Politics Again, Alas…

Archibald MacLeish famously wrote that a poem does not have to mean, but simply be.  He was writing in the backwash of the modernist revolution, and his point can be understood within the context of the imagist rejection of an older poetry of overly discursive statement and argumentation.  The ponderous banalities of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the long-winded political puerilities of Shelley, and the near-universal nineteenth-century notion that a poem’s idea-structure could be easily paraphrased and judged, are what MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” protests against.

Nevertheless, formal poetry still depends on lucid and ascertainable meaning.  We expect it to have linguistic coherence and discursive rationality, even if it has a complexity that demands more than a cursory reading.  You have the right to find at least some sequential meaning in a formal poem, even if you don’t find a trace of it in current issues of Poetry.

One condition of discursive statement is that it cannot function without affirmation or denial, i.e. propositions.  And whether you like it or not, such propositions are ultimately political.  I don’t mean that every coherent poem takes a political position, but rather that the willingness to pass judgment and to say Such and such is true, and such and such is false is rooted in self-awareness, self-confidence, and a healthy contempt for the opposite viewpoint.  It is an assertion of one’s independence and power. Politics is ultimately about power, but no power—whether political or poetical—has ever been operative where its practitioners weren’t able to say This is so, and that isn’t so, and that’s final. 

I bring all of this up because lately I have been annoyed by complaints from some poets that TRINACRIA is “too political”—by which they mean, of course, that the magazine is political in ways that they find uncomfortable.  How about a little more candor, guys?  Why not come out and say that it’s too reactionary, right-wing, and conservative for your refined sensibilities?

Let’s be straight up here—formal poetry is largely discursive, sequential, propositional, and coherent.  It says something.  And when that happens, judgments are necessarily made and put down on paper.  If you object to the occasional political slant of TRINACRIA, you are objecting to the judgments of other people, and urging that they be suppressed in favor of different judgments, or of a milksop blandness devoid of clear statement.  And beware—if in reply you start gassing on about nuance and subtlety and ambiguity and creative uncertainty, you will put me in an ill humor indeed.  Consciously cultivated nuance and ambiguity are the last refuge of the aesthetic fence-sitter and wimp.

TRINACRIA is not a political journal, though it sometimes publishes poems of a recognizable political tenor.  Every magazine reflects the mindset and biases of its editor, and TRINACRIA reflects mine.  How nice it would be if the editors of leftish-progressive journals acknowledged the same about themselves, instead of posturing as “fair” and “open-minded” and “balanced.”  But it seems that such editors are congenitally incapable of perceiving themselves as anything other than paragons of high-minded, non-partisan rectitude.  Liberals, leftists, and progressives of every stripe are about as non-partisan as Lenin, but they are psychologically unable to admit the fact.

Much of this disinclination is due to the deep need of left-liberals to fantasize about being “the vital center,” in Arthur Schlesinger’s fatuous formulation.  All progressives imagine their sentiment-soaked pieties to be the fixed point in a turning world, and themselves the guardians of sanity and decency.  This is really just an unconscious cover for their intense power-lust, their craving to dictate proper patterns of behavior and thought to everyone around them who isn’t a Good Little Progressive.  If you are a member of the small elite at “the vital center,” you feel that you have a prescriptive right to rule the planet.

For years I have watched how this tendency manifests itself in the poetry world, where the great majority of practitioners and wannabes are left-liberal twits of various shapes and sizes.  We can consider the phenomenon from two general aspects: that of subject matter, and that of style.

Subject matter is the more obvious of the two, so let’s start there.  Among almost all of the progressivist types, there is the definite sentiment (sometimes unspoken and sometimes explicitly stated) that if your poem doesn’t raise “an important issue” or protest some alleged “injustice” or bring up “a troubling question,” it’s somehow not worth writing or reading.  I’ve encountered this attitude time and again in dealing with po-biz assholes, who seem to think that even a love sonnet ought to present a plan for slum clearance.  This is a kind of up-to-date and trendy High Seriousness, as if Matthew Arnold were reborn as Bernie Sanders.  Such High Seriousness is understood as either political (in support of a left-liberal social agenda), or as psychological (exploring troubled states of mind, especially in “the marginalized”).  Adrienne Rich is the go-to person for this sort of poetry.

With such poets a big thing is made of “voicing concerns” or “provoking discussion,” but it is never a real-world discussion where truly divergent views face each other.  Instead, the poem becomes a kind of soft-focus begging of the question where the poet will emote suggestively, trying to shame the reader into accepting whatever the poet feels is the “decent” or “responsible” point of view.  The whole procedure is profoundly patronizing, sort of like when your maiden aunt gives you a disappointed and sullen look for not behaving decorously.

