by Robert Darling
The debate between yours truly and Joseph Salemi appears not only to have gone far afield but also to be on a rapid downward slope. Perhaps this should be my final entry while a shred of dignity remains. Our little chat has, like a virus, spread to other parts of the web. Gilbert Wesley Purdy has entered the fray, seemingly with a bit of a distaste for both us, a sentiment now most likely shared by readers and participants.
I will reprint portions of Salemi's essay as I respond. This will save the reader having to return to the original and may even convince him or her or it that I didn't make this all up, unbelievable as parts of it may read.
Salemi takes me to task for accusing him of liberal-baiting. Fair enough. He was. His general manner of argument has been to say: 1. This way of thinking is typical of liberals. 2. Therefore, my correspondent must be a liberal. 3. Therefore my correspondent's ideas are not worthy of serious consideration. In this way Salemi does present an ad hominem argument, despite his denials. This is as much an attack on the person as the ideas the person presents.
Then Salemi continues:
"Since Robert Darling makes such a big issue of my references to liberals and liberalism, it's time to clear the matter up. Is Darling a liberal or not? And if he is, why in his lengthy essay did he not acknowledge the fact? Is he ashamed of his politics? It would seem that, just as those in the 1950s who screamed 'Red-baiter!' would never say whether or not they were Reds, so also people who fulminate against 'the L-word' never admit whether or not they are liberals. So how about it, Bob? Enlighten us, just for the record..... Does Darling believe that liberalism is a defect? Consider the forensic possibilities. Darling could have replied 'Yes, I'm a liberal and proud of it!' Or he could have said 'I'm a liberal in this or that respect, while I'm not a liberal in some other respect.' Darling does neither."
First of all, I didn't consider it Salemi's business. I only mentioned the Left in my first essay because of Salemi's strong indication that satire was a tool of the Right, my point being that poets of the Left have also found it of use. But let me say that I'm a liberal in this or that respect, while I'm not a liberal in some other respect. And so is Salemi. Such a statement says next to nothing. But beyond that, the term liberal has so many applications, and the Left is so divided, that one is never sure exactly what the term means. There are old-style liberals who believe in big government and a moderately-controlled economy. There are socialists of various hue. These groups are very different from the now-fashionable-in-some-quarters politically correct. All of these and more can have the moniker (not Lewinsky) attached to them. There are also many types of conservatives; some of the prominent voices in the Bush 2 Administration have been disowned by other conservatives. Words like liberal and conservative—and fundamentalist (see below)--need to be used in a particular context to retain a specific meaning. To use either of these terms as freely as does Salemi is to indulge in oversimplification. But then oversimplification is necessary for ranting.
"Moreover, while we are on the subject of personal attacks, Darling has a few things to answer for. He refers to me as a 'fundamentalist,' a term of abuse long flung by lazy thinkers at anyone who has a more coherent worldview than they do. I wouldn't mind that, but Darling knows quite well that in the superheated atmosphere of America today, the term 'fundamentalist' now also conjures up images of murderous Islamic terrorists who kill helpless civilians. This is like screaming Collaborateur! at a Frenchman in 1946. It's a very dangerous and threatening charge to make in a post-9/l1 context. Was this just accidental on his part, or is Darling trying to connect me with Al Qaeda? If so, let him spit it out plainly."
Well, I'd prefer not to spit, but fundamentalist is another term that can cover many sins. I use it innocently to mean one who is very sure of his position and less innocently of one whose certainty has hardened into intolerance. Joe Salemi connected with Al Qaeda? A very interesting idea, but one that certainly had not occurred to me. There are many fundamentalist churches in my area. I hadn't really considered them as possible Al Qaeda hangouts. Jerry Fallwell is a religious fundamentalist, but I don't equate him with Al Qaeda. Nor do I equate Joseph Salemi with Jerry Fallwell. In fact, most fundamentalist Muslims aren't violent either. It looks like fundamentalist is as slippery a word as liberal. No, I used it in a context that made clear that fundamentalist was being contrasted with relativist. For Salemi to indicate that I may even have inferred a connection between him and Al Qaeda is a bizarre misreading. And, lest Salemi be worried, I would be glad to tell Admiral Poindexter, who is watching out for us all, the same.
"In addition, Darling's bush-league prejudices are showing when he refers to my mention of my Roman Catholicism as a 'confession of his condition' and 'his predicament.' My Roman Catholicism is not a 'condition' or a 'predicament,' no matter what snotty American Protestants might think. I have willingly chosen my faith, and I don't need to be patronized by any psalm-singing Quaker. Got that, Bob?"
