EP&M Online Essay
Poetry As The Philosophers' Stone
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics
Hunter College, CUNY
The alchemical art, though long in disrepute, is
nevertheless of great antiquity. Supposedly founded by Hermes Trismegistus,
a Ptolemaic Greek reflex of the Egyptian god Thoth, alchemy has fascinated
men since the days of imperial Rome, and probably earlier. Thinkers
as diverse as Albert the Great, Marsiho Ficino, and Isaac Newton took it
The aim of alchemy was the production of the Philosophers' Stone. This
rare thing was said to be a lustrous red mineral with an unearthly fragrance,
attained by the alchemist only after painstaking labor and trouble.
But once in possession of the stone he could use it to transmute base metals
into gold, and the effort was therefore worthwhile Of course, a great
many avaricious persons dabbled in alchemy out of sheer greed, and numerous
con-men professed the art solely to defraud the gullible. The best
examples in English literature dealing with the phenomenon are Chaucer's
The Canon's Yeoman's Tale, and Ben Jonson's still-hilarious comedy
However, when one reads the original alchemical texts carefully, as C.G.
Jung did in the course of his psychological studies, one discovers that alchemy's
transmutation of base metals is purely metaphorical. The art was actually
a complex system for probing the depths of one's psyche. Serious alchemists
were involved in a process of self-understanding and interior knowledge.
The Philosophers' Stone was a symbol for a transcendent psychic achievement,
whereby one divested oneself of all baseness and ignorance and became a mature
and fully realized individual, in touch with one's deepest self and the divine
source of that selfhood. In short, gaining the Philosophers' Stone
was analogous to achieving the state of the Buddha, or becoming a Zen master,
or attaining Epicurean ataraxia, or being reborn in Christ.
All this would be merely ancient history if it did not have some relevance
to understanding what went wrong in poetry during the last century. It seems
to me that we can learn a lot about our art's troubles and decline if we
think in terms of alchemy and the Philosophers' Stone.
Poetry lost its bearings when, for a variety of reasons, poets and critics
began to insist that poetry had to serve a psychologically transformative
function. Instead of being seen as a craft, passed down from master
to apprentice, it became a mystical experience through which psychic wholeness
was attained. The poem was now supposed to be doubly healing: it allowed
the poet to express himself in a therapeutically restorative way; and it
took the reader through an educative process that consoled his troubled spirit.
Poetry became the Philosophers' Stone—a magical talisman of transformation.
How did this happen? Well, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning
of the twentieth century, a deep dissatisfaction began to develop in the
Western world with the traditional aspects of poetry. Certain influential
people no longer wanted rhetoric, ornamentation, rare diction, ritualized
speech, or any kind of artificial beauty in their poems. They didn't
even want rhyme, meter, or tropes. Instead they hankered after a "pure"
and "clean" poetry that would dispense with all these traditional niceties
and give them unalloyed perception, unmediated experience, and absolute verisimilitude.
What they wanted was a literary version of the Philosophers' Stone, which
would bring them psychic wholeness. As Arthur Mortensen has suggested
in a different context, they began to think of the poem as the Eucharistic
This changed perspective was a disaster. It arrogated to poetry a function
that properly belongs to religion, but even worse, it allowed for the progressive
neglect of that which in fact is the source of poetry's real identity: the
conscious love of language and linguistic possibility. Instead of being
the perfect verbal artifacts of skillful wordsmiths, poems became bogus narcotics
promising the reader some kind of ecstatic emotional trip. The notion
began to spread that poetry was about one's "feelings," and that notion triumphed
in the end. Today there isn't a poetry workshop in this country where
that idea isn't taken for granted by both students and directors.
The desire for a transformative emotional experience is essentially a religious
impulse. I find it interesting that this new attitude towards poetry
started to develop in the Western world at precisely the moment when doctrinal
religion began to lose its grip on the European intelligentsia. By
1890, otherworldly faiths seemed discredited in the eyes of many persons,
and all of a sudden poets were prepared to become, as Arthur Mortensen has
said, "priests of a secular religion."
