An essay by Dr. Jospeh S. Salemi – a widely published poet and a member
of the Humanities Department at New York University -- appears in a recent
number of the electronic journal Expansive Poetry and Music Online.
Its title – “Why Poetry is Dying” – identifies it as the latest
in a tradition of such pronouncements. That
poetry is dying has been a well known fact for some hundred years. The death, it seems, is a lingering one, and certainly it has been
painful for us all.
Poetry, it seems, is dying of consumption. We suspect this is so because it revives and counterfeits a complete recovery from time to time. This is an illusion common among consumptives. Also common, just before the end, in that disease, we may expect the patient to experience a fury of energy and feeling of exceptional health. A high color will return to its cheeks – higher than it ever had in a normal state of health. Its eyes will be fiercely bright. It will be as if the body is being consumed from out of its own heat.
Not that this is what Dr. Salemi informs us. His essay is a paper presented before the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’ and Airmens’ Club of Manhattan. Tuberculosis metaphors are unlikely in a public address. The paper is much more practical than that. It is chock full of common sense observations. It makes no attempt at metaphor of any kind.
The Doctor has written before about matters touching the present theme. On one occasion he has been clear that the poet should not write for an audience, but for him or herself. (In this essay, the poet is supposed to be his own “primary” audience.) It does not seem unreasonable, however, to assert that the great majority of poets who write for themselves write poorly nonetheless. The suggestion might better be phrased: Write with a respect for the tradition of poetry, which is not much current today, either in poet or audience, and be satisfied with the more private results of your own better aesthetic.
While this suggestion might go a long way towards improving contemporary poetry, we will do well to suspect that it is not sufficiently to the point. An audience is essential to poetry. The fundamental failure is to think of the poem as a product. If the poem is written as a product the set of problems outlined in Dr. Salemi’s essay is inevitable.
A product is successfully manufactured if it receives the highest possible price for the lowest possible production cost. Poetry, on the other hand, is only successful inasmuch as the poet intentionally chooses to produce at a high production cost. (Even the poets of poetry-as-product are loath to do without the vestigial respect paid to keeping production cost high, as evidenced in their advertising.) The direct price poetry can command is negligible and more or less fixed. An exceptional poem requires an exceptional outlay, as a rule, without any corresponding increase in an already impracticable price of the product.
If we will admit that poetry is not a necessity in the immediate sense, we may see this as the reason for the disappointing price it can command. But we live in a world where products-of-convenience command the same emotional value as necessities proper. In a world where conveniences and entertainment consistently command high prices, poetry still is assigned almost no direct value. In that same world, moreover, “indirect value,” of any kind, is accounted no value at all. At present, we are supremely confident that every kind of indirect result is properly accomplished through the cumulative effect of direct results sufficient in themselves – or it is an illusory vestige of a superstitious pre-market past.
It is worth asking the question: Why does poetry generally receive such a dismal wage? If you do not like poetry, the answer is an easy one: Because it is so much useless fluff and the entire industry a farce. If you do like poetry, the answer is just as easy: Because a great many people are desensitized dolts. As obvious as the answer is, to so many people, it somehow still seems wise to explore the matter further.
“In all arts and manufactures,” Adam Smith informs us, “ the greater part of the workmen stand in need of a master to advance them materials of their work, and their wages and maintenance till it be completed.”  The master, he goes on, for his investment, takes a part of the profits which result. We might suspect that this is the crux of the problem: there are no masters over poets, caring for their needs until the product can be completed. Disadvantaged in this way, all of the necessary leverage to establish a legitimate price is lacking.
But these workmen do describe at least one of our categories of poet: the Writing Program Poet. The master is the head of the university or other similar organization. Tellingly, writing program poets make a living. Still, the poem itself receives little or no payment from which profits may proceed. How can such a state exist? What is the source of the principles’ profit?
The answer, of course, is that the product is not poetry per se. Master and workman are producing classes to attract students with either a romantic predilection for poetry or for classes that have no math component. Without the prospect that they will teach in a writing program in their own turn, these students may enter on a life in retail sales at best. (In fact, that is where most of them will end up.) The parents of these students -- while troubled by a very strange feeling in the pits of their stomachs -- have told themselves that many an English degree hangs on the wall of well-paid middle management types.
