A Reply to Robert Darling
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics, Hunter College, CUNY
Liberals have an unpleasant habit of measuring the entire world by the yardstick of themselves. It's tiresome, particularly when it gets in the way of literary judgment, which ought to be marked by some degree of historical detachment.
There is no way that the Roman poet Lucretius can be seen as manipulative-didactic. 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.
Read the opening of Book II of De Rerum Natura, and measure the utter distance that Lucretius puts between himself and the foolish multitudes who are tormented by desires. He luxuriates in his detachment from their troubles. And recall the standard Epicurean maxim, Lathe biosas ("Live in obscurity"). Such a rule of life is incompatible with busybody proselytizing. All Lucretius is trying to do is inform people of the truth. That's not the same thing as converting them. If you were passionately wrapped up in trying to convert people to your point of view, you would lack ataraxia. Lucretius is informative-didactic, period. 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. He isn't. Epicureanism is a philosophy of detachment, not engagement.
As for Tennyson, I never said that he was a bad poet. He's written many excellent and praiseworthy pieces. I just don't happen to think that In Memoriam is one of them. Next to the Ormulum, it is the most soporific poem in the English canon. Liberals love In Memoriam--it allows them to imagine that their own philosophic uncertainties have some vast metaphysical basis. The best judgment on In Memoriam was given by Whittaker Chambers in 1947, who said that it represented "the blind impasse of optimistic liberalism," and that both the poem and its author were "silly."
Darling may disagree with all this, but why should he complain that my 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"? 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.
Concerning the old chestnut about poetry's task being to "delight and instruct," I refer Darling and others to my reply to Sonny Williams in the EP&M archives, in the debate that followed publication of my article "The Illusory Audience." As I said then, the "delight and instruct" nonsense is just a convenient cover story invented by Horace.
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. His poem is a sustained performance of great complexity, the theology of which is extremely debatable and tentative--a sideshow, as it were, to Milton's aesthetic achievement of producing an English epic on classical and Neo-Latin patterns. Moreover, as early as the eighteenth century Blake saw that Milton was of the Devil's party, despite all that claptrap about justifying God's ways. 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.
Let's repeat what Louis B. Mayer said: If you want to send a message, call Western Union. 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. Young people saw immediately that if poems were merely vehicles for messages, then it made better sense to switch to a more convenient vehicle. Why plow through some dork's metaphors and syntactic inversions? Messages come a lot faster and clearer on the phone or e-mail. Seeing poems as instruments for message-carrying makes them instantly vulnerable to the obsolescence that overtakes all instrumentality.
But liberal schoolteachers (who, like the Bourbons, seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing) 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.
Poems are concoctions of language, to which some people respond and to which others don't. They are verbal artifacts, in the same way that a sculpture is an artifact of stone or wood or metal. Talking about their "ethics" betrays an incurable moralistic streak, a judgmental We-Know-Best superiority that makes liberals (and yes, some conservatives) insufferable. The only response to such cant is to ask "Whose ethics? Yours? Mine? The guy's down the street?" The world is filled with all sorts of people, but when liberals talk about "ethics" you can be pretty sure they mean the ethics of good little progressive Gore-voters like themselves.
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.
But poetry, being a human product, cannot be made to fit preconceived ideologies or ethical systems, except by misreading or censorship or exclusion. Poetry has an unnerving tendency to upset one's ethical apple-cart. For example, one wonders 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? In short, when you start harping on "ethics" in poetry you run up against a wall of brilliant poetry that is in no way conducive to good ethics, or even tasteful in the bourgeois sense. Does Darling think it's all bad?
As for whether poetry can justify mass murder, has Darling read the Bible lately? Does he know the story of Dinah in Genesis 34? There are enough genocidal acts in Numbers and Joshua to keep the Hague Tribunal busy for years. And if these narratives are not sufficiently poetical for him, how about Psalms 5, 9, 35, 68, 83, 101, 110, and 149? I won't even mention the bloodcurdling 21, 58, 69, and 109, which contain language that sounds like Gestapo directives.
OK--I've made my point. But let's hammer it home once more. 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.
I'm highly amused by Darling's suggestion that I'm a cynical post-modernist who harbors Marxist views. Like Miss Piggy, my immediate response is "Moi?"
The most cavalier perusal of my published prose and poetry reveals that I'm a right-wing Roman Catholic reactionary, and fiercely proud of it. My argument with the bourgeoisie has nothing to do with Marxism, but everything to do with my contempt for their self-absorption, arrogance, and pietistic liberalism. Concerning the post-modernist charge--well, Good God, I'm a pre-modernist! My two heroes are Hilaire Belloc and Joseph de Maistre. I'm totally allergic to pomo hipness and fashionable irony.
