The HyperTexts

Eratosphere: The Response to "Erato, Speared"

by Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts

I asked several poets to comment on my poem "Love Has a Southern Flavor," my essay "Erato, Speared" and my banishment from Eratosphere for having the audacity to speak freely on my own website. Here are the responses I've received to date:

"Ah, Mike, I am afraid I must strongly disagree with your detractors. This [poem] is exceptionally charming, in my humble opinion. Perhaps that is the problem!"—Jennifer Reeser, commenting on "Love Has a Southern Flavor"

In a follow-up email, after I asked Jennifer the advice she would give younger poets, Jennifer wrote, "My son and I were just discussing this today. He wants to buy a book of poetry for his girlfriend, for Valentine's Day, something romantic. I told him that, sadly, most of the contemporary poets I know are afraid to be 'unabashedly and enthusiastically romantic,' as you say. But what might appear to be a weakness might actually be your strength. My best advice is 'Consider the source' when it comes to critique, first. Know who your critics are. Anyone can spout on an Internet poetry board, in particular (where, I might add, you also never can be sure of the person's state of mind at the time. I have had major writers under the influence of alcohol and drugs, tell me I had no talent whatsoever!). Also, there is a phenomenon known as 'crabs in a bucket,' with which you are likely familiar, in which whatever raises itself from the level is immediately pulled down. The objection to Dixie, I think, is a prime example. It is one of the things which elevates this poem out of triteness, so not surprising that it would be latched-onto, and pulled down, immediately. Hope this helps."

George Held wrote, "I just finished reading your essay ['Erato, Speared'] and am impressed by your knowledge of poetry in English. Are you a professor? I have nothing to add, because your essay is so comprehensive and offers a strong defense of freedom in practicing the art of poetry. Maybe the issue is less WCW's dictum than your critics' lack of a sense of humor. Your sonnet is ironical and tongue-in-cheek, and perhaps the critics are tone deaf. Perhaps they are also anhedonic. Worst of all, they might not be capable of love. The main reason that some people reject the idea of love and its use in a poem might be their disappointment in love, and the way Valentine's Day (so near) has been commercialized has done love a disservice. But I am a lover in love with my loving wife, so I know what love can feel like. Still, I love (mea culpa) your sonnet even though its closing imagery brings it down to the muck, a healthy acknowledgment of love's mean foundation ('where love has pitched his tent,' as Yeats wrote)."

David Alpaugh wrote: Mike, [I] went back and read "Love Has a Southern Flavor" again with delight and find the reaction of the Eratosphere-ers absurd! Pound said we should "go in FEAR of abstractions" not DROP them. Poetry (with the exception of the purely narrative) MUST have an abstract element. Poetry filters the concrete through the abstract and the abstract through the concrete as you do with LOVE and honeydew and clematis and fireflies, etc. The art is in the way in which concrete and abstract are balanced. Has anyone noticed that "no ideas but in things" is just about as ABSTRACT a statement as possible? Nothing to see, feel, smell, taste, touch there! Without the abstract opening statement "So much depends upon" the Williams wheelbarrow would have gone nowhere. Nothing, in fact, has been more destructive for poetry than the "show don't tell—be concrete" advice. Those who take it seriously end up writing prose.

Karen Kelsay wrote, "I like your poem and some words in the English language are actually meant to be USED. That's what I think."

Michael Ferris wrote, "Very erudite essay, Mike. I’m really sorry it came to all that."

Dr. Joseph S. Salemi said, "Your essay was NOT anywhere near a 'trashing' of the site...it was merely a criticism (couched in non-offensive language) of the aesthetic views of certain members. The idea of you being 'banned for life' as a result of expressing a civil opinion on your own website is shocking."

Russell Bittner in an email compared Eratosphere to Gazebo, which has also experienced problems with uncivil posts (Gazebo's head moderator, Christine Potter, wrote an article titled "Keeping the Poets Civil" for The Writer).

Another poet suggested that the powers-that-be at Spheroidsville (as he amusingly refers to Eratosphere) consider the advice of Robert Frost: "Always give a fellow another chance when he behaves badly, and still another chance after that. Never draw a line beyond which you won't allow a friend or anyone else to go. It is the mark of a small mind to draw the line anywhere." [From page 12 of The Letters of Robert Frost To Louis Untermeyer, first edition, published in Canada by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1963.] The same poet went on to say that my essay

"...seems to describe perfectly the kind of mentality I've seen myself prevailing at that peculiar haunt. Their radically disproportionate, quite ferocious response to what basically was no more than a reporter's speculation as to why certain remarks were made in a conversation suggests to me they are very far indeed from possessing anything like balanced judgment."

