Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay 

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Dr. Alfred Dorn

In his latest critical essay titled "The Illusory Audience and the Interior Audience: Why  Good Poets Write Only for Themselves," Dr. Joseph S. Salemi challenges readers to re-examine  their ideas about poetic creativity and the relationship between poet and public. Provocatively  worded to trigger debate, the article will undoubtedly generate heated discussion for a long time  to come. Had I written the essay I would have chosen the adverb "primarily" instead of "only"  in the title, but apart from this change in wording and emphasis my line of argument would  have coincided with the author's on salient points.

Dr. Salemi's view of the poet-audience relationship runs counter to Walt Whitman's  conviction that a poet needs a numerically great audience.  Whitman was thinking in  quantitative rather than qualitative terms. Writing as reporter and editor for a mass readership,  he failed to realize that poetry and journalism are radically opposed in purpose and method.  (For all his deficiencies as a critic, he gave us at least a dozen splendid poems. He wrote best  when he temporarily shelved his misguided literary theories and chauvinistic prejudices as  puffed forth in his lumbering prose.) Unlike Whitman, Salemi fully understands that poetry  is a specialized art which demands a qualified reader. In comparing poetry and journalism, we  are not simply dealing with two modalities of language but with two different languages.  Accordingly, when people read a poem as if it were a newspaper article, they try to reduce it to  its prose meaning while ignoring the features that lend the poem its artistic value. They may  think they have read the poem, but they have only misread it.

The term "journalism" derives from jour, the French word for day.  Journalism is of the  day and for the day; its life expectancy is brief. Nothing is less compelling than last year's  "latest news."  Poetry, on the other hand, is written to last, for it transcends what is merely  topical. If a poem is outstanding enough in theme, inspiration and craftsmanship, it may  survive for years, for decades, and even for centuries. Homer still sounds fresh after 2,800  years. Great poetry is news that stays news, as Ezra Pound said of literature that has passed the  test of time. A poem wrought by a master hand is no Mayfly.

The language of journalism is primarily denotative, while that of poetry is richly  connotative. A poet uses words not only for their literal meaning but also for what they suggest.  Carefully chosen for their evocative potential, the words of a poem often carry a wealth of  associations far beyond their denotative function.

A poem is a work of art composed of words. If a symphony is only as good as its notes,  a poem is only as good as its language. One can quickly skim a newspaper article and extract  much of the information it contains, but a poem must be read with the closest attention to the  words - their multilayered meaning, their overtones, their sound. Since sound may be an  important part of the meaning, a poem should be read aloud or, if circumstances prevent, be  heard in the mind's ear. In a newspaper article the topic is everything; words are only the  means by which information is transmitted from writer to reader. In poetry, on the other hand,  the subject exists for the words as much as the words exist for the subject. The words become  ends in themselves. A newspaper story can be paraphrased, or put into other words, without  losing its essential meaning, but no paraphrase can capture what the multilayered language of  a poem evokes.

Whereas informational prose relies heavily on direct statement, poetry thrives on  metaphor. Statement provides a generalized account of an event, but metaphor conveys an  experience in its perceptual and conceptual richness. A metaphor can reveal startling and  significant connections between things, thereby expanding the consciousness of the reader.  While metaphor has only a marginal place in journalism, it is the poet's most effective  instrument.

 Many poets revel in wordplay and paradox. For example, there are dozens of puns in  Donne, hundreds in Shakespeare. See M. M. Mahood's Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1957)  and Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy (London, 1947). For the best study of paradox in  poetry, consult Cleanth Brooks' The Well Wrought Urn. Brooks demonstrates that paradox is  the common denominator of major works by Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Herrick, Pope, Gray,  Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, and Yeats. A classic in modern scholarship, the book deserves  to be bound in gold.

 Convinced that poetry is an art form enlisting all the resources of language, Salemi  reminds poets that their chief responsibility is to their craft, not to an external audience whose  qualifications as poetry readers are questionable. Since poetry is a verbal art which takes years  to master, it requires a reader who has devoted much time and effort to understand that art.  According to Salemi, the most trustworthy audience is an audience of one that resides in the  poet's own head. If a poet writes for that solitary and keenly critical audience, he may create  work which will earn the admiration of a similarly qualified readership. It may even survive its  author and enrich the lives of people yet unborn. Ironically, the poet who tries to write for  everyone may end by having no appreciative audience at all, not even himself. People who do  not read poetry will not read his. On the other hand, the specialized public of qualified readers  will not be spellbound by work that has been watered down so as to become accessible to the  unqualified. Finally, he will know that he has not lived up to the standards demanded by his  art, that he has betrayed his craft to gain popular approval.

In some of his most caustic prose, Salemi warns the poet to beware of trendiness. A poet  who tailors his work to suit a current fad is allowing the external world to turn him into a  reflection of itself. "To thine own self be true," wrote Shakespeare. But how can one be true  to oneself if one's identity has been lost? A poet obsessed with being trendy has to revise  himself every few years, since fads do not last for long. He is nothing but a chameleon whose  changes in color are determined from without, not from within.

Salemi takes a cynical view of poets who make public adulation their top priority, who  sacrifice everything to curry favor with that elusive goddess, Fame. Pondering his acerbic  commentary on such poets, I was reminded of ideas expressed by Gustave Flaubert in letters to  the poet Louise Colet, his uncoy mistress. She had written him how much she admired  Corneille, the poet-dramatist, for his celebrity in the age of Louis XIV. Flaubert replied that it  would be far more rewarding to write on Corneille's level, to be Corneille, than to reap such  fame. Instead of being a publicity hound, one should strive for perfection in one's art. In the  end this is all that matters. Celebrity passes. Great art endures.

Salemi shakes hands with the spirit of Flaubert. He, too, advises the poet to set the  loftiest standard for himself and make every effort to attain it. If one succeeds, kindred minds  will value one's accomplishment, and the work may survive long after one has ceased to be.

A gadfly critical of many popular attitudes, Salemi has written a confrontational  manifesto which will have a mixed reception. It was not intended to make people comfortable  but to prod them into questioning their own criteria as writers and/or readers. The ideas that  Salemi has so trenchantly expounded will be applauded by some, deplored by others. They are  too challenging to be dismissed with a shrug of indifference. The article will create friction,  produce heat. But it is the kind of heat which may generate light.

                          Alfred Dorn