The HyperTexts

Janet Kenny answers Dr. Joseph S. Salemi: "Steam is whistling out every orifice."

I came to 'serious' poetry via other art forms and I was and am still shocked by the idea that innovation is the same thing as a lack of boundaries. Just as a first rate tennis player can cut an original and frightening figure on a traditional tennis court (no Auden reference intended), so can a truly gifted poet smash all our preconceptions within iambic pentameter. And outside it as well. It comes down to the poet and what the poet can do.

Joseph Salemi said: “As for those children being moved by performances of Shakespeare's plays—what in fact is moving them? It's not Elizabethan poetry, or early modern English, or the manifold allusions to classical myth. What's moving them is the mere fact of performance itself: the strange costumes, the action on stage, the rough-and-tumble of fighting and swordplay, and a day off from school. Don't mistake Joseph Papp razzle-dazzle for a real appreciation of Shakespeare. I've taken many classes of students to see Shakespeare, and what they get out of it is merely the enjoyment of surface phenomena of that sort.”

I know that when I was a child I went in a school party to see the Stratford Shakespeare Memorial Theatre players perform 'Othello' and 'As You Like It' and was enchanted by every level of the experience, including the words. They were fine performances with fine actors. Bad performances with patronising directors will fail for children just as they fail for adults.

When I was seventeen I played the role of Beatrice in 'Much Ado About Nothing'. I hadn't read the play before I took on that role. I loved it and I believe that I understood it with all of its humour.

I will add immodestly that I went on to have a career in international musical theatre (opera) in international casts. I do speak from some experience. I started this journey from an unmusical home in a small New Zealand town. Children are receptive creatures.

I am going to sound like a real know-it-all because I probably am one. My husband has exhibited twice in the Paris Biennale and was an art critic for some years and I have spent a goodish bit of time in the galleries of Europe. I have friends who are professional painters and picture restorers and they would all dismiss Joseph Salemi's comments about painting. The remarks about music are just as offensive as well as racist.

Joseph Salemi said: “Music is not a good example to choose, since music (as Schopenhauer pointed out) is specifically directed to the will and to instinctual urges. Savages can be 'moved' by drumbeats and rhythmic cries. But traditional formal poetry is a linguistic art, and therefore it demands a certain rationality and verbal awareness and associative memory.”

I am neither impressed nor intimidated by the words attributed to Schopenhauer.  Uninformed generalisations were common among European “intellectuals” who failed to understand the subtleties and complexities of African, Melanesian or Polynesian music. Indian music would have filled Bach with awe, had he heard it.

I remember being shocked by a reported remark made during a tour of Australia in 1904 by the Polish national hero Paderewski. He spoke similarly of African music and jazz.  He was the polite European edge of the racism which appeared in its worst form during the second world war. Plenty of European musicians were more perceptive and their music was enriched by their understanding. Paderewski foolishly tried to prove that anyone could have written Mozart and composed a tawdry little minuet as “evidence”. Indeed it was evidence that he failed to hear the dark undertones of Mozart and was a narrowly imperceptive musician.

I will further add that someone who fails to respond to 'Hamlet' will be equally likely to miss the point of 'Waiting For Godot'.

A musician who misses the point of Mozart won't find much in Schoenberg.

A poet who fails to respond to Dante in Italian (if they know that language) will not have the capacity to enter the different measure of T.S. Eliot.

Empathy and imagination enable us to apprehend many flavours and colours.

Knowledge can actually damage receptivity if it is valued above empathy. An executant must know how to make something but many creators don't want the viewer or listener to bother about technicalities. Form is comprehended physically and emotionally and later analysed intellectually if that is the desire of the individual. But Beethoven's last string quartets, Turner's most abstract paintings, and Shakespeare's sonnets are great because the form creates a human experience. Dissection is not an essential aspect of that experience. I've met a good few serious artists of one sort or another and I'm pretty sure they would agree with that.

And in answer to Joseph Salemi’s own proud description of himself, I have spent a goodish part of my life responding to "right-wing conservative Roman Catholic white males".

Janet Kenny

The HyperTexts