A Journal of Contemporary Arts 


  Joseph S. Salemi







Life, someone said, is a series of repeated penitential exercises. Like all bons mots it’s only partially true, but everyone can adduce an instance that illustrates this one’s validity. In my case, the penitential exercise is judging poetry contests.

Each year I am invited to pick winners in various competitions held by societies, journals, and organizations. I’m usually asked to judge the categories of metrical, fixed-form, rhyming, light, comic, or satirical verse, but sometimes others as well. I don’t refuse, because a refusal by a critic to judge individual poems is tantamount to surrendering in a war. You give up everything you’ve been fighting for, and you allow the enemy to dictate terms. If I don’t judge a contest, some schmuck with a totally alien aesthetic may get the job, and garbage poetry will receive yet another public ratification and endorsement. So I hang in there, even though the labor is largely uncompensated. At least I can make sure that the poetical dregs are eliminated.

Still, it’s an ordeal. One wades through sheet after sheet of dreadful stuff, looking for something that shows a modicum of craft. And yes, every so often one finds an excellent poem. But most of the time what you encounter is either totally amateurish drivel, or inchoate poetry—that is, poems that show the outlines and rough shape of something good, but which are only half-done or unpolished. They may have a few good lines, or an interesting premise, or an arresting trope, but all of it is embedded in a poem that cries out for overhaul and revision and reworking.

For example, I can’t recall how many sonnets I have read that start out nicely, and then all of a sudden there’s a four-foot line stuck somewhere in the middle. What the bloody hell is going on? I scream to myself. Why has this feckless poet wrecked the meter of a fixed-form poem? I then fling the clubfooted sonnet into the slush pile of losers.

Or there’s the slant-rhyme. I’ve reconciled myself to tolerating it as an inevitability in the current poetic climate, very much as one must tolerate a certain level of malaria in the tropics. But to close a rhyming poem with a slant-rhyme? To use it in the one place in a piece where closure demands an aural register of one’s rhyme scheme? It’s unendurable. The late Henry George Fischer used to say that employing slant-rhyme at the end of a rhymed poem was the poetic version of coitus interruptus. He couldn’t understand why anyone would do it, except out of ignorance or incompetence.

Or there’s the pig-headed insistence on using straightforward colloquial syntax exclusively, even though some lines might be improved or rendered felicitous by an occasional inversion, or by the help of an older idiomatic turn of phrase. But oh no… some stupid MFA in a writing workshop told the poet that such a thing is streng verboten, because it is “old-fashioned.” (In America today being old-fashioned is a major crime, comparable to living in the same house for more than three years, or using your parents’ bedroom set). As a result these lines limp along, perfectly colloquial and perfectly lousy. But the poet has obeyed his MFA mentor, and feels suitably virtuous.

There are other annoyances: the sloppy, oversubstituted metrics; the limited range of vocabulary; the pervasive tone of moral earnestness and sincerity; the utter lack of anything exciting or threatening. Why does everyone seem to think that poems have to be child-friendly? Are we writing for the local school board in some backwater hick town?

Other poets have told me that this is typical of poems submitted to competitions: the contestants feel that their submissions must be G-rated and “nice” in order to be considered at all. If that is the case, it’s a great argument for abolishing such contests altogether. Why should we have a system of prize-giving that encourages the worst aspects of American Rotarianism and conformism? Poetry should be something that makes prudes blush, prompts Bible-thumpers to write their congressman, and sends feminists screaming to their support groups. Instead in America we have encouraged a poetry that is as inoffensively suburbanized as an IKEA outlet.

However, the most purgatorial process one has to undergo in judging poetry competitions doesn’t have anything to do with the above complaints. It has to do with voice and point of view. It is maddening to read an endless stream of poems where the speaker or narrator is obviously identical with the writer of the poem, and where what you get is an expression of feeling, an account of some actual incident, a description of natural beauty, or a statement of personal opinion.

My objection isn’t to these four things per se. Obviously any one of them could provide the basis for a good poem, and in countless cases have done so. But the problem is that they are not fictive, and therefore limiting if used in isolation. Poets who think that these are the only foundation on which to build a poem implicitly believe the myth that poetry is just another means of personal expression. And if you believe that myth, you are hamstrung as a poet.

The inability of many modern Americans to produce fictive poems is ironic in the light of our national history. Our “tall tales” and “storifying” used to be world-famous. We were the land of liars and con-artists and fable-spinning frontiersmen. With that kind of cultural substrate, we should have become a nation of profoundly fictive poets. And we did produce some brilliant ones like Poe and Melville and E.A. Robinson.

But unfortunately American Puritanism kicked in, as it always does, and we no longer feel that it is appropriate to be fictive. We are now loyal to the bogus ideals of “truth” and “sincerity” and “honesty.” And you can see the result in those reams of boilerplate that I have to go through when judging poetry contests: the pathetic desire to express some genuine feeling; the laughable attempt to capture in words a pointless epiphany; the mind-numbing fixation on verisimilitude; the anal-retentive need to depict in painstaking detail some natural phenomenon. I can just hear my grandfather thundering Puzzo della canaglia! if he were forced to read such stuff.

I’ll continue to judge poetry contests whenever invited to do so. Nevertheless, the toughest thing a critic can fight is a consensus on taste. It’s next to impossible to reverse a generally held attitude, and I have no illusions about my chances to pull that off. My predilections in poetry will never be shared by most Americans. I want poetry to have a disreputable, sleazy underside redolent of sex, violence, outrage, and contentiousness—all in perfect meter. I want it to be as venomous as Martial; as bawdy and scatological as Guillaume IX and Chaucer; as sensuous as Marlowe in Hero and Leander and Shakespeare in Venus and Adonis; as obscene as Aretino and the Earl of Rochester; as shit-kicking as Swift; as in-your-face and pagan as Swinburne; as vulgar as Robert Burns in The Merry Muses of Caledonia. From what I read in these poetry competitions, that’s not going to happen soon.


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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.  He also acts on occasion as a poetry contest judge.