The poem itself, then, is written by a poet in order to gain entry into a writing program or to keep up the credentials of a poet already teaching in a writing program. It also serves as advertising. As is the case in other disciplines, this provides for a number of professional journals of various reputation. These journals are themselves generally associated with universities. They (in their turn) advertise books, programs, seminars, etc., intended to expand the influence of the discipline. They establish standards.
But there is a further point to be made – an essential point. Other disciplines have their teachers, their journals and their requirement that those teachers publish in order to continue in their positions. It is a resoundingly successful system for certain things. In physics or biology, however, rigorous mathematical and logical standards must be met in order for the paper to be valid. Secondarily, specialized stylistic traits have been codified in order to prevent obfuscation. No matter what one’s definition of poetry, however, no similarly universal standard is likely to exist for it. An agreement upon vague stylistic traits can not substitute.
Thus we have the “political correctness” decried in recent years (and to which Dr. Salemi refers, in passing, in his essay). It is the “universal standard” adopted by the journals of academic poetry, in order that the “papers” which appear in them may be distinguished from mere professorial doodles. For the lack of mathematical equations to validate those papers, they have substituted a laundry-list of issues to which they are so absolutely dedicated that they effectively substitute for the role of mathematical laws. While this “solves” the problem of assigning value, such that there are failed and successful poems, it leaves a number of discontinuities which drive the likes of our good doctor to distraction, however much he rails at the symptoms rather than the disease.
In scientific papers, the assignment of a rigorous universal standard is salutary in many respects. One such respect bears upon the subject at hand. While the scientific author is undeniably advertising himself and his discipline, the universal standard greatly mutes that aspect of the work in favor of introducing legitimate data into the data bank available to his field. The pseudo-standard of the poetry journal, on the other hand, being arbitrary, this muting does not occur. The poem remains largely advertising: advertising with the imprimatur of an academic journal.
Most poets, on the other hand, have no masters. The bulk are engaging in a hobby, a more primitive version of self-advertising, or amateur group-therapy. Some few among them seek to go further. It is possible that they even hope someday to make some or all of their living from their poetry. Because their product can be expected to command no meaningful price their writing is generally described as an avocation or irrational obsession. The theory is frequently advanced that they exhibit a narcissistic sense of entitlement (something quite different, it bears saying, than narcissistic exhibitionism).
As for the value of the poetry itself, we go again to Adam Smith: “…labour, like commodities, may be said to have a real and a nominal price. Its real price may be said to consist in the quantity of the necessaries and the conveniences of life which are given for it; its nominal price, in the quantity of money.”  Poetry can be exchanged for none of the necessities or conveniences of life. Nor can it receive any meaningful quantity of money. In short, the poet’s labor, as manifested in poetry itself, is without value. There are few exceptions and those exceptions are not systematically analyzed with the intention of determining what it is about them that makes them viable products. They are aberrations.
The value of teaching poetry, then, belies the actual product (such as it is), and poetry itself is a form of advertising. It may amount to professional advertising or narcissism. At its most substantial, it is a vast compilation of anecdotes, of the most limited evidentiary value, to bastion politically correct standards of behavior: it rises, in effect, to the level of “political advertising”. The only alternatives that do not amount primarily to advertising are to write poetry as group-therapy, hobby or obsession.
This may be the proper place to consider the consumer in the poetry-as-product equation. The manufacturers of the vast majority of mass-produced products he has ever been offered have done everything in their power to make the product “user-friendly”. It was actually a running joke, when VCR’s first came onto the market, that nearly all of the display-clocks, in homes where they had been installed, showed the wrong time. The consumers had been left to set them. It was a laughable design flaw. The human engineering department hadn’t simplified the matter to the level of an 8 year old. An entire new technology stood in the balance. Products are viable inasmuch as they require no more customer interface than can be accomplished by the average 8 year old.
The perfect non-food product requires no effort whatsoever on the part of the consumer. All he or she has to do is to be there. That is all most consumers can be expected to bring to the product: their presence. Popular television is the example, par excellence.