Sure, Joe. First of all, psalm-singing Quaker is something of an oxymoron. And no, I was not referring to Salemi's Catholicism as a "condition" or "predicament." I grew up seeing anti-Catholic bias and know it for the evil that it is. (Oops! There I go sounding ethical again.) The Church of Joe Salemi is also the Church of the Berrigans and The Catholic Worker. Though I may have some creedal and structural disagreements with it, the Catholic Church has long had my respect. I view some of its recent troubles with sorrow.
No, the condition I refer to is that of reactionary, Salemi's inability to write a column about poetry or to review a book without launching into a tirade about liberals, the middle class, and various other target groups. He can abuse literature in very much the same way that English professors who might better be sociologists do. How great a difference is there really between the professor who rants about entitlement, empowerment and the use of the canon as a political tool and one who rants about middle-class values in poetry and the liberal co-option of the teaching of literature? Both have a point, but both also live by the letter rather than the spirit. (Dang! A George Fox term sprang out.) Both are members of the culture of complaint. It is interesting that Salemi will then swing to the opposite pole and claim that poetry is simply the skillful use of language and is not to be judged by what it says.
It seems that the greatest problem with Salemi the critic is that he wants to be the Rush Limbaugh of the poetry scene. He is capable of far better.
"OK--now that we've cleared the air let's turn to some serious demolition work. Darling must be unaware of the reception that Tennyson got in his own day, and immediately afterward, if he thinks that my low opinion of In Memoriam is that of 'a critic trapped in his own time.' Tennyson was savaged by many nineteenth-century commentators. Despite his popularity with the British bourgeoisie (the perfect audience for that sentimental, wheezing, hurdy-gurdy of a poem, In Memoriam), quite a number of Tennyson's contemporaries shared my viewpoint of his work. Carlyle called his poetry 'the inward perfection of vacancy.' Alfred Austin dismissed it as 'the poetry of the drawing room.' Gerard Manley Hopkins characterized his work as 'Parnassian' in the derogatory sense. Swinburne (a master of the skewering put-down) referred to Idylls of the King as 'Morte d'Albert, or Idylls of the Prince Consort'--a cruel but apt reference to Tennyson's toadying complicity in Queen Victoria's morbidly prolonged mourning for Prince Albert. But best of all was the opinion of one reviewer of In Memoriam, who guessed that the anonymously published poem was an emotional effusion from the 'full heart of the widow of a military man.' What an appropriate judgment, and a lot more devastating than the one I quoted from Whittaker Chambers. So I ask Darling: Are all these people 'modern critics,' trapped in a twentieth-century viewpoint? "
No poet meets universal acclaim; I am well aware that Tennyson was no exception. In fact, the more acclaim one receives the more likely one will be attacked. In Salemi's first response, he indicated that he likes some of Tennyson's work, just not In Memoriam in particular. Most of the above speaks more generally of Tennyson's work. I would never want to say that Carlyle's opinions were typical of anything directly Victorian—his genius was contrarian. Austin was a nonentity—which does not necessarily prove him wrong, but certainly doesn't do much to support his opinion. Compare him with Tennyson and see who is the greater poet. But there is a further element regarding Austin that bears mentioning. When Tennyson's publisher, Edward Moxon died, the firm was taken over by Bertrand Payne; Tennyson suspected Payne of pocketing reprint money and demanded a financial statement. (Tennyson was correct in his fears.) When Tennyson switched publishers, Payne persuaded Austin to write a negative review of Tennyson. Austin later regretted his action. Hopkins and Swinburne were of a later generation, both in rebellion against the Victorian favorites, and guess who was the biggest to attack? Hopkins and Swinburne rejected Tennyson (though Swinburne is some ways never quite managed to break free) just as Kavanaugh rejected Yeats. Eliot has gone through a similar onslaught. Auden went through his while still alive. All this does not prove these viewpoints wrong; neither does it prove them right. While I am opposed to gender feminism, I do find the anonymous "appropriate judgment" hopelessly sexist. Salemi finds In Memoriam riddled with "Victorian bromides." From his contemporary perspective, Salemi finds the poem to include what he most dislikes about the Victorian period. That other Victorians may also have disliked the poem doesn't free Salemi from the charge. One can also find Hamlet full of cliches. Things said so memorably that they are repeated by non-poets must be deficient, the elite arbiters of taste contend.
It is not as easy to select excerpts from our arguments about didacticism as they don't lend themselves as easily to excerption; I can't spare the reader the pleasure of returning to our previous essays here. But let me state my concerns as simply as possible.
