EP&M Online Heavyweight Bout, Round 3

Robert Darling Replies to Joseph S. Salemi’s Reply
To Robert Darling….

It is one thing to miss one's target, quite another to miss a target one has invented oneself.It turns out I am a liberal, prudish, politically correct, proselytizing zealot.Well, it's good to find that out.In fact, it appears I am to blame for the general decline of western civilization.And I never even glimpsed the moment of my greatness flicker.

A frequent problem in Joseph Salemi's criticism is his knack for polemic based on platitude.This is a bit surprising considering the fact that Salemi is a poet and scholar of some importance and not a politician or shock-jock.Yet, sure enough, out came the L-word.I thought Bush Senior had done that in some time ago.(I do confess that I know of Willie Horton, but he played left field for the Tigers.)It's what the C-word was for the post-World War II era, a handy epithet for an ad-hominem attack on those with whom one disagrees.(And, yes, I know some were communists.)The level of public debate, rarely high in America, has been at an ebb for some time, but one would hope that debate about poetry could rise above this.But I guess it is easier to create bogeymen; it does simplify one's view of the world:"Gee, this person disagrees with me.He must be a LIBERAL!"But on to more substantial matters.

Salemi writes "There is no way that the Roman poet Lucretius can be seen as manipulative-didactic."I wholeheartedly agree.In fact, I rejected the term altogether in my previous response.He goes on: "The entire point of Epicurean philosophy is the cultivation of ataraxia, or freedom from turmoil. Someone governed by ataraxia never puts himself into a tizzy about anything. He certainly would never be some Salvation Army type, desperately anxious to redeem ignorant sinners."I agree with this as well.But how did we get into tizzies and start ringing Salvation Army bells?Lucretius is promoting Epicurean philosophy, among other things, by writing De Rerum Natura.That doesn't mean he's going door to door selling it, or losing sleep about ways to convert the masses.I may be serious about what I'm writing in this essay, but that doesn't mean I'm trying to convert my neighbors.In fact, I don't think I'll even bother them about it, though I don't live in a rough neighborhood.

Salemi confuses didacticism with proselytizing.There is a difference.I may have a certain religious or philosophical point of view, but that doesn't mean I'm trying to convert everyone to it.However, I could inform people of that view without earnestly attempting to save their souls.For Salemi there seems no middle ground.

Before leaving Lucretius, Salemi has to bring up that L-word again: "Liberals often misread Lucretius; they are so enraptured by his anti-religious position that they assume he is a Roman Voltaire or Auguste Comte, valiantly fighting against obscurantism."In Salemi's world, I am a liberal, therefore against religion.Let's see...liberal, prudish, politically correct, proselytizingand now anti-religious.I am soon to run out of fingers.

On to Tennyson: "Liberals love In Memoriam--it allows them to imagine that their own philosophic uncertainties have some vast metaphysical basis."So now we can add to the charges the concept of arrogant uncertainty.Then up pops Whitaker Chambers, not the best of witnesses for Salemi, but certainly a soul-mate in seeing the world as black and white.I might call In Memoriam several things, but one of them is not "silly."But silly, like Salemi's use of the word liberal, is hard to dismiss easily because it is not easily defined.Something's silly?OK, argument over.

Salemi then wonders why I "complain that [Salemi's] criticism of the work is 'anachronistic'? What exactly is out of time-frame in my calling the poem a collection of 'vaporous mid-Victorian bromides'"?Simply that Salemi fails to have any historical (or hysterical) detachment here.This is the voice of a critic who is trapped in his time and not able to read Tennyson as other than would a modern critic.Of course, Salemi goes on: "Here again, Darling's liberalism colors his poetic judgment. Because I don't like Tennyson's portentous vapidities about the loss of faith, I therefore must be behind the times or out of sync with serious (i.e. liberal) readers."By all means, play the liberal card again.No my point was that Salemi was not "behind the times"; his judgment of In Memoriam is all too much trapped in his own time—In Memoriam is not a 20th Century poem.

I am willing to grant Salemi's greater scholarship in such matters as Horace; however, the idea that literature does have an instructive role substantially predates Horace.I do think that here again Salemi probably has the problem with the idea of literature instructing because he goes to extremes: Literature instructs! Then it must be a catechism! Who wants to read a catechism?Damn liberals!No, things can be more subtle than that.