But poetry cannot substitute for religion. First of all, the posture
is arrogant and unbecoming, since most poets are lacking in the prestige
and credentials that make for hierophantic status. Think of the pathetic
little nerds you know in the poetry world, with all their personal faults
and narcissistic self-absorption. Can you imagine any of them offering
you salvation? No—as the Marines would say, they just don't pack the
Second, no one's soul was ever saved by art. The arts are magnificent
blessings to human life, but they are merely that, nothing more. I
am a strict l'art pour l'art partisan because I want art to be free
from political and moralistic meddling. But I am also committed to
that view because I know that the deepest questions in life are not answered
by artists, no matter how gifted they may be. Art has a license to
do exactly what it pleases precisely because all the serious issues of
human existence are decided elsewhere on non-aesthetic grounds.
Only modern poets are stupid enough not to recognize this brute fact.
The notion that a good poem must be salvific is not the only alchemical parallel
in the new poetic ideology that emerged in the early twentieth century. Another
is the cult of gnostic difficulty. The alchemical process was notoriously
complex and intricate, involving all sorts of arcane mystifications and convoluted
by-ways. Those who practiced the art took many years to attain the
Philosophers' Stone, or at least they claimed to So also with
modern poetry, which was supposed to be difficult to write, and equally difficult
to appreciate. Cranking out a poem in a few minutes was unthinkable.
Like the alchemist, the poet was expected to distill a perfect poem over
an extended period until he had something quintessential. For example,
how long did Pound labor on that pretentious two-line squib "In A Station
Of The Metro"? Six months? Such ostentatious effort was supposed
to make the poem valuable, like a gram of pure radium.
It's a curious thing about this mystique of difficulty. According to
it, vast energy and complexity are involved in making a poem, but the resulting
poem is a thing of sublime simplicity. By "simplicity" the mystique
does not mean something easy to comprehend—far from it. It means simplicity
in the alchemical sense, the quality of a substance that has been distilled
and condensed into the purest and most unalloyed state, like the Philosophers'
Stone. This is why so many contemporary poets speak of reducing or
paring down a poem until they are left with its pure essence. They
are thinking like alchemists.
It is also why they instinctively hate formal verse. Their gorge rises
at the thought of an adjective being added to fill out a metrical foot, or
a syntactic structure being recast to accommodate a stress pattern.
That sort of thing, they scream indignantly, muddies the "essence" of a poem.
Such language is right out of the old treatises on transmutation. It
shows that at bottom these contemporary poets see the poetic task as analogous
to that of the magician or sorcerer or alchemist, who must concoct a potent
charm according to an exclusionary ritual that banishes all "impurities."
If you read certain poet-critics of the early twentieth century on questions
of composition, you will see the virulence of this new attitude. Ezra
Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and T.E. Hulme all loathed the traditional pomps
and honors of poetry, and they actively sought to limit the art by paring
it down to something lean and mean, so to speak. They went through
the mansion of poetry like lunatic housekeepers, throwing away nearly everything.
This reductionist attitude lay behind Pound's manic command to "Simplify!
Simplify!" It lay behind the famous "Do's and Don'ts" of Imagism.
It lay behind W.C. Williams' "No ideas but in things." It lay behind
the generalized contempt that they all had for "Wardour Street English"—that
is, non-colloquial diction and syntax. There was never a more Puritanically
destructive period for poetry that the years between 1890 and 1922.
Percolating through the minds of these modernist reformers was the alchemical
notion that the dross of poetry had to be purified in order to produce a
precious reality purged of anything that did not immediately serve to give
readers a blinding insight or an emotional orgasm. Poetry had to hit
you like mainlined heroin, or it wasn't any good. Thousands of deluded
people still believe this.
This is why, in the typical poetry workshop today, you will be exhorted to
avoid adjectives, to shun all abstractions and Latinate terms, and to write
only simple declarative sentences. All this makes for a pinched, reticent,
telegraph-code type of poem, but one that has great prestige because of its
"purity" and "intensity." If people can't fully understand it, so much
the better. As a poet you are an alchemical adept, and your work gains
in reputation as it grows more hermetic and opaque. And when that happens,
the door is left wide open for what I have elsewhere called Portentous Hush,
a kind of highfalutin sanctimony that infects nearly all poetry today, whether
free or formal.
I mention formal poetry because I see little evidence that our movement has
liberated itself from these alchemical chimaeras. Too many New Formalists
continue to believe that their poems are talismans of psychic transformation
rather than just well-constructed verbal artifacts They want their
poems to "move" people, the way an electric shock moves the nervous system,
or a laxative moves the bowels. But this alchemical-modernist delusion
must be abandoned. Only fools turn to poetry for salvation, uplift,
and edification (i.e. something that creates movement in the soul).
