EP&M Online Essay

The Curse of Didactic Verse


Dr. Joseph S. Salemi

Department of Classics, Hunter College, CUNY

I have often spoken out against didactic poetry. People who have followed my essays and debates on this website and elsewhere know that I'm highly allergic to any kind of preachiness or idea-mongering in verse. To me a poem has to be beautiful and witty first of all and last of all. Nothing else matters. If it's not aesthetically pleasing, it's simply not worth anyone's time, and that includes the time taken to produce it.

There are, however, two different types of didactic poetry, and my attitude towards each of them is different. For example, when Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura he was simply trying to teach or explain the Epicurean view of the world. This is a straightforward kind of didacticism that essentially lays out a body of detailed information for the reader. Another is the entertaining Dels Auzels Cassadors, a thirteenth-century Provencal verse treatise by Daude de Pradas on the care of falcons. It is a highly informative work that both delights and instructs the reader. Or there is the wonderful poem Papyrus by the seventeenth-century Jesuit writer Jean Imberdis, which is composed of five hundred perfect Latin hexameters on how to make fine rag paper. This sort of thing was more common in the past, when poets felt comfortable presenting factual material metrically. I call this kind of verse informative-didactic, and I don't have any argument with it as long as it's done well.

But there is a second sort of didactic poetry, not especially concerned with information or explication. This type of didactic verse is aimed at propagandizing the reader into a certain frame of mind. It generally tries to hide its agenda so that the message or idea being promoted will be taken up unawares by the reader, like a pill dissolved in a glass of orange juice. At other times it is openly catechetical, blaring its doctrinal points with trumpet-like clarity. I find this sort of didactic verse repellent, and I call it manipulative-didactic. It was very common among the Romantics and Victorians, and it has a latent existence, like a dormant strain of herpes, in much contemporary verse.

The most prominent example of this sort of verse is Tennyson's godawful In Memoriam, ostensibly an elegy to his dead friend Arthur Hallam, but in fact an absurdly long and tedious vehicle for a lot of vaporous mid-Victorian bromides. It makes for intolerable reading today, although Tennyson was invited to Windsor to recite it before the Queen. Another sample is Matthew Arnold's "Rugby Chapel," one of those unbearable clarion-calls to Work and Duty so characteristic of the Victorian mindset. Reading it now, one is hard pressed to believe that anyone was ever that earnest. But the most florid instance of manipulative-didactic verse is Shelley's The Revolt of Islam (originally Laon and Cythna), an interminable twelve cantos of political wish-fulfillment, packed with Shelley's usual hyperbolic apostrophes to Life and Love and Joy and Liberty and Nature. The poem was written--as Shelley himself admits--for the purpose of "kindling within the bosoms of my readers a virtuous enthusiasm for those doctrines of liberty and justice." God, how quaint.

Manipulative-didactic verse tends to be longish. The reason is that the poet, anxious to accomplish his persuasive agenda, leaves no stone unturned. He wants to be sure that you understand every mind-numbing nuance of his proposals, and that you don't miss a single one of his rhetorical lures. He is so concerned with teaching you some cherished ideology that he insists on keeping you after class, so to speak, to hammer home his points. The key word here is earnestness. Manipulative-didactic poets are like those tiresome Jehovah's Witnesses who insist on talking to you at great length about God's Truth. And this is why such poetry is repellent.

It's one thing to be taught in a classroom, where you are present for that purpose. There didacticism is expected, along with discussion and argument. But it's quite another thing to be taught in a locus of pleasure, where one expects delight and aesthetic satisfaction. Manipulative-didactic poets don't realize that poetry is like dance or music or painting or song or even lovemaking and cooking--people go to it for sensual gratification primarily, and not for intellectual enlightenment. The mot juste of perfect diction, the intricacies of trope and figure, the rhythm of meter, the delight of something aptly said--these are what poetry offers. Thinking that readers go to poetry to be lectured on ideas is like thinking that men make love to women to learn about gynecology. In short, manipulative-didactic poets don't understand the pleasure principle that lies behind all artistic creation.