Onto Milton.Once again, Salemi is all or nothing: "When discussing Milton's 'didactic intent' in Paradise Lost, Darling makes the naive mistake of taking a single line about justifying the ways of God to man as definitive for an epic of twelve books.  Gimme a break! Milton was no Jehovah's Witness, showing up at your door with pamphlets."So, if Milton had any strong theological intent of justifying God's ways to man he must automatically be a Jehovah's Witness.(What happened to the Salvation Army here?)It must be reassuring to view the world in such a naive way.The theology was not a sideshow as Salemi later states.I made no claim that Milton wrote Paradise Lost simply as a theological tract.He was, after all, a poet.But in Salemi's all-or-nothing universe it must be one or the other.Any didactic purpose must be excluded and the work might as well be about gamblers searching for dice.I am surprised that Salemi accepts Blake's notion of Milton being of the Devil's party.Such a view was consistent with Blake's efforts at a new cosmology, but it was most certainly not Milton's. Actually, a sub-current that runs through Paradise Lost is Milton's anti-monarchial stance.As Tom Paulin points out, the terms he uses in disparaging the concept of a king in his essays make their appearance in the epic when he writes of Satan.


At that point, Salemi must have felt that he was discussing substantial issues for too long and had to get back to his theme: "Here again, Darling's choice of an example shows liberalism's proclivity to think that every important poem contains an uplifting 'message' for us, something useful or profitable that we can apply to the improvement of the world."I have gone through EP&M's archives trying to find someone named Darling who said this.Maybe Salemi could find it for me; that would be uplifting, though I'm not sure about world-improving.

Salemi then expands to a wider horizon: "One of the many reasons for the slow death of poetry in the last century was the pig-headed insistence of liberal schoolteachers that the purpose of reading a poem was to unearth some serious 'message' buried in it."I've had some poor teachers of poetry over the years, teachers who taught that a poem was just a code that needed to be broken.I join with Salemi in condemning this.I just never noticed that many of these teachers were liberal.In fact, some were so intent on hiding the errors of their ways that they were active in right-wing causes.They must have waited until they were in the privacy of the voting booth to go bonkers.I am grateful to Salemi for pointing this out to me.

Next, let me quote an entire paragraph: "But liberal schoolteachers (who, like the Bourbons, seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing) [If one's learned nothing, what is there to forget?] continue to drone on about 'meaning' or 'what a poem says' or, to use Darling's bizarre phrase, 'the ethics of a poem.' Only a country of Puritan Dissenters, one that gave rise to Carrie Nation and Anthony Comstock and political correctness, could generate a formulation such as that.The ethics of a poem? You might as well talk about the ethics of a coal seam."

This is interesting on several points.I knew that bringing up the question of ethics in poetry, or as related to poetry, would be difficult ground.Suddenly, I have joined the ranks of the censorious, though I no place recommended that poetry actually be censored.What I mean by ethics should not be taken as simple-mindedly as Salemi thinks convenient here.I do like the part about the coal seam, though.There might be a poem there; if I ever write it I'll be sure to dedicate it to Joe.But Salemi also misses a point.One fundamental difference between a poem and a coal seam is that the poem was created by a human being.According, when Salemi writes that "Poems are concoctions of language" I would stress the human element, that a person chose to use the language in this way.Since the Greeks, ethics and aesthetics have been linked, though the alliance is often a shaky one.It cannot honestly be reduced to Salemi's next point:

"Let's cut to the heart of the matter, shall we? Talking about 'ethics' in a poem is a clever blind for talking about content and ideology. As practiced in college classrooms today, it's a convenient method for smuggling politically correct judgments into literary criticism. Every poem is praised (or censured) on the basis of how well it conforms to trendy left-liberal platitudes about gender, race, class, politics, or lifestyle. Focusing on the 'ethics' of a poem leads directly to a politicized lecture hall--which, of course, is exactly what a lot of liberals want, despite all their protestations to the contrary."

There are many professors of English who might better off be teaching sociology, or not teaching at all.Harold Bloom, buffoon though he might be at times, is right in speaking about a culture of complaint.In fact, I would argue that such an approach to teaching poetry, or literature in general, is, in most cases, unethical.To strip a work of art of its aesthetic qualities, to pervert its meanings (and, yes, all work has meaning) to suit a political agenda, is unethical both in one's approach to art and in one's pedagogic duties.

