The French have a great adjec­tive: marx­isant. If you look it up in Larousse you are told that it means “that which tends toward Marx­ism,” but so bald a def­i­n­i­tion doesn’t cap­ture the con­no­ta­tive fla­vor of the word. To be marx­isant is to be vaguely but osten­ta­tiously left­ist, as a form of class dis­play. It means to affect a faux-radical style, and to spout a half-baked Gram­s­cian jar­gon that iden­ti­fies you as polit­i­cally cool and adver­sar­ial. It’s a way to be hip and trendy while hang­ing out at the Sorbonne.

In France if you are marx­isant you wear a black turtle­neck, you shave only every few days, you dis­cuss Sartre at great length in bistros, and you kiss the feet of every decrepit soixante-huitard whom you encounter. As for Marx and Lenin, well—you haven’t actu­ally read them, but you know they are pro­foundly impor­tant, and you’ll quote them on occa­sion. Being marx­isant isn’t an intel­lec­tual posi­tion. It’s a social pos­ture, designed to indi­cate that you are a mem­ber of an upscale elite.

We have plenty of marx­isant types in Amer­ica, suit­ably Yankee-Doodleized. Go to any fac­ulty meet­ing, where they swarm like locusts, buzzing end­lessly about race, class, and gen­der. Or hang out in a wine bar where grad­u­ate stu­dents gather. Or visit Ann Arbor, or Prince­ton, or Cam­bridge Mass­a­chu­setts. There they have formed lit­tle colonies of the like-minded who teach in Eng­lish, Women’s Stud­ies, or Polit­i­cal Sci­ence. Or else they might work in the social ser­vices, or with an envi­ron­men­tal group, or for Legal Aid, or in a veg­e­tar­ian food-cooperative. These are the peo­ple who get right­eously indig­nant over global warm­ing, George Bush, racism, and what­ever else is on National Pub­lic Radio’s cur­rent hate list. They have emo­tional seizures when they watch Thelma and Louise, or Broke­back Moun­tain.

But just as in France, it’s all pri­mar­ily a pose. Marx­ism for such peo­ple isn’t a polit­i­cal com­mit­ment but a lifestyle choice, with no more sig­nif­i­cance than a bumper sticker on a Volvo. Indeed, marx­isant types are in the same cat­e­gory as those bat­tle­field “re-enactors,” who dress up in Civil War uni­forms and shoot off vol­leys of blanks from replica mus­kets on week­ends, pre­tend­ing that they are at Get­tys­burg or Anti­etam. Every­thing in Amer­ica today approaches the con­di­tion of a Dis­ney theme park, includ­ing our polit­i­cal loy­al­ties. The fak­ery and the phoni­ness are palpable.

What’s nice about poetry is that it is tra­di­tion­ally the one area of human life where cre­at­ing your own spe­cial theme park is con­sid­ered accept­able and non-frivolous. As I have writ­ten else­where, poetry is “a licensed zone of unre­al­ity.” You can con­jure up what­ever worlds you please out of your imag­i­na­tion or your desires. And you can do it on paper, with­out invest­ing in mus­kets and cav­alry sabers, or a Che Gue­vara T-shirt.

Well then, with all this free­dom why is poetry in such sad shape? Why is so much of it as unread­able as an alumni newslet­ter, or a New York Times edi­to­r­ial? In many cases the prob­lem has its roots in a fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion. Free­dom with­out imag­i­na­tion is the free­dom to veg­e­tate intellectually.

This is not, I has­ten to add, a prob­lem just for poets and other lit­ter­a­teurs, but for the entire mod­ern world in which we now find our­selves stranded. The very struc­ture of con­tem­po­rary life in what we sim­per­ingly call “the devel­oped world” is hos­tile to imag­i­na­tion, except when it takes the form of the out­ra­geously bizarre, the mind­lessly vio­lent, or the explic­itly sex­ual. We have reduced imag­i­na­tion to the trashy com­mon denom­i­na­tor of Juras­sic Park, Pulp Fic­tion, and Sex and the City.

One rea­son for this sit­u­a­tion is that the mega-business types who con­trol the mod­ern world don’t want imag­i­na­tion, except in their accoun­tants and ad-men. Real imag­i­na­tion is unpre­dictable, and not as easy to turn to profit, the way one can with the merely spec­tac­u­lar or the bla­tantly out­ra­geous. A pop­u­la­tion with liv­ing imag­i­na­tions isn’t depend­ably pre­dictable in its reac­tions. It can actu­ally think for itself, which is pro­foundly ter­ri­fy­ing to bureau­crats, politi­cians, and the busi­ness com­mu­nity. For all their stu­pid blather about entre­pre­neur­ial ini­tia­tive and inno­va­tion, busi­ness­men are the least imag­i­na­tive peo­ple on earth. They want every­thing to be as pre­dictable as the chim­ing of a clock, or the col­lec­tion of accounts payable. In order to guar­an­tee it they have encour­aged a smoth­er­ing con­formism and stan­dard­iza­tion and reg­u­la­tory miasma over what­ever they can con­trol. And their toad­ies in the uni­ver­si­ties have fol­lowed suit, duti­fully mak­ing sure that all under­grad­u­ates get the proper mes­sage. Don’t think… just fol­low pol­icy guide­lines and get paid.

