Jeff Holt's response to Joe Salemi
Given the invitation to reply to Joe Salemi, I have a few points to make. The
first is the most minor, but still relevant. I find it odd, when conversing
about poetry, to be facing a challenge that I, like other poets, do not “have
the balls” to say what I want to say to Joe. To me, this phrasing is indicative
of a pugnacious attitude that I would be more inclined to expect from a surly
patron at a bar than from a poetry scholar. Perhaps some people find Joe’s
attitude entertaining; I find it insulting and annoying. But, as I say, that is
my least important point.
My next point goes a little deeper. Joe is obviously a very intelligent man, and
I conclude from his degrees that he has a high command of rhetoric as well as of
literature. Given his command of rhetoric, I would not expect him to rely on
logical fallacies for key points in his argument. And yet, he uses one, at
least, frequently enough that one might call it his pet fallacy: the either/or
fallacy. Here are a few examples from the interview: “I wanted a magazine that
was uncompromising in its commitment to real formal poetry, and not to the
vagaries of experimentation,” i.e. experimental formal poetry—whatever that is,
precisely—is not real formal poetry; “The blunt fact is that there are simply
too many people today trying to be poets,” i.e. there are true poets, such as
Joe Salemi, and pretenders; “Suppose someone is moved by absolute garbage, or
tasteless trivia, or sheer ineptitude?” i.e. there is an absolute standard of
quality in art, and deviating from that standard—which, again, Joe Salemi is privy to—in one’s tastes likely means that one prefers “absolute garbage” or
“sheer ineptitude” to high quality art. I could provide a few more examples, but
I believe I have made my point.
Finally, what I find most disturbing in Joe Salemi’s interview is a paragraph
that should be quoted in full:
JS: I felt that New Formalism was dissipating like a mist cloud. Too many
glassy-eyed enthusiasts were going on about how the movement had to be "opened
up" and "liberated" and "made relevant." And these types were essentially
diluting formalism's identity, both in the metrical and the rhetorical sense.
Some of this was deliberately done by persons who never liked or trusted the
movement in the first place, but most of it was simply due to the irresistible
undertow of the free-verse tide that surrounds us. I wanted a magazine that was
uncompromising in its commitment to real formal poetry, and not to the vagaries
of experimentation. God knows there are plenty of venues for experimental work.
Given that Joe does not give specific examples of poetry that was “diluting
formalism’s identity” by opening it up “both in the metrical and the rhetorical
sense,” we must extrapolate both from what he appears to be implying and what he
has written elsewhere. In terms of what Joe has written elsewhere, he has
attacked what he refers to as the “overuse” of slant rhyme, stating that people
who overuse slant rhyme are declaring publicly that they cannot rhyme. (“Our
Ersatz World,” Expansive Poetry & Music Online, July 2005). While there are
numerous places one could take issue with Joe on the benefits of experimentation
in formal poetry, slant rhyme is a personal favorite of mine, for several
reasons. First, slant rhyme, when used well, far from showing that a poet cannot
rhyme, opens up a world of new possibilities for rhyme, and therefore a new
world of associative possibilities within a poem for the rhymes to suggest.
Furthermore, when used by a skilled poet, slant rhymes can be employed in a
regular, alternating pattern in order to signify to a reader any number of
things: growing tension, mounting dissonance, or simply a disquietude that
lingers beneath an apparently placid surface. Finally, slant rhymes can be
employed in a similar manner that metrical variations, such as trochees and
spondees, are employed, to signal a sudden shift in tone in a poem that has had
nothing but regular rhymes throughout until that point. I could compose an
entire essay on the benefits of experimentation in contemporary metrical poetry,
but I believe that the above paragraph will do for an answer to Joe Salemi.
I thank Mike Burch for giving me this opportunity.
Jeff Holt, Oct. 28th, 2013