To expect any other behavior from the consumer is irrational. A product – inevitably driven from the consumption-side -- is successful inasmuch as it performs unpopular tasks well with a reduced effort on the part of the consumer. Television entertains us (entertaining oneself is considerable work) and requires little more than a knowledge of how to insert a plug into a receptacle and press a few buttons on a remote. Each of these is easily mastered by a contemporary 8 year old. Some 90% of all viewers predictably surf quickly past news and information programs with a look of smug indifference. They do just fine without news and information, thank you very much.
The programs on those televisions must have a vast consumer-base in order to make a meaningful profit. The demographic must be wide. This necessarily requires a simplified vocabulary and a constant effort to determine and to scrupulously avoid that which may offend or bore a target audience. They are the most successful product ever created, in fact, and, as a result, we have become a passive-consumption society used to being addressed at the bottom end of the target-demographic range. In other words, we are becoming a society of dumbed-down couch-potatoes. All other products must follow us down or cease to be viable products in any presently meaningful sense of the word.
There is another powerful downward pressure, this one from the production side of the cycle. It has existed from the beginning of the industrial era, in its birthplace, in England, as evidenced by observations such as the following, from Emerson’s English Traits (1856):
again come new calamities. England
is aghast at the disclosure of her fraud in the adulteration of food, of drugs
and of almost every fabric in her mills and shops; finding that milk will not
nourish, nor sugar sweeten, nor bread satisfy, nor pepper bite the tongue, nor
glue stick. In true England all is
false and forged. This too is the
reaction of machinery, but of the larger machinery of commerce. ‘T is not, I suppose, want of probity, so much as the
tyranny of trade, which necessitates a perpetual competition of underselling,
and that again a perpetual deterioration of the fabric.
[Selected Emerson, p. 612]
one of the all too familiar downsides of the mass-production miracle.
Now, one hundred and fifty years later, we can add air that does not
nourish the lungs, water that must be heavily processed to be drinkable, weather
patterns that may no longer be particularly dependable, etc.
Because profits must continually increase, or less scrupulous manufacturers be competed with, or both, production cost must be reduced by every means possible, ethical or otherwise. In fact, the pressure is so profound that the ethical itself is being “dumbed-down” every bit as much as the level of educated discourse. Old “outdated” ideas of the ethical are being replaced by new, more marketable, ideas.
These downward pressures might suggest a bottom-floor that will be reached. Indeed, there would seem to be a bottom-floor for products having a considerable material component. Early in the century our government stepped in and established minimum standards for processed food products, for one example. Poisoned food has an immediate and immediately demonstrable downside. The arguments against it are simple and compelling. In the case of non-material products, however, standards are vastly more difficult to establish. The only effective market-standard is “What the public will buy,” or, in the case of poetry, “What will garner the attention the poet desires.” Whether there will prove to be a bottom to that, it is difficult to predict.
Furthermore, targeting the bottom end of a demographic lowers the level of the demographic as a whole. The occasional attempts then to air a program, or a poem, for the higher end of that demographic, find themselves addressing ever shrinking audiences. Predictably, as time goes by, the entire medium settles at the lowest-common-denominator and the entire audience follows it there. This describes our new egalitarianism and its poetry: a dumbing-down which we have found no effective way of resisting and have therefore made a virtue.
Poetry is by no means alone in this dilemma. All the reader needs do is to look into the general state of religion today – another entity transformed into an all but unrecognizable thing when forced “will it, nil it” to make the transition into a product. From there he or she may consider the Humanities and English Departments of our universities. Classical Language Departments near their end altogether. The judicial system is daily eroded . The parallel between poetry and language itself is particularly to the point.
Just as religion often has nothing to offer, by way of product, but a tone of awe and a dwindling bank-account from a magical past, poetry approaches the market-level of fortune-telling, astrology, and the psychic hotline. (But find an astrologer who will tell you that it is all so much bunk.) This is the source of the “Portentous Hush” which Dr. Salemi decries at length. I suggest that it is not, however, “the single most destructive and offputting characteristic of contemporary confessional lyrics.” With the end of poetry-as-product will come an end to the omnipresence of the Portentous Hush: either in more legitimate poetry or in silence.
