Freak-Scene Poetry

I often get letters and e-mails from aspiring poets who ask me for general advice, or more frequently for my opinion concerning specific poems that they send. Answering these inquiries can be onerous at times, but I try to give a reply to everyone and at the same time be at least somewhat encouraging.

A few weeks back I received a communication out of the blue from a poet upstate. It included an idiosyncratic and somewhat surreal sonnet, and he asked for my commentary on it. I did what I could to make some intelligent remarks on the poem’s structure and metrics, but I followed that up with these words:

However, apart from formal matters, your sonnet seems (to me, at least) to suffer from the major fault of all surrealism from Tzara and Breton
right up to Dali… it isn’t part of the world of shared discourse, and therefore—like an anomalous experiment in a laboratory that can’t be
repeated by other scientists—it doesn’t register a lasting effect on the reader’s mind or consciousness. People will ask “What does that mean?” or “What is that about?” and there isn’t any available answer for them.

As in all surrealism, the connections in the poem are purely random, arbitrary, and aleatory… I know that the Surrealists said that this was what they wanted: an art that explodes expectations and forces one to think outside the box of assumptions and stereotypes. But the plain fact is that poetry is an art of discourse, and what the medievals called “ratio” or sequential thought. It isn’t an art of unconnectedness.

The poet then sent me another poem in pretty much the same semi-surreal style, filled with all sorts of ironic and campy pop-cultural references. Part of my answer was as follows:

Well, let’s just say that it is simply not my sort of poem, or my cup of tea, as they used to say.

The overall objection that I would have is that the poem makes use of various icons of popular culture, but it’s hard to see what general point is being made by alluding to them. Because all this stuff is so disparate, I can’t get a grip on what is being said or argued or presented.

It seems to me that you’re trying to make a statement by not coming out and making a statement. That is extremely typical of modernist poetry, and one of the reasons why we have to force students to read it.

The poet wrote back defending his work, arguing that he wanted ambiguity in the poem, and that it was undergraduates who tended to prefer the straightforward and the unambiguous. He also asserted that the mixing of high and low cultural elements was something that Shakespeare did. I replied:

Shakespeare only mixes “high” and “low” in his plays, which he did not intend for anyone to take as serious literature. In his sonnets and narrative poems, he does not do this at all.

As for ambiguity, undergraduates don’t like it because most clear-thinking people don’t like it. Only in the upper echelons of literary pretension does ambiguity have a value for its own sake.

You seem to think that the purpose of a poem is to express some sort of “message” or “idea.” It’s not. Not at all. The purpose of a poem is to be a work of art that demonstrates the aesthetic skills of its maker. If you want to send a damned message, call Western Union, as Louis B. Mayer used to say.

My correspondent then jumped on this as a contradiction of what I had written in my previous e-mails. How could I complain that a surrealist poem did not participate in logical discourse, and then turn around and say that it was not the task of a poem to send a message? Here are his words:

You refer to science as some kind of standard that trumps aesthetics. Later, you add that a poem shouldn’t have a message of any kind in it, but that it should be “aesthetic,” and that we readers are meant to be amazed at the aesthetic magic of the poem irrespective of any kind of discourse.

My final e-mail to him said the following:

I don’t believe that science trumps aesthetics. Not at all. But I also don’t believe that aesthetics can be separated from intelligibility and the criteria of rational discourse. The reader has to be able to understand, in some logical way, what is being said in the poem.

But that doesn’t mean that the poet should be pushing some sort of “message.” The poem ought not to be didactic or hectoring, as if the poet were a sort of ad-man or missionary or Jehovah’s Witness trying to sell you something. Of course a poem “says something,” in the sense that it is part of the give-and-take of human discourse. But that doesn’t make it like an advertising poster or a political pamphlet or a sermon from a pulpit. A poem just makes an observation or comment in the course of expressing itself, because that’s what human language is supposed to do.

The English poet and critic Don Paterson once said “A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself.” And he was quite correct. That’s all it is. It’s a perfect confection of language that has no purpose other than to be a jewel-like expression of literary creativity. Does it “say” something? Sure—just as if you and I were taking a walk, and I were to say this sentence to you: “The sun is really warm today.” There’s no message there; I’m simply commenting or opining in a rational way that you can understand. But if I were to say this sentence to you: “The sun wild on the horizon flash pan Venus frigidaire sixteen,” it wouldn’t mean a goddamned thing, because it wouldn’t be a part of the world of human discourse.

I want a poem that works like the first sentence. I don’t see the point of a poem that works like the second sentence. I hope this explains my position.

Well, we mutually decided at this point that we had nothing more that we could fruitfully discuss, so we ended our correspondence. But this little exchange got me thinking about what is essentially wrong with the entire modern approach to poetic composition. The problem involves a mishmash of absurd ideas that have been temporarily emulsified like salad dressing, but which eventually must separate out into immiscible elements. They are:

  1. Poetry can be uncoupled from propositional statement and sequential thought, so as to be wildly surreal and impressionistic.
  2. Being “ambiguous” is always better than being straightforward.
  3. Poems have to have a “message” for the reader.
  4. Poems should always make use of trivial and ephemeral pop-cultural references to attract a contemporary audience.
  5. Poetry should not be constricted by the straitjacket of formal or metrical requirements.

As most readers know by now, I consider every one of the above notions to be mistaken, besides being inherently contradictory. And putting all these bizarre notions together will produce exactly the kind of irritating modern McPoem that infuriates an intelligent potential reader. The basic train of thought in the McPoet’s mind goes something like this: “I’ll indulge myself by being surreal and freaky (this shows my creative energy!) but at the same time I’ll reach out to a contemporary audience (this shows that I’m relevant!) and I’ll also have some sort of positive message (this shows that I’m progressive!)” The result is usually the maddeningly solipsistic posturing that one has come to expect and loathe. Here’s an example from a different correspondent:

Hey man, I watched the Simpsons, and
I couldn’t get my head in place—
Homer’s a freak. You know how weird
eclipses can be… Holy Cow! Wild
and crazy aborigines.
But why, guy? Dontcha see
It’s all one big plot—big business, government,
the military-industrial complex.
Homer freaks out. The indigenous people
lose their lands and wow,
we gotta DO something.

Is that the kind of freak-scene poem you like and want? If so, be happy. But stay the hell away from me.

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.