Crypto-Religion In Poetry

After the posting of my essay “Screw The Moralists” some weeks back, a flurry of indignant letters and e-mails came in. Their general tenor was one of shocked outrage. The main objection seemed to be that I had heinously and unforgivably linked the sacred art of poetry with assassination and other criminal acts, thereby polluting the holy labors of Mount Helicon with what the KGB and the CIA do in their more lawless moments.

The people who sent those messages have real problems in reading comprehension. I used “black ops” and “wet-work” as a metaphor in that essay. A metaphor. You know what that means, guys? It’s a figurative usage, a turn of expression, a way to indicate a similarity or parallel structure by means of a verbal twist. If you didn’t understand that, I advise you to give up literature and get a Chrysler dealership.

Let’s see if we can restate the argument in baby-simple terms that can be grasped by community-college graduates. Poetry is not real. It is a fictive enterprise. You are allowed to make up anything you like when writing a poem, and you can use whatever method you prefer to do it. It’s like building a sand castle on the beach. You can construct as many walls and towers and crenellated battlements as you please, and no one has the right to question your choices. Is that clear?

Now maybe some people won’t like the look of your sand castle. Well, tant pis, as the French say. And maybe your castle will be so ineptly constructed that it will collapse quickly. Again, that’s purely your own fault. But no one has the right to tell you what you can or cannot do in your sand castle building, and more pertinently, no one can insist that what you build has to be in accord with some pre-existing moral standard. If he tries to do so, smack him in the face with your sand shovel. Hard.

The same goes for poetry. It is subject to no ethical laws, and only intrusive, meddling kibitzers think that it is. I never cease to be amazed at how many soi-disant critics approach poems as if they were actions rather than speech products. When Bill Carlson and I ran Iambs & Trochees, a few self-important idiots would write to us complaining about our inclusion of poems that they deemed “immoral” or “politically unacceptable.” You can imagine the kind of tart answer these jerks got from the very tough-talking Bill Carlson.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this Sunday-School approach to poetry were taken by evangelical fundamentalists, or parole officers, or overzealous priests and rabbis. But literary critics? Where the hell do they get off saying that one particular brand of morals or politics in a poet is privileged over any other? If Browning wants to attack the Corn Laws, or Henley wants to praise the gallows, or Neruda wants to pen odes to Stalin, or Pound wants to lionize Il Duce, or Berryman wants to mourn Adlai Stevenson, or Baraka wants to blame the Israelis for 9/11, that’s their business. The only job of the literary critic is to see if the work is done well or ill.

The issue, however, is not really politics. It is religion. Practical politicians know full well that the range of human opinion is as wide as the range of competing human interests, and they take that into account when governing. But religious persons are dangerously deficient in that perception. They are frequently blinded by the intensity of their own convictions. And when I say “religious persons,” don’t comfort yourself with the thought that I’m only referring to devout churchgoers or Islamic jihadists. A vast array of atheists, agnostics, and secularists are fanatically religious about their political and ethical commitments. They are just as thunderously condemnatory of what they consider “transgressions” as any Bible-thumper from the Ozarks. I could name a dozen people in the poetry world who haven’t been inside a church or a temple in decades, but who are as self-righteously indignant as Billy Sunday when anyone questions their viewpoints. That’s simon-pure religion.

A lot of moderns don’t understand this, since in a secularized, materialistic age it seems that religion is waning. But that is not the case at all. What is really happening—in the West, at least—is that overt religions are being supplanted by various crypto-religions. Let me explain.

Socialism and liberalism are religions. Neoconservatism is a religion. Environmentalism is a religion. Marxism is (or was) a religion. Feminism, self-help psychobabble, veganism, and animal-rights activism are religions. All sorts of irrational, faith-based ideologies are religions that are contingent on the arbitrary personal choices of their devotees. Just because they don’t have tax-exempt status doesn’t mean that they are any less credal or catechism-ruled than traditional sects. One of the biggest and most ferociously defended lies of our time is the notion that these secular worldviews are rationally provable in a universal sense, like the rules of geometry or chemistry. Their several adherents will become as violent as ayatollahs if you dare to suggest otherwise. And since a great many poets and critics are devout believers in one or more of these ersatz religions, they get irrationally upset if anyone publicly deflates or ridicules their convictions, and the moral strictures that rest upon them. Question a feminist’s feminism, or a liberal’s liberalism, and you’ll find out very quickly what I mean.

Poetry is a realm of pure freedom, totally divorced from any of this religious claptrap. It isn’t interested in sending messages, or proselytizing, or policing behavior. So I’ll say it again: Screw the moralists. Poets have far more important things to do than worry about someone else’s scruples.





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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.