Dr. Salemi's essay on the poet's pursuit of an audience is a provocative one. Many, if not most, poets are more concerned about fashion than about craft. Instead of devoting themselves to reading the major writers of the past and learning the techniques of poetry, those poets who desire to be en vogue spend the majority of their time imitating what is being published in the "major" literary magazines. Indeed, Dr. Salemi is correct in asserting that an internal audience, where a stricter Muse resides, is needed for direction rather than an external audience. The pursuit of an external audience provides an alluring prospect of fame that more often than not leads to uninspired and feeble poetry. However, I do not think the "complete" disregard for an external audience is the best advice. I would have like to have seen Dr. Salemi, since he is a Classics scholar, discuss Horace and his famous statement that the ultimate aim of poetry is aut prodesse aut delectare. In addition, Horace states in his Ars Poetica that the author's reward is not money but fame. The poet is to be read and praised; he is a public servant, not a private man. These same principles can be found at the center of Sir Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry and John Dryden's An Essay on Dramatic Poesy among others. If a poet is to follow the masters of the past, then it would seem to reason that eliminating the external audience would be a mistake. Dr. Salemi himself is a satirist whose barbed poetry would not be possible without an external audience in mind. Many of Salemi's poems, such as "A Feminist Professor Lectures on The Rape of the Lock" and "Advice to the English Department," are obviously aimed at poststructuralist academics, both poems of which I might say instruct and delight. Certainly, beginning poets should be concerned about developing an internal ars poetica before worrying about which grant they will receive or which ethinic group they wish to exploit. However, once those skills are developed, writing about popular concerns or including popular events in one's poetry is something that has been done for centuries.
Joseph S. Salemi replies to Sonny Williams:
Williams misunderstands a certain part of my argument--I don't urge "eliminating the external audience." No one could do that, since external audiences (as I mentioned) are not under our control. What you can do is ignore the external audience by not letting any thoughts about it interfere with your process of composition. That is quite different. Also, I never said that "popular concerns" or "popular events" shouldn't be the subject of one's poems. I believe in total freedom for a poet in his choice of subject matter. Alas, a great many spineless American editors do not.
There are several ways of reading Horace's famous dictum that the purpose of poetry is to give "profit or delight" to a reader. A very literal interpretation has to take into account the immediately following lines, where Horace says (in essence): If you are going to teach, be brief; if you are going to delight, be plausible. This continuation shows that his dictum is no more than a practical tip for beginners, not a fundamental esthetic principle. In this connection, it is well to remember that Ars Poetica was written not for Horace's literary peers, but for two aspiring young poets, the sons of Piso.
An even more radical reading (and the one that I hold to) is that any poet's talk about the "purpose" or "aim" of poetry is what in the intelligence community would be called a cover story. It's a convenient lie that keeps the uninitiated happy. The notion that poetry is created to bring about some social good centered on the "profit" or "instruction" of its readers is just a fairy tale. It's simply untrue, no matter how often the fairy tale is retold by Sidney or Dryden or anyone else.
In the past poets were forced to come up with this cover story (like the Platonic mythos of the journey of Er) in order to keep non-poets quiet and contented. Since it has always been impossible to explain l'art pour l'art to the mob of philistines who run the world, poets had to invent some justification for their own seemingly pointless existence. The "profit-and-delight" ploy of Horace was a brilliant stroke, and for centuries (up until the French Symbolists, at least) the cover story was unquestioned.
Horace did believe that fame was one of the rewards for a poet, but it was not necessarily fame in the poet's own lifetime. He himself in Book III of his Odes speaks of erecting, by means of his poetic efforts, a monument "more lasting than bronze," and "higher than the pyramids." Horace wasn't talking here about fame in the Augustan age of Rome, but in generations way beyond that. Some few poets are lucky and become famous in their own day. Others, like the Pearl Poet, have to sit on a library shelf for five centuries before their brilliance is recognized and honored. The main point of my article was that too many jerks in the poetry world today are worrying about their contemporary reputation when they should be worrying about their rotten poems and how to fix them.
One of the most astute critics and translators of Horace, Charles E. Passage, has written about Ars Poetica that in it "Horace offers no guidance for the kind of poetry he himself wrote." He's right--anyone who reads Horace will see that there isn't the slightest link between brilliant odes like I.3 or III.26 and anything expounded in Ars Poetica. This proves that the epistle is simply not reliable as an esthetic guide. Or to go back to the language of the intelligence community, Ars Poetica has all the marks of an excellent cover story: authority, plausibility, great elaboration of unimportant detail, and no connection to the real facts. Horace's actual attitude toward audience is contained in the opening line of Book III: Odi profanum vulgus et arceo ("I hate the common mob, and warn them off.")
