The Poet’s Corner
by Russell Bittner
An unusually blustery month of May here in Brooklyn requires, I believe, some order. Consequently, we turn to Joseph S. Salemi – a formalist of the first rank – to implement some of that order.
Professor Salemi teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University, and in the Classics Department of both Hunter College and Brooklyn College, C.U.N.Y. His work has appeared in over one hundred journals and literary magazines in the United States and in Britain.
RRB:I’ve known your verse for a few years now – and appreciated it as I appreciate that of few others who call themselves “poets” in this day and time. To my way of thinking, poetry is already a marginal business. Writing formal verse seems to me to be doubly marginalized – you are, in effect, an outsider among outsiders. Would you care to comment? JSS:Yes, I suppose I am. I don’t attend workshops or conferences or readings, since they are just occasions for networking and mutual back-scratching, and they distract from the creative task, which is profoundly private. Besides that, I take a rather rigorous l’art pour l’art position, and I’m not especially concerned with external audiences for my poetry. Both stances put me at odds with the popularity-chasing types who constitute a sizeable percentage of the contemporary poetry world. But in a larger sense, formalist poetry today is marginalizing itself. It’s doing that in two ways—first, by trying desperately to bring about a pointless rapprochement with the Free Verse Establishment; and second, by Victorianizing itself in accordance with American middle-class tastes. RRB:Allow me to probe further about this last: “Victorianizing itself in accordance with American middle-class tastes.” I know enough of your verse to know that you don’t mind telling what many might consider to be “off-color” tales. In fact, it’s one of the things I like most about your work. I, myself, stopped publishing at this site some time ago because much of what I write could be construed as “off-color” – and also because I know what will or will not be tolerated at ALongStoryShort.net. It frankly seems to me that a l’art pour l’art position would, in and of itself, disallow any kind of self-censorship – never mind disallowing an attempt to produce something that could be construed as “uplifting” or “redeeming.” Are we of one mind on this, or have I misconstrued what you’ve just said? If not, could we see an example of what you would consider l’art pour l’art, but which others of a less sympathetic l’art pour l’art persuasion might find objectionable? JSS:I think we agree. If one takes a strict l’art pour l’art position, then nothing matters except aesthetic success. I like writing poems that are explicitly sexual in nature, like “Aphrodisiac” at The New Formalist and “Rear-Meat Rhoda” at The Formalist Portal. My only concern was that they be effective, well-crafted poems. But most American poets are still psychologically part of what Mencken called the Great Booboisie, and they fear and loathe what they call “tasteless subject matter.” Add to this their Yankee proclivity for self-promotion and grant-scrounging, and you get a mainstream poetry that is profoundly wimpish and namby-pamby. If there’s any sex or violence at all, it’s so soft-focus as to be unrecognizable. By the same token, Joe, the bane of hyperlinks is that one can lose a reader more quickly and easily than one can lose one’s own flower – and so, I wonder whether you wouldn’t mind showing us something to keep our readers’ attention glued to the site at least until they’ve read through this issue of “Poet’s Corner.” How about posting a piece or two we can look at and discuss? JSS:Very well. Here’s a poem that might provoke some comment. It’s titled “To an Aging Countercultural Twit,” and it appears in my collection The Lilacs On Good Friday, published on-line by The New Formalist Press.
To an Aging Countercultural Twit
At Woodstock you went walking in the nude,
But you were high on pot, and just a teen—
Your life is now more upscale and subdued,
And tinted with environmental green.
You still think Marx a genius, but not quite
As brilliant as Adorno or Marcuse;
Despite rheumatic damps, you will ignite
If someone sparks your old New Leftist fuse.
Fatally swift are time’s extended wings—
So many sainted icons rose and fell!
Your heart yearns for those past—and passing—kings:
Daniel Ortega, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel.
Where are the marching Workers of the World?
Where are the barricades with surging crowds?
Where are the rocks and gasoline bombs hurled
Against policemen swathed in tear gas clouds?
Gone with the wind. Like Rolling Stone and Mao,
They’ve slipped into the dustbin of the past.
The only places that give solace now
Are Berkeley, North Korea, Cambridge Mass.
You've joined a health club, and you watch your weight.
Macrobiotic meals and exercise
May also undermine the bourgeois state
And work against the hegemonic lies.
Take vitamins, fruit juice, and lengthy hikes
But take them with a grain of salt. Perhaps
Organic foods and stationary bikes
Will not stave off the ultimate collapse.
RRB:Far be it from me, Joe, to suggest there’s anything cynical about this piece. However – and without getting too deep into the politics of it – I might guess either that you’re not particularly enamored of the graduates of the sixties generation, or that you never were to begin with. JSS:Yes, I loathed those types back in the sixties when they had the advantage of actually being young and attractive. Now they've added arthritis and adipose tissue to their revolutionary dreams, and they're even more loathsome. When this poem was published, I took flak from quite a few of them. I guess they couldn't bear to look into the mirror. RRB:How To Win Friends and Influence People, Joe? Dale Carnegie’s not your favorite bedside reading? What do you read? – in the realm of poetry, I mean. Do you still read dead poets? Do you also read living poets? What’s your opinion of books like Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry or Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual? What would you recommend to the readers (aspiring, emerging or published poets) of this site? And while you’re at it, how about a second piece? JSS:My reading is extremely eclectic, but it does tend to be limited to dead poets. You can trust the dead – they aren't out to hurt you. I suggest that the only valuable judgments on contemporary poets will be made a century or two from now, when all the trivia and hoopla and bitching are silent. Would anyone like to pass critical judgment on Derek Walcott and Ruth Padel at this particular point in time?
