EP&M Online Essay

                                              Our Ersatz World


                                                   Dr. Joseph S. Salemi

                     Department of Classical Languages, Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.

    The German word ersatz means “substitute” or “replacement.”  The term became well known beyond Germany during the Third Reich, when Nazi policy aimed at a complete economic autarky that would enable Germany to escape dependence on any foreign import.  A whole raft of ersatz products emerged at this time, and later as a result of the pressures of warfare.  Margarine was an ersatz butter; Buna-Stoff was an ersatz rubber.  German chemists made ersatz gasoline from coal oil, while various synthetics and plastics did duty for old-fashioned organic materials.  All these things were created as emergency measures, and not because they were desirable in themselves. <>    Unfortunately, much of this ersatz stuff is still with us.  Tasteless margarine and hideous plastics are everywhere.  Saccharine and its various clones are the sweeteners of choice for millions.  There’s hardly a natural fiber on earth that hasn’t been replaced or adulterated with the addition of some laboratory-produced polymer.  As usual, the driving force behind this situation is the greed of businessmen, whose Holy Grail is the sacred bottom line.  But there’s a genuine demand at work also.  Consider our food neurotics (a major cultural force in the developed world), who consume ersatz meat made from tofu, and ersatz milk made from lecithin, and ersatz coffee made from God knows what.


    All human activity, if it becomes habitual, has an eventual effect on the soul.  Our responses and ways of thinking—even our perceptions—fall under the sway of our customary behavior.  Do something often enough and it will color your entire being.  Could it be that the ubiquity of ersatz products in our time has poisoned our tastes, and led us to prefer the fake to the real?


    It’s possible, but I am inclined to believe that it’s the other way around.  There is something perverse in modernity that favors the unreal on principle, that wants fakes and stand-ins and substitutes for their own sake.  The widespread use of ersatz products is therefore just a symptom of a deep-seated sickness, just as buboes are a symptom of plague.  Claudius said of Hamlet that “There’s something in his soul / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.”  Well, the modern world has some kind of brooding soul-sickness that favors the unreal.  
    For example, I’m astounded at how many people have homes filled with “replicas” of things.  This is not a financial issue—in some cases they have paid more for a crummy copy of a Victorian chair than they would have paid for the original in a good antique shop.  People hang up replica Civil War swords, when in fact there are plenty of original Civil War swords available if you look for them.  You can pay a high price for a reproduction of a Roman coin, although real Roman coins are still found by the bucketful.

    What’s going on here?  Well, recall what Eliot said in “Burnt Norton”:  Human kind cannot bear very much reality.  Eliot had put his finger on a key problem in modern life.  With the collapse of religious and cultural certainties in the West, our stance towards real things has become more defensive than ever.  When metaphysical moorings are cut, the world turns shadowy, protean, and relative.  It becomes an even more threatening place than it would have been under ordinary circumstances.  And this accounts for our increasing unwillingness to approach reality too closely.  There’s an unconscious assumption that the real is dangerous and edgy, while our synthetic simulacra are somehow safer.  And so we’ve created a child-friendly world of rounded corners and antiseptic plastics and non-shatter glass and sugar-free candy, because we have gotten out of the habit of dealing with real things.  They are too scary.

    I could make a case that the stupid nerd-box you are staring at right now is the prime example of this tendency.  Computers, of course, make everything virtual and non-threatening, even sex and violence.  Computer addicts dwell in a world of perpetual images, summonable and dismissable at will, and utterly without consequence.  But let’s leave that hot potato alone, and instead talk about poetry.

    Those who are part of the movement known (for better or for worse) as New Formalism are also subject to this tendency.  They too are afraid.  In their case the fear manifests itself in an unwillingness to write real formal poetry, as opposed to the numerous ersatz varieties that sometimes try to take its place.  For example, some people calling themselves formalists pay no attention to the stress in a line, but merely count syllables; or else they use so many substitutions that the resulting line might just as well be syllabic.  That is a completely fake sort of “formal” verse, and I am tired of hearing the practice defended by persons who should know better.  Don’t tell me about “freedom,” don’t tell me about “experimentation,” don’t tell me about “new possibilities.”  You either compose in correct meter or you don’t.