I'm glad that my satiric poems instruct and delight some readers. I'd be even happier if my poems were to enrage and infuriate their various targets. The "poststructuralist academics" whom Williams mentions are too invincibly ignorant to be instructed, and they long ago ceased to delight in literature. I think of my satiric poems as carmina defixionum directed against these types. Horace would have understood perfectly.
Esther Cameron responds:
I am writing first
to express agreement with what I take to be Dr. Salemi's central
point. However, I do not draw all of the same consequences from
that point, and would also like to say something about the place at which
our views diverge.
The problem with which we are grappling may be illustrated by a conversation I had recently with another writer. On learning that I
write formal verse, she looked a bit intimidated and said that she wrote poetry, but only free verse. I asked her whose poems she liked, and she replied, "Burns." Evidently, this poet has no interior audience; the question with her is not "Shall I ever write a stanza I could show to Burns?" but "How can I write something that will get published?" Of such does Dr. Salemi write: "[I]f you don't produce work that is congenial to your own tastes and preferences, you might as well put a bullet through your head."
The scene of that conversation was a notorious poetic Workshop -- one of those places of ill repute where hopeful poets presents their half-formed poetic products to be licked into shape by fellow-participants. Such gatherings should be compelled by court order to hear Dr. Salemi's words: "Does this mean that your poem can't be further improved later on, either by advice from others or by your own second thoughts? No, of course not. We are all human, and whatever we do is subject to error or lapses. One should never be too proud to accept honest criticism. But the longer one reads and writes poetry, the steadier and more certain and more clear-sighted one's interior audience becomes, and if you remain faithful to its dictates your poetic perceptions will grow sharper and truer, like a marksman's aim. There will be less hesitancy in your work, less defensiveness, less diffidence. Ernest Hemingway, in the context of prose, once said that every good writer had a ‘built-in, shockproof crap-detector' at work all the time. His words might well be applied to the interior audience.
When your interior audience has been functioning for many years, you
will have a foolproof sense of what is garbage in poetry and what isn't,
and you will write with a confidence and ease that astound your timorous
contemporaries." Workshop discussion is premised on the canard that
any poem worth mind- space will benefit by being tinkered with at
random by anyone who comes along. If this canard were to be
shot down, innumerable lucrative programs would collapse, leaving
not a rack behind. It's only a few of us spiteful loners who
insist on kicking at the marble foundations of established Stupidity.
Yet I plead guilty to going to Workshops now and then, though the atmosphere usually sours when it turns out that my poem is already finished, thank you. Why do I do it? Because of something Dr. Salemi does not take into account -- the fact that we poets do, after all, need to write for "others." Not, of course, for those others whom we imagine as unlike ourselves ("I like it, but will they?") -- not for Them, but for You, for Us. I keep hoping against hope that the encounters I am really looking for will occur in the workshop setting, because at this point it is one of the few games in town. Burns helps me out again here, with his "Epistle to John Lapraik." Written to a fellow-poet whose song he had admired at a gathering, the poem is an outburst of longing for poetic fellowship:
We ‘se gie ae night's discharge to care,
If we foregather;
And hae a swap o' rhymin-ware
Wi' ane anither.
Burns snorts at the intellectual fashion-followers of his time ("A set o' dull, conceited hashes/ Confuse their brains in college-classes"),
the followers of venal ambitions ("Awa ye selfish warly race,/ Who think that havins [manners], sense, an' grace,/ Ev'n love an' friendship should give place/ To Catch-the Plack [coin]!/ I dinna like to see your face,/ Nor hear your crack.") But he evidently believes in a social life that is not just "networking." He concludes:
But he whom social pleasure charms,
Whose hearts the tide of kindness warms,
Who hold your being on the terms,
"Each aid the others,"
Come to my bowl, come to my arms,
My friends, my brothers!
But, to conclude my lang epistle,
As my auld pen's worn to the grissle,
Twa lines frae you wad gar me fissle,
Who am most fervent,
While I can either sing or whistle,
Your friend and servant.
I am also thinking of the Acmeists, Mandel'shtam and Akhmatova and Gumilev. These three poets set themselves the most exacting standards and reacted with utter disdain to any suggestion they should compromise their work for an "audience". Yet they were vitally important to one another. A few living presences are needed to dispel the awful feeling of orating in a cemetery. Without a belief in someone still living who can respond to one's best -- who, in a sense, incarnates one's "interior audience" -- that best can seldom express itself. If the contemporary poetry scene is a "toxic waste dump," in Dr. Salemi's phrase, the remedy is not to stand completely alone but rather to find, if possible, the friends who are not strangers to your "interior audience."