As for Pinsky... well, I'm not particularly interested in poetry as a spoken art. Pinsky is obsessed with delivery. As I see it, poetry in the Western tradition is way beyond that stage now. Kooser is a free verse poet, and he feels that poetry has to be rooted in the gritty actuality of one's lived life, preferably on the Great Plains. I can't think of anything more opposite to my aesthetic take.
Anyway, to show that I hate capitalists as much as I loathe leftists and revolutionaries, here's a poem of mine titled "Corporate Opportunity." It should be noted that the poem contains no finite main verb, and is deliberately composed that way. Rhetorically, the poem suggests that the subject (given as the title) is merely a series of mandatory infinitives dictated to modern wage-slaves.
The chance to spend life totting up
Gross income and expenses,
Forbidden to express a view
That might disturb consensus;
To turn your mind and soul-strength to
Some widget-maker's profit;
To not just sip the hireling's cup
But force yourself to quaff it;
To regulate your thinking by
The figures on a spread-sheet;
To dread a drooping graph worse than
A syphilitic bedsheet;
To blindly follow routines that
Top management arranges,
And while you parrot policy,
Anticipate its changes;
To bootlick for the CEO,
Sling flattery in dollops;
To summon up a toady's smile
To please the in-house trollops;
To cringe in paralytic fear
Before a boss's swagger;
To know your back's a target for
The cold, collegial dagger;
To tune your speech to market trends,
Endure an ad-man's raving;
To finish every task, and then
Despite your years of slaving,
To wonder if some MBA,
To make the place efficient,
Will classify you obsolete,
Redundant, or deficient.
RRB:Ha! Now, this one I can identify with – even if I’ve always thought of myself as more of a participle (actualized, and in progress) than as an infinitive (merely hypothetical). Tell me, Joe. Has anyone ever referred to you as “Brooklyn’s Molière?” Would you immediately call for pistols if anyone ever dared to call you ‘philanthropic’ (in the literal sense of the word)? We’re unfortunately getting to the end of a glorious evening at the bar. I always hate to suggest ‘bottoms up,’ so please do me a favor and let us go gently out into that good night with “The Lilacs on Good Friday.” You know I’m not Catholic (though I am quite catholic), and yet … this piece might almost convert me. Maybe if you could give us a hint of what (once?) lay behind it, I could place a call to the local padre and ask for a road map. JSS:No, no one has called me that. But there are plenty of anthropoi to misein these days, so I wouldn’t mind the title. I much prefer being called a reactionary, which prevents one from being confused with the faux conservatives who make up a large part what is called the right in America. As the great M.E. Bradford once said, “Reaction is a necessary term in the intellectual context we inhabit today, because merely to conserve is sometimes to perpetuate what is outrageous.”
But here is the poem you have requested:
The Lilacs on Good Friday
Tumult of noontide long ago dismissed—
The rent veil unremembered, and the sun
Relit, though shrouded in a new eclipse
Of rainswept sky. The garden seems to shun
That spectral agony of blood and bone;
Consigns itself instead to placid sleep
Untroubled as the moss upon a stone
And heedless while the three Marias weep.
Four decades’ growth of lilac by this wall
Stretches its shallow spiral to the sky.
Clustering blossoms, soon to swell and fall,
Gather themselves like nimbuses on high
Out of my hand’s grasp, yet I still can bend
The pliant osiers downward to my face,
And sniff the buds that already distend:
Late April lilacs, delicate as lace.
Unlike that rigid tree, untenanted,
And red with memory of three hours’ grief,
The thornless lilacs summon up no dread,
Demand no witness. Flower, branch, and leaf
Are only what they are. They have no words
For us to ponder, though we sometimes feign
To speak for them, as augury of birds
Construes an omen of impending pain.
The book is shut, the candle snuffed, the bell
Rings the finale of a troubled day.
Did lilacs grace the garden where we fell,
Or scent Gethsemane? I bade you pray
And watch with me a little while this night—
Could you not watch one hour? The world’s bereft
Of that which once gave stomach to a fight
Or certitude to vision. I have left
The Office of the Holy Cross unsung
But patient on the rubricated page:
Open my lips, O Lord, and let my tongue
Announce thy praises—in some other age.
Here in this garden how could it displease
To let the lilacs offer up my prayer—
Sweet censers that, when shaken by the breeze,
Scatter their fragrance in the evening air?
And in that garden where a sepulcher
New-hewn from rock awaits the mourners’ tread,
Where cerecloths, unguent, aloes mixed with myrrh
Will soon enshroud the lacerated dead,
There is some solace from the thought of how
Late April lilacs, coming into bloom,
Shall dance the currents of the air, and bow
To shed their flowerets on an open tomb.
The poem is, of course, a meditation on Christ’s Passion, but rhetorically linked with the imagery of lilacs, a plant that often flowers in the Easter season. My parents have a huge stand of lilacs in their garden, over half a century old now, and the fragrance and color of that particular flower are linked in my mind with Christ’s suffering, burial, and resurrection. The poem has its genesis in that personal association.
RRB:Thank you, Joe. I don’t really think I need to add any further comment. The piece speaks for itself.