Another problem with manipulative-didactic verse lies in the motives of its makers. There is frequently a very unpleasant Wille zu Macht at work in them. An urge to teach is often the preliminary stage of an urge to dictate and control. I am myself a teacher, and I have spent all of my adult life around other teachers, so I know whereof I speak. People who insist on hectoring you for hundreds of lines, piling compulsion onto exhortation, are driven by a dangerous demonic hunger for power. The proof of this lies in the sheer exhaustive detail of their labors. Their desperation to make you think or feel or act in a certain way means that they won't give up, but instead hang in there with bulldog tenacity for line after line, and stanza after stanza.

This doesn't mean that all lengthy poems are manipulative-didactic, but a manipulative-didactic poet does generally tend to be long-winded. And that long-windedness is often a device for breaking down a reader's resistance to the poet's need to exercise authority. It's no accident that all the infamous dictators of this past century--Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Castro--were notorious for their multi-hour harangues. They knew (as the manipulative-didactic poet does) that lies lose their implausibility with repetition, and listeners lose their ability to question lies.

Of course, when my enemies read the above they will squeal with delight. "Salemi has let himself in for it!" they will say, as they reach for their pens or keyboards. I seem to have made myself a perfect target. I am, after all, the author of a 3000-line verse satire called A Gallery of Ethopaths, which presents a definite set of ideas about modern life. "Aren't you being manipulative-didactic in your satiric writings?" asked a friend recently. Well, no, not really. A satirist has no desire to save the world, or even to change it. If he did, he would be constitutionally unsuited to the genre of satire. Satirists lambaste stupidity for the sheer joy of doing so. The job of converting silly people back to the paths of reason is really not part of the satiric task. If it happens, fine--but that isn't why satire is written. Let me explain.

The notion that satire is didactic at its core arises solely because of a certain class-limited perception. Most middle-class persons automatically assume that if something is attacked in verse, the attacker necessarily wants to reform it. This is because the bourgeoisie is incorrigibly ameliorative in its outlook--it is the segment of Western society historically committed to the ideas of improvement and progress and development. For this reason the bourgeoisie finds it hard to understand the exhilaration that comes from striking something down, or smashing a structure, or smiting a foe. Traditionally, such violent pleasures are proper to the aristocratic warrior caste, or to the robust lower orders of society. Satire is the literary manifestation of the mystique of violence, one of the major driving forces in human life. As a genre it belongs to condottieri on horseback or the bloodthirsty Jacquerie, who are the usual bearers of the mystique of violence. It does not belong to stolid burghers dreaming of mortgage rates and progress.

Whenever I hear the word satirist I think not so much of gloomy Dean Swift in Dublin as I do of joyful Taillefer, the Norman bard who single-handedly charged the Saxon ranks at the Battle of Hastings, tossing his sword in the air and singing a war song, killing left and right until he himself was cut down by English axes. The mystique of violence has no need to teach--only to smite. The middle classes hate and fear violence, which is why satire is abhorrent to them. At most they can tolerate a mild, milquetoast satire whose purpose is to "encourage change," or some other liberal absurdity.

This middle-class ethos is encapsulated in a question that was directed to me by a woman at a poetry reading some years back: "Surely your satire ought to be constructive, shouldn't it?" She asked this with that look of benign bourgeois do-goodery that makes one despair of the possibility of human communication. The gist of my answer to her was this: No, not at all. If satire is going to be worth a damn it has to be destructive, period. Only then will it give aesthetic delight via its sheer exuberant savagery. I don't expect suburban types to understand this--but Homer and Martial and Bertran de Born and Marlowe would have.

So--satire is not didactic. Got that, guys? Good. Now we can go back to discussing manipulative-didactic verse.

One development since Victorian times has been the insinuation of didacticism into the shorter lyric mode. Whereas Shelley and Tennyson would blather on for dozens of stanzas, some manipulative-didactic poets today have learned to package their lessons in smaller containers. Haven't you read some brief lyric in a contemporary journal, and felt a sense of disquiet or perturbation, as if the poet were trying to slip some grubby little moral into his or her verse? This happens so frequently now that I have started to be on my guard against it. For example, here's a poem by one T. Lawrence published in a recent issue of Candelabrum. It's entitled "Rain":

Rain, rain,
Nature's own tears
From heaven above
Like waters from a tap,
Water from heaven flows.

