EP&M Online Satire

 Changing Dwarfs To Johns:  Making Poetry Interesting Again


Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics, Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.

I have a number of disagreements with the proponents of the Expansive Poetry Movement.  I don't like their blind faith in the power of narrative; I'm impatient with their excessive length; I loathe their penchant for quoted dialogue; and I'm appalled by their more than occasional inattention to the finer points of poetic craft.  But there's one thing the Expansive Poetry Movement has zeroed in on with absolute accuracy, and that's the failure of most mainstream poetry to be interesting.

Why do you suppose that the poetry world today, despite all its self-generated hoopla and frenetic activity, is still just a circle-jerk of incestuous friends and acquaintances?  Why is contemporary poetry completely off the radar screen of popular culture and serious academic concern?  And don't tell me about poetry slams, or festivals in New Jersey, or conferences at West Chester.  All of that is just froth hiding the incontrovertible fact that mainstream poetry, whether free verse or formal, has no significant general audience.

I hasten to add that I've never thought an external audience to be an important consideration for a practicing poet.  Good art is good art, no matter how unrecognized it may be.  But it's useful to explore why there hasn't been a sustained general audience for poetry since the death of Thomas Hardy--at least not one that commercial publishers are aware of.

Poetry isn't interesting any more.  It simply fails to ignite a response in ordinary people.  That wasn't true for John Dryden, whose poetry was hotly controversial in the political arena of Restoration England.  It wasn't true in Lord Byron's day, when people clamored outside his publisher's window for more cantos to Don Juan.  It wasn't true for Robert Browning, who had societies (we'd call them fan clubs) that gathered regularly to discuss his work.  It wasn't true for Kipling, whose mass readership spanned the entire class gamut of the British Empire.

What happened?  Well, the first thing that happened was modernism, which essentially removed poetry from the realm of comprehensible discourse.  Modernism did some spectacular things, there's no denying that.  But it also cut the tether between poetry and propositional statement, and once that happened, there wasn't any real motivation for the general public to pay further attention to it.  Poetry became self-sequestered and masturbatory.  You got that stereotypical icon of the poetry world: the neurotic little nerd at the podium, mumbling something cryptic about his alienation from the universe.

The second thing that happened was even worse.  Poetry became prim and proper. Because it had arrogated to itself a self-contained and hieratic aloofness, it all of a sudden stopped being boisterous and funny.  That horrible disease that I have elsewhere called "Portentous Hush" began to infect the art, so much so that whenever people hear the word poetry they immediately think of something tediously lugubrious. They don't think of jokes, or spoofs, or parodies, or insults, or just plain old roistering fun.  Poets themselves dismiss such comic stuff as "light verse," with a supercilious disdain.  Genuine poetry (so the orthodoxy goes) is supposed to be something serious and good for you, like a Sunday School sermon or a laxative.  The result was predictable.  The general audience for poetry just melted away en masse, like the Russian Army in 1917.

This primness and propriety manifest themselves in an unconscious but very real committment to the shibboleths of "good taste" and "decorum."  Nobody wants to touch issues of sex, violence, drug use, or depravity.  One consequence is that these inherently interesting subjects are taken up by TV, movies, and rap music, while poetry gets stuck with the hearts-and-flowers pap.  And you wonder why there isn't an audience any more?

I'm often accused of writing poems on "unsavory" subjects such as crime, violence, and prostitution.  I don't feel that those things are major preoccupations in my work, but I'll say this: vice has a lot more poetic potential than stories about your grandchildren, your azalea bushes, or your latest triple bypass.

So, perhaps to kick-start a controversy, or just for the sheer hell of it, I'll present my readers with a poem that is totally given over to prostitution, drug use, violence, and depravity.  It's a lot more interesting than the original story on which it is based, and a lot more fun as well.

If you like the poem, fine.  If you don't like it, you can pigghiari 'na futtata 'ntu culu.  Got that, dwarfs?   

Snow White and the Seven Johns
         by Joseph S. Salemi
              Snow: street nickname for cocaine. 

You all know the tale of young Snow White, and how
The dwarfs and the Prince saved her bacon.
But if you think that's the true story, well now...
I'm afraid that you're sadly mistaken.

I'll fill you in here on the actual facts
Although they are sordid and smutty.
The case involves women who work on their backs,
With morals as yielding as putty.

Snow White was a chippie with ivory-smooth skin
Who hooked from a crib in Savannah,
A city well known for its ladies of sin
(It's almost as bad as Havana).

She had seven Johns who were short, fat, and old,
As ugly as Snow White was pretty.
They were Sleazy and Sloppy and Scruffy, I'm told,
And Shabby and Stinky and Shitty.

The seventh was Smarmy, a mean ghetto tough
Who often gave Snow White a whipping.
She never complained, 'cause he paid her enough,
And Snow needed dough for her tripping.

Yeah, she was a coke-head.  Poor Snow White was jinxed
With a craving for snow, and to feed it
She'd do what you asked her, though freaky and kinked,
To get the nose-candy she needed.

Now there was this madam—-a "witch," if you must—-
A woman most cruel and unpleasant.
She laced some cocaine with a poisonous dust
And gave it to Snow as a present.

Poor Snow took a whiff of this doctored-up dope
And soon drifted into narcosis.
The back-parlor girls assumed there was no hope—-
They often had seen overdoses.

But Smarmy came over and pulled down her drawers--
He gave her a whack on the fanny,
And Snow White awoke, and the rest of the whores
Called such a revival uncanny.

The Johns in the brothel wore seven big smirks,
And Snow was too weak to resist 'em.
They paid for an orgy with all of the works,
And Snow White got pumped like a piston.

Walt Disney, a poltroon of staid bourgeois taste,
Was troubled by anything gritty.
He cleaned up the details, and duly effaced
All marks of the grim inner city.

He made it a tale of a girl and a Prince,
Of cottages, castles, and witches.
He dropped the unpleasantries and the vice, since
That stuff gives Americans twitches.

                      Joseph S. Salemi