No, I mean nothing as narrow as that.Nor do I mean prudishness; Salemi wants to know "how Darling responds to poetry like Martial's epigrams at their most scabrous, or the scatological parts of Chaucer. How does he deal with the coarser side of Skelton, or with Aretino's anal-sex sonnets? What about Villon's celebratory vignettes of thievery and prostitution, or Donne's early elegies, or Rochester's unabashed priapism? Does he know that vast corpus of highly accomplished pornographic Renaissance Latin verse from Panormita to Pietro Bembo? What's his take on the raw Scottish lewdness of Robert Burns?"How do I take it?Actually, quite well, thanks for asking.(I haven't seen Aretino's anal-sex sonnets, but I thought anal sex was now p.c. and okay with liberals.I have trouble keeping up.)I have a little more difficulty with the sources Salemi mentions from the Bible, though these are all Old Testament.There is a changing conception of God evolving throughout the Bible.And to be honest, most all of us are selective fundamentalists.We also have to keep cultural context in time, with these passages or with In Memoriam.But let me turn this around: does Salemi think a good work of art, let alone poetry, could be created praising the Nazi attempts at exterminating the Jews?

Salemi goes on to state: "There's no one set of ethics that is particularly privileged among poets, and trying to judge all poetry by a single set of ethical norms (e.g. the ones that middle class liberals find comforting) is absurd and unscholarly."Except for the parenthetical material, which Salemi seems genetically incapable of forgoing, I think this is true.I am speaking of an ethical approach, not the application of one's own personal guesses at the ethical.It is the fundamentalist and the propagandized who think they own the truth.And Salemi.He is as rigid and narrow in his criticism as those he constantly decries.His most frequent target seems to be the cultural relativists, though he usually calls them other names.In their denial of Truth they make a god of tolerance; however, they are tolerant of all but intolerance, which, alas, includes most of existence.Hence they become as rigid as the fundamentalist.The fundamentalist of whatever stripe believes in Truth and that he possesses it.Both groups tend toward polemics.Somewhere in between, and attacked by both extremes under different names, are those whom Ernest Gellner called Enlightenment Puritans, for lack of a better term: those who claim Truth exists but do not claim to have sole possession of it.To claim as much would be hubris.Such people are likely to make judgments but are not inclined to enforce speech codes or ban opinions.On the poetry front, these folks lead an uneasy existence somewhere between Diane Wakoski claiming that writing in meter is un-American and Joseph Salemi arguing true poets in English use left-column capitals.One need only contrast these approaches, and the decibel level they are argued at, with a thoughtful work like Timothy Steele's Missing Measures to sense the measured approach they are missing.

No, I didn't seriously think Salami was "a cynical post-modernist who harbors Marxist views," but the concept was appealing.Salemi is as class conscious as any Marxist, though what he means by the middle class is not altogether clear.He sees most liberals as middle class; does he also see most of the middle class as liberals?It's really unclear what he sees, but it is clear he doesn't like it.And Salemi should really refrain from using bourgeoisie when he means middle class.The only cohesive and coherent way to define the middle class is in economic terms, a definition which would likely include Salemi.He says he is "a right-wing Roman Catholic reactionary, and fiercely proud of it."Well, I am shocked!A poem like "The Missionary's Position" reads as pretty p.c. to me (except the fact that it's a well-crafted sonnet). It would seem that being a reactionary does allow others to define one's stance, however.


Salemi introduces the confession of his condition by stating that I should have been aware of his predicament by even the "most cavalier perusal of[his] published prose and poetry."So Salemi admits that his poetry represents a point of view as well as his prose.So I should have been aware of his views from his poems?It sounds like he doesn't think they're simply "concoctions of language."Meaning and human intent are involved after all.Gee, I read Salemi's didactic verse and didn't learn my lesson.


Our basic disagreement is on how broadly we define the word didactic.Macleish may have claimed that a poem should not mean, but be, but that is not true in practice, or even in his poem.Words have meanings, both denotative and connotative, from which there is no escape.To say a poem is not something to tear apart for its meaning as if it were a hidden code should not be to say one should not look for meaning.John Ashbery and the Language poets try to write poems without the usual denotative meanings of words (hence that eyesore L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E construct), but even such efforts entail conscious intent and offer a meaning if only in the decision to withhold meaning.A poet who writes only for meaning is likely to be a very bad poet.The delight in language, in constructing an object, have to be fundamental.Without the aesthetic sense art is usually nothing but propaganda.