Nor does it turn a poem into a “disguised sermon,” as the doctor claims. The Portentous Hush can be every bit as much a sign of a poor sermon as a poor poem. It is the sign of an empty utterance after the fashion of the astrologer babbling over the figures on an astrological chart. Each has realized, intuitively or intellectually, that its marketable product is the feeling, produced in the customer, that the magical is possible. The chart, the words, the venue, the lighting and the tone are mere props – otherwise the experience is seen for what it really is: all but empty. For this reason, of course, the feeling must be regularly and variously reinforced.
The mystifying blindness which Dr. Salemi perceives in otherwise intelligent human beings is an unspoken difference in perspective. It is unspoken by a tacit agreement of which he seems not to have been informed. His observation that “a vast number of people, including editors, believe that [the Portentous Hush] is the heart and soul of poetry” describes no mystery. They are not “unaware of an aesthetic limitation.” It is the heart of poetry-as-product. A good salesman does not admit the existence of either competing products or failures in his own.
That contemporary poetry has so often presented itself as the purveyor of the magical quotidian, within the reach of every man, woman and child, then, should come as no surprise. What is missing in product is made up in sales strategy: a time honored method of selling cheap goods. A poetry “accessible to all” is a poetry with the widest possible customer-base. It has the most favorable advertising demographic.
The wider the demographic the lower the common denominator. This presents no problem, however, as poetry is magic, anyway. It is a special case with special denominators. The near universal requirement that no poem include a word that will send the poor, oppressed reader to a dictionary, is an expression of the wonderful democracy of the craft. Only those special people who “get it” understand.
There is, as well, the unfortunate confusion with legitimate principles of democracy which becomes more and more common. As we desire to reduce democracy to the simplified proportions of marketization, the advertising slogans of user-friendly products begin to substitute for the precepts of the most complex and demanding form of government ever conceived. Democracy, as a result, is becoming quite simple: within the reach of all.
It should not surprise us overly much, then, to discover that contemporary poetry ever more closely resembles television advertising. The poem, like the advertisement, must be short and in some way striking. It must not bore or offend its target audience, therefore it must say as little of substance as possible and that very gingerly. The audience must not be required to bring anything to the experience that can not be provided by an average 8 year old (except, of course, sexual experience). Its most effective tools are the touching snapshot and oddball humor. Its relationship to the world ends where the needs of the product it is advertising ends. Its validity, after the product can no longer use it, is precisely the validity of an advertisement rebroadcast as part of an advertising nostalgia-program.
In his essay, Dr. Salemi sends us quite properly back to “…the daunting task of rediscovering all the neglected rhetorical modes and genres that have lain fallow for so long, which are now ready to explode into new life.” It is by no means the least of his excellent advice. Given the above etiology, however, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the old stylistic cycle, which plays such a role in our survey courses, may no longer obtain. So long as difficulty will not sell, and the base product is an industry of popular writing courses (and teaching positions to match), the downward pressure promises either to make other “modes and genres” impossible, or little more than new forms to carry, in their turn, less and less substance.
Dr. Salemi is hardly deluded when he discovers us well along toward the worst kind of devolution in contemporary poetry. We should not be surprised to discover him, at the same time, able only to counterattack the instruments of that devolution where they may prove to be little vulnerable. What should surprise us least is that poetry is, for all of the legitimate despair over it, in fact, both dying and flourishing. It is flourishing after the same fashion that so much flourishes in this day: we simply redefine it, as we go along, to be whatever we want it to be – and, therefore, it asymptotically approaches being nothing. After all, we no longer have the sometimes dangerous illusion that poetry can actually play any meaningful part in the world-at-large. Even the good Doctor can not bring himself to make such a claim. Poetry is magic.