Salemi tries to expand the traditional definition of didactic poetry which originally was poetry teaching the reader a lesson, poetry with a moral. My contention is, in using didactic a bit more loosely, Salemi expands the term to include far more types of poetry than he wants to consider. He divides didactic into informative-didactic and manipulative-didactic. The first is innocently informative: "Here, I'm going to explain this for you; now, mind you, I'm not trying to convince you of anything, just letting you know about it. Far be it from me to tell you what to do." The second: "I'm going to convince you what I say is correct, but it is either so vapid, or stupid, or nasty that I am going to go on at great length and gradually wear you down while keeping my thesis nicely hidden." (The two preceding quotes are nothing Salemi himself wrote, though his dark angel did whisper them in my ear.)
Well, allow me to quote a recent poem destined for greatness:
This I proclaimThis won't fit either of Salemi's definitions.
without any doubt:
a boy who's not queer
should be a Boy Scout.
Salemi wants to both expand didacticism beyond its original context, but once one does that, how does one limit the definition? Salemi, perversely, seeks to do this minimizing the importance of what the words of a poem mean. But once one broadens the word didactic beyond its narrowest application, almost everything becomes didactic, which was my basic point.
So Salemi, hoping to deny the element of complexity he created:
"Darling is trying--unsuccessfully--to change the terms of this debate by confusing ethics with meaning--once again, because he knows he's on shaky ground. If a poet says 'The dawn breaks grey over the horizon' he is presenting meaning. If he says 'We should all vote for Al Gore' he is being didactic. Got that?"
Not quite. The second example, again, doesn't fit into Salemi's didactic categories. In regard to the first, very few poems remain merely descriptive. It is also possible that something that was didactic has lost its element of didacticism when removed from its original context. An example that comes to mind is a Pre-Raphaelite painting (I believe of Holman Hunt's, but I'm not sure) of some sheep in a pasture atop a cliff overlooking the English Channel. That is surely a simple, non-didactic work. Not to the painter and his contemporaries. That scene in gaudy Pre-Raphaelite colors actually made a political statement: all that is guarding our coasts from French attack is a flock of sheep. But that is not how we view the painting. So it would appear that not only are there far more than Salemi's two types of didacticism, but the question is more complex still. The nature of some children's poetry can further complicate the matter.
But complexities do not produce rants, and most of Salemi's columns attempt to impeach complexity by yelling. The decibel level of his columns resembles talk radio at times.
"Ethics refers to a set of guidelines for behavior. They may be negative, in the form of strictures; or positive, in the form of exhortations; or a mix of both. But a code of ethics is always specific. It's not some vague atmosphere of good intentions. Here Darling's core liberalism is as apparent as the Rock of Gibraltar. For him, ethics is 'an approach.' This is the typical liberal fog—directionless feeling groping towards an undefined hope, a 'waiting for the Light.' Historically, it's Kant's categorical imperative filtered through the lens of Emerson's idealism and Feuerbach's pipedreams, and finally issuing forth in the saccharine placidity of Norman Vincent Peale. It would be a bore if it weren't such a menace to rational thought."
With "waiting for the Light" Salemi again uses a Quaker term. (By pretending that I was attacking his religion, he can assert the right to criticize mine, though I don't recall bringing it up.) A code of ethics is not always specific. I do sympathize with Salemi's frustrations with a fashionable vagueness that is really just a "can't we all be nice guys" mentality. But waiting for the Light is not that at all; in fact, waiting for the Light is a kind of prayer. What is generally the right thing to do is not always the right thing to do in a particular occasion. For example, one should tell the truth. However, let us suppose that A wants to kill B over, say, a woman. B is hiding in my house. A comes to my door with a gun wanting to know if I've seen B. I would argue that in that case the moral action was to lie, though in most cases to do so would be immoral. That is not to say that ethics is purely situational. Read Kierkegaard on being in a right relationship with God—Auden's preface is a good place to start. A code of ethics that is carved in stone—I am not using the phrase unknowingly—is that of the fundamentalist. (And no, once again, I am privy to no connections between Joe Salemi and Al Qaeda.)
Salemi's above passage is all-too typical of his argumentation. Toss in some names and place some loaded terms ("pipedreams," "saccharine") next to words like "idealism" so they will be likewise tainted. Kant does belong on the list, Emerson is vague enough to fit almost anywhere, but Robert Barclay and Kierkegaard are vital and, of course, missing.
"When you have a mentality shaped by such influences, you really can't be a good literary critic. Your commentary is hopelessly hobbled by the vagueness of an unstated belief-system, which you are 'approaching,' to use Darling's term. Everything you say will be tentative and provisional and based on dreamy wishes rather than ascertainable facts. In short, your scholarship will approximate that critical mass of lethal vapidity for which In Memoriam is the perfect symbol."