As for my being a "didactic" poet--well, I just don't see how Darling figures that, especially as I went out of my way in that last EP&M essay to point out that satire is not didactic. Darling seems to think that if one states an opinion in a poem, one is necessarily trying to convert one's readers or listeners to that viewpoint. But that's not necessarily the case. If I call an individual a stupid jerk, does anyone imagine I am trying to persuade him to accept that judgment? No--I'm simply expressing my contempt for him. So it is with satire. If I ridicule some yuppie twerp, I don't expect him to sell his BMW and join a monastic order. I just expect him to be the butt of my readers' laughter.
Darling's reply is "You're trying to dissuade those same readers from being yuppie twerps." No, I'm not. As I have reiterated in several essays on this website and elsewhere, I think it is pointless for a poet to worry about external audience. There is no way any poet can foresee who his readership will ultimately be. So trying to persuade an unknown and purely hypothetical group of readers to some course of action is the height of futility. A poet can only follow the dictates of his interior audience--that is, the aesthetic gyroscope of internalized self-respect that makes him produce his best and most characteristic work, regardless of who's listening.
Darling seems upset by my coupling of satirists with warriors. I don't see why. The figurative connection is both precise and traditionally sanctioned. Satirists and warriors "wield" a weapon (or pen); they "attack" positions (or ideas); they "make war" on the enemy (or folly); and they "smite" their foe (or target). Obviously, satiric violence is only metaphorical, but it emerges from the same joyous hatred that impels a warrior to fight. As for blowing up Chartres Cathedral or statues of the Buddha, these are red herrings. Satire is a literary genre, not a physical action. Its violence, as I have said, is figurative and imaginative. Unless, of course, Darling takes the politically correct position that speech is no different from action, and therefore must be regulated and policed in the same way. A lot of liberals seem to have swallowed that illiberal line.
Satire has always had this violent and aggressive side. It's no accident that one of the earliest Greek satiric poets, Archilochus, was also an active-duty soldier. Lucilius, Martial, and Juvenal were slash-and-burn polemicists; and Swift was universally called "the savage Dean." So what's the problem?
I can't help thinking that I have touched a middle-class liberal nerve here, and that Darling's essay only confirms what I said about the bourgeoisie's disinclination to violence. I don't condemn that disinclination; I live in a tough part of New York and I have no illusions about physical violence. But we're talking here about poetry--and poetry is going to be very boring if it is produced exclusively by suburban Kaffeeklatsch matrons who never raise their voices in anger. Notice also Darling's reflexive dislike of the military, so typical of the liberal academic. He thinks that the mere mention of a connection with warriors "defames" a literary genre. Really? Has he heard of someone called Homer?
Darling misreads my essay (in a way that is convenient to his own purposes) when he says that the poem which I quoted from Candelabrum may be bad, but nevertheless there could be a good satiric poem on acid rain. I didn't quote the poem as an example of satire. I quoted it as an example of manipulative-didactic verse. The same holds for the poem in The Antioch Review to which I referred. Darling says that there could be a good satire on working-class people. Well, I never said there couldn't be. I simply mentioned Smith's poem as an example of self-congratulatory posturing, designed to please the chic left-liberal snobs to whom The Antioch Review panders.
I can't quite make out Darling's point at the end of his essay. Byron held radical views? Big deal. Twain spoke out against oppression? Bully for him. So what does any of that prove?
Darling could have also mentioned Edmund Spenser, who urged a genocidal policy against the Irish; or Pablo Neruda, who wrote odes to Stalin; or Swinburne, who celebrated sadomasochistic sex with prostitutes; or Kipling, who revelled in descriptions of British soldiers beating natives with ramrods to extort money from them; or William Ernest Henley, who wrote in praise of the gallows and the imperial sword. All sorts of poets have had all kinds of sociopolitical views, so why should any particular one of them be taken as a model suitable to the rest of us?
In the light of this kaleidoscopic variety, Darling's suggestion that I am trying to link satire with conservatism doesn't stand up to scrutiny. I've always said (as in my argument with Annie Finch in Edge City Review) that poets can be partisans for whatever viewpoints they like. But does Darling grant the same latitude? I don't think so. By bringing up the alleged liberalism ofByron and Twain, he insinuates that we poets (including satirists) should beout there earnestly working for positive, progressive, politically correctcauses. Does he think that all worthy poets, deep down, are good littleliberals? If so, he'd better think harder.
Finally, Darling asks if writing for an internet website is life-threatening. Who knows? When you get as many visitors as the EP&M website does, there's bound to be a percentage of nut-cases among them. As I always tell my students, if you think you don't have enemies, you aren't thinking.
Joseph S. Salemi