The HyperTexts

The Totems of Poetry
by Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics, Hunter College, CUNY

When I was a young and inexperienced teacher, I was advised by some older colleagues to have an “open classroom.” They told me that students learn best in an environment of freedom and unfettered self-expression, and that my task as a teacher was to “facilitate the exchange of ideas,” and to allow for “collaborative interaction,” and to be “non-judgmental” about issues of content, mastery, and individual student performance. This was the early 1970s, and that kind of blather was in the air.

Needless to say, all of it was complete buncombe, as Mencken might have put it. When I foolishly attempted to implement the above-mentioned jargon, my classroom became a disaster area of uncertainty, resentment, and utter failure. Students goofed off or were demoralized, and I hadn’t the slightest idea of what the class was supposed to accomplish, much less how I was to evaluate student work. You’ve heard of the Lost Weekend? Well, that was the Lost Semester.

The following year I decided to follow my own judgment exclusively. I knew that the military gets things done, so I ran the class like a Marine platoon. Requirements were rigorously spelled out, and the syllabus was adhered to religiously. I gave straight lectures, stopping only for the occasional question. I advised students to take copious notes, which they did. I didn’t allow a nanosecond of time to be wasted on pointless chitchat or opining. I taught directly to a final exam that I had prepared well in advance, and which was keyed to the objective mastery of material.

It worked like a charm. A few inherently ditz-brained and freaky students dropped out almost immediately, but the rest stayed, and almost everyone got an A or B grade. But what really surprised me was what happened the following semester. My new class was packed to the rafters, and I was constantly importuned for overtally permission by students who couldn’t register in my closed section. I believe I taught two classes for the price of one that next semester. And I earned an instant reputation as a serious teacher who got things done in a no-nonsense manner.

My colleagues congratulated me—albeit somewhat grudgingly—on my popularity. I timorously asked them why they had given me that wrongheaded advice about an open classroom, and all the other garbage. They hemmed and hawed, and looked quizzical. The general consensus seemed to be this: “Well, that’s the way it’s done. We had to tell you that.”

I was shocked. I said “Tell me what? Something that is palpably untrue?” “No, no,” they answered. “It’s theoretically true. But it doesn’t necessarily apply to one’s work in the classroom.”
There you have it, folks: the tyranny of asinine theories. People feel that there’s a moral righteousness in trumpeting certain privileged notions, even when the notions lack empirical validity. Most people know that the theories are stupid and inapplicable to our actual work and lives, but they are loyal to them nonetheless. It’s similar to promoting a literalist reading of Genesis long after you’ve been privately convinced by Darwinian arguments.

What causes people to do this? Why are so many persons loyal to theoretical idiocies? The eminent anthropologist Robin Fox, in his essay “The Passionate Mind,” makes the point that long-term memory, processed through our limbic system, has “a heavy loading of emotion and that a disturbance of the conceptual system so set up will cause a strong emotional reaction.” This means that people viscerally react a lot more frequently than they coolly think, and even their most abstract reasoning is colored by affect. We are loyal to our internalized totems before anything else.

This would explain intense feelings like patriotism, clan loyalty, religious fanaticism, the mystique of violence, ethnocentrism, and a dozen other phenomena as inescapable facets of the human condition. And lest you congratulate yourself, reader, it also accounts for blind faith in reason, the notion of universal brotherhood, committed pacifism, the urge for utopia, the fixation on human rights, and a whole bunch of other niceties that liberals get wet in the crotch for. These are totems as well, passionately believed in rather than rationally accepted.

What are some of the theoretical totems of the poetry world? We’re loaded with them. There are lots of idiotic notions that poets feel compelled to defend, even though they disregard them in practice. Let’s look at ten of the most common. Each one is followed by an appropriate deflation.

1. It’s the task of poets to express what they truly think and feel. That is not the case at all. They’re supposed to lie through their teeth, if necessary, to create a good aesthetic effect.

2. Poetry ennobles and heightens human consciousness. This is like believing that having a college degree makes you a better person, or that learning French will improve your moral stature.

3.Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. This canard was dreamt up by Shelley, a poet with a frustrated power-complex. The very thought of poets having actual political power is as horrifying as Jurassic Park.

4.The language of poetry ought to be precisely the same idiom as that used in everyday life. This is so blatant a lie that it’s hard to believe anyone utters it with a straight face. The whole point of poetry is to say something arresting and memorable.

5.Creativity breaks rules and transgresses boundaries. No it doesn’t. Creativity puts itself to school, learning everything it can, and then manifests itself as one more facet of the great tradition.

6.Poetry teaches us great lessons. Poetry doesn’t teach us a damn thing. It is what it is, and that’s all.

7.If you are going to be a good poet, you must write about things that you personally know. Good poets write well, period. What they write about is utterly their own choice. Shakespeare didn’t write a single thing about his life in Stratford.

8.Poets see more deeply into reality than the rest of us. Not at all. They see exactly what everyone sees. Poets are simply more skilled in expressing themselves.

9.Good poets are always on the side of the angels. All I have to mention are three names: Ezra Pound, Pablo Neruda, and Amiri Baraka.

10.Poetry should provide inspiration, uplift, and positive values. Yeah, and we should all be kind to children and dumb animals. Poetry doesn’t have to do anything except be excellent.

As I said, serious practicing poets don’t pay any attention to these pious fabrications, except when they are questioned publicly about their work. Then some or all of these totems are trotted out, and we get another heartfelt little homily on The Urgent Importance Of Poetic Endeavor. It’s laughable.
I might be persuaded to accept this con-game as an advertising ploy, a noble lie told to the uninitiated to keep our cash flow steady. But since poetry as a craft is notoriously unprofitable, what’s the point in maintaining this mythic structure? Just whom do we have to kid?
The answer is simple. Many of us feel the need to kid ourselves. Poets, like all people, “become upset when their established category systems are disturbed” (Robin Fox again). The need to believe in something, no matter how absurd and irrelevant, is why poets religiously foster their totemic notions about the ennobling and liberating force of poetry. The gap between what poets say, and what poets actually do, is now very wide. Just read some of the vacuous pronouncements of our last few Poet Laureates.
The situation is exacerbated when poets make all or part of their living by running workshops and seminars, or by teaching in college English departments. Conformism and orthodoxy are highly prized in such settings, and totemic loyalties are strongly reinforced. Why endanger one’s paycheck or position by telling the truth? Poets are just as venal as the rest of the planet.
If you think I’m wrong about all this, I invite you to make the following experiment. The next time a poet tries to palm off one of the above-mentioned ten totems on you, ask him pointedly if he actually believes it himself. Keep prodding him on it. And watch his anger and discomfort level rise. That’s a sure sign that the limbic system has kicked in.

Joseph S. Salemi
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The HyperTexts