Thus the only words of Dr. Salemi's to which I would demur are these: "And never listen when literary hustlers start whining about ‘what we all share' or ‘what we have in common.' Those words are a sure sign that someone is trying to con you out of your sovereign identity." But suppose what is shared is an agreement on the very truths Dr. Salemi is expounding? A circle of poets holding these views could for instance resolve that their meetings would be devoted to "a swap of rhyming-ware," on the assumption that the works presented are finished products, in a spirit of mutual enjoyment and in the imagined presences of the "interior audiences." Said interior audiences, by the way, would consist partly of common acquaintances; don't most of us have Dante looking over our shoulder?
At the end of his essay, Dr. Salemi steps back from the literary scene to contemplate a contemporary landscape that seems characterized passim by "fascination with false surfaces, ersatz substitutes, and fakery." The poets who have lost touch with their interior audiences correspond to the doctors with no interest in healing, the lawyers with no interest in equity or justice, the ministers with no belief in the Deity or the afterlife, the rock musicians indifferent to music. Again, there is little I can disagree with. All I'm saying is that to survive spiritually amid the "reign of hype" (to use the title of a Salemi poem [a section from his Gallery of Ethopaths] recently published in The Neovictorian/Cochlea), poets would do well to admit their need of one another. If we could do so, perhaps we would stand a chance of bringing the rest of society to its senses. I realize this sounds wildly chimerical, but on the other hand poets who abandon hope soon begin to sound like the snarling denizens of the bolgias. I still hope that poets resolved to "follow their bliss" will find common ground.
Joseph S. Salemi replies to Esther Cameron:
Cameron's main point is that an interior audience need not be alien to others, but in fact may be shared in the manner of an established literary tradition or a unitary esthetic sense. I think that this was once true, but I have strong doubts about its validity today.
An individual poet may find that he has some things in common or some shared tastes and preferences with another poet, but this no longer happens consistently, or on a large scale. The day of the literary salon, where dozens of poets with similar education and upbringing could meet to share the joys of literature, all united in an unshakable sense of what was good writing and what was not, is gone with the horse and buggy. Put five poets in a room today to discuss esthetics and there will be a catfight in ten minutes.
Since this is so, contestation, conflict, and opposition are bound to make up the background of contemporary literary life. In this Hobbesian war of all against all, the crucial thing is to keep the connection to one's interior audience clear of combat's static. The most important task of a poet is not to make friends, but to write good poems.
Cameron says that "Without a belief in someone still living who can respond to one's best work ... that best cannot express itself." I see no evidence for that. I could mention several artists who did their work in isolation, but instead let me share the following story.
A combat pilot, a veteran of World War II, once told me that on a return flight from a bombing mission someone in his squadron accidentally dropped an incendiary on a French medieval church. Luckily the bomb did not explode, but it did smash in a small section of the gabled roof. The squadron leader and his men later went to see the church and offer their apologies to the French priests. The priests showed them something extraordinary. A fragment of 800-year-old gable which had been knocked down was covered with nearly two inches of dirt, dust, and candle-soot, the accumulated layers of centuries. But the bomb's impact had shaken loose this accretion, revealing unbelievably intricate carvings on the original wood surface. Lovely detailed sculptures of men, animals, and geometric interlacing had been carved on a beam that was placed two stories high, invisible to any human view. Here are three relevant questions: Did that medieval woodcarver need the response of other people to do his best work? Did he need a sympathetic audience to ratify the value of his art? Or was he fashioning beauty for an interior audience made up of himself and his God?
I rest my case.
Caleb Murdock responds:
(From several messages addressed to the Webmaster) I want
to say that I think your site is going to lose credibility if you continue
to print Salemi's diatribes. He is petty, mean and unbalanced; and
everyone can see that. His confrontational posturing does no one
any good... Credibility is built by publishing well-reasoned, dispassionate
articles, not the attention-getting diatribes that Salemi produces.
Salemi isn't just embarrassing himself, but you also, since you are choosing
to print these diatribes...He fancies himself to be a Dana Gioia, putting
the "hard truth" before the public, but he is just a transparent egomaniac...Do
yourself a favor and nip the Big Mouth in the bud.
Joseph S. Salemi replies to Caleb Murdock:
And I thought I was just using the word "dwarf " as a rhetorical whip!
Apparently Murdock is omniscient, for he not only hates my stuff but is certain that "everyone" else does too. Is he a professional pollster, or just clairvoyant? Or is it that, like all conformists, he needs the security blanket of thinking his opinions are supported by a majoritarian consensus? How typically bien pensant.
Two things about Murdock's comments stand out like a pair of inflamed warts: He doesn't make the slightest effort to refute a single point I raised, but he strongly urges the website to cease publishing me. How intellectually adventurous of him! Murdock would have been right at home in the old Supreme Soviet, where resolutions and condemnations were passed without anyone being allowed to read them or debate them.
As for my writing "diatribes" that are "petty, mean and unbalanced,"
I have learned from long experience that such language is standard Liberal-Speak
for "I have no answer to your arguments, but I still want to sound superior."