But when one chooses meaning, or lets oneself be chosen by it, one is making an aesthetic and ethical choice.Certainly, being true to one's material represents a choice on both levels.And in each work of art, a world, however subtly, is suggested, even in light verse.One writes for a certain audience, even when that audience is only in the poet's head, even if it only consists of the dead.To be didactic does not mean one has to be narrow or sermonizing.Or even simplistically clear for that matter.


The whole matter of the ethical as it relates to poetry is a difficult one, one I am still trying to feel my way toward understanding.Certainly, Auden's strong ethical sense harmed his late poetry.I can think of Wilbur and Heaney as poets I would think of as having worked in a strong ethical manner, didactic by example but never by preaching.Certainly Wilbur's is a poetry of praise and Heaney has managed his historical situation well—not that all poems have to praise.And let's face it—some poems are just fun.But it might be clearer if I could name a poem I find ethically deficient.


The one that leaps to mind is Sylvia Plath's "Daddy."The poem is unfair to her father, is obscene in its inflation of very, real personal pain, and in conflating her suffering with that of an entire race demeans both poet and subject.I think it may pass as a poem on aesthetic grounds (though I have some problems with it there), but it clearly fails on ethical grounds.Yet I do not say it should be censored, though I certainly award it my private censure.


Certainly there are sections of Pound's Cantos that are offensive in an ethical sense; they eventually even became so to Pound in his saner moments.Some of the late poems of Lowell where he quotes from personal correspondence of friends without permission also seem an ethical breach.However, I also would not censor these, just hold that they are deficient on some level.


Salemi asks at one point if I confuse acts and speech as do many of the politically correct.No—to commit murder is different than saying I wish so-and-so were dead.If so-and-so were murdered by someone because that person heard me say it, the situation becomes a bit more complicated.But I do believe that freedom of speech means one should be responsible for what one says.Or writes.As such, there is an ethical choice involved.But to take such a position does in no way mean that I support speech codes—I do not—though Salemi would find it convenient to think so.


I do allow that Salemi has every right to use martial metaphors for satire.However, in his initial essay, he states that the middle class doesn't like satire because it doesn't like violence.One the one hand, he didn't make it very clear he was speaking metaphorically.But the larger issue I raised was the real reason most readers of poetry don't like satire, and it is not because of violence; this point goes unanswered.


Salemi wonders what I'm up to at the end of the essay when I mention Byron, Twain and others.Then, in another paroxysm of overkill, he asserts: "By bringing up the alleged liberalism of Byron and Twain, he insinuates that we poets (including satirists) should be out there earnestly working for positive, progressive, politically correct causes."Gee, I am a sneaky fellow (now I have run out of fingers).My point was simple and simply made: satire is not strictly from the Right but can also be from the Left.Salemi's essays seem to indicate that if someone were out earnestly working for "progressive" causes (a retirement home for satirists?) that person would certainly not be a satirist and probably not a good poet.Unfortunately, in most cases he's right, but this is not invariably true.To write or enjoy satire is not defined by one's political persuasion.And satire should not be confused with raving.A good satirist knows that the subtle pinprick of wit will often burst the balloon more effectively than will a hatchet.This can also be true for the critic.Using a cannon is not the best way to kill a fly.


Salemi and I are actually closer on most of these issues than it seems.I enjoy satire.I deplore using art to serve a party line; what usually results is propaganda.But Salemi's extreme privileging of form over content—a position most reminiscent of the Decadents of the 1890s—is off base.It is obvious from my work how much I value form.My non-literature core students have to learn more prosody than some professors know.But poems have meaning.Art is not merely self-referential.Anyone who reads poetry with care and love will find his life changed in some way.That is a very strong force to consider ethically neutral.


In conclusion, Joseph S. Salemi shouldn't worry about a percentage of nut-cases visiting the EP&M website.I've heard the webmaster has a new program that filters out all the psychotic and ushers them to http://www.thehypertexts.com/Salemi.htm.  [ED: Don't believe everything you hear.]

                    Robert Darling

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