The essence of life
Water from heaven,
Teardrops of rain
Rain from heaven.

Acid tears,
Acid water,
Acid rain
Falls on the green forests,
Stinging acid rain from heavenů.

This is not an especially notable piece; its essential rhetorical armature is the conflation of rain water and tears into some kind of imagined unity. But the poem is manipulative-didactic, in that its final section is a clumsy attempt to make some ecological comment about "acid rain." I suppose the poet hopes that after we have read it, we will go out and vote for the Greens.

A more famous example (which I will not quote here because of space limitations) is Adrienne Rich's poem "Merced." This is actually a fine piece structurally and imagistically, with vivid depictions of an old-age home and of unspoiled wilderness, But the poem is vitiated by its manipulative-didactic tone, which tries to shame the reader into submission to Rich's particular political worldview, If you would like to read it, it's in The New Oxford Book of American Verse, pages 1022 to 1024.

A great deal of poetry today is infected with didacticism, but the didacticism is masked. This phenomenon is parallel with the development of modern advertising techniques, which are now extremely sophisticated. A contemporary ad, with its careful understatement, its subtle snob appeal, its choreographed postures, and its trendy postmodern imagery, is just the commercial equivalent of any number of pseudo-chic poems published in journals like Ploughshares and Poetry. The lessons aren't presented with the earnestness of Matthew Arnold, but they are there nonetheless, just below the surface. In fact, one could well say that many of these poems are not works of art at all, but social fashion statements designed to let the reader know that their authors adhere to certain approved viewpoints and stances. This is manipulative-didactic verse in an Armani suit.

Consider, for example, a poem by R.T. Smith which just appeared in the latest number of The Antioch Review. It's a bit too long to quote, but the title alone should tell you something: "Small-Town Lawyer, On Hearing The People Of Carter County, Kentucky, Have Voted Not To Open A Library". The poem consists of twenty-four accusatory tercets about the culpable negligence and ingrained philistinism of working-class Kentuckians. The folks in Carter County don't want to pay more taxes for a library they won't use, and of course this strikes the poet as horribly atavistic. Such a poem is a convenient way to align oneself with the enlightened liberal readership of The Antioch Review, while socially distancing oneself from poor slobs who are non-literary. The manipulative-didactic lesson is twofold: Always vote for library funding, and never let yourself be confused with beer-drinking working-class types who don't.

The ultimate objection to manipulative-didactic verse, however, is its intrusiveness. Nobody likes being told what to do or how to think, or how to live and how to react. Poetry is not a substitute for religion. You can't use it to indoctrinate people into following some Decalogue or Gospel or Koran or UN Charter. Poems are for pleasure, as are all artistic creations. If you feel compelled to lecture and sermonize, why don't you rent a hall, or get a soapbox, or publish essays on the Internet? I'm reminded of what the Hollywood producer Louis B. Mayer said when someone complained that his movies didn't contain any "message." Mayer replied, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." God bless him.

A number of contemporary poets have complained that poetry as an art form has lost its audience. My personal viewpoint is that in a time of massive cultural collapse, concern for an external audience is the least of our worries. But it's true that a vast number of general readers for poetry pretty much disappeared after the death of Thomas Hardy. If you're serious about getting them back, there's only one thing to do: re-establish poetry as a source of linguistic-intellectual pleasure. Not enlightenment. Not consciousness-raising. Not moral edification. Not do-goodery. Not political correctness. Not solemn philosophical pontificating. Pleasure! Got that, guys?

It won't be easy. The de-voluptuizing of poetry has proceeded at a steady pace for many decades now, so much so that the average person sees poetry in the same light as castor oil purges and root-canal work--that is, something horrible to endure, but necessary for its alleged good effects. One major step would be for all of us to stop thinking of poetry as a form of sugar-coating for ideological pills. People who persist in that mindset should be herded back into the various Sunday Schools and lecture halls where they properly belong.

Joseph S. Salemi