Dr. Alfred Dorn
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.