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Salemi on Sermons, Darling on the Didactic:
A Response to Joseph S. Salemi's "The Curse of Didactic Verse."
Robert Darling

In last month's Expansive Poetry and Music Online, Joseph S. Salemi's always interesting and controversial column was even more interesting and controversial than usual, at least to me.  The essay combined both insightfulness and oversimplification in quite interesting measures.

As Salemi's column is still available on this website, I will assume the reader is familiar with it and can judge if my summations are unfair.  Salemi begins by stating that he's "highly allergic to any kind of preachiness or idea-mongering in verse."  Fair enough, though I suspect this is at least partly the conditioning of Modernism.  Certainly a poem that shouts its moral at the reader is less likely to be reread, though it may well find its way onto plaques or posters; I am in agreement that this sort of verse is usually bad poetry.

Salemi continues, "To me a poem has to be beautiful and witty first of all and last of all.  Nothing else matters."  To give Salemi credit, what he means by beautiful is obviously the aesthetic pleasure that a skilled reader finds in well-crafted verse.  The use of witty is a bit more problematic.  We now use witty meaning clever or funny, but I think Salemi intends a broader application of the term in the manner of the 18th Century, which also brings into play certain matters of decorum and many other elements not usually grouped under contemporary usage of wit.  But wit and beauty have to be very broadly defined indeed to give any credence to the claim "Nothing else matters." Yes, something else does matter.  At the risk of sounding hopelessly Victorian (obviously the worst of times to Salemi), I would say that something of a moral sense matters.  It is theoretically possible to say rather ghastly things skillfully;  would it be possible for someone to write a beautifully crafted, even witty, poem that the Nazis were right to kill the Jews?  Could a beautiful and witty poem be written praising murder?  Probably, unless one defines beauty and wit in so idiosyncratic a fashion that they almost lose meaning.  I do not consider Pound's Cantos  particularly good poetry regardless of meaning, and there are some execrable sentiments expressed in places.  No amount of "beauty" or wit could redeem them.  Words carry the baggage of meaning and lack the pure abstraction of musical notes--how a poem is written is vital, but what a poem says is of supreme importance.  This is true even in the case of John Ashbery, whose work can be fun in small quantities (once I get over my anger that it gains praise) but is essentially amoral.

Poetry has been traditionally held to instruct and delight.  One wonders where the instructive leg of the equation went for Salemi.  True, a poem instructs best from delighting; a poem that is painful to read is not likely to do much instructing.  Not that a reader should go to a poem as he might to a textbook--aesthetics are of great importance.  But the ethics of a poem are vital.  Auden knew this perhaps too well.

Salemi attempts to delineate two different types of didactic poetry, what he calls informative-didactic as against manipulative-didactic.  I don't think these distinctions hold.  As an example of the former, he mentions Lucretius in De Rerum Natura as "simply trying to teach or explain the Epicurean view of the world."  The second type "is aimed at propagandizing the reader into a certain frame of mind."  If one overcomes the loaded terminology, the "simply" and "propagandizing," one sees they are essentially the same.  Lucretius didn't write that lengthy a poem simply to inform, but to convince, every bit as much as Milton didn't write Paradise Lost just because he thought it was an interesting story.  Both are trying to convince the reader; their worth is more a matter of how skillfully the poem is written.  A non-Christian can read Paradise Lost and respect the poem, but Milton wrote it to justify the ways of God to man. Talk about a plain statement of didactic intent!  But the bugger pulled it off.

There is a didactic element to most all poetry.  I, too, dislike a great deal of overt moralizing.  When Coleridge was told that "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" lacked a moral, he answered that he thought it had rather too much of one.  And I think he was right.

Salemi moves on to discuss what he calls manipulative-didactic verse, which he seems to believe a particular Romantic-Victorian malady.  He begins with Tennyson's "godawful In Memoriam," which he calls "an absurdly long and tedious vehicle for a lot of vaporous mid-Victorian bromides."  This is both an anachronistic and willfully superficial reading.  In Memoriam is one of the masterpieces of the whole tradition of poetry in English.  It deals not only with death but the shaken Victorian worldview.  That Tennyson shared the general mindset of his time--perhaps he played a vital role in shaping it--does not disqualify him from serious consideration.  The image of the poet in the garret is a distinctly Romantic heresy.

Yeats famously remarked that out of our argument with others we make rhetoric, but from our arguments with ourselves we make poetry.  While this is not entirely true (more on this later), it is worth mentioning here that Tennyson's greatest struggle in In Memoriam is not with others but with himself.  The "bromides" are hard-earned over time and the poetry is generally magnificent.  True, there is more earnestness than wit, but earnestness is not necessarily a bad quality if it is tempered by skill. Auden called Tennyson the stupidest major poet.  This is unfair.  Auden had an absolutely brilliant mind--certainly he was one of the most intelligent men to ever write verse--but Tennyson was more ruminative; he brooded slowly, but he honestly and perceptively addressed the major concerns of his time every much as much as Auden did his.  In Memoriam does have a Victorian expansiveness, but the organization is skillful, the writing generally extraordinary.

Salemi does better to attack Shelley's The Revolt of Islam, but that's simply because it's not as good a poem.  But then he quotes Shelley admitting that he wrote the poem "for the purpose of 'kindling within the bosoms of my readers a virtuous enthusiasm for those doctrines of liberty and justice.'"  Salemi then remarks "God, how quaint."

Certainly virtuous enthusiasms can seem quaint to the cynical post-modernist; it is not cool to express oneself so openly and unequivocally.  It is also very difficult to write good poetry with a single-minded agenda, but it has been done.  It is true that sometimes confusion is better expressed; one thinks of Yeats's "Easter 1916" in which he's not sure what he thinks.  But most of the time Yeats had a very clear point of view in his poetry, though he claimed the opposite.  (Beware of writers' claims: Joyce and Eliot wrote of the impersonality of the artist and bequeathed us work that is much more highly personal than most).

