Joseph S. Salemi
The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.
-- William Faulkner
Everyone knows Andrew Marvell’s immortal poem “To His Coy Mistress,” with its unforgettable evocation of the twinned themes of lust and death. Marvell’s poem combines the playfulness of seduction with the somber finality of a memento mori. It is a triumph of English versecraft, and is deservedly canonized.
Fewer people are aware, however, that what practically amounts to a brief summation of Marvell’s poem can be found in the Greek Anthology. It’s an exquisite four-line piece (two elegiac couplets) by Asclepiades of Samos, and here’s my plebeian prose translation:
cling to your virginity, and what’s the advantage? For once
It’s very likely that Marvell had read this brief poem (he knew the Greek Anthology quite well), but even if he had not, it is of no consequence. He wrote “To His Coy Mistress” on the identical theme, and that’s that. No sane reader cares whether he borrowed the topos from Asclepiades, or thought it up on his own.
But today, with the combination of modernist prejudice and MFA small-mindedness, we do have a few objectors. I can just hear some dorky little on-line workshop denizen scolding poor Marvell: “You can’t write that, Andy! It’s been said before, in a shorter and more concise way by Asclepiades!” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that “there are no second acts in American lives.” A lot of the lemmings in the workshops apparently feel the same way about poems. No encores, please!
This notion that a poet ought not to write on previously treated subjects or idea-complexes is a symptom of modernist misunderstanding of the poetic task. It demonstrates an enslavement to the assumption that poetry is about subject matter primarily, and that once a given subject has been handled successfully, it is a waste of another poet’s time and energy to tackle that subject again. This attitude had its parallel in the 1980s, during the heyday of Critical Theory in literary studies, when a lot of silly twits screamed that we all had to write a new and different type of scholarly criticism, as if traditional analysis, learned commentary, and explication de texte had somehow been exhausted.
Critical Theory died a deserved death by the turn of this century, but the proterophobic attitude behind it seems to persist in poetry. Ezra Pound, in one of his oracular pronouncements, insisted that one should never deal with a previously treated subject in poetry unless one handled it in a shorter, more succinct, and better way. I wonder what he would have thought of Marvell’s expansion of Asclepiades’ four-line poem into the forty-six lines of “To His Coy Mistress.”
The same myopia is at work in Gertrude Stein’s apologia for her “A rose is a rose is a rose”—the most flagrantly asinine tautology ever to pass itself off as literature. Stein defended this repetitious absurdity by claiming that “in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.” In other words, Edward FitzGerald and Tennyson and Swinburne and Wilde and Dowson never wrote meaningfully about roses, since their language for the job was dead or obsolete or inadequate. It’s not surprising that une vieille gueuse like Stein spouted such arrant nonsense; what’s surprising is how many presumably intelligent people actually believed it.
The detritus of Pound’s attitude (which at the beginning of the last century might have been justified as an attempt to shake up poetry from its post-Victorian doldrums) can be seen today taking a vulgarized form in the ubiquitous complaints about “hackneyed themes” or “overdone topics” or “predictable approaches.” Here again, we can extract the MFA-school assumptions that underlie the complaints:
poetry is original.
Of course, the irony in all this was pointed out by William Carlson many years ago—the people who are loudest in defending these assumptions are the same ones who tend to produce the utterly boring and cookie-cutter McPoems that engulf us today. As Bill used to tell me, you’d be lucky to find one mainstream poem out of a hundred that is shockingly different, or thought-provoking, or tendentious. The people who are partisans of “originality” and “innovation” aren’t producing such work. Why is that?
Well, perhaps the following anecdote will cast some light on the question. When I was a youth in Woodside, we had a Hispanic neighbor named Antonio who worked at the reservations desk of a major international airline. One day Antonio told us that the previous week a passenger coming back from Madrid had complained vigorously that a delicate piece of Lladró ceramic he had bought in Spain was damaged during the flight home. He demanded that some restitution be made by the airline. The airline had a no-fault policy in regard to carry-on luggage, and refused. The argument got heated until Antonio proposed the following to his supervisors: he himself would take the next available flight to Madrid, pick up a replacement for the broken ceramic, and then fly back with it to New York. The airline agreed, and it was done.
The passenger, who happened to be a high school teacher, was so delighted that he later wrote a rapturous letter of commendation to Antonio’s employers. Antonio brought it over to show us. As I read it, I was struck by the fact that the writer used the words “original” and “originality” several times when describing Antonio’s solution. The teacher went on and on about it—Antonio had come up with a “fresh” idea. It was “innovative.” It was “daring.” He had demonstrated “originality.” And I thought to myself “Here’s the typical doofus of a liberal schoolteacher, blathering on ad nauseam about freshness and originality, while he himself is probably nothing but a unionized cipher.” But I said nothing of this to Antonio, who was understandably pleased with his letter of commendation.
I think this is where we get all the hoopla about being “original” and “innovative.” It comes largely from people who are not especially well endowed with either of the strengths covered by those adjectives. Just as the loudest shrieks for war against “terrorists” come from neocon vermin at The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Commentary who are never going into actual combat themselves, the huzzahs for innovation in poetry come mostly from those with minimal talent for the real thing.
G.K. Chesterton would have discovered one of his paradoxes here, and no doubt would have adumbrated it better than I can. But let me take a stab at it—a poet produces his best and most characteristic work not by fighting against his inheritance but by accepting it and making use of it. Will he change it or vary it or give it a new twist of some sort? Certainly. But if he is obsessed with innovation per se, as if it were a laudable goal in itself, he is just going to be dragged into one silly and momentarily faddish idea after another as he desperately seeks to be cutting-edge. And therein lies the tragedy: the more modern and trendy one attempts to be, the more irrelevant and forgettable will one’s work appear in the long run. There’s nothing more pathetic than what was hot five years ago. But when a poet attaches himself to an inherited cultural tradition he becomes uniquely and irreducibly himself, as if the tradition had nourished him to flower in his own special and particular way.
And here we can allude to what Chesterton called the democracy of the dead—which he defined as “giving votes to the most obscure of classes, our ancestors… and refusing to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” Our poetic ancestors and their achievements are not like old athletic stats, to be forgotten and surpassed. They are alive and with us. They help in our art. Their successes give them prescriptive veto power over stupid motives that might temporarily lure us into an aesthetic disaster. And if we want to write on the same subjects as they choose to treat, or even to employ their manner and style, we’ll do so without having to answer to anyone.
That’s real freedom. How many of the dorks and lemmings in the workshops have it?
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.