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Joseph S. Salemi: How The Mighty Have Fallen

Is Dr. Joseph S. Salemi really "America's greatest man of letters," as the Keystone Scops have claimed more than once?

In my original review, which you can read by clicking the hyperlinked name of the group, I suggested that The Society of Classical Poets should consider a name change to The Keystone Scops. One reason for my suggestion, apart from the terrible poetry the scops regularly publish, then acclaim wildly in pidgin English, is the way they praise each other to the skies and beyond, apparently for merely existing and having similar aims and goals. Every scop, it seems, is the greatest at something monumental: Joseph Charles MacKenzie is the greatest lyric poet of all time despite the frequent awkwardness of his retrograde verse; James Sale is England's foremost literary critic despite not having mastered basic English grammar; Evan Mantyk is America's foremost publisher of "classical" poetry despite being semi-literate. Thus one must at least consider the possibility that the claims about Salemi may have been, ahem, "slightly exaggerated."

Salemi is not a consistently bad writer, so he is not a typical scop. But there has to be a giant leap from "not a bad writer" or "at times a competent writer" to "America's greatest man of letters." So let's examine the evidence ...

by Michael R. Burch

Related Pages: A Review of the Society's Literary Journal, Laureates 'R' US, Joseph Charles MacKenzie: Poet or Pretender?, Evan Mantyk's Poetic Tic, James Sale's Blue Light Special, Bruce Dale Wise or Un-?, "How to Write a Real Good Poem" by R. S. Gwano, Salemi's Dilemma, Salemi Interview and Responses by other Poets

Joseph Salemi's Humpty-Dumpty-Like Fall

The idea that Joseph Salemi is "America's greatest man of letters" can be immediately rejected, I believe, simply because he keeps publishing with the Keystone Scops. I once had poems published in my high school's literary journal. That achievement did not make me a contender to be considered "America's greatest man of letters" and yet the quality of the writing in my high school journal was often better than what one often finds cluttering the SCP website and littering its magazine. How is it possible that "America's greatest man of letters" would stoop to publishing with a journal whose typical "poem" couldn't pass a quick grammar check at a decent high school (and probably not at some of the better grade schools)?

How the mighty have fallen, indeed, if "America's greatest man of letters" has been reduced to publishing with a "literary journal" whose editor and publisher, Evan Mantyk, not only lacks an ear for poetry and fine prose, but struggles to write grammatically correct sentences—failing as often as not. Meanwhile, the Key Stoners seem to be high as kites in their "literary criticism," since they frequently praise trainwrecks.

Furthermore, one would expect "America's greatest man of letters" to write impeccably at all times. One would not expect to find "clunkers" in his published poems. Here are a few examples of extreme clunkiness in a poem Salemi recently published with the Keystone Scops:
Go to a tailor and buy a suit
With shirts and silk ties that look really cute ...

Then visit some company that is vast ...

Going through motions that are complex ...

                                                    ... they don’t see
Why you’re absorbed in your petty self
And rolling in comfort and excess pelf ...

... Or why you eat filets mignons and veals
When some other loser gets Meals on Wheels.
The lines above were taken from a single poem, "Advice to an Aspiring Careerist," written by Salemi and published by the SCP to typical gushing applause. My advice to the careerist poet and man of letters is: "Don't quit your day job."

Yet here is what the "greatest lyric poet of all time" and the scop recently nominated for Poet Laureate by his peers, Joseph Charles MacKenzie, wrote about "Advice to an Aspiring Careerist":
Joseph Salemi has raised this most necessary of arts to a level of perfection our Anglo-American poetry had not seen prior to the “Gallery of Ethopaths”—a breakthrough in the history of letters.
"Perfection"? A "breakthrough in the history of letters"? Really?

I published a few poems from Salemi's Gallery of Ethopaths after he told me that he had been censored elsewhere. At the time I told Salemi that I didn't think his "ethopath" rants were his best work, and I will stick by that opinion. The poems in question, while publishable, fall far short of "perfection" and do not constitute anything close to a "breakthrough in the history of letters." Salemi has written better poems, which he acknowledged during our discussions.

The scops have serious problems, if they want to be considered serious poets and literary critics. One problem is that they keep publishing terrible poems, which they then proceed to lavish with unrestrained and unwarranted praise. Another problem is that some of the Key Stoners are obviously clueless about the immense differences between terrible and great writing. They apparently think anything a scop writes is automatically the height of all art. It's like watching kindergartners ooh and ah over their crayon masterpieces, while seldom managing to stay between the lines.

Salemi's "ethopath" poems are not terrible, nor are they the height of all art. If he really cared about the poems as works of art, he would fix the clunky lines above, which any reasonably talented poet could easily do. But as Paul Valery once observed, poems are never finished; at some point the poets simply give up. The trick is not to give up too soon. The fact that Salemi didn't bother to iron out the obvious flaws in his "ethopath" poems suggests that he doesn't consider them all that important in the grand scheme of things. Or perhaps he knows that his fellow scops are easily impressed, making detail work unnecessary. Since MacKenzie confuses such poems with groundbreaking works of artistic "perfection," he had best keep his day job too.

Demonstrating how very, very seriously the scops take themselves, Salemi posted this grandly modest response to MacKenzie's effusive praise:
Dear Joseph—Thank you for your kind words. They are deeply appreciated. I have wanted to revitalize the art of satire, in strict Juvenalian style, for many years. Whether I shall have succeeded in the eyes of posterity is something none of us can determine now.
But perhaps we can determine the surefire fate of lines like those quoted above, which strike me as more "juvenilian" than Juvenalian, if we have ears to hear and employ them.

Salemi also has a very selective memory. For instance, in the spirit of the holiday season he wrote: "A truly stellar Christmas poem, one that fulfills Mr. MacKenzie’s desire for solid doctrinal substance as well as mere seasonal spirit, is Robert Southwell’s "The Burning Babe." Southwell was one of the Jesuit martyrs who was judicially murdered under the first Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic persecutions." Of course Salemi conveniently fails to mention all the Protestants murdered by Catholics before Elizabeth I was born. Which came first, the Inquisition or the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church slaughtering tens of thousands of Cathars (the first Crusade was a "holy war" waged against Christians) or the eventual resistance? How many Protestants had been tortured and burned at the stake by Catholic popes, inquisitors and monarchs, before Elizabeth I was even conceived? Why has Elizabeth's sister, the Catholic queen who proceeded her, been remembered as "Bloody Mary"?

Yes, there are Protestants with blood on their hands, but the inquisitions and "holy wars" started with the Roman Catholic Church. Why does Salemi constantly "spin" the truth? As Sam Gwynn once observed, Salemi seems to be more politico than poet. And ironically his politics seem to match those of the ultimate dumbed-down, lowbrow Protestant, Donald J. Trump.

Related Pages: A Review of the Society's Literary Journal, Laureates 'R' US, Joseph Charles MacKenzie: Poet or Pretender?, Evan Mantyk's Poetic Tic, James Sale's Blue Light Special, Bruce Dale Wise or Un-?, "How to Write a Real Good Poem" by R. S. Gwano, Salemi's Dilemma, Salemi Interview and Responses by other Poets

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