A Major Problem

by Joseph S. Salemi

American pragmatism insists that words are for use, not enjoyment; American puritanism insists that expression is a duty, not a pleasure.

—Richard A. Lanham

Everyone knows that poems work on different levels.  Even if you just believe that a poem implies or suggests a bit more than it says on the surface, you are acknowledging this fact.  Only the simplest and most elemental poem (perhaps a nursery rhyme) contains nothing other than its overtly expressed statement.  Consider:

Mary had a little lamb—
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

We would rightly dismiss anyone who tried to find a deep and hidden meaning in that as a silly obscurantist—though an arrant fraud like Jacques Derrida might try to convince us that there lurks a profound sociopolitical critique in the four lines.

However, in poems that go beyond this simple level there’s always the possibility—even the probability—of a wider meaning.  It’s natural in ordinary speech, where we are constantly aware of the context of a statement and its implications.  Suggestions, hints, innuendo, and unspoken specters haunt every conversation, so why shouldn’t we expect the same in the highly formalized and ritualized thing known as a poem? 

For this reason, poets and scholars have for centuries tried to explain the various levels on which a poem might function.  In his famous letter of 1321 to Can Grande della Scala explaining his procedure in the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri outlined the basic “senses” in which any text could be understood.  They are the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.  This division was not unique to Dante, but a common medieval notion.  In fact, a four-line Latin mnemonic device was employed to express it succinctly:

Littera gesta docet,
Quod credas allegorica;
Moralia quod agas,
Quo tendas anagogica.

Roughly translated, this means “The literal sense tells you what occurred, the allegorical sense what you should believe; the moral sense what you should do, and the anagogical sense where you should be heading.”  The distinction between the last three is not always sharp, and Dante himself said to Can Grande that they could all just be lumped under the rubric of allegory.

These four divisions, in medieval times, were found to be useful when explicating certain Biblical texts.  Let’s say you were reading the story of Noah’s ark in Genesis.  For a medieval reader, the story would have four levels of meaning.  In the literal sense, the text told you a historical truth: Noah at God’s command built an ark to save himself and his family from the flood.  In the allegorical sense, the ark symbolized the Church and its teaching, in which one had to be a member and a believer, since outside of it there was no salvation.  In the moral sense, the story of the ark enjoined proper behavior: Noah had to be a just and upright man who followed God’s dictates in order to be saved.  And finally the anagogical sense (from the Greek anagoge—a “leading up”) taught you that your ultimate goals in life were reconciliation with God, avoidance of spiritual destruction, and arrival at a final place of safety called heaven.  It’s all very precise: Noah is the just man; the ark is the Church; the flood is God’s wrath against sinners; and Mount Ararat is paradise.  To the medieval reader, the story of Noah’s ark was a perfectly encapsulated mini-symbol of the entire economy of salvation.

Dante had no trouble believing in the historical (i.e. literal) reality of Noah’s ark.  He took the “literal sense” of the story to be true.  Indeed, for Dante all the other interpretative senses implicitly depend on the story’s factuality, and assume it as a given.  But what happens when we can no longer accept the account as anything other than a myth?  It’s clear today that the tale of Noah is merely a late Hebrew reworking of an earlier Babylonian flood story as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

This is a perennial question in our approach to literary texts.  Sophisticated readers know very well that the great majority of literary writings are simply false when it comes to Dante’s “literal sense.”  To put it pejoratively, they are lies.  Indeed, this is why certain religious groups have a deep and abiding distrust of fictive literature.  Edmund Gosse’s parents, who were members of an extremely narrow Low-Church Protestant sect, would allow neither poems nor novels in the house.  Gosse’s subsequent career as a literary critic, in their eyes, was as morally repugnant as if their daughter had become a harlot.