“There is far too much poetry being written and published,” he informs us, and it is not clear, here, that he hasn’t begun, perhaps, to lose his way. There has been too much poetry written in every age, as far as its better poets and critics have been concerned. While there can be no doubt that the modern explosion of media has greatly magnified a genuine historical trend, the forgettable poetry of our age, like all others, probably does little to hinder better work. Even a stylistic lockstep is no better or worse for having recruited all of twenty extant journals rather than all of two hundred; and the greater the number of journals the greater the odds that somewhere will be an insufficiently guarded corner where something truly new might find a place.
In fact, the Internet – against which the Doctor inveighs – is, for all its faults, a tremendously promising venue. While it is proving to be capable primarily of providing pornography, cheap cameras, bomb recipes, and insipid verse, it is, more importantly, the host to the free, exceptionally well edited, classical texts of Tuft’s University’s Perseus Project site. It allows the editors of Luminarium to afford to publish a wonderful assortment of Elizabethan texts, the University of Toronto to amass a well-selected library of facsimile texts from all literary periods, the University of Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center to publish a wide range of quality material from more experimental post-modern poetic styles, Oxford University to publish the Internet Library of Early Journals. The National Writers’ Union; Literature of the French Middles Ages; the Internet Public Library; Mundo Latino Cultura; the Tertullian Homepage; Anthologia della Letteratura Italiana: these examples barely scratch the surface. Perhaps there is no more legitimately hopeful sign that a literary renaissance might be possible than this previously unimaginable flood of resources. It is vitally important that such sites continue to be constructed and remain available to the public for free. Not all of the contemporary poems and poetry sites are without merit, either. While the vast majority are eminently forgettable, a small number of sites and poems are already worth a reader’s time.
What the Internet lacks is any effective critical machinery to direct the reader to the more promising work and to give the better poet recognition and feedback. Doctor Salemi’s essay, being published in an Internet journal, itself suggests that this is a direction with potential. The fact that the essay directly criticizes the Internet, on which it is published, is the best kind of sign. It is a sprawling medium that can afford to be spirited, and, at times, self-critical.
Important as this new medium might be, however, there is nothing more important than having positive directions for poetry itself to go in. “Why Poetry is Dying” provides a list of eight rules which “will do for a start.” Unsystematic as they are, they are well worth a poet’s time.
Such lists are understood to be limited. Artistic disciplines are much less digital than a list might imply. By the same token, there must be some outline or overview in order for there to be meaningful discussion. It is a legitimate place for both student and critic to start. The list that follows is an attempt to give the poet 10 (as it turns out) imperatives for acquiring his or her craft.
amounts of poetry from many different ages. The poetry should be in many different styles and poems of
over 100 lines should be a regular part of the survey. Read at least a half-dozen book-length poems – at least
half of them pre-20th century. Reread
favorites time and again.
least one foreign language well enough to draw conclusions.
Translate considerable amounts of both poetry and prose from it if
wide range of literary criticism. Learn
to tell legitimate criticism from empty posturing.
No matter how well versed you are, legitimate critics are sure to have
insights from time to time that you have not.
record of favorite poetic passages. Memorize
a number of them such that you can deliver them well.
Analyze what methods make the passages special, including scansion.
Learn the technical terms for how the passages do what they do. Bring the methods over into your own poems.
record of favorite themes and images and seek them out in other poetry and in
top-quality topical non-fiction prose. Let
them help you to adopt other perspectives than your own and ask yourself how the
results change your perceptions.
different kinds of poems are paced.
only a strictly limited number of poems about yourself.
When you do write about yourself make yourself a third person – a
character – whenever possible.
length about nature only after you are knowledgeable enough at least to write a
legitimate 500+ word prose essay about the particular topic to be addressed in
that the best poets rarely write in purely colloquial speech.
Actively work to lose your original voice.
Seek resonance but not decoration.
the use of shock tactics. Refer to
historically unmentionable body parts, bodily functions, or excreta, only when a
failure to do so will leave an obvious lacuna. Don’t be prudish (unless it is in character) but don’t be
sophomoric (again, unless it is in character).
That stylistic revolution (such as it was) has long been over.
Poets whose poetry may be identified with these means are poor poets.
first thing that will be noticed, perhaps, is that this describes quite a lot of
effort. The barroom poet or latter
day Romantic is likely to claim that all this work will only take the spirit out
of the thing. He or she will reply,
perhaps, that freshness and accessibility are the true stuff of poetry.
