EP&M Author’s Reply

Some Thoughts on White’s Critique
A response to Tom White’s “Chopped Critique”


Dr. Joseph S. Salemi

It never fails. When you bring up the subject of caste in America, people get irrationally angry. Apparently Thomas White is so annoyed at what I wrote in my two essays on Poetry and Class that he couldn't even wait for Part III to appear. Now that's what I call getting a rise out of one's readership.

You can tell someone is pissed off when he makes two incongruous statements in the course of three paragraphs. First White says that he is "not interested" in whether my sociopolitical analysis is valid. But then he goes on to say that my analysis is "wooden, strained, and useless." Well, what's going on here? Does White think my argument is wrong, or is he "not interested" in its rightness or wrongness?

White is posing as an above-the-fray moderate when in fact he's trying to hide his anger at something I wrote. He doesn't tell us exactly what's bothering him. But as I said above, people get very touchy when you allude to caste.

White's "chopped critique" doesn't say much of argumentative substance, except towards the end where he writes "Conformity is not the exclusive province of any particular cultural or political group, but a normal tendency in human nature that Modernity has enlarged and celebrated."

OK, but so what? Does White believe that the ubiquity of conformism makes it a good thing? Just because something is "a normal tendency in human nature" ought we to give it a pass? White seems to think that if everybody does something, it's no longer fair game for criticism. What a typically middle-class notion!

White wants to corral me into some imagined group of ideologically driven fundamentalists for whom "literature and poetry cannot be appreciated for their own sake." And yet nearly every essay I have written for this web site and in hardcopy journals states my unequivocal allegiance to the principle of l'art pour l'art. If White has been reading me so attentively, how did he happen to miss that?

What is truly bizarre about White's comments is his opinion that literary scholars should never make sociopolitical statements when discussing literature. Is he for real? Not even in the heyday of New Criticism, when Cleanth Brooks and R.P. Blackmur reigned supreme, would anyone have dared to suggest that. Literary scholars are free to explore whatever questions they see fit.

The whole point of my Poetry and Class series is to discuss a major festering problem that affects how we in America write poetry. Yet White candidly admits that he is totally unconcerned with whether what I say is true or false. His only interests are "literary and poetical." That's a rather damning admission on his part, and it suggests that he suffers from a severe case of tunnel vision. Is he trying to avoid the Culture Wars? That's like trying to avoid World War II.

I'm sorry I can't oblige him by being fastidiously bellettristic. I'll continue to write on whatever subjects will help illuminate our understanding of literature. If White's interests are as strictly "literary and poetical" as he claims, perhaps he should limit his reading to EP&M's technical prosody section.

                        Joseph S. Salemi