Method in Madness

There is also a third kind of madness, which is a possession
of the Muses; this enters into a delicate and virgin soul, and
there inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric and all other numbers…
But he who, not being inspired and having no touch of madness
in his soul, comes to the door and thinks that he will get into
the temple by the help of art—he, I say, and his poetry are not
admitted; the sane man is nowhere at all when he enters into
rivalry with the madman.

—Plato, Phaedrus 245a passim
(Benjamin Jowett translation)

Yes, poetry is mantic—it wells up
Like laughter, indignation, prophecy,
A sudden sense of shame, remembered grief,
The flash of intuition, or the stab
Of overwhelming fear. Such unforeseen
Epiphanies all serve the poet’s craft.
Merely to count ta-tum, ta-tum, ta-tum,
And fill in spaces with convenient words
Never made verse. Whoever said they did?
The plodding, dullard rhymester was the butt
Of satire even back in ancient days—
Limping and pedestrian, his lines
Like steel-shod donkeys pulling at a cart
Move in a worn and rutted earthbound sphere.

The backdrop Plato had (and did not see)
Was Grecian order. Everywhere he turned
A sure Hellenic hand and eye arranged
All things in an immaculate proportion.
Living within a world where good
Provided measure to each shape and word,
Where wildest Dionysian frenzy wore
Symmetry’s garments, and Pythagoras
Dreamt of the golden number’s chaste restraint,
Made for a different mindset. Plato breathed
A circumambient balance and control.
Even Achaian fury, Trojan groans
(Split by a neat caesura) artfully
Bridled their violence inside Homer’s line.
The humblest potters had the skill to make
Quotidian perfection from wet clay.
This meant that craft was common, unobserved,
Accepted as a given by all ranks.

Plato could not foresee a world like ours
Without a sense of order’s comeliness,
Where blatantly perverse and ugly work
Has its defenders, and indeed a troop
Of passionate, admiring claqueurs.
He could not know that Muse-sent inspiration
Would now go traipsing in a new disguise:
The bogus posturing of “the authentic,”
Speaking from soul to soul and gut to gut,
Visceral spew that spills itself profusely
Over the page in lachrymosal whine.

Such counterfeits as these ape holy madness
And arrogate her prestige to new ends:
Faddist pretension, therapeutic venting,
A trendy lust for avant garde cachet,
Propagandist rants, sordid confessions,
Or simple narcissistic self-conceit.
“It’s genuine—it’s what I really feel”
Is now the final argument and plea
Of every half-baked, talentless buffoon
Who calls himself a poet and inflicts
His heartfelt gushing on a helpless world.

Today, the most precious of poetic gifts
Are sanity and skill—we are awash
In madness and its unconstricted flights.
A reborn Plato, speaking now, would say:
Avoid the mindless, dithyrambic howl;
Cleave to Apollo’s lucid, well-wrought line.

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.