The HyperTexts

The Tedious Mr. Lehr

by Joseph S. Salemi

Oh well… he were go again. Quincy Lehr emerges once more from the leftist woodwork to attack me, but with an essay that is six or seven years old. One might think that he’d have the energy to write something new after all that time. I didn’t bother answering Lehr back then when his essay was first put on-line, but since he has apparently convinced Mike Burch to include it in the October issue of The HyperTexts, as some sort of “reply” to my interview, I guess I’ll have to do so now.

First, a little back story. Quincy Lehr has been in a state of barely suppressed rage against me for over a decade, though as far as I can recall we have never met, except perhaps once at a poetry reading. Quincy’s animus has nothing really to do with literature or literary debate, despite his clumsy attempt to disguise it as such. It is purely and exclusively political.

You see, Quincy is a politically correct leftist. He’s a member of the left-liberal Mandarin Class that I described in my article at the EP&M website many years ago—an article which he in fact quotes in his essay.

That’s fine—we all have our various bumper stickers, and he has the right to his. I’m a traditionalist Roman Catholic right-winger, someone else may be a liberal feminist, someone else an Islamic jihadist. But one of the problems of being a committed leftist like Quincy is that you are profoundly intolerant of viewpoints that you consider “unacceptable” or “non-progressive.” And if someone expresses such unacceptable and non-progressive viewpoints in a public forum, as I do at The Pennsylvania Review and elsewhere, you feel obliged to attack them in whatever manner you can. So let’s clear away right now the pretense that Quincy Lehr is trying to make some disinterested point about poetic composition or style in his six-year-old essay. He isn’t. That’s just a cover for his political rage against me, and his sheer envy of the growing success of TRINACRIA. It must be infuriating for him to see TRINACRIA get more and more submissions (even from some of his left-liberal buddies), while his own Draindown Review has all the appeal of a dead flashlight battery.

And since Lehr’s recycled essay quotes me so liberally, let me do likewise. Here’s a pertinent sentence from my EP&M article:

We have a self-appointed Mandarin Class in this country which defines itself by its left-liberal views, and which reinforces its image by demonizing contrary views as socially unacceptable, degrading, and beyond the pale of polite company.

That’s the actual driving force behind Quincy’s animus. He is a gatekeeper for the left-liberal Mandarin Class. And like any good gatekeeper for class prestige and privilege, he feels impelled to go on the attack if anybody dares to speak against received public orthodoxy. In Quincy’s case, that orthodoxy is the New Leftist academic milieu of his mommy and daddy, and of his fellow grad students in the Spartacist Club of Columbia University. Ask anyone at Able Muse’s Eratosphere what happens if you dare to so much as whisper in the Forums what Quincy might perceive to be a conservative or right-wing opinion. He’ll be on you like an anaconda.

As for that recycled essay of his, let’s examine some of its assertions.

Lehr quotes in full my poem “To an Aging Countercultural Twit,” just to say that it is not good satire, not good poetry, not effective in convincing him, and not to his taste. OK, fine. But so what? We can all point to scores of poems that don’t do anything for us. But what’s the real motive behind Lehr’s criticism? It isn’t my poem’s style or structure at all. It’s the content of the poem, and its satiric target. It violates the public orthodoxy of left-liberalism. It makes fun of those silly ’68 hippies and their pretentious, faux revolutionary postures. That’s a no-no in Quincy’s book, and he can’t let it pass without objection.

Lehr claims that I am trying to force poets to write in a rigid, lockstep, and formulaic style that leaves no room for aesthetic freedom. But if he had bothered to read my interview with any attention at all, he would have noticed that in three places I specifically assert that I have no desire to force poets to write in any manner whatsoever. In one paragraph I say “There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with free verse, and if people want to go on producing it that’s their business.” Later on I say “We don’t ask free-verse types to write sonnets or villanelles. We ask the reciprocal favor of them that they just leave us alone.” And finally I say “No poet of any school or movement or persuasion has to do anything at all! The poetry world isn’t a boot camp where recruits take orders. Poets can do whatever the hell they like or find pleasing.” Does that sound like the Grand Inquisitor of Poetry to anyone?

Lehr might answer “But you’re always complaining about loose metrics and slant rhymes and oversubstitution.” Sure. But I’m merely expressing my views. I have neither the desire nor the power to compel anyone to write in my preferred modes. Expressing a viewpoint, no matter how forcefully or trenchantly, is anyone’s right. One may do that in a democracy, in case Quincy has forgotten.

And here we come to the core of Quincy Lehr’s motivation for constantly attacking and sniping at me. He knows very well that poets will always follow their own inclinations, and that I have no dictatorial power to change that reality. What drives Lehr to fury is the mere fact that I express contrarian opinions publicly, and without apology, and without deference to the public orthodoxies that he champions. In short, I’m not a card-carrying left-liberal progressive. That offends him mightily. He camouflages this anger with the rhetorical posture of a literary critic who is in favor of freedom and openness and flexibility, as opposed to the Big Bad Reactionary who wants to force everyone into strict iambic fives. But that’s about as implausible as you can get. Make no mistake: if I were a Mandarin Class member, fully loyal to all the pieties of the left-liberal consensus, I could write in absolutely rigid, unvarying metrical regularity and Quincy would be finding ways to defend it and support it, since I’d be an ideological colleague and therefore one of the Good Guys.

Lehr accuses me of being a highly politicized poet, “whose own views on poetry are markedly linked to his politics.” Who’s kidding whom here? Of course I’m fiercely right-wing, but even the most cursory perusal of my published comments on aesthetics will show that I have frequently said that metrical rigor and adherence to form have absolutely no intrinsic connection to one’s political stance. An unrepentant Stalinist like Neruda can write in perfectly formed feet and stanzas. A utopian liberal like Shelley can pen the chiseled lines of “Ozymandias.” An anti-royalist Puritan like Milton can be a master of blank verse. When Lehr says that “there is a consistency between Salemi’s political views and his poetical views,” he completely misrepresents not only my published opinions, but a good deal of literary history. He also sounds very like Diane Wakoski—from whom he is careful to distance himself, for tactical reasons—foaming at the mouth about “Reaganite poetry.”

And that is, in a nutshell, the essential fraudulence of Quincy Lehr’s essay, and why I didn’t deign to answer it six years ago. It postures as the effusion of a moderate, enlightened, perceptive critic anxious to be balanced and fair, when in fact it is simply a disguised political attack, designed to inflict punishment on me for my sociopolitical and cultural viewpoints, and not for my alleged rigid adherence to form. I’d have more respect for him if he actually came out and said what he was thinking. But one can’t expect that from a gatekeeper. He has to maintain the pretense of being above the fray. That’s how one accumulates Brownie points in the Mandarin Class.

As for me, well, I’ll just continue to teach my classes, write my poetry, publish my essays, articles, and translations, edit TRINACRIA, and say whatever the bloody hell I please. If that troubles the tedious Mr. Lehr, he can always go back home to the boondocks.

The HyperTexts