings. If we in the formalist and classical poetry counter-revolution are to produce work that avoids all the brainless tedium of the progressive mainstream, what should we aim at? How can we make poems that are better, richer, fuller, weightier, and above all more interesting than the dreck flowing out of the enemy camp? Well, I have a raft of suggestions, and I’ll preface my remarks by saying that some of you are not going to like them. But that’s OK—they are only proposals, not marching orders.
First off, we need more poems that are strictly playful and comic. What is humorous and witty is exactly opposed to what is sloppy and sentimental, and we have far too many sloppy, sentimental poems. In connection with this, we need many more poems that are satirical and sarcastic, or even—dare I say it?—nasty. A lot of North Americans recoil at this because they’ve been trained to be nice—but quite frankly, “nice” poems are a bore. Readers are much more inclined to favor an unapologetic slap in the face to someone or something than to read the saccharine drivel inside a Hallmark card.
Second, we need fewer poems about love, and more about sex. I’m exasperated by poets who think they are writing in the tradition of Shakespeare when they produce godawful, sickly-sweet sonnets to their wives and girlfriends. They seem to have blissfully forgotten that Shakespeare wrote several explicitly sexual and violent sonnets that talk of the dark and grossly physical side of the love relationship. Consider Sonnet 20, with its obscene pun and its bisexual uncertainty; or Sonnet 129, with its explicit description of unbridled male lust; or Sonnet 141, with its clearly expressed disgust over the faults of a lover’s body; or Sonnet 147, with its venomous hatred of the Dark Lady; or other sonnets that deal with psychological enslavement, or cruelty, or that rage against infidelity, or despair over the beloved’s lies and deceit. Shakespeare knew that there were many sides to desire, and not all of them involved the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day. So why do we refuse to write erotic verses? Why must some of us write love poetry as if the PTA were looking over our shoulders? What the hell are we afraid of?
Next, we need poems that are intrinsically exciting and interesting. Concretely, this means we don’t need to hear about your feelings, we don’t need to hear about your grandchildren, and we don’t need to hear about how your flower-beds are progressing. Tell us instead about a particularly frightening nightmare that you had—or better still, make one up. Also, readers are naturally drawn to unusual, historically based subjects. There’s no reason at all why you can’t write about something from the distant past, or from the annals of mythology, or an ekphrastic piece that is linked to some important work of art. If you think that you can only authentically compose poems that are connected to your personal experience in the real world, then you are still enslaved to modernist, progressive notions. You’re just Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, even though you take pains to write in perfect meter.
Above all, we need poems that are ideologically threatening and unorthodox. Political correctness completely dominates mainstream progressive poetry. That is its greatest weakness, because the hatred of political correctness is reaching its boiling point now. We need to produce counter-revolutionary poems that utterly reject politically correct positions, and that thumb their nose at persons who hold such positions. In other words, we need to be willing to pick a public fight, and we need to be insulting and contemptuous. If you’re not temperamentally suited to that, well, OK… but you’re not going to be part of the solution to the problem of progressive mainstream poetry and its soul-choking hegemony. You’ll just be on the sidelines.
My most important point is that some of the things presented here as an indictment of modernist-progressive poetry can be applied with equal force to many persons presuming to compose classical formal verse. Do we have people in our ranks who write exclusively about their personal feelings? Do some of us in the movement insist on writing nice, child-friendly poems all the time? Do some of us shy away from sarcastic or satirical expression? Do some of us prefer to write a safe and unthreatening poem rather than an exciting or unorthodox one? Do we refuse to deal with historical subjects? Do we dread insulting people? Do our religious loyalties prevent us from using sexual language or obscene terminology? Do we refuse to write poems about sex at all? Are we more worried about audience reaction than we are with writing a top-notch poem, no matter how shocking?
If we in the classical poetry movement suffer from any of these disabilities, then I ask quite frankly: How are we different from the purveyors of mainstream progressive poetry? Do we think that our use of regular meter and form prevents us from being tedious and uninteresting? Crucial weaknesses of mainstream poetry are its timorousness, its safety-conscious restraint, its hesitation, its parent-pleasing orthodoxy. There is no fire in the lines of those modernist progressive poets, no exuberance of unfettered word choice, no flamethrower rhetoric that scorches a reader. But if we in the movement to reanimate classical English poetry suffer from the same weaknesses, if we insist on writing nice, polite, friendly, Hallmark-Card sentiments that can be sent to our maiden aunts… well then, what’s the point?
I have discovered, time and again, that this is the core problem with all movements that purport to be conservative or traditional in their loyalties—namely, that the persons in those movements are strangled to ineffectiveness by their innate conventionality, their moral scruples, and their unwillingness to punch hard. You’re not going to accomplish anything in the poetry world by being polite and restrained and bourgeois. At best, you’ll only be the iambic pentameter version of modernist progressive poetry. Let’s not be that. It’s not worth our time.
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 book, Gallery of Ethopaths, is forthcoming in 2019 from Pivot Press.