Sometimes Salemi's prose shifts into overdrive.  When he indirectly relates the anipulative-didactic poet to Hitler and his crowd and writes that people who exhort others are "driven by a dangerous demonic hunger for power" one wishes for the pieties of Tennyson at his worst.  At one point he refers to "my enemies."  I have never felt that writing for this website put my life in danger.  Maybe I should be careful.

Which brings us to satire.  In claiming that satire is not didactic, Salemi states: "A satirist has no desire to save the world, or even to change it."  A sentence later, he seeks to drive home his point, but somewhat compromises it: "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." (emphasis added)  So there is some concern about changing attitudes.  And how about the attitude of the reader, if not that of the subject?  Salemi is entirely right in claiming that successful satire is written first and foremost from the sheer delight invective can bring.  And over time the object of ridicule really doesn't matter much: certainly we no longer care about Colly Cibber or Thomas Shadwell, but Pope and Dryden are a
delight to read.  They're fun, and it is also a pleasure to read work of such high craftsmanship.  But when the satire is contemporary the butt of the ridicule assumes greater importance.

And it is didactic work; satire has a strong point of view, if only in opposition.  If I make fun of X for acting like an ass, I may have no hope of changing X but I am certainly counting on readers who won't act like X, possibly saved from that fate by reading my satire.  Often satire can be a preaching to the choir. But there is a choir and satire is preaching every bit as much as The Screwtape Letters.  Otherwise, satire would have no audience and as poetry at its most social it needs an audience far more than does the lyric.

Salemi is right to point out that class distinctions play a part in satire, though he can be a bit Marxist in his attitude toward the middle-class.  The nature of satire is aristocratic: it looks down upon certain behavior.  I do not mean this in a negative way; art is not democratic.  Abilities are not divided according to race, region or personal worth.  But then Salemi ventures onto more dangerous turf: "Traditionally, such violent pleasures are proper to the aristocratic warrior caste, or to the robust lower orders of society."  One should beware of conflating the violence of satire with that of society.  The "robust lower orders" were certainly active as iconoclasts during the Reformation.  In World War II, an American regiment was going to blow up Chartres because they thought a sniper might be in the cathedral.  They were dissuaded by an English officer who volunteered to go in the cathedral to check out the situation.  The Taliban robustly destroyed the statues of the Buddha.  People often destroy what they don't understand.  A hangman can be found for any rope.  This is not satire: the destructiveness of satire is a positive one. To relate it to warriors as Salemi does is to defame it.  When he writes, the "middle classes hate and fear violence, which is why satire is abhorrent to them," he makes too many assumptions, some of them dangerous.  Shouldn't violence be hated if not feared?  And satire is quite popular in the media.  It's often very bad as on Saturday Night Live or with Howard Stern; certainly shock jocks are more violent than any poetic satirist and far more popular.  No, most people who read poetry today don't like satire because they have been taught it is somehow not really serious, not "deep."

Which brings us back to Yeats's comment.  If poetry results from an argument with oneself and rhetoric from an argument with others, then satire would be rhetoric and not poetry.  While Yeats never went this far himself, this can be clearly inferred. Now, I think satire is poetry, but many who differentiate between poetry and verse do not.  Ol' Matt Arnold considered Pope and Dryden classics of our prose.  This is, of course, nonsense, but I do have trouble getting most students to take the Restoration poets seriously, despite my enjoyment of them.  And it is interesting to note how a poet such as Pope relies more heavily on rhetorical flourishes such as chiasmus and zeugma than on metaphor.  I consider Pope one of the great poets of the English tradition; his "Essay on Criticism" is wonderful to use against Post-Structuralists.  But many of my students find it and him too didactic.

Salemi goes on to quote a poem from a recent issue of Candelabrum which is really a strawman.  There is no reason a good "serious" poem or satire couldn't be written on the theme of acid rain.  He simply picked a terrible poem which would better have been left to die a quiet death.  He mentions R.T. Smith's poem "Small-Town Lawyer, On Hearing The People Of Carter County, Kentucky, Have Voted Not To Open A Library."  I have not seen a copy of the poem, but Salemi cites it as being typical of "the enlightened liberal readership of The Antioch Review."  The poem may be as snobbish and politically correct as Salemi holds.  But it also strikes me as good subject for satire.  The "beer-drinking working-class types" make good satirical fodder as well as do-gooders do.  I know--I grew up with them.  All elements of society are vulnerable to the satiric eye.

There also seems to be an assumption here that satire is necessarily conservative.  I do acknowledge that the movement of the politically correct is humorless.  It is also illiberal.  I don't think Swift's support of the Irish can be termed conservative, despite his party affiliation.  R.S. Gwynn has written some excellent satires about right-wing paranoia.  Certainly the group of liars and crooks currently in power call for the poison pen of the satirist.  And one of the great satirists of the language, Lord Byron, was definitely no conservative; in fact, within his bosom dwelt a virtuous enthusiasm for liberty and justice.  How quaint.

Mark Twain claimed that people could reform all they wanted as long as they didn't try to reform him.  Yet Twain, when faced with inhumane treatment of the poor and the blindness of wealth, called for reform.  When one writes or says anything, one is expressing a point of view.  There's no way around that.  Everyone is didactic, but only a few are artists.  Joseph S. Salemi is a good poet; he is also one of the most didactic writers I know.

                                             Robert Darling

Dr. Robert Darling's collection, So Far, will be published by Pivot Press in 2003.