We can expect them to continue courageously along the same course as they
have for the past fifty years.
Let’s face it: no one wants to work that hard at a hobby. Especially when the amount of work bears little or no relation to the amount of recognition one is likely to receive. And the hobby of poetry is not like building model trains. If it is no more meaningful than that, it is not meaningful at all. While it is destructive to seek a consumer base, poetry does, nonetheless, need an audience.
After further reflection, it may also be noticed that there is nothing on the list specifically to address the fundamental problem: poetry-as-product. The same overwhelming force impinges on the poet. Reading vast amounts of poetry from previous ages can change a great deal but surely it can not change the dominant idea of our age – an idea nearly as autonomic as breathing. This is a list that could all too easily result in an outmoded poetry bearing little relationship to its times other than the fact that it will be resoundingly poetry-as-product. For most prospective poets it is certain to arrive at just that.
But all of the threads we have been following do come together in the end, as it turns out. The only answer for contemporary poetry is the only answer for any age. The only poet who will work so hard for so little is the poet who we have caught a glimpse of at the edges of this essay from time to time. He or she may somehow come into possession of some close variation on the above list. When they do so, they always write the exceptional poetry of their times.
With this list, the obsessive poet begins to have the tools to follow his or her inexplicable way. It is not only in poetry that the obsessive prevails where others are, at best, “quite reasonably successful”. Dostoievski, Beethoven, Van Gogh, and a thousand others, in every artistic pursuit, after some fashion have known the secret list and the secret ingredient. They were somehow fatefully wounded, unable and unwilling to find a place in the “normal” world. Obsessives generally are.
At least since the end of the practice of patronage -- when there were, perhaps, other roads unrelated to direct commerce -- every artist who has left us a product beyond our expectations has been somehow driven. While they have lived with one foot in the past, they have always managed to create the works their present was particularly enriched by. Often we describe them as being “ahead of their times”.
In poetry – as in all of the arts – there is no greater wound than never having been lucky enough to receive the fateful wound. There is nothing worse to do with the gift -- if that grace has somehow been bestowed -- than to present it for sympathy, therapy or personal advertisement. In fact, to use it in these ways is a clear indication that the fateful wound has not actually been received. “Sympathy” means the poet has looked to others for solace rather than seek within. “Therapy” is resoundingly a created system of normalization. In it the poet has agreed to trade solace-for-solace with a group which, by some variation on the therapeutic method, will be normalized wounds and all. “Personal advertisement” is nothing more than using the wound as a product – occasionally of considerable exchange value – and is a great deal that is less. In each of the above instances, the wounded person seeks a cessation of pain in being absorbed into the prevailing demographic mean.
While brief and somewhat desperate attempts may be made to follow any or all of these paths, the obsessive finds his or her wound is not soothed and is forced to turn inward. There is only one option left to the fatefully wounded poet. The world will have to be recreated. At first it may seem like there is only a bit of work that needs doing at the edges.
Inherent in the “commodification” we have described is the need for ever more prefect predictability. All models of marketization inherently tend toward it. Our society – it has been said again and again – is rapidly becoming homogenized. Globalization, in its turn, is about homogenizing all the societies of the globe. All will share the same banking, marketing and purchasing practices. All experiences in life will continue to exist inasmuch as they can survive the transition into products.
More and more, even comparatively small differences of behavior are being “corrected” by amateur therapy groups, by institutions or by drug interventions. As definitions become ever more convenient, yesterday’s moody person is today’s manic-depressive. Yesterday’s refuse-nic is today’s anti-social or deployed personality. Hundreds of other diseases and behavioral problems have been created, and expanded upon, reflecting society’s determination to be left to watch its television programs in peace, as it were. It should come as no surprise that poetry threatens to become a pale version of its old self with no more power than its marketing-strategy can generate for it.