This is why the marx­isant types in our uni­ver­si­ties are such utter frauds. They talk about their “com­mit­ment to the strug­gle” and their “sol­i­dar­ity with the oppressed,” while in fact they are com­plicit with an edu­ca­tional sys­tem that func­tions to pro­duce obe­di­ent man­age­r­ial staff and docile con­sumers. They raise clenched fists and shout “La lucha con­tinua!” while cor­po­rate donors build their libraries and endow their pro­fes­so­r­ial chairs. Such “Marx­ism” is just frip­pery and cha­rade, like the gar­ish cos­tumes at a Mardi Gras cel­e­bra­tion. It’s some­thing to don for cock­tail par­ties and aca­d­e­mic con­fer­ences, and which doesn’t inter­fere with one’s stock portfolio.

So we have to dis­tin­guish between two very dif­fer­ent types of fal­sity, and their moti­va­tions. There is the fak­ery of the marx­isant types, which is directed solely to the base ends of status-display, in-group sol­i­dar­ity, and social climb­ing. And there’s the imag­i­na­tive cre­ativ­ity that expresses itself in fic­tive mime­sis. The mod­ern world has no trou­ble what­so­ever with the first kind of falsity—in fact, it encour­ages it via the retail­ing of all sorts of “lifestyle choices” and “options.” But the mod­ern world is indif­fer­ent and in many instances hos­tile to the sec­ond kind of fal­sity, which is rooted in the free play of imag­i­na­tion in an individual.

Let’s give an illus­tra­tive exam­ple. If you want to kill mil­lions of vir­tual peo­ple in a grotesquely vio­lent video game, the mod­ern world will afford you ample oppor­tu­nity to do so, pro­vid­ing you with san­guinary sce­nar­ios in all vari­eties, shapes, and sizes. But if you write a seri­ous poem or novel about mass mur­der, all sorts of buzzing dis­ap­proval will be heard, and your motives and san­ity will be ques­tioned. A stu­dent who dared to write on such a theme in his high school Eng­lish class would be imme­di­ately sent to a guid­ance coun­selor or the school psy­chol­o­gist. Slaugh­ter myr­i­ads of peo­ple on a com­puter screen? Sure, of course. Write about the iden­ti­cal sub­ject in a poem or story? Omigod the kid’s psy­cho­pathic!

The same thing with sex. Want wild, crazy, out­ra­geous sex of the most degrad­ing kind? Turn on your com­puter and surf the great porn wave. See things done that would have made Krafft-Ebing faint in dis­be­lief. But dare to write an explic­itly sex­ual poem, seri­ously dis­cussing a sex­ual activ­ity or issue, and watch the prissy rejec­tion slips from tigh­tassed poetry edi­tors pile up on your desk.

What’s going on here? Well, think about it a lit­tle. Vio­lent video games and com­puter porn sites are actu­ally safe—they are con­trolled by profit-and-loss-conscious peo­ple who won’t do a thing that isn’t attuned to their niche mar­ket. As I said above, busi­ness­men like what’s pre­dictable. But a good poem or a novel or a story isn’t safely pre­dictable. It can upset your expec­ta­tions and assump­tions. It can ques­tion your prej­u­dices. It can remind you of for­got­ten his­to­ries. It can raise polit­i­cal issues. It can actu­ally start you think­ing about philo­soph­i­cal or reli­gious mat­ters. It can make you begin to won­der if the world that cor­po­rate busi­ness types have cre­ated for us is really the only pos­si­ble one. And once some­thing like that hap­pens on a large scale, busi­ness­men start to sweat. If things get out of hand, they’ll phone their lob­by­ists and their bought congressmen.

So rather than being a fac­ti­tious rev­o­lu­tion­ary, like the marx­isant types in our uni­ver­si­ties with tenure-track posi­tions and high five-figure salaries, why not read—or bet­ter still, write—a truly sub­ver­sive poem? Why not imag­ine some­thing that will really upset and shock con­ven­tional read­ers, and send them scream­ing to their sup­port groups?

Well, maybe you’re not up to it. Per­haps you’re still wor­ried about what the neigh­bors will think, or whether your appli­ca­tion to the coun­try club will be com­pro­mised. In that case stick with your lit­tle Kaf­feeklatsch of work­shop bud­dies, and write heart­felt poems about your rela­tion­ships. After all, it’s just pos­si­ble that toad­y­ing and net­work­ing will make up for your timid­ity. What does Mirabell say in the Con­greve play? ‘Tis the way of the world.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.