    Another ersatz obscenity is the excessive use of slant-rhyme or near-rhyme in rhyming forms.  I ask the people who are addicted to this practice, and who think that it is très chic and classy: Are you aware of the fact that you are publicly declaring yourselves incompetents who can’t get a rhyme?  And don’t lecture me about Dickinson—she did what she did for her own reasons, and until you attain her stature make an effort to master more vocabulary.

    Then there are the lyric-ladlers—the formalist poets who, no matter what subject or genre they are handling, always seem to ladle out something lyrical and breathy.  This again is due to fear: rather than forthrightly taking up the requisite style for a given poem, these lyric-ladlers unconsciously try to fit their material into the critical parameters of mainstream free verse, which has decreed the confessional lyric to be the only acceptable mode.  As a result, we have formalists writing satire that sounds like Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.”  It’s totally ersatz.  

    The three previous examples all involve the how of poetry; now let me descant on something touching the very substance of New Formalism.  And that is the untoward influence of middle-class notions of “propriety” in the movement.

    The Proto-Indo-European root dek- means “that which is acceptable, right, and proper.”  It eventually gives us our words decorous and decorum and even dignity.  There’s a whole class of persons in the poetry world who could be designated as dek-people.  They seem to have an internal gyroscope that compels them to be constantly on the lookout for anything that they think “unsuitable” or “in bad taste” or “indecorous,” or some other euphemism to describe that which offends their prissy sensibilities.  These dek-people are everywhere, banishing and censoring and hectoring, and they have a crippling effect on the creative energy of others.  They are constantly harping on the need for sensitivity and courtesy and politeness and civil discourse and good taste and consensus and… well, you get the picture.  Try to imagine a hybrid of Caspar Milquetoast and Miss Manners in charge of a poetry magazine, and you’ll get a rough idea of their influence on aesthetics.

    In New Formalism, dek-people have had the unfortunate effect of leaching out a lot of the vitality and vigor that might otherwise have made our movement interesting.  Instead, we have a good deal of formalist verse that is anemic and ladylike, as if written in a boarding house of spinsters.  But that’s exactly what the dek-people want.  They like it when we’re all well behaved.

    Granted, there are some New Formalist poets (Margaret Menamin and Richard Moore come to mind immediately) who are rowdy, roisterous, and Falstaffian in their approach.  But they are not the common type.  Everywhere else there is the distinct feeling that hobbling restraints are on us, like the over-engineered seat belts in new cars.  We can’t say some things.  We might—God forbid!—offend somebody.  So we produce an inoffensive ersatz poetry that comes nowhere near the robust vigor of our ancestors.

    As long as there are workshops, seminars, study groups, and chatrooms, the dek-people will maintain their unofficial hegemony over New Formalist poetry.  For in a public setting, where ideas are bandied back and forth, persons who express dismay and outrage have a distinct advantage over others.  It happens in faculty meetings, conferences, and gathering of every type—the offended party stands up in high dudgeon and delivers an impassioned indictment of something “outrageous” (i.e. exciting and interesting), and everyone else feels obliged to acquiesce.  I learned long ago that the only way to counter such types is to stand up and spit back defiance at them, telling them exactly where to shove their outraged feelings.  But most people don’t have the stomach for that kind of response.  They find it easier to make adjustments and go along.  And as a result, the dek-people retain their stranglehold on what we write.

    This is the terrible ersatz world of New Formalism.  The fake meter, the fake rhyme, the all-pervasive lyricism, and the straitjacket of decorum are still forbidding presences that frustrate much potential.  Can we start writing real poetry again, instead of this ersatz crap?  I think we can, if a few of us start spitting back defiance and thereby encouraging the more diffident to stand up and be counted too.  Lately, I sense that at least a few poets are willing to try.  Let’s hope that they persevere. 

                                                                                           Joseph S. Salemi
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