The pervasiveness of this system together with the collective sense that homogenization is the only safe harbor for a population without the time to develop a full range of personal skills has given our society a sense of entitlement. The fact that the limitation of personal skills goes hand-in-hand with homogenization is lost sight of in the dust and bustle of the powerful forces at play. The obsessive is just one more undifferentiated type of “other” to all but a tiny portion of the population – frightening, frustrating and ludicrous, in turns. The fatefully wounded poet faces a daunting, perhaps insurmountable, series of obstacles.
Yet, just as media advertising can have legitimately attractive – even artistic – qualities there always remains the possibility that the obsessive poet can briefly make an appearance in the mainstream venues of poetry-as-product, or the mainstream poet rise, on occasion, to the level attainable by the obsessive. There is the additional factor that there are scores of academic journals and hundreds more journals patterned more or less after them. Editors are not automatons. Nor are there censors watching constantly over their shoulders. Not every poem in every journal is in perfect accordance with the “universal standard” of the craft, regardless of the tremendous “market-forces”. A heartening profusion of available grants and prizes are available to the obsessed poet on the same basis.
It is unlikely that the poet who trudges through the tradition will prove to be obsessive. In short order, he or she will give off. The obsessive will turn out to be the one who is able to appreciate the truly magical nature of poetry – the magic that can not be made user-friendly. He will be the one who perseveres and his chances of success will be high.
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of
Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan, MA., LL.D. (New
York: The Modern Library, 1937) 65.
 Smith 33.
Joseph S. Salemi www.thehypertexts.com/Salemi.htm
of Toronto www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/intro.html
Poetry Center www.epc.buffalo.edu/e-poetry/2001
(University of Buffalo)
of Early Journals www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ilej
National Writers Union www.nwu.org
of the French Middle Ages www.globegate.utm.edu/french/lit/middle.ages.html
Public Library www.ipl.org
Latino Cultura www.mundolatino.org/cultura
della Letteratura Italiana www.crs4.it/html/literature.html
replies: With a piece this length it’s best to reply in order of the points
laid out within the essay. 1st off, this is a damned good attack on
poetry- from a perspective I’ve yet to assail. You certainly wear the
glow/patina of an Insider Ac hack well. However, the analogy of an eternally
dying art form is stale & wrong. True, the last 30 years or so have been
wretched but from 1910-1970 there was a greater flowering of poetry in the USA
than anywhere else- throw in Russia, Britain, France & you have an unrivaled
Age of Poetry. I agree that a market approach to poetry is doom-ladem- after
all. that which can be easily valued can be more easily devalued. However,
pricing poetry much more cheaply can’t be ruled out as a possible stimulus.
Poetry books these days are way over-priced, yet the $1 Dover Editions routinely
sell out. Your invocation of old Adam Smith I think points out the need for
hard-ass poetry editors & critics- de facto Masters. Your shot equating
middle-management types with MFA’s was perfectly pitched, as well your point
on lazy audiences- tv & such. But here’s your most cogent & salient
mystifying blindness which Dr. Salemi perceives in otherwise intelligent human
beings is an unspoken difference in perspective. It is unspoken by a tacit agreement of which he seems not to
have been informed. His observation
that “a vast number of people, including editors, believe that [the Portentous
Hush] is the heart and soul of poetry” describes no mystery. They are not “unaware of an aesthetic limitation.”
It is the
heart of poetry-as-product. A good salesman does not admit the existence of either
competing products or failures in his own.
replies: As for your comments, I feel that some reply might be helpful. My "analogy of an eternally dying art
form," as you put it, is actually Dr. Salemi's analogy, which I momentarily adopt, at the beginning
of the essay, in order to make a few facetious observations -- and which I hope I gently redirect to a more fruitful (though related) direction in the
essay. I might only disagree with the dates of your "greater flowering" of poetry, which I generally assign as (approx.) 1900-1940, with spikes 1940-1970,
largely in the Latin America and Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, to be more exact would require another
One further note, if I may: The list in the essay is my own. I had hoped that Dr. Salemi's list (on the Expansive Poetry and Music Online site) would be understood to be a different list from "the list that follows". Your comments upon my own list suggest the kind of debate I had hoped they might initiate.
I appreciate your kind words about this essay and the slightly mixed feedback which accompanies them.
Gilbert Wesley Purdy.
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