In the case of men of great literary talent who come out of the Low-Church Protestant tradition, like Milton or Blake, this is a nagging problem.  Milton could solve it by producing a massive synthesis of religious “truth” and pyrotechnical literary expressiveness called Paradise Lost; while Blake could do the same by rejecting the Old Testament altogether and inventing his own mythology.  But it is only a problem at all for those who assume that the literal sense of a text is somehow more important or respectable than the oblique senses that Dante termed “allegorical” or “figurative.”  This poisonous assumption still infects American thinking, which remains doggedly Low-Church Protestant.

For this reason, a serious study of poetry has to be divorced from both religion and morality.  If we can banish from people’s minds the crypto-devotional notion that poetry is supposed to “teach” them something, or be “good” for them, or “support something positive,” or “make a better world,” then we can clear the decks for poetry’s real task: to delight via figurative imaginings.  We can keep the allegory while dumping the inconvenient obstacle called literal truth. 

I find it strange that many people can’t accept this in poetry, even though they have no trouble doing it in regard to scriptural myth.  Apart from a few Bible-thumpers in the boondocks, religious believers realize that the story of Noah’s ark is fictional, while still accepting the larger truths that the story tells on the allegorical level.  Well, if it can be done in regard to scripture, it can also be applied to our reading of poems.  We can totally disregard them as statements of fact, and read them solely as figurative discourse.

Now this doesn’t mean that poems can’t be religious.  Anyone familiar with my work  knows that I have a penchant for writing poems on religious or mystical subjects.  And it doesn’t mean that poems are forbidden to “say” anything—after all, if they are composed with coherent sentence structure they will make some sort of propositional sense.  What it means is that the raison d’etre of a poem is not its subject matter. 

This is a hard sell to a lot of people, especially Americans.  They have a strong disinclination to accept the fact that the subject matter of a poem is merely one more element in the poem’s rhetorical structure, and nothing more.  Subject matter has exactly the same weight as the meter, the diction, the rhyme scheme, the tropes and figures, and the punctuation.  It isn’t “privileged” over these elements.  It doesn’t take a prior position.  It enjoys no prestige that the other elements lack.  It’s just one brick in the wall.  As Richard Lanham says, American pragmatism and puritanism gag on this idea. 

Who objects to this truth?  Here again, we find ourselves talking about religion.  As I have argued in many essays, religious persons are not just those pious folk who go to church and temple.  You are religious when you are in the grip of some consuming conviction or judgmental mindset that colors your entire approach to the world.  You can be an atheist or agnostic and still be as thunderously moralistic as any televangelist whooper.

It’s this sort of person—and believe me, by this definition a huge number of practicing poets are devoutly religious—who cannot accept the equal status of subject matter and all the other structural elements in a poem.  They fight against the idea.  It troubles them.  It leaves them uncomfortable.  They are so in love with their religion that they can’t conceive of doing anything (including poetic composition) that doesn’t comport with their belief-system and the task of proselytizing on its behalf.  Perfect examples of this are those lesbian poets who can only write poems that deal with or defend their lesbianism; or those leftist poets who must allude to their sociopolitical views in every poem that they write.  This is pure fundamentalist religion, no different from howling out hallelujahs in the Bible Belt.  American Puritanism is as alive and kicking in these types as it was in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1640.

If we accept that a poem is a beautiful fictive artifact, or what Don Paterson calls “just a little machine for remembering itself,” we are liberated from the shackles of this dreary fundamentalism.  Poems aren’t obliged to teach us or tell us anything.  Or if they do so, it happens as an afterthought to their literary perfection.  I like to compare good poems to a collection of magnificent eighteenth-century snuffboxes that I once saw in France.  They were unbelievably lovely things in gold, silver, amber, ivory, multicolored enamels, and rare woods.  They were objects of pure daedal creativity, showing all the ebullience of Versailles and Fragonard and Boucher.  They were Mozart in the shape of little boxes, each one an exquisite instance of painstaking craftsmanship.  Well, needless to say, they don’t hold snuff anymore and no one expects them to do so.  Does that mean we should throw them out?

American pragmatism would say yes.  American puritanism would say absolutely.  And when it comes to appreciating poetry, that attitude constitutes a major problem.


About Joseph S. Salemi

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.