EP&M Online Editorial Reply

Dear Editor:
                       I am not wholly certain
whether the latest essay by Salemi
(“Poetry and the Philosopher’s Stone”)
was meant, or not, as a riposte to my
reflections on the sense of destiny
as motor of poetic composition;
in any case, I wish to raise objections
to his dismissal of “the mystical
experience through which psychic wholeness was
attained” in poetry.
                               In days before
we thought we could account for everything,
the various trades called themselves “mysteries.”
In making anything, we make ourselves,
and if it’s “Wayland’s work,” as Wilbur put it,
so much the worse.  But we’ve chased mystery
out of the everyday, till its sole refuge
is in the pale of standardized religion.
Which means that those of us who cannot find
“salvation,” “transformation,” in the fold
of some established flock, are out of luck,
adrift in a universe of absurdity ­
absent the intuition, the resolve,
to find or fashion meaning in and from
the stuff of our experience (including
whatever we can come to know of others’).
Some years back, in an hour of need, a friend
placed in my hands Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,”
and in my view that title well defines
our kind’s essential business in this world:
then poetry, which deals in meaning, surely
stands at the center of that enterprise.
If this is secular religion, well,
let it be so, and not displease too greatly
those who subscribe to dogma rather than
honor that inner listening which attends
to the Voice which Wordsworth, as Elijah, heard.

The question of free verse or formal verse
is separate, I think.  If modernists
have mystified free verse as an evasion
of the demands of craft, that is a mere
fraudulent substitution, since to face
the imperatives of form, is just the ordeal
that catalyzes psychic transformation!
For beauty to be born the self must die,
consent to be a shuttle on the loom,
an instrument of the work’s will to be.
Much easier to dodge that harsh demand
and pass off posturing as art, especially
without the presence of some form to mark
whether you’ve really done the deed or not.
The amalgam of pretention and “free verse”
is one of many ways in which this age
seeks spiritual fulfillment on the cheap,
even as dominant science would deny
the existence of the genuine article.
But if, as Joe Salemi rightly notes,
New Formalism is not always more
than modernism in pentameter,
the reason, in my view, is that it hasn’t
reclaimed, as yet, that sense of sacred task
which makes the solemn tone permissible,
a Wordsworth, Milton, possible, amid
the lighter modes.  Too much, today, is what
I’d call “medium lite.” Without the sharpness
of wit, without the beauty fused by passion,
it dutifully goes on filling out
its forms with details of suburban lives,
calling to mind Roy Campbell’s epigram:
“They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where’s the bloody horse?”
                                                    Salemi’s satires
do snort most valiantly; and he has written
one poem at least, “The Lilacs on Good Friday,”*
that sounds a deeper, sadder note, that calls us
back to the task of poetry, the task,
yes, of transformation of the psyche,
and that is beautiful.   I wish that note
could be more often heard, could toll us back
to the deeper self and to the solemn sense
of what is shared, and of a human faith
that amid scientific and religious
reductionisms, is, if anyone’s,
ours to keep.
                                     Esther Cameron

*In Formal Complaints, Somers Rocks Press, 1997