Joseph S. Salemi
This seems especially to be a problem with some Christian writers, who have internalized the scriptural directive “Let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” Do I have to explain that this is a moral directive, not a literary one? It has no bearing on writing poems, or on fictive mimesis in general. Certain pietistic poets have allowed this quote from the Sermon on the Mount to strangle their capacity for literary nuance and rhetorical intricacy. Straightforward declamation may be fine in a church or courtroom, but it is pointless in the world of belles lettres.
It’s not just Christian writers. If you simply do not have a developed capacity for fictionalization, for deception, for trickery, for lying and prestidigitation, for the imaginative revision of facts in accordance with narrative or even metrical needs, you just can’t be a good poet. That’s why it is a disastrous pedagogical mistake to tell students that they should always “Write about what they really feel, or about what they really know, or about what they really believe.” It only encourages them in the absurd notion that writing poetry is a form of talk-therapy to help them get past their personal trauma-bouts, or a more sophisticated kind of Twitter.
I can’t say it often enough: Poetry isn’t always about what you feel, or what you think, or what you believe, or what you have experienced! Only beginners and amateurs think those things. Really great poetry (as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Dante’s Commedia) is often feigned, allusive, witty, erotic, scholarly, vicious, sophisticated, historical, sarcastic, and… well, anything else that is part and parcel of being human. Above all, it is intricate and literary. And this means that it rises above any ostensible occasion or subject that prompted it, and is part of the grand tradition of verbal complexity and high linguistic art that stretches back through our civilization’s past.
If you just produce a poem to say something, that’s no different or more valuable than the sales flyer that a supermarket clerk slips under a car’s windshield wiper. It just provides information. Do you think that because you gave your information in metrical form, with nicely placed rhymes, that it accomplishes anything more? Poems are supposed to be works of art, dammit!
No poem will be saved from poor craftsmanship (and subsequent oblivion) by good meter and rhyme. It’s the same with a wall—it may have been put together with perfectly baked bricks and excellent cement, but if the mason’s craftsmanship was slovenly or inept, the wall sucks! It amazes me that people can see this when you speak of material objects, but they simply cannot see it in relation to bad poems.
To apply this to poetry, let’s see the parallels. Perfect rhyme and meter won’t guarantee a good poem, nor will the skill of the poet with that rhyme and meter do it either. The poem could still be banal and boring. Most na´ve people, unskilled in literary critique, say “Well, the content is something I agree with, and the content is expressed clearly. So for my money it’s a good poem.”
Guess what? That’s also not enough. If you think a banal poem is acceptable, you’re still focused on content or “what the poem says” or “its message.” But a perfectly composed poem in solid rhyme and meter, expressing the very best ideas or noblest feelings possible, MIGHT STILL BE A LOUSY POEM.
Don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of poems produced in any century are mediocre at best, and forgettable. Most are just plain terrible. And that’s because they were composed by persons with limited literary skills who thought that poems are declarative statements of opinion and belief, or unproblematic narratives of some actual event. And they figured that all they had to do was put the material into rhyme and meter, and their job was done.
The failure of those myriads of bad poems was twofold. First, they failed in imagination, or the duty of the poet to conjure up something exciting and arresting in terms of metaphor, simile, or the various tropes and figures. The poet had nothing striking or sharp or shocking to say that might have intrigued the reader, or at least caught his attention. Because the amateur poet was fixated on telling the truth and being honest, he didn’t stop to think that the truth is often humdrum and mundane, and not worth anyone’s focused attention.
Second, they failed in verbal complexity. If you are obsessed with being truthful and honest, you never embellish your language, or use more words than are necessary to express yourself clearly. You know that you undermine your message if people sense that you are getting rhetorically fancy, so many poets write in an austere plain style that serves no purpose except to “get the message across.” Of course the amateur formal poet will probably fiddle around a bit with syntax and vocabulary into order to maintain the requirements of rhyme and meter, but the main thing he’s aiming for is message. He will never use a word or an idiom or a turn of phrase for its own sake, as a piece of linguistic delight. He will never be in love with older words, or strange words, or unusual usages—in fact, he will consciously avoid them at all costs.
These two failures—in imagination and verbal complexity—are fatal to poetry. The purpose of writing a poem is not to tell anybody anything. The purpose of writing a poem is to create a beautiful linguistic artifact, and to show the reader that you have a unique capacity to capture his attention in doing so.
I have to admit that this entire issue has exasperated me. The New Formalism movement began well, with a concerted effort to break free from the shackles of Mainstream Free Verse’s conformism and orthodoxy. And what happened? The movement was hijacked by those who simply used it as a field for more experimentalism, so that eventually New Formalism was house-trained to become another academic specialty for regnant modernism. And then what? A more populist version of New Formalism came along with the “back to real meter” movement, and now this too is lapsing into the boredom of rigid metronomic regularity, with the added absurdity of poets declaiming and exhorting on their favorite themes, without the slightest sophistication or literary finesse.
Pardon my rudeness, but I didn’t think we gave up the gaseous pretentiousness of modernism to become commercial radio announcers.
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.