"...One thing they surely are is 'triggerhappy,' and perhaps also 'power-crazed.' They seem instantly to slap the largest penalties on anyone insufficiently allegiant to either their modus operandi or their august membership. The disproportionateness of their responses is what's telling, to me at least. Rather like imposing life sentences on first-time disturbers of the peace. One would not like to see them as judges. Everyone would be in jail, for anything at all they might have said or done to displease the autocrats in charge. They would be locked away without a hearing, too. No room for a defense where high-handed judges can decide everything unilaterally. The mentality of Spheroid officialdom is, in a word, totalitarian."

Here's a letter I received from Sally Cook:

Dear Michael,

During the latest dustup you have been both thoughtful and civil both in your questions and your comments. This current cry you now hear for people to be “civil” in their discourse is in truth an attempt to muzzle or otherwise direct speech.

I was involved in the cutting edge of the art world during the time that Wolfe wrote his book “The Painted Word”. This book is an excellent summation of what happened to what used to be called painting. Wolfe reacted to the loss of both beauty and meaning in the arts.

Gradually, this elimination of beauty has spread throughout the culture. Instead of being direct and to the point, Conversational style is now cheap, pointless and superficial. There are so many things we are warned off from discussing; most of these have laws that protect them! Museums are now monuments to architects and museum directors. Even in fashion, all women wear pants as a sort of asexual uniform. Most women’s clothing, like work shirts that have been washed too often, is mis-sized, baggy and comes only in drab and faded colors. Shoes are clunky. Even media role models don’t comb their greasy hair.

Poetry is choking from a lack of a deep breath; art is ugly and demands definition from the viewer. Life is proscribed in all the important ways. Demanding that you be “civil” in such an atmosphere is quite a contradiction.

Your poem “Love Has a Southern Flavor” is lovely, and that’s a good thing. Perhaps the reason some people object so vociferously to the word “love” is that they have never experienced such an emotion, or anything close to it. The inaccurate use of the word “cloying” in reference to this poem is only meant to express the writers’ prejudice against a South of which they know nothing, and is fueled by outdated popular clichés concerning it.

Naturally you have been peremptorily considered “uncivil”. Anyone would be who dares to disagree with a tight group of dictatorial bent.

And your assessment of the more vociferous of the poets at Eratosphere is quite accurate. The more unfortunate of them have locked themselves into politically "correct" little coffins, where they will eventually die as artists; not from anything the rest of us have done to them, but rather from the narrowness of their surroundings and self-embarrassment. Just the fact that they have fearfully and unfairly scrubbed the recent exchange between you and others on this topic speaks volumes. An increasing number of poets are now wise to them.

For the sake of your own poetry you must continue to remain “uncivil” in their eyes. Words have meanings; speech has consequences. Let these continue to be your own.

Sincerely,
Sally Cook

Discussing the merits of the poem itself may be fruitless, since beauty is famously in the eye of the beholder. But it seems to me that something is wrong when a well-written poem with better-than-average meter and imagery is called "Hallmark" verse, "cloying," etc. Here are some comments on the poem by lovers and writers of formal poetry:

"Mike, the elegance of your defense is matched only by the elegance of your poem."—Russell Bittner

"I liked your poem fine just the way it is. I think you ought to send it out and try to get it published somewhere."—Jared Carter

"Your poem 'Love Has a Southern Flavor' is lovely, and that’s a good thing."—Sally Cook

"Thanks for the email and the terrific sonnet."—George Held

"Beautiful!"—Jan Iwaszkiewicz

"I LOVE your poetry...dang, you are good!!!"—Karen Kelsay, commenting on "Love Has a Southern Flavor" with the intention of publishing it.

"I love it. Charmed me out of my socks."—Petr Norr

"This is exceptionally charming, in my humble opinion. Perhaps that is the problem!"—Jennifer Reeser

"This is a truly magnificent poem."—Joe Salemi, upon accepting "Love Has a Southern Flavor" for publication in his literary journal, TRINACRIA

I also discovered that other poets have been "banned for life" from Eratosphere, under circumstances somewhat similar to my own. For instance, Janet Kenny told me that she was also exiled permanently for cracking a small, ironic joke about Eratosphere. A newcomer to the site had asked her the difference between Metrics and the Deep End. Janet replied that Metrics was where poets went for advice about their poems, and the Deep End was where they went for S&M. For speaking ironically and truthfully, she too was banned for life. I subsequently did an in-depth interview with Janet in which she praised many of the poets she met on Eratosphere, and spoke frankly about some of the problems she encountered there. The hyperlinked interview page also has comments made by other poets, many of them current or former members of Eratosphere.

The HyperTexts