Intelligent readers come to poetry for pleasure. An intellectual,
literary, verbal pleasure to be sure—but pleasure nonetheless.
Also, many of us who should know better are still in thrall to the notion
of alchemical purity and simplicity. Some time ago a prominent New
Formalist wrote disparagingly of the use of adjectives, saying that he hated
poems where the nouns were all "properly chaperoned by adjectives," or something
to that effect. Well, apart from predicate use, what the hell else
does an adjective do except chaperone nouns? It seems to me
that if you dislike a part of speech on principle, then you had better explain
why. When a major figure in our movement suffers from this sort of
unconscious modernist bias, we have to rethink exactly what our poetic practice
is supposed to be. Otherwise we will have what revolutionaries call
"colonized minds." This means that although we have externally thrown
off free-verse hegemony, we are still mentally enslaved to its basic premises.
"Chaperoned by adjectives," indeed! I suppose he also thinks that noun-subjects
This deep-seated distrust of words in all their fullness lies at the heart
of poetic modernism, which was a kind of Puritanism applied to language.
It was a reflexive rejection of all verbal richness and rhetorical amplitude
in favor of small-scale intensity. It is a restrictive, shackling,
choke-hold on both expression and perception that has been strangling us
since 1910. Why do we tolerate it?
We tolerate it because we are unaware of our colonized minds. The alchemical
notion of a pure poetry, divested of all earthly dross and thereby possessed
of the transmutational power to change and uplift us, still controls our
thinking. And for as long as this mental colonization goes unchallenged,
New Formalism will remain nothing but the iambic pentameter version of modernism.
How can we banish this deadly idea that poetry is salvific and transformational?
How can we suggest to people that good poems are not Philosophers' Stones
that will transmute their base existence into something glorious? How
can we convince them that if their souls are sick they need to visit a priest,
rabbi, or minister, and not the director of their local poetry workshop?
In short, how can we show that poetry is a human craft, and not a gnostic
It will be very hard to do any of the above, because success would require
a reorientation not just of poetic practice, but of authorial motivations.
We would have to convince vast numbers of poets that their poems ought not
to be seen as therapeutic way-stations on the road to self-discovery. And
believe me, that would be excruciatingly difficult. Many of them write
for the sole purpose of feeling better. Poetry is their narcotic of
choice, as whiskey or sex is for some other persons. The notion that
a good poem is just an objectively beautiful creation that shows the virtù
of its maker will not satisfy their emotional addiction.
Let's be very clear on this point. I'm not talking about vanity.
All writers are vain, in that we love to be published and praised.
That's just a standard human fault, and not an especially serious one.
I'm talking about something deadlier—the need of some poets to speak in a
voice of vatic authority, and to believe that our words are earthshaking
utterances that fulfill our personal needs for self-expression and self-esteem,
while moving others in ways that gain us applause and celebrity. Such
an attitude is much more than simple vanity. It is a longing for some
sort of earthly apotheosis. It is a belief that one has alchemical powers
to produce a Philosophers' Stone out of words.
What does such a stone provide these addicted poets? That's easy enough
to tell: fame, charisma, power, affluence, fashion-chasing, self-regard,
egotism, snobbery—all the poisoned chalices that up-to-date trendy people
are desperate to drain. Getting brainless secularists to give up these
goals would be about as easy as convincing Michael Jackson to join the Carthusian
order. It is exactly the sort of thing the Romans dreaded, and why
they placed a slave in every triumphal chariot to whisper the following sentence
in the ear of the conquering general: Memento te non esse deum—Remember
that you are not a god.
Who will whisper to us that we are not gods? I don't know, but the
alchemical delusions have to be shattered somehow. Perhaps we alone
can remind ourselves that poetry isn't a religion.
I am also reminded that one of the historic reasons for the eclipse of alchemy
was the growth of modern chemistry. Humble, unassuming workmen toiling
in laboratories created the science. They did so not by looking for
some quasi-divine stone that would save them and the world, but by a disinterested
and practical examination of the physical properties of material. Bit
by bit they gleaned facts about the universe, and gave us a science that
really transformed human existence. If poets today could look
upon themselves as ordinary competent chemists who make compounds out of
words, rather than pseudo-priestly alchemists who promise psychic wholeness,
we might be on the road to recovery. We would be honest craftsmen,
and not traffickers in bogus mysticism.
Joseph S. Salemi
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