That’s what’s behind this type of rhetorically underhanded poetry—the poet wants the world to think and behave properly, as all Good Little Progressives do, and if for some reason the world won’t accommodate that desire, he will pout and frown and tsk-tsk the world until it is shamed into acquiescence.

Of course, if anybody has the audacious temerity to write a poem whose subject matter or argument is contrary to an orthodox left-liberal viewpoint, well… this is lèse majesté of the most horrendous sort.  To progressives, a poem’s tone and spirit (or as Robert Darling once inanely termed it, “the ethics of a poem”) are of paramount importance.  A poem with the wrong tone or spirit or “ethics” must be execrated, attacked, or studiously ignored.  Much of the hate mail that TRINACRIA receives comes from persons whose outrage and fury are palpable on their stationery, and which almost always boil down to something like this: “How DARE you publish a morally offensive sentiment of that taboo nature?”

Well, I always thought a very important function of poetry was to be “daring.”  I thought we were supposed to be “transgressive.”  I thought we were supposed to “stir up controversy” and “question basic assumptions.”  At least that’s what the left-liberal progressive types have been yakking at us for over a century now.  But it’s very clear that none of this applies to political or social viewpoints that run contrary to those of left-liberal piety.  You’re only allowed to be transgressive if you’re a progressive.

That, in a nutshell, is what makes so much modern poetry maddeningly tedious and presumptuous.  It has designs upon you.  It wants you to listen and commiserate with its plangency about the sad state of the cosmos.  It is whiny and “all butt-hurt,” as undergraduates picturesquely phrase it.  It is pathetically oversensitive and “caring.” It lacks the robust, shit-kicking energy of a poetry that doesn’t give a flying fuck about saving the planet, or being anything other than well-deployed and meticulous language.

And this leads us into the consideration of style.  As a consequence of its oversensitivity, much poetry today is restrained to the point of strangulation.  It imposes on itself the worst kind of stylistic self-censorship.  As an editor of long standing, I can attest to the ubiquity of this problem.  Poets who should be firing on all cylinders are “holding back” and not doing their damnedest to write fiercely, pugnaciously, and vividly.  They worry about using too many adjectives.  They are frightened by unusual or obsolescent words.  They wonder if a phrase is “unfair.”  They are not sure if they ought to use an idiomatic expression, or if a correct subjunctive verb might mark them as “elitist.”  They are terrified of “coming across as too strong.”

Poets with such inhibitions are profoundly disabled.  It’s as if they were trying to write poetry with a condom over the nib of their pen.  I try to tell them“You can write whatever the swiving hell you want in poetry!  Nothing is riding on it!  No one can bring to you to book for your verse!  It is a completely unfettered realm of hyper-reality!  Will you just WAKE THE FUCK UP and be free?”

No dice.  They won’t listen.  They are trapped in a world of restriction, taboos, and enforced reticence.  If such a poet says to me “I’m trying very hard to get into The New Yorker, or The Antioch Review,” I realize he’s a hopeless case, and I delete the little schmuck from my address file.  We have too many poets who agonize over audience and cliques and careerist networking.

The near-total collapse of the satiric genre is a sign of this limp-wristed tendency.  Very few poets are willing to give their pens the sort of free rein that satire demands.  I hear about “controlled” satire or “moderate” satire or “friendly” satire” or “responsible” satire. But where is the flagellating, hard-core satire of the past?  Look at the still pungent satire and attack poetry of Archilocus, Lucilius, Catullus, Horace, Persius, Juvenal, and Martial.  Those guys weren’t afraid, and some of them lived under dangerous emperors like Nero and Domitian. How utterly different from the gutlessness of so many modern poets, who are jackrabbit terrified of offending not a murderous tyrant, but their dip-shit friends and colleagues on Facebook!  Could there be a cowardice more pathetic than one that fears being disinvited to a poetry reading?  Or of being whispered about by some coterie at a website?  All cowardice is degrading and contemptible, but what sort of cowardice is so craven as to be motivated by fears this trivial and unimportant?  Mix this pusillanimity with the progressivist belief that one’s subject matter ought to be serious and uplifting and ethical, and you get the mawkish pabulum of too much contemporary verse.

So, to get back to those surreptitiously political complaints about TRINACRIA, and the polite little smoke signals about “sweet reason and temperance” being wafted in my direction: forget about it.  I will not disembowel the subject matter or the style of my magazine to make it more acceptable to a smarmy po-biz world where anti-liberal judgments are forbidden, and where verbal expression is denatured and gelded so as to not offend anyone.  Why the hell should I?




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.