Please don't let our editor know.
"Does Darling realize how asinine he makes himself by criticizing the brilliant rant-poem 'Daddy' on a moral basis? He sounds like Mrs. Grundy tut-tutting about a social faux pas as he pompously intones that Plath's poem 'clearly fails on ethical grounds.' It does? Well, Golly Gee, Bob--it's great to know that. I'm sure Sylvia Plath would really be troubled to hear of your adverse judgment."
Seamus Heaney (how did he get in here?):
"A poem like 'Daddy,' however brilliant a tour de force it can be acknowledged to be, and however its violence and vindictiveness can be understood or excused in the light of the poet's parental and marital relations, remains, nevertheless, so entangled in biographical circumstances and rampages so permissively in the history of other people's sorrows that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy."
And back to me: Heaney is kinder that I regarding the poem's violence and vindictiveness, but his comments on overdrawal of rights is right on. I find it highly interesting that Salemi is so liberal in his praise of Plath here. I sure she would be pleased, but perhaps suspicious that Salemi most approved of "Daddy" because it was a "rant-poem."
"A good illustration of what I mean is Darling's reiterated question about a poem celebrating Nazi atrocities in World War II. It's the height (or nadir) of absurdity for Darling to ask me to pass judgment on a hypothetical poem before it has even been written. Here again, we see the ingrained pietistic liberalism of Darling's approach to literature: he seriously imagines that literary judgment can be given on a work that does not yet exist, purely on preconceived political and ethical grounds. Sightunseen, a certain type of poem has to be 'bad.' It must be comforting to be that clairvoyant. Nevertheless, since Darling is so insistent on knowing whether a good poem could be written in praise of Nazi atrocities, I'll let him answer the question himself. Here is Robert Darling on what can constitute poetry, from his essay "The Loaded Terminology of the Poetry Wars," contained in the EP&M archives:
Poetry can be good
or bad, mundane or sublime,
discursive or concentrated, wise or wrongheaded,
moral or immoral, religious or blasphemous, or
any combination of these or other properties. The
one quality defining a work as poetry is that it
must be written in verse.
It seems to me that anyone writing something like that would have to believe that a good poem praising Nazi atrocities is possible. Or has Darling changed his mind since the publication of that essay? I guess that's the convenient thing about being an 'Enlightenment Puritan'--you can talk out of both sides of your mouth on the same website."
I am pleased that Professor Salemi took the time to review some of my essays. I hope it did him some good. But I am pessimistic, because this passage shows him at his most manipulative-didactic.
First of all, the passage is taken out of context. It is part of a larger passage that attacks the traditional separation of verse and poetry, i.e., poetry is something beyond mere verse, which eventually results in the heresy that verse is unnecessary to poetry. But let's ignore the context, as Salemi does. He states, again, "It seems to me that anyone writing something like that would have to believe that a good poem praising Nazi atrocities is possible." But the passage does not say this. It allows that a poem praising the Nazi atrocities is possible, not that it might be good. All it says is that the poem would have to be written in verse. I would expect my freshman to read this passage more accurately than Salemi did. But he was too eager to make a point.
All this still leaves our disagreements about the middle-class (a Bohemian definition vs. an economic one) and other matters untended. It's probably just as well. Much as with the Hatfields and McCoys, one wonders how this all began. But all good things must come to an end. This also. Besides, Salemi has already declared himself the winner. But before I return to my gated community to write the poetry of nicey-nice (avoiding initial capitals), let me quote W.H. Auden on morality in poetry:
"A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained. For example, I once expressed a desire for 'New styles of architecture'; but I have never liked modern architecture. I prefer old styles, and one must be honest even about one's prejudices. Again, and much more shamefully, I once wrote: 'History to the defeated / May say alas but cannot help nor pardon.' To say this is to equate goodness with success. It would have been bad enough if I had ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable."
Now, I know how Salemi will respond to that passage, and I think, in the main, he is right. Auden goes too far in fettering the creative imagination's free reign. We are responsible for what we say and write; that goes hand-in-hand with the freedom to speak and write. But there is a certain latitude to be enjoyed. The use of the persona is too often ignored or misunderstood. Keats's negative capability is an important poetic asset. These and other devices are means of distancing the poet from the speaker, of getting out of the self. Auden's passage above would restrict this.
Yet something remains to be said, wimpy as it sounds, about manners.
Lowell's betrayal of trust and Plath's cheapening of pain are examples I
cited in the previous essay. There is a fundamental difference between
imaginative play, however pointed, and malice taken into dishonesty.
I would add Baraka's 9.11 poem to the list, except I don't believe in keeping
lists. Those are for the truly censorious.